I was sitting on this post for a while now. I said I would publish it this week, but I already felt procrastination kicking in. It was going to get pushed into next week or later. Then I got a tweet announcing today’s (October 30, 2014) #BlackandSTEM chat topic: Being #BLACKandSTEM and woman. So, here’s my related thoughts on this topic which includes a good helping of built up rage and rant.
The Academia Ghetto is real
“What is the Minority Academia Ghetto, you ask? Why, it is the state of mind that awards, programmes, initiatives, etc are pointless unless a white dude can win it, serve on it, or vote in it.” ~ The Hermitage
For Black women who are pursuing post-graduate studies or embarking in academic careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), you are very likely stationed at a non-minority serving institution (MSI).
“I am constantly filled with irrational anger when I see a plenary talk schedules and the only brown face I see is in the ‘Diversity iz Awesome’ section and the only Vagina wins the ‘Ladies are Totes Scientists too’ award. I’m filled with frustration, because since they exist, people feel comfortable only including minorities when the fine print tells them to, but if they didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be included at all.” ~ The Hermitage, emphasis hers
This, THIS is the problem. Underrepresented minorities, whether it be racial/ethnicity, ability, gender, sexual orientation, residence-status, or more, are essentially invisible to most of our colleagues. Part of that is because we physically make up such a small percentage of the professional pool that we don’t exist to others. This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ perception is problematic. It unconsciously congratulates members of the in-group for being awesome and fair when they haven’t actually had to spend any energy at all to be so.
And when they do include a woman or person of color or with a disability or LGBTIQA-identified person, they often congratulate themselves so much that you want burn everything down. Suddenly you have colleagues imploring you to check off every box possible. I have actually witnessed white male colleagues high fiving themselves for pulling off a two-fer: you know when someone is both a woman and an under-represented minority. Bonus points if they are gay! <_<
How does it feel to be #BlackandSTEM and a woman? For me it often feels exhausting. I’m tired of having to self-monitor and self-police…Why do I do this? Well, part of it is habit. Ambitious, high achieving African-Americans of my generation were explicitly trained by our elders to conduct ourselves in a way to make the majority and authorities feel comfortable. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Great advice it is. It cultivates the necessary self-discipline to thrive in any professional setting because let’s face it outbursts, confrontations can get you booted professionally, even if justified. And let’s be honest, when you’re feed and raised on Respectability Politics since the crib you don’t lose your cool over trivial matters. It’s often over something big and egregious and has been happening a long time.
So being #BlackandSTEM and a woman feels very much like I’m on the edge, trying to stay in check, stay cool. The problem comes from repressing myself even in the face of injustice or crying out when I am completely justified. There are no tears for #BlackandSTEM ladies, no. I don’t want to come off reinforce everyone else’s expectations that I am an Angry Black Woman.
But I’m also mindful of being too nice, too accommodating – because that’s another expectation (I fear) colleagues have of me.
Diversity and Inclusion are values, not philosophies. Values are demonstrations. Philosophies are idea(l)s. That means you actually have to DO something, act on behalf of the values you proclaim to have – not just simply talk about much of an ally (you believe) you are. Being an ally is a verb, just like values, so discussion about hypothetical reactions to scenarios will not cut it. Diversity should be deliberate. Inclusiveness is intentional. There’s no ‘let it happen organically’ or passive semi-permeable approach to diversifying your labs or department faculty or making sure #BlackandSTEM women feel welcomed and included. Some individuals and institutions have taken action to diversify their ranks via inclusion programs, protected line-item funding, and intervention programs.
But don't think doing this one (or few) thing(s) let you think that the work is done. As great as those opportunities can be, participation comes at cost for traditionally under-represented scholars. This is where and when the veracity and seriousness of being an ally and proclaiming your institution or department values diversity and inclusion steps in. When the titled-heads mumble, when the catty remarks are made, when the back handed complements and other manner of microaggressions roll out - that's when the institution and allies are tested.
You only got accepted into grad school or were offered this job because you are black* and a woman.
*sigh* Yes, this is something I have heard and I can identify no less than another dozen women who have heard or been told the same/similar thing.
No, I didn’t get into graduate school or this job because I’m black or because I am a woman or both.I got this job because I am good and qualified. And frustratingly, it took folks (either me, someone else and/or series of legal oversight groups) to call attention to the fact that someone who is something ‘other’ than white, male, cis, heterosexual, abled, and ‘polished’ can also do this job…and do it mighty fine, mind you.
So to answer today’s #BlackandSTEM questions, here you go:
- What are experiences that are associated with being a Black woman in STEM?
- What are the needs of Black women in STEM that are most overlooked?
1. During my more junior scholar days, I cut my eyes, took a deep breath and put my nose down to grind stone to work harder. I committed to Working as Twice as hard to prove my worth, my merit, my humanity. This and what I shared above are common experiences of being a Black woman in STEM. During my doctorate program, I was fortunate to land in a department and have an advisor that were amazingly intolerant of discrimination and microaggressions. I learned that such talk would be shut down – quick, fast, and HARD – by most any of the faculty. I appreciated this. I trusted in this.
2. Those experiences were important and I gained so much security in being surrounded by professors and colleagues who behaved as if Diversity and Inclusion and respect were actionable values that when I found myself somewhere else where these things were not a part of the academic or professional culture, the bottom fell out. I looked around and realized that I was the most senior person (a brand fresh new post doc) in the room who seemed to be the only one to register that microaggressive comments behaviors were happening and that they were inappropriate. So this – this awareness and awakening to what is happening to BlackandSTEM women scholars is what is most overlooked. We need colleagues and PIs and Department Chairs and advisors who will make a call for us, to stand up to the injustice and slights. We need a a culture of inclusiveness that allows us to be fully human without punishing us for being so.
So until or whether the support we need comes, my words to all of you #BlackandSTEM women* is stay in it. Be you. Do you, and shine, shine, shine!! We are and have always been our own best support and cheerleading group.
* This also applies to individuals who identify as or Latino/Native American/other non-white group, female, differently abled, LBGTQIA, international, or even better a combination of two or more of these not ‘normal’ groups.