Do Not Be Afraid To Be Black and STEM
My speech at the 2012 MIT Ebony Affair
note: Ebony Affair is an annual formal dinner and dance organized by MIT’s Black student groups. I was their keynote speaker in 2012
I’d like to thank the organizers of Ebony Affair for giving me this opportunity to be here and share with you all. I’d also like to thank Associate Provost Wesley Harris and physics department head Ed Bertschinger for supporting my presence at MIT as part of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Scholar program. I’m truly honored to share the MIT campus with the people in this room and to be invited to make some remarks to you.
When I graduated from Harvard College in 2003, hoping and dreaming that one day I would have an opportunity like this one, to speak to young people, I always imagined a simple, positive and inspirational message. But the truth is, the world is too complicated for that. If I am to be honest, instead of just offering fluffy inspiration, I have to talk to you about the reality many of us are living in. What I am going to say may not apply to everyone here, but I feel that it applies to too many of us for me to remain silent about it.
So, let’s be honest. To be a Black woman or a Black man today, to be you, is a hazard. If, like Rekia Boyd, you happen to be standing next to the quote on quote wrong Black guy, you may be fatally shot by an off-duty police officer. If like Trayvon Martin you decide to go to the corner store for skittles and an iced tea, you may be murdered in cold blood. When my mother emailed me the other day to remind me to never run when I see police, she knew that my doctorate would not shield me from a bullet.
To be a Black woman or a Black man on the MIT campus means enduring racist remarks from your classmates. We have all heard things like “You’re only here because of affirmative action.” Or “You didn’t earn your place here.” Or “Europeans brought science to The Africans.”
To be a Black woman or a Black man on the MIT campus means enduring what has been termed by many whites on campus as a so-called “engaging discussion” about the role of affirmative action, when what it really is is a discussion about how each of us got here and whether we “deserved it.”
In addition to the racist climate that is engendered by these kinds of remarks, we have to grapple with something deeper. As I see it, the truth is that MIT has not been designed for your success, nor has it fully committed to your success. I don’t just mean that MIT has largely failed to prepare you to cope with the kinds of racist remarks that I have just mentioned. After the publication of that atrocious, racist editorial during Black History month, it became clear to all of us that MIT has fallen down on the job when it comes to cultivating a fundamentally anti-racist environment. And of course, if they were serious about making this place a safe space for you, that is what MIT would do. They would, for example, take the time to explain to you and your peers, in clear terms, that affirmative action for Black, Latino, and indigenous students is an explicit attempt to counterbalance the implicit affirmative action that is often parameterized by whiteness and white middle classness in this world. And they would do everything in their power to be clear to your peers that racist put downs are not only rude, but also completely unacceptable behavior in this community. I am hard pressed to understand why racism is essentially given a pass in a community where there is a zero-tolerance policy for much smaller moral crimes such as plagiarism and cheating.
But I am also talking about something more fundamental than that. Has the institution gone beyond giving you the opportunity to assimilate into traditional white middle class ideals about success? Have they given you the emotional and intellectual freedom to live and breathe Blackness in all of its great possibilities? To create jazz, hip-hop and soulful science where none previously existed? To be jazz and classical all at once? Have they hired a large number of Black faculty to offer diverse examples of what that could mean?
There may be moments where we think they have. But I am not completely convinced. And so your job here is that much harder than for your white peers. Not only must you work incredibly hard to do your many problem sets, to pass your exams and execute your projects. You must do it under the duress of a racist environment. You must do it without the myriad of mentors in your fields to look up to that white men and increasingly white women have. So, one reason I am here is to say that I know this is extraordinarily unfair, and that it is extraordinarily hard. It is especially hard for those of us who live at intersections: those of us who are transgender, who are queer, who are female, or who may be all of those things.
But I am also here to impart to you a mission. It is your task to not be held back by the limited vision of a place that doesn’t understand or fully appreciate Blackness, whatever you believe that to be. It is your task to become scientists, engineers, mathematicians, writers and economists and many other things on your own terms, as Blacks, as Africans, as African Americans, as Afro Caribbean folks. And that doesn’t mean you have to take intro to African American studies. That isn’t what makes you Black. It means that if you want to learn Chinese history, that you take Chinese history and bring to that classroom your perspective. It means that if you want to be a physicist, you do like me, you become a physicist! While stubbornly refusing to let go of your roots, what you want to be rooted into.
And I believe also that it is your task to choose Blackness. There are those of us, for example, who can pass. There are those who are light skinned like me. Or who do not hold our heads with pride because we have internalized racist narratives about the accomplishments of the African diaspora over the last few millennia. There are those believed the hype that we’ve been taught for over 500 years, that to approximate whiteness is an achievement. There are those amongst us from abroad, for example with West Indian roots like me, who believe that they are to have nothing to do with the struggles of African Americans and vice versa. But all of these stories we have been telling ourselves about passing, about whiteness and achievement, about the quote on quote different kinds of people of African descent, they only serve to divide us and the power we hold when we stand together, in support of each other and thusly in support of ourselves.
While I have spoken of these things as tasks, as hard work, because they are, let me tell you that it is also a joy. I am deeply, deeply proud to be a member of MIT’s Black community and that is because of the vibrant energy that the Black students have brought to campus. From doing the hard work of creating the intuitively obvious videos, to engaging in difficult discussions about what affirmative action is and is not, to putting on phenomenal community events like this one, to bravely going abroad to unfamiliar places like the true explorers that you are, to recognizing in yourselves the kind of fire necessary to keep going, to wipe the dirt off your shoulders, even when the going gets rough, even if you don’t get the grade that you want, even if you’ve been told that you can’t do it. I am so incredibly proud of you and so happy to share the campus stage with you.
And so, although I am not feeling very positive about the general environment, I remain optimistic. Audre Lorde, a poet and one of the great Black heroines of the 20th century, once wrote:
“It is not the destiny of Black America to repeat white america’s mistakes. But we will, if we mistake the trappings of success in a sick society for the signs of a meaningful life.”
What she meant was that we have the power to write the next chapter in the story, and that must mean doing things differently, not just replicating what we have been told for centuries. While many of the white folks around you may not understand what it’s like to live in the racist climate of MIT in 2012, I do. All or almost all of the people in this room do. And while that truth may hurt, there is also enormous strength in that. In this room is the power to change the world through individual and collective action.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t those at the institution who have worked for change. That we do not have allies within the MIT community. My research mentor and collaborator Professor Ed Bertschinger is a shining example of open mindedness and forward thinking, qualities one might expect from all faculty on a scientifically minded campus. There is Provost Harris’s office, which directs efforts on diversity and inclusion at the institutional level. Yet, that is just one office. Shouldn’t every office at MIT be one for whom diversity and inclusion are fundamentally part of the mission? And of course, while these people may help to open doors for you, it is up to you to walk through them.
In a later speech, Lorde said:
“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also . . . We have . . . our power to examine and to redefine the terms upon which we will live and work; our power to envision and to reconstruct, anger by painful anger, stone upon heavy stone, a future of pollinating difference.”
Why do I share this quote with you? I’m supposed to tell you that anger will get you nowhere, right? Because I am angry. I am angry about my experiences of racism. I am angry that growing up without money translated into not having the same opportunities at Harvard as my peers. And I am angry about your experiences of racism. I am angry about the socioeconomic challenges many of you face. And I am not afraid of that anger because I intend to use it to help envision and reconstruct this world so that it is safe for you, so that is safe for the children many of us will have, not just to exist but to blossom into the fullness of your potential. And I am optimistic that as long as we do not run from the emotions that arise as we face what it means to be Black in 2012 America, as long as we confront the challenge presented to us head on, we will succeed in this endeavor.
So, to close, here are my inspirational words of wisdom: this world is going to try and distract you. People will try to get in your way. But I know that each of you can keep your Eyes on the Prize. When someone knocks you down, get right back up. When your peers stumble, give them a shoulder to lean on. Be bold in the face of racism, homophobia and sexism. Do not forget the Little Rock 9, who faced guns so that we could be here, facing science. Do not forget that we are the torch bearers of their incredible legacy. Do not let vicious and sometimes violent opposition stop you from living with your head held up high.
Do not be afraid to be Black, whatever that means to you. Do not be afraid to be Black scientists. Do not be afraid to be Black and simultaneously successful, whatever field you choose. For each individual, that may require creating something new and spectacular. Do not capitulate to the fear that you are not up to this glorious task. You were admitted to MIT because you are. And I am genuinely excited about a truly inclusive future with all of you in it, creating better technologies, thinking of new theories of cosmology, making breakthroughs in our understanding of toxicology, and filling the voids with a beat and a rhythm that has been missing for too long.