My husband and I during our engagement shoot. It was a funny moment, but pushing against an immovable wall is sometimes what dealing with conversations with academics about discrimination and affirmative action can feel like.

Surviving and Thriving Part 3: Understand What Affirmative Action REALLY Is

The last two (real) parts of this series addressed two of the most important aspects of an undergraduate physics education: coursework and getting research experience. They primarily focused on the (un)written rules of doing well, only superficially touching on some of the psychological crap that can come with being an underrepresented minority (URM) in physics and/or astronomy. This entry will focus on a topic that can often be a source of psychological and social difficulty for URMs: affirmative action.

“Affirmative action” is a phrase that may be used against you, and you might become afraid of it. You may have heard — as I did starting from the day I got into Harvard College early action — “You only got in because you’re Black [Latino/Native American].” Or maybe you heard it prefrosh weekend — as I did — “All the Black and Latino admits are affirmative action cases.” It’s important to understand that besides being superficially awful (because why say such mean things?), these comments are also terribly flawed on a deeper level. What I’d like to do is give you some handy talking points for conversations with yourself — and others if you feel like spending your time that way. Ultimately, the only people who should be afraid of Affirmative Action are the ones who are against equity and integration.

The fearful narratives around affirmative action practices are readily revealed in the U.K. term for them, “positive discrimination.” There is no way that empowered Black people came up with that phrase. It has “centering whiteness” written all over it! This terminology is a classic example of how structural white supremacy determines and biases the language we use to talk about racism. The use of the word “discrimination” suggests that giving underrepresented groups special consideration is, well, a form of discrimination against white people. That clearly has negative connotations. “Positive” somehow softens the blow by suggesting that there is some benefit to this, almost like a necessary evil. How nice!

It’s particularly nice to ignore the historical context in which hiring and admissions occur because it’s really such an unpleasant one to think about. Who wants to think about white supremacy, really? Seems uncomfortable, especially for people who might be benefiting from it (white people).

It’s extremely convenient to ignore the transfer of wealth from the Global South (Africa, Asia, Latin America) to white people in England and North America both historically and currently.

It’s extremely convenient to ignore the historical barriers placed between underrepresented minorities and freedom, resources and power: slavery, theft, colonial oppression, whites-only laws, whites-only clubs, whites-only universities.

It’s extremely convenient to ignore the continued fall out of these historical practices: Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans** (and/or other groups in the UK), are disproportionately low-income, disproportionately in low-resourced schools, disproportionately discriminated against based on name, skin color, hair presentation and accent.

Sure, without all of that context, affirmative action sure seems like discrimination, doesn’t it? But we don’t live in the fantasy land where that history never happened and where there are not currently legal, social and economic barriers to surviving and thriving. While URMs do not uniformly experience the negative effects of these barriers, all of us have at one point been impacted by one or more of them or someone in our lineage has been.

And this is essentially why we are underrepresented: we were never supposed to be able to read much less be part of the physics community in the first place.

So, who has really been benefiting from positive discrimination? White people. That’s right: the biggest recipients of affirmative action-type practices in U.S. history are white people. (And actually, the biggest recipients of official Affirmative Action practices in the U.S. have been white women . . . )

Affirmative Action practices in admissions and hiring are merely the explicit counterbalance to the implicit affirmative action that comes with being born white, especially white and cismale, in American society.

For centuries only white people and people who could become white (e.g. immigrant groups like the Irish that visibly and culturally assimilated into whiteness) could access most of the institutions of education, power and success in the United States. There has literally been no greater affirmative action effort than building a whole country around white people being entitled to things that were denied to everyone else.

To this day, white people continue to hold the majority of positions of power, to disproportionately hold academic positions (80-90% of full time faculty are white!), and to have access to familial wealth. They are not the major targets of the school to prison pipeline and drug criminalization laws around drug crimes that whites are actually prosecuted for are less severe than those that Blacks are prosecuted for. The list of rights that white people simply have by virtue of being born as people who, along with their parents, would be classified as white goes on and on. White supremacy infects everything in our society and follows us everywhere we go, including the physics classroom and the lab.*

In this completely historically relevant context, Affirmative Action is not particularly revolutionary but rather a baseline necessity. What does this mean for those of us who are URM students or academics, particularly in the sciences? It means that yes, maybe someone gave our application for that job or admission spot extra consideration. But without that extra consideration, we are structurally at a disadvantage: all things in the process are not in fact equal (including the unconscious and overt bias of the admissions officers/people doing the hiring). We and our families have barriers to overcome that are built into the very fabric of American society, from unconscious bias to overt racism, from individual acts to legal structures. It is simply unfair to engage in admissions and hiring without affirmative action practices of some kind.

Students need to remember this as they prepare for their GRE, as they take classes, as they deal with classmates and school newspapers telling them they “only got in because of affirmative action.” One could just as easily tell white students they only got in because they are white, and in context, it’s probably a lot closer to the truth.

When students and academics repeat this kind of crap to each other, they are reflecting a narrative driven by white conservatives who have hijacked the discussion about Affirmative Action. They are reflecting the insecurity of white people who aren’t used to sharing their power. They are trying to hurt you. And they might succeed. But don’t let their attempts to claim power over you succeed. If it hurts, nourish your soul, whether it be with music, friends, family, Jesus, anime, K-dramas, Real Housewives of Atlanta, or whatever works for you.

You are entitled to walk away from the people who say these things to you. If they are in your study group, you are entitled to tell them you want to focus on physics. You are also entitled to cry. You are entitled to get angry. You are entitled to think and say that what they just said to you was fucked up. These are all perfectly reasonable reactions to people who are being spiteful and mean, no matter how innocent they might want to pretend they are being. There is never any reason to tell a marginalized student that they didn’t earn the opportunities they have been given unless the person saying so wants to put that person in their place. It is a long-winded, “intellectual sounding” way of saying, “know your place, boy!” Some will claim “it’s just an academic discussion.” But since when is it acceptable for academic discussions to be so completely afactual and ahistorical? This isn’t logic; it’s hate.

Ironically, if Affirmative Action were some kind of all powerful mechanism, the demographics of pretty much everything in academia would look different. There would be more than ~20 Black women faculty in physics and astronomy at the top 100 PhD granting institutions in the U.S., for example. Affirmative Action isn’t magic and doesn’t even solve much for people of color in academia. Quotas, which might have been the most direct way to force change, have been illegal in the U.S. since 1979.

Recently a man e-mailed me and called me a “giddy colored girl pretending to be a scientist.” That is the hallmark language of a white supremacist who feels threatened by my position of prominence and achievement in society. Do not let small, frightened people like that man steal your sunshine. Do not let them hijack physics. The universe is ours too. They’ve gotten away with stealing all the toys and refusing to share them for long enough. ❤

Still to come this series: the GRE, grad admissions, and wow, that PhD though. Also, recommendations for faculty and departments, who need to do a hell of a lot better by their URM students.


*Extra historical context: Here in the U.S. the evolution of this preference for whiteness began in 1492 with the doctrine that Native Americans did not own their land and were specimens for collection and forced labor by Columbus. Institutionalized discrimination against everyone else began in the 17th century, when the first African slaves arrived in the Virginia Colony. Not long after, whiteness laws ensured that Irish indentured servants and African slaves would never unite politically against the landed English by giving the Irish rights that the Africans did not have. During this era, chattel slavery was cemented as the economic foundation of the community that would become the United States. Meanwhile, the physical foundation was cultural and physical genocide and dispossession of Native American peoples and eventually the mixed communities that made up Mexico (Hi, American southwest).
**I actually think affirmative action should be expanded to include Asian Americans who are members of underrepresented ethnicities, such as Hmong and Cambodian. But the historical context for discrimination against various Asian American ethnicities is quite different than for Blacks, Latin@s and Native Americans.