Diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a buzz phrase these days. For about 10 years, I fought to get other people to care about “diversity issues.” Now that “diversity” has arrived, I somewhat regret it. I’ve started pushing instead for people to talk about equity, equality, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, heterocisnormativity, classism. In starting to succeed, I have begun to regret this too.
That may be a weird thing for me to write or a weird thing for someone to read, but really, it’s true. Here’s the thing: when I was a week out from my 17th birthday and starting my freshman year at Harvard College, I knew I would be a barrier breaker. I knew I was going to be one of the first Black people, especially Black women, to become a theoretical physicist. But how I understood what that meant was so simple compared to the reality, especially since I didn’t realize how fundamental classism is to the way physics constructs itself as a community. I thought it just meant I would look different and my family would look different and that would be about it. The rest, I thought, was just a matter of doing the difficult work of learning physics: mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and relativity.
Since I’ve already written about what it was really like, I won’t repeat myself here. In summary, the physics was hard but the physics community has always been harder. I’d like now to focus instead on something else: how it could be that I could put 15 years into a career only to have colleagues reduce me to an expert on my own discrimination, with my significant expertise in cosmology, quantum field theory, and general relativity a distant second.
The reason I know so much about discrimination in STEM is because I experienced so much of it. One of the ways that I have dealt with that, psychologically, was by mastering statistical and qualitative information about discrimination and how it works. I have participated in activism and tried to use what I learned about surviving the bad things that happened to me to protect people more junior to me. I mentor students, and I chair the National Society of Black Physicists’ (NSBP) Cosmology, Classical and Quantum Gravity committee to make sure that Black students attending our national conference get a chance to learn about my research area.
It was never my dream as a 17 year old freshman, a 21 year old first year graduate student, or a 28 year old PhD holder to become known for my ability to articulate the many big and small ways that discrimination shapes our world and the lives of “non-traditional” people who dare to dream about what the world is made of. I have only done this work, become this person, because I had the tool kit for it (thanks to an activist family and upbringing) and because the fucked up physics community left me with no choice.
By that I mean I felt I had two choices: I could give up on becoming a theoretical physicist, something I had dreamed of since I was 10 (which, by the way, makes this a now 22 year long journey), or I could give up time I might otherwise spend caring for my body, my friendships, my selfish literary interests, or sometimes even my own short-term professional aspirations to make room for myself and others like me in the long term.
And here is why I am now weary of a bunch of scientists running around talking about diversity and racism and homophobia and heternormativity and ableism: I’ve spent the last year dealing with a lot of people who usually operate outside the NSBP community who know all of these words, can school other people on how what they say doesn’t conform to an “anti-” stance on any one of them, and who can’t, for the life of them, remember that I am a scientist first. It’s why I’m in the STEM community, participating in any of these discussions.
The diversity racket is this: thinking that this is an intellectual exercise in being magnanimous, not a matter of survival. Someone who is supposed to be an ally and mentor told me yesterday that the reason they kept asking me to speak to minority students not about how to apply for a STEM program as minority students but rather about sexism — despite me repeatedly saying no, I didn’t want to — was because that was primarily how they knew and thought of me. This person apparently forgot that they first met me in my working environment, at a work lunch, one where I happened to be discussing science (although not with them).
And this person had never bothered to understand why I struggle so much for equity in the STEM community.
It’s not because I want to be harassed into volunteering my time to speak to students about sexism.
It’s not so someone who is supposedly an ally can choose to not understand that “no means no,” and that it’s especially important to recognize this when someone who identifies in any way with marginalized sex and gender communities says it.
It’s not so that people who are supposedly allies can characterize me as “difficult” just because I am direct, in the way white male scientists are encouraged to be.
Part of the problem is that this person is powerful, but more importantly, this person is not alone in failing to see all of me, beyond what they find useful about me.
People think I am here to be a resource for their social justice pedagogy needs.
I am not.
If I freely volunteer my time to engage in social justice education and discourse, understand that it is because inside of me there is the memory of a 10 year old Chanda who was super excited about becoming a theoretical physicist just like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, and I am still trying to make room for her and every little child who like her is somehow different from scientific tradition. It is because inside of me there is a 32 year old who still wants to believe (even if that belief shrinks daily) that there is room for a Black queer agender cissexed disabled Jewish woman to be treated just as well as your average, medicore straight white cisgender able-bodied male SCIENTIST.
If you’re serious about ending discrimination, you’ll remember that. You’ll keep your eyes on the prize, which is giving me an equal opportunity to be a scientist. That means lightening my social justice load and also getting me into a better position to be an efficient and visible advocate for science, a science that is less infested with discriminatory bullshit.
To that end, let me share my appreciation for the people who don’t lose sight of that: to the journalists who do ask me about my science, and to the scientists who advertise my work to others, and don’t treat me like an object of abstract fascination in scientific settings like conferences, seminars and department lunches. Thanks for not reducing me to a minority bingo game of check boxes and ally cookies. I hope one day it won’t seem like a big deal that you guys treat me like an equal and a colleague because that will be normative.
But we’re not there yet.
So anyway, if you want to invite me to your institution to give a talk about science, that’s great. If you want to inquire about the possibility of an additional session on diversity on top of that, I always tell my students it’s worth asking whatever question they may have. If I say, “yes,” lucky you! If I say “no,” I hope you respect that it’s my choice, and I am the sole arbiter of how my time and energy get used, the end. And really, it’s probably better if when you invite me, you don’t give me the impression it’s because of the boxes you can check with my presence, not my science.
Don’t be part of a diversity racket that knows all of these words, but can’t respect the one person like me in the field. That’s not change. That’s trying to build your street cred on my back, and my answer to that is no.
I just want to be excited about pentaquarks and a red Pluto today. To think of nothing else but how cool that is. Right now, I am not afforded the equal opportunity to do that. That needs to change.