The Self-Construction of Black Women Physicists
My Talk at Yale’s Critical Histories, Activist Futures: “Decolonizing Science by Reconstructing Observers”
In this talk, I will try to mirror how science actually works and try to get at what we don’t know rather than simply regurgitating what we do know or proposing that I have conclusive answers. I will try to use “we” carefully here, since I know our standpoints affect what different people know. But I will assume a somewhat functional knowledge of race justice 101 and Audre Lorde. The core question I’m most interested in is: What is the epistemological impact of colonial, exclusionary ontologies? The answer I am curious about is with respect to self-definition of scientists and what we know about the world, the science we uncover. My thinking about this works from an understanding of colonialism as not just settler colonialism but a global, physical, psychological, and intellectual process (per our discussion at lunch today about the complications of Tuck and Yang’s 2012 article).
First I want to start with some background about “underrepresented minorities” in physics, to give my words some context.
[all slides for the talk after the text][slides showing that Black, Hispanic (comment on fraught use of Hispanic), and Native Americans are underrepresented in physics. Comment on how Native Americans are often left off charts because numbers are low or zero, weird since zero is a number. Interesting epistemic decision to exclude because they are low in number.]
Scientists are the medium between inscribed laws of nature and people trying to ascribe technical understanding of their reality.
In the 20th century, there was significant incentive for scientists to proclaim objectivity as their operating standard. This was a process with multiple logics to it. Society in general was secularizing, so in this context Western enlightenment science attempted to move away from its profound union with Judeo-Christian religion. Simultaneously, science also became political in a new way: never before had it been so significant a part of the killing machine. In an effort to wrest control of scientific work away from politicians, scientists highlighted the importance of independent objectivity.
Yet, as Science, Technology, and Society studies have begun to take as axiomatic, and as reflected in Sandra Harding’s useful recent work Objectivity and Diversity, absolute objectivity does not exist, but rather science and society craft one another. I imagine some scientists seeing the implications of this statement as horrible, an almost terrorizing attack on science. (Scientists are prone to strong emotions, in my opinion.) Scientists worry that the suggestion that anything less than absolute objectivity is achievable is a threat to their universalist ideals.
Audre Lorde, the great scholar of human existence, told us over and over that being afraid to confront our emotions honestly was the most dangerous, destructive choice we could make. She taught for example that protecting one’s fear of Black people’s anger would not help address the fall out from that anger’s existence or confront the sources that generate it into existence. But her lessons are broader and ready to be of use to scientists, if they are willing to open their minds and hearts long enough to consider them.
So, let us ask the simple question: why does universality mean so much to us? And in connection: what is the relationship between universality and objectivity?
Can we think of optimization rather than perfection, Against Purity, as Alexis Shotwell puts it in her recent book?
Can science be objective when the language embedded in it works to unconstruct Black women as physicists?
While all societies have engaged in activities that we might class as “science,” physics as the term is widely used has origins in the European peninsula, which served as a home to idea generation that was inextricably entwined with idea convergence due to trade patterns and a cultural predilection toward colonialism. In this context, physics has come to be defined as the application of a mechanistic world view to the study of matter, its motion, and associated properties, such as energy/mass content. It is an axiom of this world view that these properties and the laws that guide them are independent of cognitive guidance/interference and therefore unchanging or only evolving according to their own rules. As such, in theory they are observer independent.
The task of the physicist is to uncover these rules while reckoning with the complexity that is this discovery’s total dependence on our own encoding. In other words, the rules may be universal and unchanging, but they pass through the filters of human physiognomy, which includes our psychology, our senses, our sociological formations and our highly variant linguistic machinations. What we know is a convolution of some presumably independent law book and Us, whoever is allowed to constitute that Us.
In fact, to constitute a concept of “physics community” two axioms are foundational. First, as I mentioned earlier, the laws of physics are independent of cognitive inference/interference and therefore unchanging or only evolving according to their own rules. Second, the subaltern can be a subject of research, but it cannot itself research. This conceptual foundation has epistemic implications for both science and communities who trace their origins to the Global South and Aboriginal American populations. Because the subaltern is persistently axiomatically defined as outside of mainstream definitions of “physicist,” we become saddled with the difficult work of self-constructing as physicists while remaining through external construction outsiders to the physics community.
I posit that when we, as novelist, essayist and Mississippi-rooted thinker Kiese Laymon urges us, “Love your people . . . And write and read into your fears,” we transform the physics discourse by beginning to ask questions such as: what did Tamir Rice’s ancestors contribute to STEM and what is the plan for including him in STEM? It is in the context of an intersectional feminist standpoint that we begin to understand the severe limitations inherent to the Euro-American physics community’s traditional self-construction. By redefining the physics community as one which does not exclude the subaltern, we redefine the role a physicist plays in the process of physics. Where the work of science is to continuously excavate the boundaries of what we do not know, it becomes clear that the relationship between the questions we ask and the axioms of scientist-construction has epistemic meaning for what we may come to know about physics.
To be Black means to have your capacity to have an insightful epistemic standpoint constantly questioned. How often this will happen will be a complex convolution of skin color, hair texture and presentation, accent, and one’s level of public commitment to Black grassroots communities. So yeah, it’s worse if you’re dark. And yeah, if you’re light skinned, white people are still going to regularly question whether you understood the words that came out of your own mouth. Whenever they don’t understand what you said, it will be because you didn’t understand. White incompetence is always Black incompetence. White ignorance is always Black incompetence. White people aren’t biased. Black people just don’t use language correctly. See: ebonics. Shakespeare invented words; Black people foul them. White people invent and do science; it’s surprising when a Black person says something insightful. A mediocre white person is a smart person; an undeniably qualified Black person is a credit to his race or a cheater. And so on.
This epistemic alienation serves a status quo where communities at the margins are excluded from discourse about what science is and whom it serves.
To give an example, I will read from a recent article I published on the physics of melanin, about my realization that because of my scientific training, I had never asked a very simple question: how did my skin get to be the color it was and what were the properties of the thing that made it that color?
“Discerning that because of artificial social structures you have been conditioned not to ask basic and rather obvious questions is a harsh realization for a scientist who has been trained to ask how the world works. This required recognizing that when I asked my doctor why I was low on Vitamin D, and he explained that it’s harder for darker skinned people to get adequate amounts of sun in order to produce it, it didn’t occur to me to ask about the physics behind that. I actually looked into the medical side first and discovered that current Vitamin D testing regimes may not even be a good measure for people who have African heritage.
Out of the chaos of the way bias has misguided biological science arises new possibilities of knowledge production. It is up to those of us who work in the history of science, technology, and medicine to continuously raise the question of why it has taken us so long to recognize the spectacular and fascinating qualities of melanin that make it the stuff of research now. Some of the answers are mundane: we have better technology for seeing small stuff now. Some of them outrageous: geneticists were so caught up in a eugenicist world view that they were unable to actually do any useful research. But it is up to the physics community to thoroughly consider what these answers mean for our future as a collective of researchers who wish to understand how the world works. There is much to be learned from studying melanin, including how racism can derail our capacity to nurture discovery. Many questions remain, including whether the scientific community will do the hard work of ensuring that Black Americans, whether they have high concentrations of eumelanin in their skin or not, are welcomed to become part of the research enterprise that will take our understanding of melanin out of the chaos and into the light.”
To fully give this context, it’s been realized recently been realized that understanding melanin can give us insight into superconductors, which may revolutionize green technology. I also increasingly think melanin is a site for analysis of white supremacy as ableism, since medical histories make clear that perceptions of inferiority and disability were linked to melanin content. This is of course also linked to gender essentialism and narratives of hypermasculinity both about Black men and Black women, etc.
Thus, turning to the original proposal to decolonize science by reconstructing observers, this example of melanin highlights that we simply ask different questions when we are a different sort of observer — even if intellectual colonialism delays this process. This of course in a modern context begs the question of “How can we include more Black people in science?”
I would argue that this is the wrong question, that Black people have always been here and that the epistemic marginalization associated with not teaching us this history has been part of the colonial process both here in North America and abroad.
[slides on black historical participation in science including notables from 19th century. Mention of unnamed enslaved scientists, engineers, midwives, agriculturalists, and zoologists who kept plantations going. Further reference to workers on and from African continent who did intellectual labor that we might class as “science.”]
If you convince people that they have nothing to offer without white people’s guidance, it’s that much harder for them to see themselves as equal and human, to construct themselves as intellectual beings. And of course, this applies not just to Black Americans but also the people who are Indigenous to this land. Of course, we want to be cautious about implying that our humanity is only recognizable when we are generating socioeconomically valuable intellectual capital. But of course, the idea that we could — and perhaps in ways that are not rooted in European individualist ontologies — holds power.
[slide stating: Allow Our Imaginations to Thrive]