Skip to main content

Race and Racism: Why won't you believe me?

"I don’t like using the word racist because if you use it it means you are an angry black person. Angry black people are the old black and everyone knows that’s pathological. The new black is accomplished, assimilated, and integrated. The new black reaches across the aisle. The old black is positioned in a no-win situation where to express an opinion based on what you see, experience, feel or deduce risks falling right into some white folk’s notion of black insanity." An Open Letter, by Claudia Rankine 

"A few years back, white Americans were asked whether or not we believe that racial discrimination was still a significant national problem for people of color, or whether it was just a problem, you know, like junk mail...6% said yes, it was a significant problem...In 1962, when Gallup asked, 'Do you think that black children receive equal educational opportunities in your community?' 90% of white folks said yes. Nothing to see here. What is all this complaining? What is this march on Washington? I don’t get it.

"[I]n every generation, the members of the dominant group have said there is no problem, and in every generation, without fail, we have been wrong. And in every generation, people of color, those who were the targets of that oppression and subordination, have said there is a problem, and in every generation, without fail, they have been right. So the question for us today, what are the odds, honestly, that people of color, who have never gotten it wrong, have suddenly lost their minds? - Tim Wise, white anti-racism activist in The Pathology of Privilege (video here)

When living and working in a white world as a non-white individual, one accretes a collection of little slights. One hears a inappropriate comment here, a strange reaction there, the occasional illogical decision followed by a nonsensical explanation. Sure, these things happen when you're white, too. But the big difference between experiencing these things as a white person and as a non-white person is that if you're white, you can generally just wave these things off and think to yourself, "That person is just weird" or "That's just how it goes in academia!"

Microaggression statements from the photo project by Kiyun at Fordham University (
However, as a non-white person you are almost always left with one additional lingering concern, "Was that because I'm not white?" (Okay, I'm keeping things general in writing here. In my mind it sounds more like, "Wait, was that because I'm Black?")

That additional thought after each interaction might not sound like a big deal to you. If you're white, this is the most likely reaction, namely "I don't see what's the big deal!" If you're one of the handful of Black astronomers, I doubt that such a dismissive though just flitted through your head. If you're like me, you most likely understand exactly how this works, how these instances start to add up, and how the coaddition of these lingering doubts serves as a major strain on your brain's central processing units. As much as I'd like to consider myself just any other astronomer, if you run top -o cpu on my brain, you'll find a nagging subprocess called WTF_was_that_racist.

That extra CPU load is bad enough for astronomers of color as they try to do their primary job of figuring out how the Universe works. But that's not actually what I want to discuss in this post. Racist things happen in a racist country, and we all have our coping mechanisms (big ups to my therapist!) and survival strategies

When it gets really bad is in those instances when the WTF_was_that_racist subroutine returns an unambiguous boolean True. Now the astronomer of color is faced with a real dilemma. 

Option 1: Remain silent, take the hit, move on
Option 2: Raise your concern to your local authority 

Oddly enough, Option 1 is often the easiest, even if it's far from an ideal route. This is because being a minority means that going with Option 2 necessarily puts you in the position of having to explain race and racism to a white person. And when you have been offended and deeply hurt, the last thing you want to do is have your hurtful experience questioned and doubted by someone who has zero experience with what you are going through.

What's worse is that the white person's lack of experience is directly related to the privilege that they enjoy. Being white means that race is not a part of a white person's everyday experience. In fact, some readers will feel uncomfortable with me referring to them as "white people." Even though they are likely unaware of their white privilege they will subconsciously, instinctively and quickly act to protect the privilege they enjoy, which does not end well for the non-white individual.

I've written previously about reflecting on my own tendency to protect my privilege. I've seen the process at work within myself, and its a well-studied feature of human behavior, so I'm not making this stuff up.

Speaking of, this raises a key point: Dear white people, People of color do not enjoy pointing out racism. Experiencing racism is never enjoyable, and given a choice, the vast majority of us would elect not to experience racism. In the main, experiencing and pointing our racism is far more pain and trouble than it's worth. (Women who have experienced male-privilege-based aggression in their dept likely understand this well.)

Compounding the Confounding

So with this post I am expressing my deep sadness, anger and frustration at one simple yet key finding from my lived experience: Telling a white person that you've experienced racism more often than not, and by a wide margin at that, results in one or more of the following responses:
  1. Questioning that communicates doubt, not curiosity
  2. Insistence that there are two equal sides to the story
  3. Defense of the white person in question ("I know him well, and he's a good person. He's not a racist.")
  4. Flat out denial that anything racist occurred
  5. A pledge to do something, and then doing essentially nothing

Imagine that instead of experiencing something racist, a person in your department saw you walking down the hallway and as you passed them, they stuck out their foot and tripped you. After the pain in your wrist and knee subsided, you look up only to see the person running away down the hallway. You are embarrassed and hurt, both emotionally and physically. As a result, you decide to report the incident to your department chair. Imagine the conversation going like this:

You: "I was walking down the hallway to the restroom and Dr. Smith saw me coming, stuck out his foot, and tripped me, leading me to bruise my knee and sprain my wrist."

Chair: "That's odd. I know Dr. Smith well, and I can say without a doubt that he's a good person. I find it difficult to believe that he'd ever do that to you."

You: "But I just told you exactly what happened. He looked me in the eye, stuck out his foot and tripped me. Then he ran away down the hall!"

Chair: "Now settle down. There's no need to get all emotional here. I'm sure there's a perfectly good explanation."

You: "Yes, the explanation is he tripped me!"

Chair: "Let's be careful here. The way I see these things, there's always two sides to the story. Perhaps it was just an accident. Or maybe he stuck his foot out to move something like a pencil out of your path. I'd prefer not to judge him and make a big stink about this. I'll check around and get back to you."

How would you feel in this situation? Angry? Frustrated? Helpless? I'd bet you feel all this and more.

Well, this is a pretty good approximation for what it's like to point out a racist action to a white person (fortunately, not in my current dept, I'm happy to say). One must not only endure the racist action itself, but one also knows that it's very unlikely that anything will ever be done about it. I've termed this type of interaction as "Compounding the Confounding": It's bad enough to face a confounding experience involving racism. Bringing it to the attention of white authorities often only compounds the pain and frustration. 

But what can I do?

Since I've started blogging about race and racism, people have sent me private emails and messages asking, "What can I, as a white person, do to help?" Well first of all you can learn about your whiteness (#TweetingWhite), and learn to keep your privilege in focus in all of your interactions (check out this helpful guide by Frances Kendall). Is this difficult? Yes. But it's difficult to craft a welcoming, collegial environment for everyone in your dept. Most things worth doing are difficult.

But if you're looking for one thing that would make a big difference (not ideal, but something), please try this:

The next time a person of color points out an unfair, unjust, insensitive or plain old racist action to you, please just be quiet (suppress your immediate reactions), listen, give indications that you're actively listening (nod your head, say "uh huh" or "Oh my, I see"), give the person the benefit of the doubt, and take the complaint seriously. As a bonus, you could even take up the burden of reporting the incident to your local (likely white) authority. If you do this, you will take a valuable and pioneering step for white astronomers everywhere, and you'll strike an important blow against institutional inequity in your workplace, paving the way for increased happiness, and the resulting scientific productivity, for all.


Popular posts from this blog

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:

It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…