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Decolonizing Astronomy: Or Why Debt Should Enter Your Net-Worth Calculation

As disclosure, I recently moved from a Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) partner institution (Caltech) to a Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) institution that is in indirect competition with the TMT (Harvard). Also, while I was at Caltech, I rarely hesitated to express my ambivalence about the TMT project. Thus, I recognize that many will interpret what I write as simply anti-TMT. This is as unfortunate as it is inevitable. The truth is that I am pro-social justice. Anyone who has followed this blog or my Twitter feed over the past year should be able to understand that I am not expressing any new viewpoints herein. Indeed, my only inconsistency would be in not speaking out for fear of reprisal. I have been inspired by the Twitter feeds of @siouxpernova@IBJIYONGI and @DNLee5, which have been compiled on Storify here and here, by @docfreeride and @elakdawalla, respectively. Chanda has also written a beautiful and poignant essay here. If they can speak up, then surely as a tenured professor, I can speak up as well. 

Downtown St. Louis via
My mother recently told me about a time when I was eight or nine years old, riding in the car with her as she drove through inner-city St. Louis. I was staring out the window and I asked her, "Mom, why are there so many Black people in this part of the city?" 

My Mom answered, "Well, this is where they can afford to live." 

"But why are they all so poor?"

"Because there are no jobs here, and white people won't hire them in other parts of town."

To be honest, I don't remember this conversation. But as my Mom recently remarked after telling me the story, "I think that conversation planted a seed in your mind. You were always so quiet, but I knew there was a lot going on in your head. Your sister was the vocal one back then, but now here you are, the social justice activist!" 

It did, indeed, plant a seed in my mind. I was also very fortunate to have a mother, who despite being white, was and is very much aware of the mechanisms of racial injustice, and she was willing to be honest about them with her young son. I guess having her parents disown her because she decided to love and marry a Black man taught her a thing or two about social justice.

Nearly twenty years after that conversation with my mother, I moved to Hawaiʻi as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Astronomy. I moved there with my wife and my two-year-old son, and upon arrival we quickly learned one important fact of living in Hawaiʻi: it is expensive. Not Berkeley expensive. Not Pasadena expensive. It's a special kind of expensive that results in a gallon of milk going for \$7 and a box of Cheerios running about \$6. Since my fellowship didn't have a cost-of-living adjustment, and since we were raising one child and my wife pregnant with another, I decided to search for a supplemental source of income. (We were also denied pre-natal insurance because Hawaii was one of five states without a mandate for such coverage, and so my wife's pregnancy was deemed a "preexisting condition," forcing us to pay for the birth of my second child out of pocket. But that's a story for another day.)

It turns out that Honolulu has an extensive underground gambling network, mostly run out of people's homes and apartments. I had played online poker extensively as a graduate student, and I had an astronomy friend who knew a Honolulu local who vouched for me to get into a game a couple nights a week. The people I met there got me into other games, notably on the "windward side" of the island. I traveled from spot to spot on different nights of the week (games usually started after 10pm), and my knowledge of poker strategy and conditional probability allowed me to relieve many a businessman of his discretionary income in order to buy diapers. 
The windward side of Oahu
Spending time on the windward side gave me a view of Oahu that I hadn't previously seen. Unlike St. Louis in the 1980s, the inner city of Honolulu is home to the more affluent residents of Oahu, comprising mostly people of Eastern Asian decent, and white people, known to the locals as haole (literally translated to "no breath" since European sailors were so averse to the locals' custom of placing their faces close together as a greeting, literally to share one another's breath). 

The windward side is home to many of the island's native Hawaiians, and they are every bit as poor as the Black residents of modern-day East St. Louis or Ferguson. Poor, yet proud. When I asked my friend if he made a good living running table games out of his family's trailer home, he said, "The income isn't as steady as working for the haoles in Waikiki, but it's on our terms. At least my family has their pride this way." Still, just as I was bothered by the poverty of Black folks in St. Louis, so too was I bothered by the poverty of my native friends and table mates on the windward side of Oahu.

My mother, as a white person, could have told me that the poverty of Black people in St. Louis was "complicated." This is often the one-word explanation of American injustice offered by well-meaning white folk. Black people getting beaten and shot by the police? It's complicated. But really, it isn't. If one were willing to take a clear-eyed view of history, the situation for people of color in our country is quite simple. 

Long ago, white people arrived, took whatever they saw and destroyed people who stood in their way. They then stole people from another continent and worked them without pay until they died, generation after generation. The wealth this country currently enjoys is due to this very straight-forward understanding of history. The only complication is due to the lies white people tell themselves in order to not face these uncomfortable historical facts. After all, the myths of the American Dream and the "Puritan work ethic" immediately crumble under a close examination of our country's kleptocratic founding.
This land is my land
This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for me and me.
(So I'll go ahead and take it. Cool?)
For a long time I tried to convince myself that modern "progressivism" had triumphed over the injustices of the past. However, my own life experiences and my curiosity about US history kept getting in the way of this rosy view. Yes, this country has passed laws ending slavery, Jim Crow, and (legal) segregation. However, these legal actions came on the heels of four centuries of building a society on the principles of white supremacy. Every aspect of our society leading up to the Civil Rights era, from law, to religion, to science had been structured to prove and reinforce the notion that white people are superior to non-white people. If our Puritan past has an influence on our modern work ethic, then centuries of white supremacy must surely have something to say about our present attitudes. 

Henry Espy on his land in Vero Beach, Fla., before it was taken by the federal government (AP).
Read more about white people stealing land from Black people here.
Holman Stadium, where the Dodgers play pre-season games. The stadium sits on land
stolen from Henry Espy.
Thus, in order to believe that modern "progressivism" has overcome white supremacy, one must be able to point to a time in the past when A) Americans recognized their past injustices, B) rectified them and C) instituted a wholesale change in the way our society works. I have spent the past three years studying my country's history and I cannot point to such a magical moment. Indeed, there is ample evidence that no such structural change has occurred, even as people refrain from using the n-word. For this reason my approach has changed from wide-eyed liberalism to social justice activism. The notion that people of color should be afforded the same opportunities as white people is a radical notion, and I have become a radical person.

Once one understands the mechanism of oppression in a particular realm (e.g. race and racism), it becomes impossible to overlook injustice in other areas of life. The same hoarding and abuse of power exercised by white people toward people of color is at the root of the everyday sexism resulting in people defending an athlete who serially beats women or a university harboring scientists who serially harass women over timescales of decades.

The kleptocracy that stole land and people to found this country is the same system that  stole land from Native Hawaiians. From
A turning point in U.S.-Hawaiian relations occurred in 1890, when Congress approved the McKinley Tariff, which raised import rates on foreign sugar. Hawaiian sugar planters were now being undersold in the American market, and as a result, a depression swept the islands. The sugar growers, mostly white Americans, knew that if Hawaii were to be annexed by the United States, the tariff problem would naturally disappear. At the same time, the Hawaiian throne was passed to Queen Liluokalani, who determined that the root of Hawaii's problems was foreign interference. A great showdown was about to unfold. 
In January 1893, the planters staged an uprising to overthrow the Queen. At the same time, they appealed to the United States armed forces for protection. Without Presidential approval, marines stormed the islands, and the American minister to the islands raised the stars and stripes in Honolulu.
The invasion of Hawai`i by US Marines
The ignorance of history, lack of empathy and unbridled (and unacknowledged) privilege that causes white people to denigrate the protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore recently inspired senior white astronomer Sandy Faber to write the following about the native Hawaiians protesting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea (which Alex Filippenko forwarded to his department-wide email list):

Text from image above: The Thirty-Meter Telescope is in trouble, attacked by a horde of native Hawaiians who are lying about the impact of the project on mountain and who are threatening the safety of TMT personnel. Government officials are supporting TMTs legality to proceed but not arresting any of the protestors who are blocking the road. (emphasis mine)
She followed up on her first course of hyperbole and racism with a tasty dessert of paternalism, asserting that she knows what is best for the native Hawaiian people by saying, "Astronomy in general, and TMT in particular, are good for Hawaiians."

Please stop here and think a minute on something. Just meditate on the fact that the astronomy community comprises people in power---who, BTW, are 91% white---who are comfortable just firing off an email like this to a colleague, and others are just as comfy forwarding it to their dept. Think about the message that sends to few people of color in our community, particularly the handful of Native astronomers. Alright, let's move on.

Calling peaceful Hawaiian protestors a "horde" and accusing them of lying is directly comparable to calling Black people "thugs" for protesting against systematic police brutality (the latter which, BTW, finds its historical roots in slave patrols and the enforcement of domestic terrorism against Black Americans [Nelson 2001]). This racist language, whether her intention or not, serves a purpose. It reinforces white supremacy and silences the voices of non-white people. Her excuse about being "in a hurry, without thinking through how the message was written or how it would be interpreted"---as strange as that sounds, given that this is a subject she feels so passionately about---doesn't correct for the damage done to the precious few Native astronomers we have in our community.

Even after setting this email aside, my devotion to social justice compels me to stand with the Native Hawaiians, the Kānaka Maoli. How could I call for justice for Black people on the mainland and not do the same for people suffering under the same system of oppression in Hawaiʻi? To do otherwise would require me to buy into a lie that says that it is right for white people to take whatever they want. Yes, the construction of the TMT atop Mauna Kea is technically legal. But the theft of land from indigenous Americans was also legal. Slavery was legal. The incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII was legal. There was 100+ years of state-sanctioned terrorism against Black communities, also known as Jim Crow Laws.

Image from

How would white America feel about another country doing this? (shown to scale)
We do not find our morality in our laws. Our laws do not make us righteous. Only a commitment to finally putting into action the words of our country's founding documents can help America claim any sort of moral authority. The simple historical fact about Hawaiʻi is that white America took it from the native Hawaiians in much the same way they took the mainland from indigenous people who had previously lived there for 14,000 years.

This fact needs to be recognized, atoned for, and set right before we pursue something as frivolous as a damned telescope. To put it another way, no US institution or foundation would have the wealth available for such an endeavor if it weren't for the land and labor our country stole. History matters. Ignoring it is like calculating your net worth while ignoring your debts. 

Unlike many (most?) astronomers, I don't see the protests atop Mauna Kea as an impediment to progress. In fact, true progress can only be made by coming to terms with what those Hawaiians are trying to teach white America: When you commit yourself to living a lie, it's kinda not weird when your billion-dollar plans encounter difficulties.'s complicated. 


Here is a simple, straightforward statement against the use of racist language for anything in astronomy. If you agree, I encourage you to cosign here.

In case you are confused about my use of terms such as "white people," please see this useful summary of whiteness theory. Of course, as I always do, I also strongly recommend reading the intro text book Seeing White and this basic definition of racism. An astronomer recently tried to helpfully point out to me that the TMT board has a large fraction of non-white members. This misses the forest for the trees since the US astronomy community is 91% white, by construction. Diversifying the board does nothing to change the culture of astronomy, which is to say the culture of white astronomy.

Other resources, in addition to those linked in the intro above:

Decolonizing Astronomy Reading List
Let Physics Be the Dream It Used to Be
Science Needs a New Ritual


Pancho said…
Well beloved hermano JohnJohn, it seems we are converging again brother ;-) Really appreciate your insightful post and am amazed by your clarity and the vulnerability you shared in it.

Regarding the process to heal the largest genocide in the history of humanity, you might find interesting this documentary we did on the Dakota 38. Also, the latest issue of YES! Magazine Make It Right has some gems you might find inspiring to heal the wounds of racial injustice.

May you continue to be a fierce blazar of truth and love for our collective liberation.

Undocumented and unafraid,
in radical love,
Dear John,

Your use of the picture of Mt Rushmore is a little ironic given that this sculpture was a giant middle finger to the Lakota and other folks for whom the Black Hills were sacred and which territory was forcibly seized by the US once gold was discovered in the region.

Other than that, thanks so much for posting. It is very important for those of us who are not Kanaka Maoli, particularly those of us in scientific and scientistic disciplines to push back against the "native people are ignorant opponents of knowledge" meme.

in solidarity,


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