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Why Don't You Care?

This guest post is contributed by a UC Berkeley student who requested anonymity, not for fear of the faculty in their department, but because of fear of reprisal from her fellow students. This fear needs to be grappled with: How is it that a community that prides itself in critical thinking, free expression, curiosity and problem-solving can so quickly come together to stifle debate on a matter as important as racism in our community, the colonialist history behind the TMT, and the needed reform in our science community? Well, the answer is simple: Those who benefit from the status quo have much to lose, and what they stand to lose was taken from (or denied to) others. But as this brave, young student demonstrates, there is a revolution underway. Change is coming. It's time for people to decide which side of history they want to end up on. Today's guest author took up my call for white allies to stand up, speak out and take an active role against racism in our scientific community. Remember: a passive stance in this struggle is an active support of the status quo. Anti-racism (and other anti-*ism) guest posts are always welcome!
Image from Nashville: The People’s Anti Racism UnConference
When I first read the e-mail authored by Dr. Sandy Faber and sent out by Professor Alex Filippenko regarding the TMT protests, which described protesters as "a horde of native Hawaiians who are lying," my heart sank. Within seconds, I was cycling through anger, sadness, and disbelief. After the initial emotional reaction, I backtracked. Wait, I am not a native Hawaiian. In fact, I do not belong to any Native group. I am a white, cis-gender woman. Yet, that e-mail affected me. It enraged me. It motivated me to speak out publicly in front of several senior faculty members, including Filippenko, as an undergraduate. Why?

When an instance of offensive language, oppression, and marginalization like this occurs, it reflects a greater problem in our community. It affects the marginalized people who are directly targeted most strongly, certainly, but it also affects us all. With every statement like the one in that e-mail, the dysfunctional aspects of the culture of astronomy are communicated and reinforced. 
The infamous email

Although both Filippenko and Faber issued apologies, their sentiments were lacking in many key ways. In the words of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, "the apologies themselves were problematic, at points reproducing some of the discourse that made such a comment seem perfectly normative in the first place" (cf Dr. Jessica Kirkpatrick's essay on proper apologies). The authors seemed to apologize for letting racist sentiments slip through into the public sphere instead of apologizing for holding those sentiments in the first place. They also failed to directly address those who experienced the most harm as a result of their actions. Furthermore, none of the apologies acknowledged that the mistake of writing and forwarding this e-mail was more than just a singularity, but rather a result of systematic faults in the culture of astronomy.

As a white woman, I read that e-mail and thought, "This is language that my superior, the professor I admire, a brilliant lecturer, researcher, and astronomer, condones?" I thought, "This is not something I want to be a part of." I read that e-mail as an exposition of views held by some people in power: historically ignorant, racist, condescending views. I doubted my place in this field, a field that all too often excludes, oppresses, and silences others. I expected each and every one of my peer undergraduates and my higher-ups to react similarly. I expected us to agree unanimously that a racist characterization was used, that the e-mail should not have been sent to the department mailing list, and that it did not express attitude we wanted for UC Berkeley Astronomy or for astronomy at large. This was quite far from what I found to be true.

UC Berkeley: Colonialist stronghold or bastion of academic freedom?
Why is it that so few members of the astronomy department attended the meeting that followed this e-mail, which included white astronomers, Native people, and, notably, Native astronomers? Why is it that when discussion about this thread broke out among undergrads, there was so much support and defense of the statement, and criticisms of those who were hurt by it? Why is it that some were more concerned about protecting Faber and Filippenko than they were about protecting the people who their words attempted to crush? Why is it that the entire community did not feel what I felt: shock, disappointment, and a desire to change the culture of astronomy?

The astronomy community needs self-reflection, and a recognition that our normative culture is not conducive to an inclusive pursuit of knowledge. The culture of astronomy needs to change. We need to come to the consensus that it is absolutely unacceptable for any group of people to be systematically put down, silenced, or hurt. We need for all of us to agree on that, in each and every instance. And that consensus is not just among those of us who most identify with the people being harmed; it needs to include white people, too. Until we reach that point, astronomy will continue to exclude, isolate, and push away people who are not a part of, or refuse to participate in the culture we repeatedly display and reinforce. Until then, we continue to miss out on opportunities for greater talent and brilliance in our field.


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