Skip to main content

Required reading for those who prioritize diversity

In the title, I use the word "prioritize" purposefully. Most, if not all educational institutions have statements on their webpages that say that they value diversity, while assigning themselves the label "equal-opportunity employer," or some such. But among the most important lessons I've learned in my academic career is that words are less than cheap. What are less than rare are actions that would increase diversity by addressing barriers to it, backed by funding and effort. This shortfall of actual effort is nothing short of a crisis of leadership so extensive, so old, and so well-practiced that it is institutionalized (James Baldwin wrote on it in 1984). Indeed, this crisis is a key pillar of institutional *isms; inaction as action that supports the status quo. 

Where we can find vibrant leadership—actual active leading instead of labels—is among the voices of color in academia. They (we) have a vantage point, a perspective borne of daily experience that gives them (us) an epistemic clarity on the mechanisms that privilege some while oppressing others. This view is, of course, shared by those living along other oppressed axes, and at the intersections thereof. One of our most powerful, intelligent, knowledgable voices is that of Dr. Chanda Prescod Weinstein (@IBJIYONGI), whom I have featured on this blog previously. It is her writing that constitutes the required reading mentioned in my title above.

Other lessons I've learned are that leaders rarely deliver messages that are greeted with open arms by the majority (if ever). Also strong leadership requires a clear view of problems and the courage to make demands of those who comprise the institutional status quo to change and do better. Finally, leaders courageously press their message despite the inevitable push-back and backlash. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein does this vital work, and much, much more.

She mentors innumerable students of color at her home institution (MIT) and around the country; she works behind the scenes, and out on the front lines to push for justice, equity and inclusion in the sciences; she's a major force behind the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) and SGMA; all while conducting creative research in the field of theoretical particle physics and cosmology. She does research on axions and cosmic preheating, and you can check out her recent Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation talk here (~15 min).

We need scientists like Chanda in astro|physics specifically, and academia generally. This is not optional if we wish to optimize the enterprise of science, and if we actually prioritize diversity. Diversity is the result of recognizing the myriad ways in which our current system is broken, and through actions taken to change it. These needed actions are well known, and well articulated. Who will take the lead?

We are fortunate that Chanda regularly shares her broad-based knowledge as part of the uncompensated work that she, like so many women of color put in, while simultaneously conducting creative science. Here, I want to attempt to elevate her voice in this space. Below are some of my favorite posts from Chanda over the past year, from her blog on Medium

I sincerely wish I had had access to this wisdom when I was preparing to go to grad school. I'm grateful our students of color, URM in particular, have this advice available to them now. 

"If your professor treats you like they they think you are stupid, your professor is being a jerk, and their jerkness is not your fault. But it is your problem to overcome: you have to ignore their behavior so that you can continue accessing the resource you need, which is their help. Even if you feel intimidated, keep it to yourself. Act like you imagine the white guys in your class might act, as if it is natural to expect things and people to work for them."
"A lot of summer programs have application deadlines in January and February, so start thinking about where you’d like to spend the summer and preparing your application in November and December. Warn letter writers early and be clear about deadlines...Keep in mind that the people running these programs are often looking for students that they may later want to recruit for their graduate programs."
“Affirmative action” is a phrase that may be used against you, and you might become afraid of it. You may have heard—as I did starting from the day I got into Harvard College early action—“You only got in because you’re Black [Latino/Native American].” Or maybe you heard it prefrosh weekend—as I did—“All the Black and Latino admits are affirmative action cases.” It’s important to understand that besides being superficially awful (because why say such mean things?), these comments are also terribly flawed on a deeper level. What I’d like to do is give you some handy talking points for conversations with yourself—and others if you feel like spending your time that way. Ultimately, the only people who should be afraid of Affirmative Action are the ones who are against equity and integration.

The h-Index Is a Lie: A Bibliography of Truth 

"I’ve noticed that some public institutions rely rather heavily on something like the h-index, which to me flies in the face of their job as public institutions, which is to be broadly accessible. I think additionally, not interrogating the use of citation number as the paramount feature of hiring allows scientists to continue to think that their hiring and admissions processes are both rational, neutral and not predicated on overtly and covertly racist precepts and social structures, even though in reality they are deeply entwined with them."

Still Working For Free: The Unpaid Labor of Blackademics

"Maybe it’s true that I would write more papers if I stopped giving Black, Latinx and Native American students the needed time and love and attention that their departments are too unconcerned and sometimes incompetent to give. But maybe I’d also hate myself so much that I wouldn’t be able to function anymore. As a Black person, I was raised to value and care for my community, not to turn my back on them for my own gain. And the safe space I seek to create for them? I want that shelter too. This work is for me as well as them, so that when I retire/leave the field, it looks different and feels different from the one I started in."


Johanna Teske said…
Cannot agree enough. I have learned more from Dr. Prescod-Weinsein than in most of my formal education. Her work is deeply impactful and far-reaching. We are extremely privileged to have her as part of the astro|physics community.

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…