Skip to main content


Showing posts from May, 2015

I am one of the "antisocial seven!"

I am a member of the "antisocial seven" who were recently labeled as troublemakers in the astronomy community. If the "social" in antisocial refers to the current culture and societal structure of astro/physics, then I am most definitely anti. I stand opposed to the deeply harmful way we, as a community of scientists, treat each other, marginalize minorities of all kinds, and in so doing stifle our full scientific and intellectual potential. Academia and science in particular were built upon and still rest on a cartel framework, in which a minority group (namely white men) have banded together to artificially raise the value of their intellectual contributions, while excluding women and men of color, LGBTQI individuals, white women, and the physically disabled and those with cognitive disabilities (or differences). This cartel system has been hugely beneficial to white men, whose portraits adorn our hallways and buildings. To be sure, they were give

On Chilean Astronomy and Observatory Conflicts

The following guest post is brought to you by Joshua Tan, who I met on the Equity & Inclusion in Astronomy and Physics Facebook page. Joshua is a FONDECYT postdoctoral fellow at Universidad Católica in Santiago and he earned his PhD was from Columbia University last year. He works with Andreas Reisenegger and Julio Chaname. Recently, Joshua participated in a heated discussion about my recent Decolonize Astronomy essay (otherwise known to TMT supporters as the "anti-TMT" essay). One of the FB posters insisted that I write an article about similar injustices related to the GMT project and other Chilean astronomy projects. I told him that he should not feel entitled to direct my writing interests, but invited him to do the research, write a post and I'd be happy to post it to my blog. As I said in the intro to my Decolonize post, "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

Reader Feedback: Whither Kanake in (white) Astronomy?

Watching the way that the debate about the TMT has come into our field has angered and saddened me so much. Outward blatant racism and then deflecting and defending. I don't want to post this because I am a chicken and fairly vulnerable given my status as a postdoc (Editor's note: How sad is it that our young astronomers feel afraid to speak out on this issue? This should make clear the power dynamics at play in this debate) .  But I thought the number crunching I did might be useful for those on the fence. I wanted to see how badly astronomy itself is failing Native Hawaiians. I'm not trying to get into all of the racist infrastructure that has created an underclass on Hawaii, but if we are going to argue about "well it wasn't astronomers who did it," we should be able to back that assertion with numbers. Having tried to do so, well I think the argument has no standing. At all.  Based on my research, it looks like there are about 1400 jobs in Hawaii r

When should we stop listening to oppressed people?

On the Astronomers Facebook page, Dr. David Spiegel asks a very straightforward yet, to date, unanswered question regarding the TMT debate: On the one hand, there are some people (whether a fractionally small minority or not), whose land was colonized and whose culture is disappearing, who think of Mauna Kea as a sacred location that should not have more ground broken on it for giant new telescopes.     Then, there are some astronomers who say, essentially, "We really ought to listen more to these marginalized people who are objecting to the plans to build a giant new telescope."   And finally, there are some astronomers who say, essentially, "Nope. We had a very listeny process already. The time for listening is over; the time for pouring concrete has arrived." And some high-profile astronomers who take this position have used some offensive, insensitive, and, yes, racist language in making this argument to several hundred of their closest friends.   Am

To the little Black girls with big names

Homework for Those Seeking to be Allies

Today's guest post is by Dr. Sarah Ballard , a Carl Sagan postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, and soon-to-be Torres Fellow at MIT. I am very much looking forward to her return to Cambridge, where she did her PhD studies at Harvard. Sarah is one of my closest allies, and one of my few true allies. This is because she is one of my most valued and closest friends. I can always count on her to listen and give thoughtful, helpful input. I try to do the same for her. She is also a collaborator of mine in the field of exoplanetary science. One of my proudest achievements is publishing an influential publication with her last year on the statistical nature of multiplanet systems orbiting red dwarf stars. My heart swells with personal pride to see my name next to hers on a two-author paper. Sarah is multidimensional excellent, all the more so because of her academic origins as a social justice major at UC Berkeley before switching to astronomy. But make no mistake, she

"Wait, reverse racism isn't a thing?"

As a quick followup on Chanda's guest post  yesterday about unintended but real consequences of the words our leaders use, allow me to make one fact abundantly clear: There is no such thing as reverse racism. If you believe in such a concept, then know that you are falling into the same category as the dude (why is it always a dude?) who writes to you about how g eneral relativity is wrong , or that the Sun is made of iron.    Racism is a system that supports and reinforces the belief that white people are superior to non-white people. It can be manifest through personal actions, but often more importantly it is systemic and undergirds the history and present nature of our country's society and culture. Here's one particularly useful sociological definition (see also Halley, Eshleman & Vijaya 2011 ): Racism extends considerably beyond prejudiced beliefs. The essential feature of racism is not hostility or misperception, but rather the defense of a system fr

Oops, you did racism a favor

This is a guest post by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein , my astro/physics colleague and one of my social justice instructors. Chanda is intelligent and insightful, and an important voice in the astro/physics community. Here is another essay by her in which she states obvious, but too-often ignored truths and breaks down for folks why defensiveness is the wrong response to being called a racist. In the past she has bravely and honestly brought my mistakes to my attention, yet I have too often been defensive, deflective, whiney, and generally acted like a male, cis-gendered-straight-privileged child on many occasions. I've don this while calling on others to stop doing the same to me when I attempt to call attention to racist acts in my life. I have been wrong. My oppression in one area does not excuse me for using my privilege to oppress in other areas. Chanda has always been there to help me on my path, just as I'm sure she is accountable to people in her circles. Astronomers, physi

Diamonds in the Rough

Every Black astro/physicist is a diamond in the rough. By making it to wherever they are in their careers, they are stronger than you can imagine. Many of them are the descendants of a long line of survivors, dating back to the cramped, death-filled hold of a slave ship. Many are the children of women and men who spent their lives in the newly-founded United States with their humanities systematically stripped, somehow holding together families despite forceful separation, distance and death. Others are the descendants of the survivors of the ongoing European and now American and increasingly Chinese colonial project around the African continent. They somehow kept the flame burning despite centuries of hopelessness, with no end in sight, with misery following misery, day after day. How my ancestors came to America. Today, we are stereotyped as being shiftless, lazy and not interested in education. Yet my ancestors, the slaves owned by white Americans, pursued education despi

James Baldwin on American Mythology

One day I'll be able to say it as clearly and eloquently as Baldwin. Until then, I'll read and imitate until I can do him and his lessons to me proper justice. “The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured,

Comments and Responses to Decolonizing Astronomy

Alex Sapchik writes: I thought that from the natural science point of view, rectifying injustice done to past generations is simply impossible for thermodynamic reasons alone. You would basically be trying to force a complex, inherently unstable system back into its equilibrium. The cost would be prohibitive. Even now-disadvantaged groups of people would be WORSE off after that, not better.  And historic experience confirms this. Every attempt to redistribute wealth or power in order to correct past injustice (e.g. communism, expropriation of white land in Africa) ended up in a disaster. On the other side, in the post-MLK USA and in Nelson Mandela's South Africa a point was made NOT to introduce reverse discrimination - and these countries are doing relatively well.  And why are you only blaming whites for the plight of African-Americans? Slaves were captured by other BLACK people in Africa, then sold abroad to whites. The African nation of Gabon once prospered on slave trad

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 tenure

Analogy for when the police kill an American citizen

(1/n) White ppl, lemme help you understand what police brutality and the typical media response does to Black community. — John Asher Johnson (@astrojohnjohn) April 30, 2015 (2/n) Imagine your child is killed by a life guard at a local pool. The first reports are about your child's C average, rumors of pot use — John Asher Johnson (@astrojohnjohn) April 30, 2015 (3/n) The life guard gets paid leave while an investigation happens. Life guard captain says child was running and guard asked her to stop — John Asher Johnson (@astrojohnjohn) April 30, 2015 (4/n) The mayor gives press conference, praises the bravery of life guards. Asks you, the parent, to be calm and obey laws — John Asher Johnson (@astrojohnjohn) April 30, 2015 (5/n) A week later you are informed that the life guard will not be charged with any crime. The child was running, guard restrained her — John Asher Johnson (@astrojohnjohn) April 30, 2015 (6/n) The online discussion focuses on how