By Natasha Berryman
It’s been two weeks since I took pen to paper and captured my thoughts about the racial tension in our country. In that post, I gave a call to action for STEM to utilize its voice and help change the momentum and direction of human rights in the U.S.
Since then, all kinds of amazing things have been happening at #VanguardSTEM, one of the most encouraging being a round of Facebook and Twitter discussions that explored themes of resilience, perseverance and what it’s actually like to be an “other” while innovating in STEM.
Many not-so-amazing things have also happened in the world, though, and I recall bearing a heavy heart as reports of terrorist attacks abroad, racism in U.S. political spaces, and more police-involved shootings set the tone and cadence of the nightly news.
The juxtaposition is striking, and yet, consistent. This is what it’s like to live in America in this day and age — it is exhausting, and it is infuriating, and it is disparaging to know that a particular line of thinking that was born before this country was formed manages to persist decades after it became obvious that it was wrong. The very sad truth is that the lives of anyone who is not white have not mattered in America for quite some time and that thinking, which can be traced back to the foundation of the U.S., is still very much alive and polluting many spaces that very much matter.
The identities of people of color are not all the same; we are not monolithic in our thinking or approach to life, but I imagine most would agree that it is near impossible and decidedly unhealthy to attempt to bleach your cultural identity from your person when you go to do the thing that brings you joy and fulfillment; when you work towards feeding your passion and professional purpose in the classroom, lab, field or office.
Because (for most) it is impossible to truly switch off all of the traits that point to our otherness, the cultural expectation in STEM fields should not require us to ignore the broader plights of our people or to pretend that they don’t have bearing on our work.
I posed a question a few weeks ago: where can we be Black? And in some ways, it was an incomplete question. Perhaps it would have been better to ask, Where can’t we be Black? Because it should be understood that many of us cannot — and refuse — to shun that part of who we are. So it means that when we set out to do the important work of STEM, we are doing it as complete people who feel the burden to contribute to a world and a handful of disciplines that, historically, have not welcomed us.
It means that we do feel the weight of racial trauma and that it can affect our productivity. It wounds our spirits to know that we can’t assume we’re safe in a just and fair country where all are free and supposedly equal.
It means that we may be inclined to push for legal and institutional change that celebrates and protects who we are instead of selectively minimizing the characteristics that make us “other.” And it means that we can push for these initiatives and still be credible scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.
My Blackness does not negate my contribution to science. My demands for safety and conscious legal and law-enforcement systems are not separate or any less important than my demands for innovative and ethical advancements in STEM.
This is what it’s like to be Black and to work in STEM; this is what it’s like to be Brown and to work in STEM: to care about it all, because it is all connected and it is all critically important.
Some of Us Have Not Died
Dr. Jedidah Isler wrote a stunning piece last week on revolutionary STEM titled “Some of Us Did Not Die,” and I encourage you to read it in its entirety — it has been my battle cry since it was published. In it, she concludes with a series of statements that I believe bear repeating:
“If you’re still wondering if your work matters, it absolutely does. It’s a revolutionary act to pursue your purpose in spite of the odds. Yet more if you’re helping to equip the next person to walk this path a little better. The devastating truth of the matter is this: more people of color will die as a result of the evil of racism and complicity with it. Things will get worse before they get better, BUT we will not all die. And if we live, we must dream, work, strive, innovate and revolutionize for those who have died too early. So when you’re ready, pick back up the mantle of scientist, of thinker, of doer, of revolutionary and carry it with pride; for in so doing, you honor those who never got to live those dreams out. Your life matters — and your science does, too.“
The lives, science and all the facets that form and fuel the being of people of color, matters.
As such, I contend that we must take the time and space needed to persevere, to acknowledge and heal from racial trauma, to demand local and national change, and to do STEM.
We are still alive, and our brilliance is still desperately needed.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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