STEM+Society: An Op-Ed on Race Relations and STEM
By Natasha Berryman
On July 5, reports of the extrajudicial murder of a father of five flooded U.S. news.
Unknowingly, that morning, I shut off my alarm, leaned against my headboard and turned to Instagram to help shake off the sleep. I loaded the app, swiped up and paused at the sounds of cursing and scuffling. I had seen Black men handled with such force and disregard before, and felt the customary wave of anger, confusion and fear well up in me as I waited for the officers to arrest the man.
But they did not arrest him.
They did wrestle him to the ground.
But they did not haul him to his feet.
They did not read him his rights.
They never shoved him in the back of their squad car.
They shot him. In the chest. At point-blank range, while restraining his arms and legs.
And then they shot him again.
It took a moment for my brain to make sense of what I’d stumbled upon, and as the post played on a loop, my mind churned fervently and filled with the noise of so many questions.
A Resounding Refrain
I identify as a scientist. A young one, but a scientist, nonetheless. I have found the joy in observing the world, asking a question and then setting down a path to explore it. This penchant for curiosity has served me well in life, and leaning into it has allowed me to work with some of the most forward-thinking research institutions and organizations in the country. I am always grateful and generally excited for this part of my reality, but as I went through the steps of preparing to go into work that Tuesday morning, I did so without much gratitude and without any excitement. Of all the questions swirling in my head, the loudest one was this:
Where can we be Black?
Certainly not in the street.
Or at the corner store.
Or the gas station.
Or in the park.
Or in our cars.
Or in our homes.
And where can we grieve?
Certainly not at work.
Assuredly not in the lab.
Definitely not amongst our colleagues.
Absolutely not in STEM.
And what do we say when they ask us why we’re somber, distracted; tense? Or why we can’t focus at the bench? Or why our tone was so dry in class? Or what’s causing us to fumble as we attempt to write the manuscript?
I am deeply passionate about STEM. It is a keystone in my identity; it is the root of my profession—it is an additive to my faith that keeps me going. But it is not a safe space for me or for others like me, who are Black and Brown and bearing the weight of watching as people in our communities are gunned down without thought, without the extension of effort and decency and the sanctity of life police officers generally extend to others.
A Call to Action
For all its beauty, brilliance and importance, STEM can’t seem to remember that people of color are just that — we are people, not tools; not diversity initiatives; not conveniently ethnic names on grants.
STEM doesn’t seem to understand that it is unreasonable to ask us to accommodate the discrimination that plagued its history and leaches into its present, but to ignore overt and violent discrimination when we encounter it in the spaces in which we live, raise children and interact with the world.
STEM can’t quite face the fact that its silence is discouraging, hurtful and infuriating; that its innovators are traumatized by the blatant disregard for the importance of our lives, our partners’ lives and our children’s lives.
The law of conservation of momentum posits that momentum can only occur when there is an outside force or impulse, not from within the system itself. When there are no external forces, the momentum of a system doesn’t change. As I reflect on the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the five police officers in Dallas, and the slew of others who are murdered by a force meant to protect them, I keep going back to that law of physics.
Black and Brown people are part of the STEM system, and it’s time that STEM acknowledges that our hurts, hurdles and human rights have bearing on the advancement and sustainability of successful STEM fields.
And perhaps more importantly, STEM needs to understand that it has — and has to exercise — its voice and influence to negotiate a change in the momentum and direction of human rights in our country.
STEM doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Stop pretending that it does.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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