Title: Survival Strategies for African American Astronomers and Astrophysicists
Author: J.C. Holbrook
Author’s Institution: University of California, Los Angeles
In this post, I diverge from the comfortable ground of dark-matter-this or black hole-formation-that to consider a paper on a perhaps equally vexed issue in astrophysics: minorities in astrophysics, especially African-Americans. This is part of a larger look astrobites plans to take at minorities in astrophysics in the coming weeks, so if this is of interest, do check back!
In classical literature, it was traditional for the author to begin with a plea for the reader’s indulgence and forgiveness (the “humility trope“) should anything be said wrongly or not at all. Since I am aware that this topic is a sensitive one, I ask for similar benefit of the doubt! And full disclosure: I am not from a background that makes me a minority of any stripe in astrophysics, and so I found Holbrook’s paper particularly surprising but also enlightening on a part of some astrophysics’ students’ experiences that I had been unaware existed.
Anyone who has been in an astrophysics department probably realizes there are few African-Americans or women in the field: but just how few? Holbrook begins with some startling statistics: since 1955, only forty African-Americans have earned doctorates in astronomy or physics doing an astronomy dissertation. This means they comprise at most 2.47% of PhDs in astronomy. Out of 594 faculty at top 40 astronomy programs, 6 are African-American (1%). Notably, Hispanics fare no better, with 7 (1.2%), while Asians account for 42 of the 594, for 7.1%.
The obvious question is “Why?” Holbrook notes that previous answers to this question have focused on what students might lack: sufficient math and physics preparation, exposure to a research project, etc. She flips the question around to ask “What are the small number of African-Americans who have entered and stayed in astronomy doing?” Hence her paper’s title, “Survival Strategies . . .”. She goes on to enumerate six, gleaned from informal conversations as well as formal interviews with African-American, Hispanic, and female astronomers conducted during her career in astronomy over the past twenty years. I go through them below.
“Ignorance is bliss”: if you go through life (as some astrophysicists appear to — we all can think of an example) absorbed in your work to the exclusion of all else, walking down halls mumbling equations under your breath and forgetting meals, then you are oblivious and will probably be “completely unaware of racist and sexist undertones and overtones . . . in a hostile environment.” Holbrook points out that minority academics who say racism and sexism simply do not exist may not be trying to be disingenuous: they may just be successfully employing this survival strategy.
- Strong Familial Support
Holbrook argues that astronomy departments’ culture in the US undermines this survival strategy, writing “Having a family, unless you are a man with a partner who is the primary caregiver, is perceived negatively. The connection that minority students have with their families is considered negatively as well. Minority students are encouraged to move away from their family.” She argues that this ought not to be the case — clearly, a family that produced a student who is doing a PhD in astronomy did something right!
- Strong Departmental Support
Anyone who has ever had an adviser who has gone beyond all reasonable expectation of human generosity to fight for them knows that this is a key to survival and success whether one is a member of a minority group or not. Holbrook points out that a mentor willing to stand up for his or her student can even transform a hostile department by telling other faculty members that the way they are treating his or her student is not kosher. (Incidentally, this can be an argument both for and against tenure: one needs tenured faculty to have the independence to stand up to colleagues, but on the other hand, if those colleagues have terribly racist views, tenure diminishes their accountability for them).
- Divine Inspiration
This is perhaps the most interesting (or at least, surprising to me) strategy Holbrook mentions. As she notes, religion is a bit of a taboo subject in astronomy, and one cannot but suspect that in many US astronomy departments the percentage of those who are non-religious is rather higher than in the general population. But it’s worth remembering that Newton wrote numerous works of Biblical interpretation in his spare time (well, actually we think he spent about as much time on this as he did on physics!), and many more recent scientists such as Maxwell and Eddington were religious as well. As Holbrook writes, “Some level of divine purpose gives students a resilience needed to survive being an astronomy student. Thus, when bad things happen such as racist encounters or simply facing challenging new material, those that are divinely inspired know that the racists cannot deter them from becoming an astronomer and know that they are destined to master the material.”
A student using this strategy assumes that the environment of graduate school is different from the one they will experience as a practicing astronomer, and that, unpleasant though it may be, it is but a temporary torment, something to be endured as instrumental to their larger goal. This may not be an ideal coping strategy: Holbrook writes “their education then becomes a transaction of goods and services rather than an acculturation process. They learn astronomy rather than how to be an astronomer.”
- Therapy and Medication
I also found it interesting that Holbrook cites this as a survival strategy. Surely it is bad news if astronomy graduate education is driving otherwise healthy individuals to require therapy and medication (and this is what Holbrook must mean — if the medication is a coping strategy to deal with astronomy graduate education, then the need for it must be provoked by that). She writes “Asking professors today how graduate students in their generation dealt with the stress, many revealed that they drank a lot of alcohol – a form of self-medication.” Perhaps not an aspect of the graduate experience that has entirely changed since then . . . but certainly one that, in excess, can have harmful long-term effects.
What can astronomy departments do using this information? Holbrook suggests that, armed with knowledge of these strategies, they can recognize students who are using the potentially harmful ones, and steer them away from those and towards some of the others that are likely to be of greater long-term effectiveness and benefit. While her study focused on African-Americans in astronomy, Holbrook argues that these strategies are relevant to other minorities in astronomy as well — and even those of us who are not minorities in astronomy probably recognize ourselves in some of them.