This post is part of our series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here. In this installment, we are publishing a guest post by KeShawn Ivory, who is a Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Scholar. We are publishing KeShawn’s story today in honor of Juneteenth, and next week we will be posting a #BlackInAstro story every day for #BlackInAstroWeek.
The ideas posed as a springboard for this piece were how being Black has affected my trajectory in astrophysics, what the field would look like for me ideally, and what I need non-Black folks in the field to understand and change. In attempting to answer one of these questions, I figured out that they’re all essentially the same question. The fact that my Blackness negatively affects my experience in the field is exactly what I need non-Black folks to understand and change, and it’s exactly what would no longer be true if the field were ideal for me and people who look like me.
I would absolutely love it if the color of my skin had no real impact on my mundane quotidian life. I would absolutely love it if every space I entered in this country had demographics mirroring those of the United States in general without over- or underrepresentation, meaning human beings were finally free to pursue our desires without limits and biases placed upon us by the way our identities are socialized. If you really believe we’re all the same at the core then that would be the natural endgame, and if you don’t really believe that then congratulations! You’re a race scientist and 1937 is waiting for your return. As much as I can wax poetic about how beautiful it would be to live in a world separate from the socialization that we all receive now, it is quite pointless to do so because that is not our world. To think that the color of my skin would not affect how I navigate life in this country every second of every day is simply ahistorical. To think that over- or underrepresentation could be a non-issue anytime soon is delusional.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for my ethnicity or culture not to matter. Our music, our art, our fashion, our history, our syntax, our lexicon, our multitude of complexions and hair textures, these are all very real things and very real sources of pride. But race, that hierarchical system of categorization born out of convenience, that construct originally serving as a salve for white people to soothe the incongruence of meritocracy and the notion that “all men are created equal”,– that thing is the bane of my existence. Or one of them, perhaps. A very brief refresher: the question implicitly posed when slavery became crucial to the economy was that, if here in the United States of America we’re all created equal and anything we desire we can get through hard work, then how could it be that Black people, worked to the bone for centuries, struggle so much to advance their standing in society? Either intrinsic equality of (male) human beings or meritocracy as a concept had to be let go. The workaround for this, decided without the consent or permission of anyone Black, is that both sides can be upheld if Black people were made out to be subhuman. None of the Constitutional tenets we so dearly cling to applied to them, and it was thus perfectly allowable to go on claiming to be God-fearing Christians while enforcing African enslavement as the natural order of things. This was the utility of race, and hence began the progression of slavery from economic tool to social order, perversely contorted by many a slaveowner to be God’s very own plan. I say all of this to make you understand that inequity is not a bug, it is a feature and it is working exactly as intended. The refusal to dismiss the myth of meritocracy continues to result in the dehumanization of Black people as we are yet labeled in the public imagination as the lazy originators of our own woes, it being much easier to think of what we are not doing for ourselves than what you are doing to us.
So I’ve told you about the world I wish we lived in and the world we actually live in, and how they’re light-years apart, but we’re scientists here so I assume you want specifics. Well, listen closely. I would be an even better astrophysicist if I didn’t have to get accustomed to being in rooms where few, if any, other people look like me and therefore navigate the world somewhat like I do. I would be an even better astrophysicist if I could rest assured that people in the field, professors especially, were not forming opinions of me informed by racial stereotypes before I even open my mouth to introduce myself. I would be an even better astrophysicist if this combination of factors didn’t make me feel like I have to scream twice as loud as everyone else to get one word in edgewise. I would be an even better astrophysicist if I were not constantly distracted by alerts that someone else Black was murdered by an individual charged with the responsibility to protect our communities in theory, but never in practice. I would be an even better astrophysicist if I weren’t constantly wondering what interaction with a cop might make me the next one in that series. I would be an even better astrophysicist if I weren’t told that science is above the political sphere and bringing my real-world daily concerns into the academe is doing everyone a disservice. I would be an even better astrophysicist if insisting that my life matters and moreover that all Black lives matter, especially those of Black trans folks and Black women cis and trans alike, were not branded a controversy. I would be an even better astrophysicist if I were not grappling at this very moment with the reality that this exact message, one that we as a Black community have been yelling for years now, has only become acceptable in the mainstream because a pandemic has white people bored at home long enough to actually listen. I would be an even better astrophysicist if I weren’t made to watch as my humanity becomes a corporate spectacle, an Instagram photo-op, and a confessional booth at the church of white guilt all in the span of three weeks. I would be an even better astrophysicist if you understood that the quality of my science is actually totally irrelevant to the question of why anti-racism must be mandatory.
I’ll leave you with this take-home: “Diverse perspectives yield the best science” is a true statement, but it’s one that commodifies the lived experience of marginalized people by reducing them to their contributions to productivity. It’s a capitalistic framework that shirks the basic truth that cultivating a field where the norm is respecting the humanity and validity of all people is the right thing to do for no reason other than that it is right. If this is not enough of a justification for you, you are the problem.