This is on my experience with balancing efforts to increase diversity in a homogeneous academic field and doing the science research I love. If you have thoughts, please share in the comments.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been shelving my hobbies (writing, painting, making stuff out of other stuff) in lieu of a new task, one that isn’t at all a hobby, but is definitely not part of my job. My job as a graduate student is to absorb knowledge and skills from as many places as I can, to translate what I’ve garnered into some new knowledge, and to put that knowledge into the world as published research. (For context, I also buy and sample international variations on the cheese puff and I watch what my mother would call 'television that does not edify the mind', so it’s not all fun and games.) I do research because I love it and I think it makes me better. I do research because I like to think it might make the world better.
I don’t get to walk out of a discussion about race in science and stop thinking about it because the conversation ended.
But I’m not just a graduate student who does research. I’d like to be just a graduate student, but I’m not and couldn’t be if I wanted to. I and, dare I generalize, other students of color, have an immutable identity laced into our student identities, one that tugs and tightens throughout our years as researchers. I am not just a grad student because my phenotype is something I can’t step out of, can’t tone down, and can’t camouflage into the population of those who are “just grad students”. I showed up in academia with intentions of doing two things: learning and doing science. Steadily, I am realizing that my presence here, against all intentions, will force me to engage with things not wholly scientific. Here in the world of science research, I will have a different experience from most of my peers because I cannot turn off the brightly lit sign above my head that reads “now dealing with issues of diversity”. I don’t get to walk out of a discussion about race in science and stop thinking about it because the conversation ended.
There are many people, peers and senior colleagues alike, who know that the position of students of color in science departments, especially the natural sciences, is an awkward one. It’s a balancing act of sunny commonalities and sobering differences. For persons of color, losing that balance can be a fuck up in either direction. I’ve heard many times in many ways that this additional experience, being tasked with maintaining neutrality while working in a non-neutral system, is exhausting. This tax levied by academic science is certainly felt by minorities of all kinds, but the particular situation of persons of color in natural sciences is something different.
In my department, I’ve helped to start a conversation among students and postdocs about the meaning of diversity in ecology, why inclusion seems just beyond our reach, and whether we have been reaching for it at all. The ensuing dialogue has been supportive and constructive, but has also forced me to think about what it means that I, the only student of African descent in many years, was the one to start it. I’ve felt glad that students and faculty have been involved and action-oriented, yet the feeling that I’ve made myself accountable for the outcomes still nags. The question I circle back to is whether the onus of confronting the homogeneity of ecology tends to fall to me because I am a person of color, and whether I will shoulder that responsibility throughout my career. In one sense, dealing with under-representation is a choice I made knowing the time and effort the initiative would require. In another light, the choice feels much more like triaging wounds and treating the ones we simply can no longer put off. A necessary act.
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More critical than polemical, my goal in sitting and writing this was to get my head around whether the urgency I feel about changing what ecology looks like, where its practitioners come from, is felt as acutely among all graduate students and faculty. If not, I wondered this: what is the effect of dealing with representation and inclusion because your physical identity implicates you and dealing with these issues because engaging is a choice? These are the questions I held onto as I planned what I would say to a room full of Cornell professors at the faculty meeting this week. A few graduate students (really smart and brave graduate students) and I were invited to present our case for increasing diversity among applicants, students and faculty and propose solutions to the issue. For weeks we planned our message, our arguments, our solutions and deliverables (not unlike a grant proposal!). When the day arrived, everyone was nervous, but I think I felt something different from the rest because I am different from the rest. As the only brown-skinned person in the room that day, and only person one would describe as Black in our department, my stomach knotted with the fear of becoming that crusading Black girl.
True nausea, the kind that makes you almost stay home from work, plagued me the night before and throughout the morning. Was I setting a tone for the rest of my academic career, becoming that person who talks about diversity a lot? Was I going to walk into spaces and have people straighten up and speak diplomatically as though I were inspecting endlessly? Again, more nausea. This was that additional tax I’d heard about. The added cost of being forced to rally because for me, for us, the status quo grates. In a moment of lightheaded stress, I likened this predicament to the comments section of online articles. There in the nether regions of a controversial post, where vitriol runs freely, there is always someone who, despite the impossibilities of hate, is compelled to correct and inform and negate what seems overwhelmingly established. Why do you do this, you hopeful idiot? I say this when I errantly scroll down below the ads (“Five Things You’ll Never Believe Victoria Beckham Eats!”). This week I learned why the hail-Mary commenter screams into the internet. She does it because saying something, doing anything, makes it easier to believe that the status quo doesn’t have to be. In the same way, people in any minority group are so experienced in things happening to us that taking a stand, however flailing and hopeless, feels like us happening to things. It’s a subtle difference in state, but it means the difference between object and subject, between passive and active.
To my extreme pleasure, our conversation with our faculty went exceptionally well. Professors were understanding and interested in being involved. They were action-oriented. They listened. I doubt I could ask for a better interaction. But the question I started with remains. Despite these shared gains, does the toll of addressing homogeneity in science unequally affect those in the minority?
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.