Monday, November 20, 2017

Retaining People of Color in Astronomy: A Video Guide We Should All Watch

Astro twitter was abuzz for days about this talk given by Dr. Nicole Estefania Cabrera Salazar at UT Bash Fest on how to retain minorities in astronomy. I was delighted to see that was videotaped and is now available on YouTube. It was an hour long, so I listened to it podcast-style as I worked on non-writing tasks.

At minute 7:00 she starts going through the various hurtful things she heard as a women of color pursuing a graduate STEM degree. Many (if not all) of these things were said to her in the spirit of genuine helpfulness by her mentors. I had two major realizations while I was listening to her describing how they hurt her instead:

1.) As a white disabled woman, I recognized many of these hurtful things. As a graduate student, I heard them, too. I understood the damage each one does to the psyche intuitively, even before Dr. Cabrera Salazar went on to explain it. I also suffered that damage at one point. The damage added up, compounded itself with mental illness, and it was profoundly career diverting.

2.) Imposter syndrome is something that is done to us. In science it also happens to white men, but it happens more to women, to people of color, to disabled people, and to QUILTBAG folk. It is much more likely to happen to scientists who occupy more than one of these identities, and with such prevalence that it nearly becomes a certainty. This litany of well-intended, harmful things that were said in an honest attempt to help the student is the mechanism by which imposter syndrome happens.

Bullying and abuse has recently been an active topic of discussion in Astronomy, due to the recent spate of very public sexual harassment scandals and one spectacular, department-destroying bullying case. But bullying is a grayer area then sexual harassment: I will continue to argue that most of the people who bullied me in academia were trying to help me, albeit in some self-centered, non-listening way that avoided actually asking me what I needed or wanted and denied my agency. If we simply tell academics that bullying is bad, they will categorically state that they are not bullies-- "I am the most supportive advisor!"-- and continue on their way.

But all of us do it. All of us.

Bullying is embedded in the sociological, cultural fabric of astronomy and physics. We all believe too much in the meritocracy, and in weed-out culture, and in the pre-eminence of Nobel prizes and the need to live up to Einstein and Curie. Even those of us who are actively trying to stop bullying (and yes, of course, that is a prerequisite) aren't going to stop unless someone tells us how.

I've been trying to put together a guide to avoiding bullying on the side, but actually, Dr. Cabrera Salazar has already done a big chunk of the work here. At minute 23:20, she starts talking about what she needed from her mentors as a woman scientist of color. A lot of it is just straight-up active listening. As always, believing people when they talk about their experiences is the primary stumbling block. But actually believing is not a passive task; it takes a little more than simply saying "I believe you".

And believing in someone is even more critical (minute 28:19).

I hope all scientists (and aspiring scientists) will also find time to watch or at least listen to this lecture, because it contained many ah-ha moments for me. We won't succeed at making astronomy more inclusive for scientist of color (and other minorities) until we've learned this stuff and begin teaching it to each other.

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