Science

#BlackInAstro highlights the experiences of Black astronomers: "We don't see us in the room."

ESO/B. Tafreshi

When Ayanna Jones finally mustered up the courage to speak to her advisor at Emory University about the microaggressions she had been facing from her research group, she was blamed for it. Her concerns were dismissed as an exaggeration.

"I felt that they weren't respecting me as a group member," Jones tells Inverse. "But I was afraid to speak out, and my fears were validated."

Jones was the only Black person in her astrochemistry group at the Atlanta institution and has often had her opinions disregarded, or made to feel less than her peers when discussing her own accomplishments. This has been the reality for many Black people in the field of astronomy, among the worst of all scientific fields when it comes to inclusivity.

Around 90 percent of astronomers in the United States are white, and only 1 percent are Black, according to the Nelson Diversity Survey. Additionally, only 4 percent of physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees are earned by African Americans, according to the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics.

Unfortunately, these staggering racial disparities are often left undiscussed. However, as the world briefly lends an ear to the struggles faced by Black people in the US following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, people from the science community are speaking out.

"When the protests began, a few people and I posted about wanting to do something to highlight the experience of Black people in astrophysics," Mia de los Reyes, a graduate student at Caltech Astronomy who helps run a daily astrophysical literature journal written by graduate students, Astrobites, tells Inverse.

The result was a series of articles in the journal that ran under the hashtag #BlackInAstro in order to amplify the voices of Black people in the field, and highlight their work and the challenges they've faced along the way.

A screenshot of the the #BlackinAstro series on Astrobites.

Members of AstroBites are also a few of the organizers behind a strike set for Wednesday, June 10 under the hashtags #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives. The strike itself is a call on science organizations and academics to stop doing business as usual and take a day to reflect on the ongoing events and how it relates to the field so that they can come up with a plan of action moving forward. Some examples of strike actions are postponing meetings, not publishing papers, and organizing protests. The effect of these strike actions could mean that the pace of research slows, sure, but the main point is to declare that the culture of exclusion cannot continue.

"For Black people, this is an incredibly traumatic time with deep emotional stress," Reyes says. "And so one of the things the strike wanted to do is to give Black people space, and actually not expect productivity so that Black people can cope in whatever way they need to."

Ashley L.Walker, an astrochemist and planetary scientist, describes her experience as one of 22 Black female astronomers in the US as "very traumatizing." That grim statistic is from the organization African American Women in Physics, of which Walker is a member.

"I don’t think people have been paying attention because people have just thought maybe [the number] wasn’t that low, maybe there’s a few hundred," Walker tells Inverse. "But people didn’t realize the number of Black women in the field."

For Walker, she was often encouraged to go into science communications instead of astrochemistry. "Although they thought they were helping me," Walker says. "If I wasn’t as spearheaded or really driven, someone else would’ve taken that advice."

Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably the most well-known astrophysicist in the US, said during a conference in 2014 that whenever he expressed to his teachers his desire to become an astrophysicist, they would tell him, "Don't you want to be an athlete?"

As a result, all of the sources that Inverse has spoken to cite a feeling of alienation that comes with being the only Black person in the room, not seeing themselves represented in the field, as well as being underestimated by their colleagues and experiencing different forms of microaggression.

"Automatically when I walk through a space, the way I navigate through that space is impacted by my identity and I already feel like the odd one out," KeShawn Ivory, a graduate student of astrophysics at Vanderbilt University, tells Inverse. "We show up to the same classes and you think our lives look the same. But what they didn't have to think about, I'm forced to think about all the time."

"Now people are being responsive to the idea that your reality and my reality are not the same," he adds.

Ivory says that he often feels as though his work is not highlighted at his university.

"The least you could do is put my name in a newsletter."

"If I have to do the same workload but I have to do it while Black, the least you could do is put my name in a newsletter," he says. "It was disheartening to not feel seen."

These days, many Black students have taken to Twitter to vent about their experiences under the hashtags #BlackInSTEM or #BlackInIvory, where they have felt that their voices were not heard before or were afraid of the repercussions of speaking out.

Jones, who is also the president of the Emory Black Graduate Student Association, was inspired by these hashtags to create a safe space for Black students to submit stories anonymously about their experiences.

"It’s important for not only the Black students, but the broader Emory community to see that it's not just an isolated event, it’s not just a police brutality," she says.

Aside from speaking out about it, Jones also encourages people to start taking action to encourage diversity in the field.

The first step would be to recognize that these issues exist in the first place.

"Structural racism is built into astronomy," Astrobites' Reyes says. "The failure to learn from this mistake, to refuse to believe that we're part of the problem is the real issue."

Astrobites is hoping to build on the #BlackInAstro series, with enough material to continue putting out material that highlights the work of Black astrophysicists and ways to support Black people in the field.

Astrobites is sponsored by the American Astronomical Society, which released a statement of its own.

“The AAS is committed to making a positive difference in the professional lives of our members. This commitment will be reaffirmed in our upcoming strategic plan, which will have diversity, equity, and inclusion at its core and woven throughout our priorities and plans as a Society," the statement read.

Walker and Jones agree that organizations and academic departments need to self-reflect and figure out ways in which their own biases are affecting the recruitment or hiring processes. Meanwhile, Ivory encourages academic institutions to highlight the work of Black astronomers.

"We carry this burden of doing everything that everyone else has to do but doing it in rooms where we don’t see ourselves represented," Ivory says. "It really does take a toll, it's hard."

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