Skip to main content

Racism Defines Race



In a discussion about race and racism with a group of Black and Latinx students, the first part of the dialog centered around the things such as the difference between being African American and Black, or Hispanic versus Latinx. We meandered about for a while, and the conversation didn't gain focus until we talked about what it means to be white in America. Most observations about whiteness boiled down to having one's life valued more that those of people of color; the "value gap" as Prof. Eddie Glaude describes it. At that point it became clearer that our position in society defines our race. The processes that put us there is racism.

This brings up a subtle yet key point about race that is summarized nicely by Ta-Nehisi Coates: "race is the child of racism, not the father." Racism is a double standard that breaks along the line drawn by our society that places whiteness above, and non-whiteness below (I can never recommend Barbara Field's essay enough). Race is the set of narratives, customs and mental habits that justifies this stratification. Bringing the conversation back to the culture of astronomy, when we see white people overrepresented among the professoriate at the eye-popping rate of >90%, we need to be conscious of our narratives, customs and habits when we ask questions about this unnatural outcome. The tendency will be to ask, "Why aren't people of color advancing through our academic system?" or something similar. But we need to see our monochromatic demographics as what they factually are: we are seeing racism, not something that results from Blackness, Latinx-ness, or Muslim-ness, and our language needs to reflect this.

It's racism, not race. Race is extrinsically imposed, not intrinsically possessed. As such the answer cannot be diversity (or even racial justice*). It must be anti-racism, the process of learning about what features of our culture---yes, including the words and actions of the people in that culture---enact and maintain racism, and then learn how to subvert and counter those features until they are gone. A good place to start is by reading the book linked above (click on the image). 

*I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to prove that if race is a narrative used to justify an unjust society, that there can be no such thing, in a truly literal sense, as "racial justice."

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The subtle yet real racism of the Supreme Court

Judge Roberts, a member of the highest court in the land, which is currently hearing the sad story of mediocre college aspirant Abigail Fischer, recently asked, "What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?" 
Did you catch the white supremacy in this question? If not, don't feel bad because it's subtly hidden beneath the cloaking field of colorblind racism. (As for Scalia's ign'nt-ass statements, I'm not even...)
Try rephrasing the question: "What unique perspective does a white student bring to a physics classroom?" The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing! Why? Because race isn't biological, and is therefore not deterministic of cognitive abilities. Did you perhaps forget that you knew that when considering Roberts' question? If so, again, it's understandable. Our society and culture condition all of us to forget basic facts …