I was reading one of my various online news sources this week when I ran across an article from BlackLikeMoi.com where I found details about this amazing archive of slave narratives that the Library of Congress collected from 1936-1938. The presence of such an archive was definitely stirring, but even more, was one of the quotes from a slave in 1855,
“Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is – ’tis he who has endured.”
I found that to be such a moving statement and so relevant to so many things still today. Often, the difficulties that one (or many) must survive are the very definition of the struggle and no one, but that person, can really define the totality of what that struggle means. I, of course, immediately began thinking about the difficulties I’ve faced trying to get a Ph.D. in Astrophysics as a Black woman. I think about all the times that people have tried to negate or obviate my concerns as not relevant, or worse, not real. I think about how discouraging and upsetting that is. I think about how those things dominated my thoughts about my value in that space, until I found (and began to value) my own voice.
Imagine my surprise, then, when scanning astro-ph today (yes I was behind, don’t judge me), I came across a thoughtful, research-driven article by Dr. Jarita Holbrook, another Black woman+Astrophysicist. Dr. Holbrook, currently a researcher at UCLA in Women’s Studies and classically trained Astrophysicist, now works as an Anthropologist of Astronomy . The article, entitled ‘Survival Strategies for African American Astronomers and Astrophysicists‘, sets a historical context for the purpose of the study, and then lays out 6 coping mechanisms that African American Astronomy students use to successfully navigate graduate school. They are right ‘on point’ with what I and other current or recent graduate students of color have experienced and employed. I can definitely call 3 of them (strong familial support, divinely inspired, and some measure of disconnection) as being directly related to my success thus far. The other 3 – obliviousness, strong departmental support, and therapy & medication are equally valid coping mechanisms.
She mentions “astronomy culture” as a sub-culture capable of producing culture shock for African American students. Further, this culture shock is a predominant reason for lack of success on the part of these (or any) minority students in Astronomy. She makes an important distinction that the lack of success some students face is not related to their (often non-existent) inadequacy in academic preparation. This subtle distinction is important because it then calls the departments and department constituents into the conversation as helpful or harmful to the ultimate success of the student(s). This article is a must-read for department heads, administrators, interested professors, research staff and postdocs at graduate institutions that (are lucky enough to) currently engage or are interested in attracting students of color (or persons of any diverse background).
Her argument is similar to another organization to which I am very partial, The Posse Foundation, that aims to address these same kinds of issues. Namely, the idea that the academic space can be so hostile to students of color (or diverse background) that those who should persist, don’t. They address the problem by sending cohorts of college students into top schools, instantly creating the critical mass necessary to provide the students with a ‘safe space.’ I’ll speak more about the Posse Foundation in another post, but I just wanted to underline that the idea that Dr. Holbrook brings to bear, namely culture shock, is not new and should not be discounted in these graduate spaces. It exists for any under-represented population and does not have anything to do with a deficiency in a particular student, but rather has to do with interaction, or lack thereof, between the student and the dominant culture. How are those responsible for teaching and reproducing the culture of Astronomy considering these students from diverse backgrounds? (Hint: If you are an administrator or thought leader in your department and you don’t have an answer at the ready, you aren’t doing it right.)