This Black Scientist Matters
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
It is hard to think that just over 9 months ago, I joked about 2020 being a year where "our vision would be clear", or "now we'll all really be able to see". But it’s hard to imagine that it would be a year where we really could see what's in the hearts of our co-workers, classmates, family members as racial injustice (yet again) made its way to mainstream headlines with the killing of George Floyd.
But something was different this time. Maybe it was because most of the U.S. and the world were at home without much to do (thanks to the global pandemic). For the first time, we all had to pay attention to the last moments of another unarmed black man at the mercy of the police. Our nation erupted with protests screaming, "Black Lives Matter!" Soon after, the world joined in. What surprised me most were the spinoffs: "[All] Black Lives Matter", "Black [Trans] Lives Matter", "Black [Businesses] Matter". The one spinoff that resonated with me the most: "Black Scientists Matter".
I completed my Ph.D. in Physics at George Mason University in 2019. I was the first African American Male to complete a doctoral degree in Physics at that university. I was the only black graduate student in the physics department for all nine years of my time with George Mason University (which was a sum of my time spent working on my Master's degree and my Doctoral degree). There were instances where I traveled overseas and had the unique opportunity to be the first (and only) African-American my fellow graduate students and researchers would meet.
Did all this matter? The truth: I wouldn't have known it unless someone told me. On day one, I was contacted by some of the faculty supporting the APS Bridge Program. They essentially said, "you're black, we're here to support". At one point, my advisor said, "By helping you, I'll improve the diversity of my field". Those were some of the "good" parts, but not all of it was. In my first class, Electromagnetism, I remember very clearly watching the professor walk across the room to double-check his role when I introduced myself to the class (he didn't do that for the first 14 students that introduced themselves). I was put into a room by myself, separated from the other graduate students, and not often invited into their circles. When I was invited, there were many...many...off-color jokes. My advisor introduced his doctoral students to his colleagues, invited them for dinner, shared coffee, and took great interest in their research...except me. He actually made very clear attempts to delay my progress and isolate me from the others. I'll save that for another blog post.
All these experiences combined, all I could ask myself: did I even matter to this university? Did they care about my experiences? Could they even understand my experiences? And if they did, would they help? I found out the answers to all of these questions on the day of my graduation.
But why am I here? I finished, and I had great help in doing so. I've successfully entered the work world as a Technical Project Manager. I'm finally in a good space. Although I think a lot of what I experienced is taboo in the academic community, I can't keep it to myself, knowing someone else might be enduring some of the same things I experienced: isolation, depression, struggles with identity, thoughts of quitting, acceptance of my culture by others, acceptance by my culture. I'm ready to share my experiences, my story, my lessons learned with the world. Stay tuned. I've got a lot to share. And check out some of these organizations. They've got great things to share on race and academia: