Musings of a Black Girl in the Ivory
Katrina Miller, Physics PhD Candidate
The University of Chicago
Black. Woman. Physicist.
Existing at the intersection of these identities has been a turbulent time. Eight years ago, I didn’t even know what physics was, much less that I would be forging a path as the soon-to-be third Black woman to earn a physics PhD from my university. As the ~100th Black woman to earn a physics PhD in the United States.
If you’ve been following #BlackInTheIvory on Twitter, a hashtag created by Joy Woods and Shardé Davis, you know that Black scholars carry horror stories of racialized experiences in the academy. Part of my #BlackInTheIvory story is that my working definition of physicist has expanded beyond contributing scientific discoveries about our Universe. Being a Black woman in physics means equipping myself with the knowledge to identify and articulate phenomena like implicit bias and imposter syndrome so that I can navigate structural racism and sexism in my field. It means confronting what comes with being the first woman and/or Black person to do science in some labs, control rooms, and department buildings. It means educating my colleagues and advisors about my Black experience so that I can feel safe and supported in my research endeavors. It means adopting this additional work so that I can make it a little easier for the minoritized students who come after me. This is how my identities have come to coexist.
And then #GeorgeFloyd happened. A white police officer pressed his knee into a Black man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. George Floyd died that Monday because he couldn’t breathe. I remember watching the video on my lunch break feeling like I couldn’t breathe either.
As the week went on, my ability to focus on physics degraded significantly. How could I pay attention to anything when my community was grieving another loss of Black life? How could I lose myself in C++ scripts when my friends were being tear gassed in the streets? How could I put in the effort to study invisible neutrino interactions over bringing awareness to the invisible stories of Black women victimized by police violence? My mom always tells me that getting an education is my best form of protest – that breaking barriers is the best way I can effect change. But the importance of that work dimmed in light of what I felt mattered more: the right to life while Black. Once again, my identities felt chaotically at odds with each other.
This dissonance became more pronounced as the physics community responded to the murders of #AhmaudArbery, #BreonnaTaylor, #GeorgeFloyd, and #TonyMcDade. All of a sudden, there was an urgent push to address anti-Blackness in academia with intense discussion and swift action. This was necessary and long overdue, but with everything happening at once, I was extremely spread thin. As one of the few Black scientists in my various research communities, I was suffocating from the pressure to be an active voice in these conversations, contribute to community efforts outside of the Ivory Tower, and continue my daily research and extracurricular activities on top of that. My working definition of physicist expanded yet again: I marched, I organized, I fundraised, I attended town halls, I provided feedback on diversity and inclusion initiatives, I checked in with my Black colleagues and family and friends, and I did my best to respond to all the white people reaching out to me and seeking guidance. Being a Black woman in physics means fighting for my people’s right to life outside of the academy alongside their right to exist and thrive within it.
When I decided to be a scientist, I didn’t know that I was signing up to be an activist as well. But my lived experience in grad school has made it such that this is how I reconcile different parts of my identity. I shoulder the load of working toward more equitable academic spaces while simultaneously trying to prevent the persisting inequities from pushing me out. Being a Black woman in physics means that I am often amplified as a trailblazing example of diversity by the same institutions that structurally impede me. But my progress in spite of these barriers should not be romanticized – it should be catalyzed. I don’t want Black students to normalize additional work and the overcoming of obstacles as necessary for their success. I want my non-Black colleagues to deconstruct the systems requiring it to be this way.
Black lives matter, Black students matter, and we deserve better. Both within the Ivory and outside of it.
Resource list for more reading: https://www.particlesforjustice.org/resources
Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia Oxford College Image https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en