On Campus A Black Physicist Is Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past
I want to live in a world where I can be a physicist without also being asked to speak on or compensate for the persistent racism of institutions.
I remember the moment my freshman year of college when I asked my electromagnetism teaching fellow what a breadboard was and instead of answering my question, he laughed and said, “You should know this. You don’t belong in this class.”
The course was an introduction to physics for physics concentrators (Harvardspeak for “majors”). For me, I thought. But I was supposed to know how to read a circuit diagram and how to use a breadboard to build the circuit in the drawing. Of course, I had been looking through my lab kit for something with a label on it. I had not been expecting that I was supposed to just know that the slab of plastic with a bunch of holes in it was a breadboard.
This incident became part of a growing file of stories about being told I didn’t belong, along with the numerous times fellow students told me I didn’t “look like a physics concentrator.” When I complained to peers about being on the receiving end of these comments, they would then insist it was because I dressed more nicely than they expected science concentrators to dress. But my clothing was less nice than everyone else’s, and I often showed up to breakfast in my pajamas, trying to live my best version of a real-life scene in Real Genius (a favorite film about physics students). My friends and study partners refused to acknowledge the obvious: a Black woman—even a light-skinned one—violated everything we had been taught about who belonged in physics.
During winter break that year, I called my mother and said I was switching to anthropology. Another Black student had just dropped physics and switched to another concentration on the advice of their physics adviser, who suggested they would be “better suited” for it. This conversation still regularly replays in my head: my mother’s guilt-tripping insistence that she hadn’t worked a job as a night secretary, allowing me to stay jobless and enrolled in my nice magnet high school—which required a three-hour commute on the school bus—just so I could quit physics when the going got rough. I’m old enough now to know she wasn’t being mean: She must have been terrified, unable to protect her daughter who was alone among wolves who were telling her she wasn’t good enough. My mom wasn’t wrong: When I called home, that humiliating moment in my electromagnetism course was still two months away.
That was all over twenty years ago. I have since earned a master’s in astronomy and a PhD in theoretical physics, held prestigious fellowships at both NASA and MIT, and become an assistant professor at a major research university. I have an international reputation as an expert on dark matter. I am so many things that a Black girl from Los Angeles—especially East LA—was never expected to become. One might expect that I would leave the past in the past and simply enjoy the fruits of my opportunities and my labor. But I remember each moment like it just happened, each forming a familiar pathway in my brain.
The past is always present for me. I am not allowed to leave it behind.
Recently, a friend of mine was reading applications for a program and said, “I have a student in the pile whose application looks like you wrote it twenty years ago.” In other words, she described being marginalized and disparaged in ways that I was. At this point, I am old enough to be shocked but not surprised, as my grandmother would say. Conversations like this are typical. Physics and astronomy students from Harvard and elsewhere reach out to me, asking me for help surviving being a student, asking me for mentoring their department is failing to supply, and, in effect, calling on me to reach into my own story and help them build a future using its lessons. In other words, as long as I refuse to look away from other people’s pain, I’m stuck here, in my own.
A Black woman—even a light-skinned one—violated everything we had been taught about who belonged in physics.
My ability to draw on some of the worst moments of the end of my childhood (I was seventeen when I started college) to articulate what is broken about science academia is part of what makes me a much-sought mentor and writer. My competence, my role, is tied to old pain, keeping it afloat. This is all complicated by the fact that I am someone who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for reasons unrelated to my academic experiences. Research shows that PTSD is a physical phenomenon, literally rewiring our brains and making us experience stress in a way that is heightened compared to people who do not have PTSD. My brain is wired to experience difficult moments as traumatic and to loop around traumatic memories on repeat. I don’t know if my memories of college (and worse incidents that happened later during graduate school) would be as traumatic for me if I had come to them without PTSD, but my guess at this point is that they would have led to me having it.
It is of course important to seek treatment for mental health issues, whether they are severe enough to appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or not. But my years in therapy can’t change the fact that my social and professional conditions mean I live in a world of triggers and that I am often expected to trigger myself. The university functions on the premise that I will do this to myself, that marginalized faculty will do this to ourselves. I expect this of myself as well. Yet my colleagues never notice that it is happening to me or what it steals from me.
In twenty years, so little has changed. With one student, I talk about how to apply for graduate school because her advisors have not bothered to tell her even the basics. I have the same conversation with another student. With a different set of students, I talk about how I handled being treated like a loser who could never understand physics. We discuss how to deal with being told we only got into college because admissions standards were lowered for people like us. We go over the politics of students who had tutors and highly resourced high schools telling those of us who didn’t that we simply can’t cut it intellectually.
Sometimes we talk about experiences that are worse than my own: I never had anyone stop me outside my lab and ask for my ID and threaten to call the cops if I didn’t produce one. I never had my study group lie to me and say our meeting was canceled. These stories have not happened to me, but they are now part of my experience because I’ve had to care for victims so many times.
I live with rage. This rage is not just because of what happened to me and now is happening to another generation, but also because I know what it is like to live in the wake. If they are principled people who break barriers and hold doors open for others, they will never get to leave these terrible moments in their past alone. They will do what I do. And people will make money capitalizing on their pain. Whole universities will run on celebrating their triumph while providing definitively inadequate compensation and no end in sight for the creation of new wounds. Whole research teams will make careers out of capturing their stories, anonymizing them, and theorizing what they mean.
I’ve been studied so many times by social scientists who are doing important work characterizing experiences like mine because too many white people refuse to believe what the world is like for us. I repeat my story yet again, knowing it may move someone, even though no amount of data, no amount of wringing our hearts out in public will be enough for others. Never once has a researcher said to me, “I know it is difficult to repeat these stories.” They’ve never offered me resources. When I shared one experience that was abusive, they didn’t even bother telling me that I deserved better.
My story is profitable. When I said I wanted to write a book about science and the way it moves in the world, several publishers asked me if I could fill a book with personal stories instead. They weren’t interested in the future I want to build, just how they could mine my past for dollars—a familiar arc of tragedy and triumph. I struggled to find an editor who would let me write the book I wanted.
While I was ultimately successful, I also had to face a difficult truth in the process: This was still not my childhood dream.
I have had to write not just the stories of the cosmos I love, but also about how we are cut off from them by white supremacy.
As a teen, I dreamed of being the first girl from East LA to write a successful book on science for general audiences: my own A Brief History of Time or Cosmos . But dreams get deferred. Instead, I wrote The Disordered Cosmos from a place of knowing that as long as students are living through their own version of my story, I cannot look away from my past. I have had to write not just the stories of the cosmos I love, but also about how we are cut off from them by white supremacy. I am supposed to accept that I will not get to just be , to just write about the science I love—that I will have to be more than a theoretical physicist, always, and that this will also mean my work as a theoretical physicist is obscured.
I have learned to explain the nature of the beast. It is structural and intentional. I have learned to quote statistics to back up my story, because as a scientist I know that anecdotes are fundamentally insufficient. As a Black woman, I also know that Black women’s analyses are rarely viewed as anything but emotional anecdotes by our white colleagues, a phenomenon so pervasive that I became a scholar of philosophy to give it a name: white empiricism.
I have learned to give compelling presentations in which I explain statistical data: Every year in the United States and Canada, over two thousand PhDs are awarded in physics, and in all of history, there are less than a hundred Black American women (and far fewer Black Canadian women) who have earned PhDs from departments of physics. Remember, I just said two thousand per year, but only one hundred of us in all of history , I make sure to emphasize. When you add in astronomers and physicists who came out of materials science programs, the number is still less than one hundred. If we add in biophysics, which is a completely different program often involving students who have never been through a physics department, the numbers exceed one hundred. Either way, Black people are 13.4 percent of the US population and a too-small fraction of the degrees in physics. We are a declining percentage at the bachelor level, for all of the fanfare about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Predominantly white institutions simply cannot pick up where closed historically Black college and university physics departments left off.
I speak this language of numbers and facts now, when what I had expected for my career was that I would speak a different one: quantum field theory. As much as I know about particle physics and hypothetical candidates for dark matter, my speaking invitations from physicists too often prioritize my capacity to explain a broken academia to them over my expertise. Other physicists refuse to accept that physics is my academic mother tongue. I am forced to live in a parallel world to the one I wanted to live in, where I could have been a physicist without also constantly being asked to speak on or attempt to compensate for the persistent racism of institutions.
I went to college dreaming of becoming a cosmologist, a storyteller of the universe. Instead, I am caught between dueling narratives of wonder and horror, stuck here with so many others because universities and large swathes of society refuse to change—because white supremacy persists, and hetero-cis, ableist patriarchy thrives among those who have always benefited from it. Toni Morrison once said that “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” This quote hangs on my wall, next to my desk as I talk to student after student, read emails and Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages. I move through stages of sadness, rage, and fatigue before, during, and after these conversations. Freeing others means going to the well of pain and staring into it, over and over again. I am still not free. Until the conditions change for students, I know that I will remain pinned to my past.