How a culture of white privilege discourages Black students from becoming physicists | Science

This story is part of a special package being published this week about the barriers Black physicists face and potential models for change.

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C. Smith/Science

Apriel Hodari has spent many years studying how to improve training and reduce inequity in the scientific workforce. That research has brought her face to face with “the priesthood,” her name for the dominant white male culture in U.S. physics. White men, for example, hold 70% of the faculty positions at U.S. universities that grant physics Ph.D.s.

Hodari wondered whether there was a connection between the priesthood’s views on issues such as racism and sexism and the profession’s deplorable record on diversity. So in 2017, Hodari, a senior scientist at a California company that helps researchers obtain federal grants, and Melissa Dancy, a physics educator at the University of Colorado, Boulder, received support from the National Science Foundation to interview 27 white, male, academic physicists, from senior professors to graduate students.

What the researchers heard during those conversations didn’t surprise Hodari, who is one of only 150 Black women to earn a physics Ph.D. in the United States over the past 50 years. “Not me. Not my colleagues. Not my time. Not my field,” is how Dancy, who is white, summarized their thoughts on why U.S. physics lacks diversity during a presentation last year to a meeting of science education researchers.

Most of those in the small sample—chosen from those who volunteered to participate—voiced concerns about equity and diversity, Hodari and Dancy found. But they were skeptical that racism and sexism were prevalent in physics. They also couldn’t think of any instances of racist or sexist behavior in their classrooms or labs. And to a man, they believed they were in no position to ease the harm such biases might have on the profession. “In other words, [any problem] is very far away from me,” Dancy reported, “and I have no responsibility for it.”

Hodari and Dancy believe their interviews also offer a peek into the corrosive impact of white privilege on physics. Scholars coined the term decades ago to describe how white people use their membership in a dominant group to assert political, cultural, and economic power over those outside that group.

White privilege allows physicists to “not pay attention to systemic racism because there aren’t any consequences,” Hodari says. She thinks it also explains why many of her colleagues “are completely clueless” about the harmful effects on their profession of attitudes and actions born of privilege and racism.

Black physicists don’t have the luxury of ignoring white privilege. Every one of the more than 50 Black scientists interviewed for this special package described experiences, beginning in their student years and extending into senior faculty positions, in which they were confronted with pernicious behavior associated with white privilege. Some episodes were blatantly racist—white people mocking their appearance or denigrating their intellect—whereas others were more subtle, such as comments based on negative assumptions about their backgrounds or reasons for wanting to be a scientist.

Battling white privilege requires constant vigilance, and it can take a heavy toll. “I didn’t choose physics to clean up a mess I didn’t make … [but] I’m bleeding so that people can learn about this toxic environment we face,” says Jessica Esquivel, an associate scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and an advocate for social justice and greater opportunities for Black girls in science. Esquivel, who identifies as an Afro-Latinx lesbian, says she’d rather be recognized for her work on the properties of the muon or neutrino physics. But her activism, she says ruefully, is often “the only thing [my colleagues] notice about me.”

Jessica Esquivel smiles at the camera at FermiLab.
Physicist Jessica Esquivel, who works on the Muon g-2 experiment at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, says battling white privilege can take a heavy toll.Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

White privilege must be fought on the individual and institutional levels, says Marta McNeese, chair of the physics department at Spelman College, an all-women historically Black college in Atlanta. “Removing barriers to participation isn’t enough,” says McNeese, who is Black. “If you have someone in your department who is toxic, you need to figure out how to protect students from them.”

One damaging consequence of white privilege is what’s known as “the Black tax.” It stems from an assumption that Black faculty members, because they are the victims of racism, should do more than their white colleagues to promote diversity. That means spending more time recruiting and mentoring students from underrepresented groups, more service on diversity committees, and more community outreach. The tax carries a double penalty because those extra efforts—which many Black physicists take on willingly and without compensation—are often discounted, if not ignored, when physicists come up for tenure and promotions.

Physicist Adrienne Stiff-Roberts started to pay that tax in 2004 after coming to Duke University in North Carolina, where she says she became the “first—and still only” Black member of the physics department. The North Carolina native says she “knew that Duke had a reputation for not being a welcoming place for Black people,” a history that university officials have acknowledged. But she accepted the tenure-track position with the hope of improving the situation.

As Stiff-Roberts moved up the academic ladder, she poured her energy into fostering greater diversity by training graduate students, mentoring undergraduates, and running a Saturday morning academy for middle-school students. “You can get sucked into trying to make your institution a better place,” she says. But she also kept track of the toll such activities were taking on her research and turned down invitations that didn’t feel genuine. “Don’t ask me to do a lot of work that you don’t value,” Stiff-Roberts says. Instead, she says, “I decided that the best thing I can do is to succeed and become an existence proof.”

Computational cosmologist Brian Nord faces similar challenges at Fermilab, the U.S. government’s premier particle physics center. Along with Esquivel, Nord is part of a group of five Black lab employees who issued a 17-page “Change-Now” manifesto in June 2020, just days after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. In addition to demanding that Fermilab officials hire and retain more Black scientists and adopt policies to achieve social justice, the manifesto urged them to “listen to and do what Black employees say they need, and not make plans for us without us.”

Several months later, Fermilab’s director, Nigel Lockyer, who is white, asked Nord to lead efforts to hire and promote more minority scientists. “I want to build around Brian,” Lockyer said about Nord, who had recently been promoted to become the lab’s only tenured Black scientist. “I need somebody to be an attractor, if you will, so that a young Black scientist [looking for a job] would say, ‘Gee, I want to work with Brian.’”

The 39-year-old Nord says he is honored to receive such a vote of confidence and believes he has “demonstrated that I can lead on these issues.” But he thinks Lockyer’s approach falls far short of the necessary institutional commitment. In particular, Nord wonders why Lockyer decided to put all his eggs into one basket—and one carried by a Black man.

“What if for some reason I had to leave?” Nord says. “Why not build upon the work of the entire cohort of Black scientists at the lab?” Nord is also worried about what happens if the lab’s demographics don’t improve. “Does it then become my fault?”

Lockyer won’t be around to see whether his strategy of asking Nord to lead Fermilab’s diversity effort succeeds, having announced his retirement in fall of 2021. But a similar effort at Stanford University 5 decades ago suggests expecting one Black leader to shoulder the burden can falter without sustained institutional support.

In the 1970s, Stanford administrators tacitly agreed to let Arthur Walker, a solar physicist recruited in 1974 as the first Black member of the department, take on the task of diversifying both graduate enrollment and the faculty ranks. “Art was a top scientist, and he brought in others [Black students and faculty],” recalls physicist Arthur Bienenstock, a white emeritus professor and special assistant to the Stanford president who served as the university’s first affirmative action officer in the early 1970s. “Looking back, I can’t say that I or anyone else did anything that was really effective.”

Walker, however, had an impact. In fact, Stanford often claimed that, from the early 1970s to 2000, it led the nation in awarding physics Ph.D.s to Black students. (The total is believed to be roughly two to three dozen, but Science could not confirm that because of a lack of documentation.) The flow of Black graduate students had already begun to dry up, however, by the time Walker died of cancer in 2001. And since his death, Stanford’s track record is indistinguishable from that of other elite graduate physics programs.

Current and former white Stanford professors say one reason for the drop-off was their failure to recruit Black students. Robert Wagoner, who retired in 2012 after 40 years on the physics faculty, recalls “edicts” from department chairs to recruit at conferences they attended that attracted large numbers of students from marginalized groups. But Wagoner always came away empty-handed.

“Everybody wanted them,” he says about the students Stanford tried to recruit. “We did all we could. We’d call them and encourage them to come. But the pool was so tiny.”

Such explanations infuriate Roscoe Giles, a computer engineer at Boston University and longtime diversity advocate who in 1975 became the first Black student to earn a Stanford physics Ph.D. “It drives me crazy,” he says, “to hear people from elite places like Stanford say, ‘We can’t compete.’ It’s the opposite of what you hear them say the rest of the time about their ability to attract the most talented faculty and students.”

Other Black physicists told Science they have had difficulty gaining institutional support for efforts to increase diversity—even when they volunteered to lead them. Physicist Kim Lewis, for example, says she worked hard to attract Black students and faculty to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), a predominantly white institution in upstate New York where she was a faculty member between 2006 and 2017. But she says senior administrators often pushed back against her efforts.

“I had been doing a lot of recruiting, on my own time,” Lewis says, “and one day I realized that none of these students looked like me.” Changing the demographics would require RPI to commit time and money, she concluded. “But whenever I tried to bring it up, the response was, ‘We shouldn’t need to make an extra effort to attract them. They should want to come. We’re RPI.’”

In 2018, Lewis moved to Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C., where she is now a professor of physics and associate vice president of research. RPI’s attitude toward recruiting a more diverse student body wasn’t the only reason for the move, she says. Another factor was the way she was treated by RPI undergraduates.

“The students there can be brutal,” she says. “They didn’t like my hairstyle, they accused me of speaking Ebonics [rather than English], and they said I looked like a monkey standing in front of the class.”

In contrast, she says, “At Howard I can take off my dean’s hat and, for a few minutes, be an aunt,” alluding to her approach to mentoring. “I couldn’t do that at RPI.”

Lewis says she chose not to file a formal complaint at RPI because, as a petite Black woman, she feared for her safety. “I have to walk around campus, and I just don’t trust [the students],” she says she told a university official at the time. RPI declined requests from Science to address the issues Lewis raised.

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If you have someone in your department who is toxic, you need to figure out how to protect students from them.

  • Marta McNeese
  • Spelman College

The arrogance Lewis says she encountered at RPI is a common manifestation of white privilege in physics, Hodari says. “It’s hard to empathize with the problems of marginalized populations when you think you’re the smartest person in the room and have all the answers,” she says.

Such smugness also hinders efforts to improve diversity, says Mary James, a physicist at Reed College and co-chair of an American Institute of Physics task force that issued a 2020 report on how to reverse the declining percentage of Black undergraduates majoring in physics. “It’s hard for some physicists who think they are good at everything to say to themselves: ‘Maybe what I’ve been doing for so long hasn’t been effective,’” she says.

Another impediment to change, says James, who is Black, is that physicists can harbor condescending attitudes toward advice from experts in other fields. For example, physicists who pride themselves on making decisions based on “hard data” may scoff at survey data from social scientists in which students describe deficiencies in their training, she says. “But qualitative data are data, too,” James says. She and others think social scientists could help physicists address cultural, sociological, and institutional issues that might sabotage diversity initiatives.

Even members of the priesthood who have embraced the value of diversity say change doesn’t come easily. Keith Bechtol, a white cosmologist at the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, says he barely noticed the absence of Black students among the 18 physics majors in his graduating class at the College of William and Mary in 2007. And Bechtol thought little about having “maybe one Black man” among the 45 students in his graduate program at Stanford, where he earned his Ph.D. in 2012.

What finally opened his eyes to the corrosive effect of white privilege, he says, was his first teaching assignment at UW as an assistant professor in 2018. After asking students in his introductory physics class to write a paper on a physics Nobel laureate, he says, “I realized that I was perpetuating all these inequities by forcing them to write almost exclusively about white males.”

Bechtol revised the assignment to allow students to write about any physicist. Then he began to devote one class period in the course to a discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Last year, he won a departmental grant to fund research fellowships for a handful of undergraduates from groups traditionally underrepresented in physics.

He’s hoping other faculty members will sign up to mentor those students, leading to a more welcoming environment at UW. “We’re not there yet,” he admits. The top-tier research institution has no Black faculty in its 48-member physics department, he notes, and records show only two Black students earned undergraduate physics degrees in the 5 years from 2015 to 2019.

Advocates for greater diversity say many more white male physicists will have to follow Bechtol’s lead if the field wants to reverse the declining participation by Black students. And Nord says the first step is a real commitment to change.

“At every place I’ve worked, I’ve witnessed promises unkept and seen racism in their committees,” Nord told the leaders of the American Physical Society last year during a webinar on the value of diversity. “Most of my secure, senior colleagues—white men—encourage gradualism, and whitesplain to me that ‘change takes time.’”

Any change must also be accompanied by greater accountability, Nord says. “Most of the talk I hear about helping people of color navigate the treacherous waters [in physics] amounts to suggestions on how to hop from one lily pad to another to avoid falling into deep water,” Nord says. “But that’s not enough. You also need to take the negative players out of the game by identifying and enforcing consequences for bad behavior.” Those consequences, he says, could include preventing scientists and institutions from receiving federal research grants if they can’t show progress in improving diversity, equity, and inclusion on their campuses.

Other diversity advocates, however, think such a punitive policy would be counterproductive. They want the federal government and other funders to use the carrot rather than the stick, offering additional support to institutions and departments that are doing the right thing.

Either way, diversity advocates agree that lasting change won’t happen until the priesthood becomes fully engaged. Nadya Mason, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says she is still waiting for that to happen.

Mason, who is Black, recalls a senior white faculty member asking her for advice during a 2020 campus event on how to combat racism. “I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?” he asked her.

“I told him that the point of the event was for whites to think about their actions,” Mason says, “not to ask Black people what they think. I don’t think he liked my answer. But until white people educate themselves, nothing will happen.”