BEACON Researchers at Work: Black in Science

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by Bradley Watson. Bradley spent two summers working as an undergraduate researcher at Kellogg Biological Station with BEACON faculty Kay Gross, and is now a master’s student at University of Nebraska Omaha. The original post appears on his blog here

I was writing this in a different mindset and with a different goal until Ferguson, MO happened. That ongoing tragedy popularized by racial tensions but equally influenced by economic inequality made me want to finish this little essay. I had forgotten how sheltered I was by my environment but I still think my experiences are relevant and representative of the struggles of other blacks who are infiltrating fields that were/are dominated by white people.

Bradley Watson and posterI was in a lab meeting this summer and offered to drive some samples of the prairie plants we study back to Omaha with me if we needed more time to process them. Our PI said that she could get the biomass processed here in Michigan and joked that I would be a huge target for the cops driving through Chicago in a car full of dried plants. All six of us at the lab meeting (me being the only black person) laughed our heads off. We extended the hypothetical situation into stories about me trying to explain that the dried grass in the black plastic bags was for an experiment leading the police to call our PI to ask if this story was true. Someone even said the word marijuana… IN A LAB MEETING! At the end of it all I was taken aback. My boss, a 60 something year old white Christian lady from the heartland of America had put herself in my shoes and recognized that things were a little different for me.

She used the phrase, “a black man.” Many people shy away from blatant acknowledgement of racial differences but she didn’t and I respect her for it. I have been one of a few blacks and often the only black person in my classes for a long time. I left the Bahamas where I was in the racial majority for school in Canada where I was often mistaken for being Nigerian or Jamaican but not really discriminated against because that country is so diverse. After a year there I moved to a school in Charleston, South Carolina. I knew racism was historically a part of southern culture but I always thought that being international, well spoken, and well-mannered (by my nature and to the point of being timid sometimes) meant that I wouldn’t be a victim of this racism… wrong! I remember the first girl to cross the street as I approached. It was on a well-lit side walk at around 10 pm. I was shocked when I realized that she was just avoiding walking past me but I rationalized it; she could just be avoiding the threat of a male instead of the threat of a black. Then there was a night when I was escorting a white female friend home from a party and stopped two fratastic guys from harassing her. They left her alone and laughed at me… slapping me on my ass as I walked by. I chalked that one up to their inebriation and the idiocy encouraged in some fraternities. One thing I could never justify was why blacks made up 10% of the population in the US but my school had nearly 100% black janitorial staff and more than 95% white professors. I remember just one black Biology professor and I’m only calling him black because it takes just a little yellowing of the skin or crimping of the hair to be perceived as such! The final wake up call for me was in a plant taxonomy class surrounded by white peers whom I got along extremely well with. I forgot how we got to this point in the conversation but the professor, another older white lady, looked at me and said something like “Do you know how long they tried to keep your people out of this school?” (The best use of “your people” I have ever heard, btw.) It was a shock for me; she recognized this bias and felt strongly about it while I was trying to ignore it. But what choice do I have? Am I supposed to think about my race all the time?

I think the answer to that is no, but I have to be aware of it. I just started a teaching assistantship and had some trouble with my paperwork… I admit that I was being a little slack but I had just gotten into town and was balancing departmental and international student paperwork and orientations simultaneously. I can’t help but imagine that my superiors consider the fact that I’m the only black TA when I screw up. So as a black man I feel pressure to avoid making mistakes at all costs whether it’s having too many friends riding in my car at one time or playing my music too loud in the lab. I just don’t feel like I’ll get as many second chances as others. Ironically, one of my good friends told me he thought people would take it easy on me since I’m a Black Bahamian. I don’t know which of the two adjectives would encourage this lax attitude the most in his mind.

LTER Tour Summer 2013This brings us to the issue of affirmative action. I was in my senior year of undergrad applying for a travel grant so we could show off the work our lab group had done that year. This time the professor I’m talking about was one of the sweetest ladies you’ll meet; she happened to be middle-aged and, surprise, white. She asked about my parent’s education and incomes and I had to admit that they both had master’s degrees and made OK money even though that wouldn’t help my chances of getting funded. In the end I didn’t get that funding so she took the time to call in and find out why. It turned out that I should have mentioned more of my research experiences than I had in my essay. Later I met a black professor and told him about this experience and he told me that there was other funding for black students that would have gotten me to that conference. This past summer I told a black administrator at one of my favorite schools that I couldn’t find funding there so I went to another institution. He also let me know that he knew where to find funding for me, a fellow black. Some people think these pockets of funding for minorities are unfair but I disagree. When the number of minorities in scientific leadership roles reflects the percentage of minorities in the general population I will concede that affirmative action is unnecessary.  I have been blessed with mentors and professors who invested in me regardless of (or possibly because of) my race but when I meet black professors there is something else there. The three ladies I mentioned earlier were the kind of allies M. L. K. was looking for when he wrote his letter from that jail in Birmingham but meeting black professors is like meeting Dr. King himself for me. Being in the presence of a successful black academic, or even their work for that matter, makes me feel like I now have to succeed because it really is possible since others have done it before me. I’m almost certain that female students experience the same emotions when they meet strong women in leadership roles.

So, yeah… black in science… black in this world. I just want to be treated like everyone else but I am no longer naive enough to expect that. This human experience is crazy, and what’s even crazier is that we can alter other’s experiences by sharing our own 😉

 For more information about Bradley’s work, check out his website.

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