“You’re not very bright, your transcript to me looks like you’re just wasting your time, you’ll never graduate much less ever become a scientist.” There I was, a 17 year old kid sitting in the office of a renowned chemistry professor in my dream school, getting a mentoring session from the “Diversity Coordinator for Young Scientists” at a campus in the California State University system. I would later find out from other peers in my internship, that the professor didn’t have very many encouraging words to say to the young Chicanx and Black students from East LA, and Pasadena.
Academia--”the Academy” as a term referring to all of higher ed--is often heralded as the bastion of progressive values, and that especially in the sciences, your merits matter more than the color of your skin. As a scientist, I can say that in my experience, race has mattered less, but people aren’t color blind, so it's impossible for an entire field to be unbiased on matters of race. Whether it’s examining university acceptance rates, or comparing heads of departments and department staff, any scientist who can do year-one stats can see that there is an effect and it highly intersects with race.
In fact, in the UK, where I spent some time studying, there are more professors named John in the country then there are Black professors. While universities are working to make changes in their cultures to create “safe spaces” and hire “Diversity Coordinators”, the staff who they choose are sometimes not best suited for the role but are simply the only ones in the department who will take it on. Such was the case for our “Diversity Coordinator for Young Scientists”.
I called both my mother and my mentor, a woman my family affectionately calls “Aunt Marilyn”, and told them the story. At the end of it I told them “It’s basically hopeless, I’ll never become a scientist, the professor said so!”. That’s when they both gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. “Aaron, two things are true. First, you wouldn’t be there if you weren’t great. Don’t let someone steal your confidence. Second, you are not the only one who he has said this to. It is up to you to find those people, work together and help each other to prove him wrong. “
I did just that. By the end of the summer, I went on to produce a research project that later led to published work, and an award from the American Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), and two other “hopeless” students, (one from East LA and the other from Columbia) and I went on to become an optometrist, a Cancer Researcher, and a Psychiatric Researcher respectfully.
Throughout my academic career the act of building community with others, searching for allies, resources and opportunities was key to my success. The building of those friendships, and supporting each other was the only way the three of us could were strong enough to face the implicit racism of a known expert. As a gay scientist of color my successes are not just academic, but also in the communities I build so that others succeed.
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