Note: I’m changing it up a little bit, and writing about some non-sciencey stuff: race and tokenism in America. I was inspired by a marvelous piece I read recently about astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. It made me think about my own experiences as a minority in science and engineering, the obligation I feel to my culture and the internal conflicts it can engender, and how I’ve learned to switch seamlessly in and out of those worlds. So without further intro, the essay is below. -L
THE CURIOUS CONUNDRUM OF THE CODE-SWITCHING TOKENIZED TEACHER
A student raises her hand in a political science lecture, and confidently proclaims: “If people are to be treated equally under the law, then policies that single out minorities for special advantages are not only unfair and unnecessary, but are unconstitutional. President Obama is evidence that class is what determines your success in America, not race.”
People of color who have attended elite academic institutions might be able to identify with the following, oft reflexed, 3-step stream of consciousness:
Step 1: Jaw drops reactively in forming of the classic “WTF?” face.
Step 2: Calm down. Quickly straighten out the “WTF?” face, and try to appear nonplussed.
Step 3: Decision point:
a) Sit quietly and allow this person—and whomever in this room of 150 students agrees with her—to graduate from here actually believing this, be elected into Congress (because at this school, it really is a possibility), and then pass laws that curtail civil rights legislation, all while disappointing my ancestors who would have given anything for such a teaching moment on inequality and social justice, or
b) Take on the responsibility yet again, as the lone voice of color, to explain the “minority perspective,” subject myself to repeated Q&A, speak on behalf of every Black, Hispanic, and Native American kid who knows for certain that this country is in no way post-racial, deal with the fallout of receiving emails from classmates wanting to discuss it further a.k.a. try to prove me wrong and deny my experience, and risk now being forever marginalized at the resident thought leader on the Black experience even though my field of study is Science and Technology Policy.
No, this is not an exaggeration. And as you can probably imagine, this thought process – although it occurs in the mere blink of an eye – is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting. And it seems that the more I find myself within elite academic, business, and social arenas where minority perspectives are vastly underrepresented, the more I find myself facing the Curious Conundrum of the Code-Switching Token Teacher.
Allow me to unpack that a little bit.
Go. Read this article. Right now.