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Where are all the Black astronomers and physicists? Racism, isolation keeping many away

While Canada produces many talented astronomers, astrophysicists and physicists, few of them are Black. The question is: Why? 

Being Black in STEM means isolation, discrimination and a shortage of mentors.

Canadian astrophysicist Louise Edwards is used to answering some of the universe’s toughest questions. But at the moment she’s trying to answer this one: How many Canadian Black astronomers does she know?

Edwards, an associate professor in California Polytechnic State University’s physics department, is on a Zoom call with CBC while sitting in a friend’s brightly lit shed near her home in Berkeley, Calif.

Mulling the question, she turns her head to the right, facing white wood-panelled walls. She’s thinking hard.

“Ummm,” she says, looking off into the distance. “There are definitely a few new grad students that I know of.”

She pauses and smiles. “I know some physicists. And some education astronomy folks.”

It’s clear she’s struggling.

“Yeah, there’s very few,” Edwards finally says. “I don’t know if there’s any other folks who are currently working not as students [but] as astronomers who are Canadian. I don’t know. I would imagine I would know them.”

Canada has some of the world’s most talented astronomers, astrophysicists and physicists. There’s Victoria Kaspi, whose work on pulsars and neutron stars earned her the Gerhard Herzberg Canada gold medal for science and engineering; Sara Seager, a world-renowned astronomer and planetary scientist at MIT who earned a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013 and is a leader in exoplanet research; and James Peebles, who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in physics.

One thing they have in common? They’re all white.

Black astronomers are few and far between in North America, but especially in Canada. Inside the community, members share stories of discrimination, micro-aggressions and feelings of isolation, which can ultimately dissuade others from pursuing careers in the sciences.

#BlackinAstro

Monday marked the beginning of Black in Astro Week, which was created in June 2020 by Ashley Walker, a Black astrochemist from Chicago. Its goal? To use social media and hashtags to elevate the voices of Black scientists working in various astronomical fields.

The annual event was born from an incident in May 2020 in New York’s Central Park. Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, asked a woman — who was white — to leash her dog. Instead, she called police, falsely accusing Cooper of harassing her. It was the same day George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.

Soon after the Central Park incident, a social media movement started on Twitter with #Blackbirders. The goal was to increase recognition of Black people who like birding and to call attention to the harassment they often receive. Soon, a broader movement began with #BlackinX, where Black scientists from other fields were similarly elevated.

Last week, Walker co-authored an article in the journal Nature Astronomy entitled, “The representation of Blackness in astronomy.”

A similar article was published in Wired magazine on June 7 entitled, “The unwritten laws of physics for Black women,” which examined the experience of Black women in physics academia.

The thread that weaves through these scientists’ stories is one of isolation. They struggle with being the only Black person in a given program or classroom; their ideas aren’t valued; and there are no — or few — Black mentors.

According to the American Physical Society, Black people make up roughly 15 per cent of the U.S. population aged 20-24, but only about three per cent of those who receive a bachelor’s degree in physics. When it comes to PhDs, that number falls to little more than two per cent.

In Canada, the ratio is similar.

Kevin Hewitt, a professor in the department of physics and atmospheric science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, led a survey for the Canadian Association of Physicists (which includes those in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics) in 2020. It found only one per cent of respondents aged 18-34 identified as Black. In the broader Canadian population, six per cent of people 18-34 identify as Black.

“Black Canadian physicists, we’re quite a small number,” said Hewitt. “I know personally about 10 others, including students and faculty.”

High school challenges

Hewitt is active in bringing STEM to Black youth. He co-founded Imhotep’s Legacy Academy, a STEM outreach program in Nova Scotia for Black students. His programs include the Young, Gifted and Black Future Physicists Initiative, a summer camp at Dalhousie.

Why are there so few Black Canadian scientists in general, but in particular, those who seek out a career in astronomical science?

One of the problems may be found in the education system.

Take the province of Ontario, for example. Until recently, high schools there had a “streaming” program, which directed students into different post-secondary routes. “Academic” courses were more challenging and required for university; “applied” courses prepared students for college and trades; and “essentials” provided support for students in meeting the requirements to graduate.

In 2017, a report led by Carl James, a professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto, found that only 53 per cent of Black students in the Toronto District School Board were put in academic programs, compared to 81 per cent of white students and 80 per cent of other racialized students.

Conversely, 39 per cent of Black students were enrolled in applied programs, compared to 16 per cent of white students and 18 per cent of other racialized students.

“What we found in that study was many of the [Black] parents were talking about how their children were streamed into vocational or essential or low-level courses,” James said. Some parents would try to “intervene,” he said, but their concerns fell on deaf ears.

A need for early support

James says another aspect is that some cultural groups tend to want their children to go into particular high-end professions, such as law or medicine. If a child expresses a desire to pursue a program of study outside of what their parents want or know, they may not be supported.

“[Parents] might know a teacher, they might know lawyers, but they might not know much about engineers. They might not know much about science,” James said. “The question for some parents might be, how do I support my child in those areas if [I’m not familiar] with it?”

Hakeem Oluseyi, an astrophysicist and STEM educator in the U.S. who is prolific in the astronomical community, believes that science literacy and an interest in science begins at home.

“The point I always make is you can’t educate the kids without educating the adults,” he said. And parents who go so far as to teach their children math and science at home have an even greater advantage.

But James doesn’t think that’s enough.

“We just can’t look at the why, and what we should be doing as only the parents — because I, as a parent, could do everything possible,” he said. Even so, he acknowledged many Black kids don’t make it in science because “somebody … did not enable and support them.”

A lack of Black mentors

That’s a big part of the problem. A report by the U.S. Education Advisory Board (EAS) found that 40 per cent of Black students drop out of STEM-related programs across the country. While there’s no definitive reason, the study suggested it could be related to discrimination within academia and that recurring sense of isolation. (Although there is some data on race in Canadian universities, there is no equivalent data on those who leave STEM-related studies.)

This doesn’t surprise James.

“You can have the skills and ability. But at the same time, once you’re in that position, you’re undermined in every way possible,” James said. “How long are you going to live in that situation?”

Margaret Ikape, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, says she’s largely had a positive experience in her field. But, she too, has a sense of being alone in her community.

“You feel that you’re breaking new ground,” said Ikape, who originally hails from Nigeria. “You don’t see anybody like you that has done it before you, and so it’s really scary.”

She wishes there were more mentors. “Sometimes I feel like I would rather speak to someone that would probably understand where I’m coming from.”

The fact that there is discrimination — implicit or explicit — or even a feeling of alienation shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Oluseyi.

“You know, there’s this standard framing of, ‘Oh, [astrophysics is] so racist,’ and yadda, yadda, yadda. And I’m gonna make the claim that of course it is, because we’re embedded in a society,” he said. “And that bigger society definitely comes into our field, and who we are in our field is a subset of society.”

Back in sunny California, Edwards reflects on her own experience, saying she was fortunate in some ways. Growing up in Victoria, B.C., a very white city, she had already dealt with a sense of isolation, so it wasn’t anything new to her once she got into astrophysics. But she admits it took her some time to meet another Black astrophysicist.

Edwards says Black in Astro Week is a good way to elevate Black voices and show Black children that not only are there Black astronomers and physicists, there is a place for them in science.

Edwards expressed gratitude to Black in Astro Week founder Ashley Walker, as well as the Vanguard STEM, a similar initiative. “[It] gives wonderful space to a variety of physicists and scientists and astronomers so that different folks can see that, you know, they don’t have to fit one particular mould in order to do it.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at Nicole.Mortillaro@cbc.ca.

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