Black Girl Magic in Science

Within the context of teaching a course at the undergraduate level geared towards STEM in Social Context for pre-service teachers, I engage students in work explicitly addressing equity and diversity in Science. During early class sessions, I ask students to draw a picture of a scientist or STEM professional.  After repeating this exercise semester after semester, I’m still shocked at the number of sketches I receive that resemble white men.

Black Girl Magic in Science in Relationship to

Black Lives Matter

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Examining the lives and experiences of Black women in science connects explicitly to the Black Lives Matter tenets addressing, diversity and Black women. The visual and verbal discourse of STEM is white and masculine and has been for quite some time.  While there have been multiple efforts on behalf of governmental agencies to increase both racial and gender diversity within the context of STEM, Black women remain minimally represented.  At the same time, while addressing the attainment of PhDs in graduate STEM programs, Black scholars only account for 4% of recipients of such degrees. While Black women are represented in the field of science as students, doctors, professors and more, their representation is low compared to their Black male counterparts and other racial groups.

Black Girl Magic (Reality) in Science

Roby in the LabWhile more research is needed to define the “unique barriers” Black women face in STEM-related fields at multiple levels, targeting the access of Black girls and women in STEM ultimately benefits everyone. During the context of the semester, I engaged with a Black woman physicist regarding her experiences, as a student as well as a professor as a means to learn more about such barriers.  As a former scientist now engaging in work which qualitatively assesses science and participants of the field, I’m aware that a position I once occupied as an insider is no longer the same. As such, through this task, I intentionally center my participant’s voice and use her actual words to speak to her experience.

…having a PhD and being a woman of color is a rare thing, obviously. It gives me a different perspective on the challenges that most of my students will think about. Whether I’m mentoring students in the lab or in the classroom, because I think I’ve experienced a lot more obstacles…I’m always willing to share my story unlike some of my colleagues as a lone Black person, lone woman in the room at conferences…It’s a different way that students approach you so I have to always carry myself in a way such that reinforce I have a PhD to my students…You always have to  reinforce that in a classroom that I have a PhD…

Here, the speaker shares of her intersectional experiences as a Black woman physicist and efforts she takes as a means of such.  For her, while she has had a unique set of challenges and obstacles, she creates a space to speak from to serve as a mentor for others. However, it is also obvious that she is mindful of the space in which she occupies, by mentioning not only how she must appear a certain way, but also addressing the feelings and awareness of being the only one. Thus, the magic she engages in as a Black physicist is more so her reality.

Why Black Women Matter in Science

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 If you think about in the history of scientific discoveries, particularly in the US, Black women have been at the bottom of the totem pole…What it means in terms of Black women mattering in science, I think they have a lot to give. History has showed us that a lot Black women have contributed to very important missions. I mean, Catherine Johnson…She contributed to calculating the trajectory for the Apollo mission, for those astronauts to make it back to earth. I think it’s those contributions are overlooked…We should be documenting our stories.

My participant is directly aware of the ways in which Black women in science have been overlooked and the loss as a result.  While she is mindful of how much Black women can give and already contributed to science, she is also aware of the ways in which the past contributions have not always been acknowledged. By naming a Black woman who has contributed to the field, but is not always honored for such brilliance, she further asserts the importance of the documentation and sharing of the stories of Black women in science. The varied experiences and perspectives shared by Black women scientist provide rich, nuanced ideas which essentially benefit all participants.

Such stories matter as they provide students with the opportunity to see themselves within the context of their learning. In addition, it is through this type of acknowledgment that lovers of science can fully assess the field of science and critique its history.  By engaging in a project that bridges disciplines in order to address a problem including, but not limited to, Black women’s mis-representation, Black women’s obliteration, and Black women’s exploitation in the sciences, this work challenges the ways in  which researchers consider Black women’s role in science. This project is one of many that speaks explicitly to my desire to reimagine a science that honors the contributions of Black Girl Magic.