News & Analysis Physics World  November 2020

Celebrating Black physicists

Charles Brown, Eileen Gonzales and Xandria Quichocho talk to Michael Banks about the barriers facing Black physicists and how #BlackInPhysics week aimed to boost their visibility

Leading the way From left to right: Charles Brown from the University of California, Berkeley, Eileen Gonzales from the Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell University, and Xandria Quichocho from Michigan State University were part of a team of 12 who organized #BlackInPhysics week last month.

#BlackInPhysics week ran from 25 to 31 October. What were its aims?

Charles Brown (CB): #BlackInPhysics week was dedicated to celebrating the contributions that Black physicists make to science and to reveal a more inclusive picture of what a physicist looks like. The aim of the week was to strengthen intra- and inter-generational connections between Black physicists, encourage long-lasting collaborations and further push for supportive environments where current and future Black physicists everywhere can thrive.

How did the idea come about?

Xandria Quichocho (XQ): There were 12 organizers for #BlackInPhysics week and it has been a team effort. The organizing team was inspired by initiatives such as Black Birders Week, #BlackinAstro and #BlackintheIvory, which gave voice to the aggressions, racism and sexism faced by Black academics across the world. Each of these movements lit the kindling that is growing into a larger fire that is saying “I am Black, I am a scientist and my life matters.” We are all living in the middle of a global revolution that is shouting and telling the world that Black Lives Matter. As people who identify as Black, we have been told time and time again to be neutral and objective in our professional workplaces and places of study. But as the news is saturated with the constant injustices and brutality that are happening to Black, Indigenous and people of colour, it is impossible to pretend that we can go into our classrooms, into our labs and ignore what is going in the outside world. For us, it is not just the “outside” – it is our everyday lives.

What inspired you to organize #BlackinPhysics?

Eileen Gonzales (EG): I wanted to be part of something that focused on connecting members of our community, especially helping to link students who may be the only Black physicist at their institution. We wanted to focus on all aspects of being Black in physics and not just our science. We found there is a lack of these things being addressed specifically for Black physicists in our community. It is either you focus on being Black in physics and showcase the science, or you focus on a workshop targeting, say, impostor syndrome, but it will lack the perspective of a Black person. We wanted to provide a space for conversations such as what it is like to deal with impostor syndrome, mental health and advocating for yourself – all through the lens of a Black physicist.

What are the most pressing barriers facing Black physicists?

XQ: “Representation, representation, representation!” is a phrase we’ve all been hearing recently. It is talked about regarding movie casting, television programmes, in board rooms and even children’s programming. A lack of representation for Black, Indigenous and people of colour isn’t just a problem in popular media; it is an issue that persists and exists in physics departments and labs. According to data collected by the American Physical Society, from 2006 to 2016 only 4% of BSc physics degrees were earned by students who self-identified as Black or African American. Unfortunately, this number does not include students who identified as Black mixed-race, more than one race including Black, or Afro-Latinx and Afro-Indigenous.

Are the barriers simply a problem with under-representation?

XQ: It’s just the beginning of the problem. Academia itself is a barrier to Black physicists. Traditional STEM programmes operate under the flawed myth of the meritocracy– and completely ignore the biases, racism and sexism that Black, Indigenous and people of colour combat every day. The structures in academia and in physics intentionally bar Black students from gaining access to the field or remaining in it once they have broken the glass ceiling. For example, about 1800 physics PhDs were awarded in the US in 2017 alone but this year will see only the 100th Black American woman ever to achieve that feat. However, there has been a shift in these past few months to change this. Universities, national labs and individuals that took part in #ShutDownSTEM and the #Strike4BlackLives over the summer made the first steps towards creating a more equitable physics field. The American Institute of Physics recently published its extensive and detailed TEAM-UP Report that not only highlights the barriers for Black students in physics but includes real, long-lasting strategies that departments can take to create a safer environment for Black students to thrive in.

We want to see younger Black physicists discovering their unknown peers and we want them to interact with, and be inspired by, more senior Black physicists

What events happened during #BlackInPhysics week?

EG: We ran both professional and social events targeted at Black physics students, postdocs, faculty, industry and the general public. There were panel discussions aimed at specific career stages such as dealing with impostor syndrome and mental health as well as a three-minute thesis competition for PhD students to showcase their work. We also hosted six days of social events including an “ask-a-scientist” session for the general public to engage in conversations with Black physicists, a special Halloween Murder Mystery, as well as other events that provided a place for the community to network, relax and socialize. Each day also featured an article by a Black physicist regarding different aspects of our identities [published jointly on the Physics World and Physics Today websites].

What were the reasons for splitting up the week into different areas of physics?

CB: Dedicating an entire day to a single area not only allowed physicists within that area to learn about each other and form a community, but also to create a community with varied research interests, which is often a recipe for innovation and breakthrough. Now, if someone wants to learn about the work of Black atomic physicists, they can simply search the hashtag #BlackinAMO on Twitter. Splitting the week by area had the added benefit of helping employers identify and potentially hire for positions. It also allowed us to clearly demonstrate the excellent and wide-ranging work that Black physicists do in their respective areas of physics.

How will you know that the week has been a success or had an impact longer term?

CB: We will judge the success by how effective it has been to build an engaged community of Black physicists. It is crucial for our success that this work is done in a way that honours Black physicists’ rich set of identities. Black people are not a monolith, and so neither are Black physicists. We are men, women, non-binary, LGBTQ+, disabled, and in these identities we all enrich the physics discipline. We want to see younger Black physicists discovering their unknown peers and near-peers and we want them to interact with, and be inspired by, more senior Black physicists. We want senior physicists to learn about the young and talented Black physicists for whom they cleared the path. We want Black physicists of all ranks to learn and hone important skills and tools to help them flourish. And, importantly, we wanted Black physicists spanning different generations to socialize and have fun with each other at the week’s social events. We also want as many non-scientists and non-physicists to interact with as many Black physicists as possible.

What about benefits to the public?

CB: #BlackinPhysics week offered the unique opportunity for the public to engage each other in a way that is atypical, yet beneficial and empowering for all parties involved. For example, the public engaged with physics content on social media and had the ability to speak directly to, and learn from, physicists, thereby increasing scientific literacy. Physicists also had myriad opportunities to practise presenting their research in concise yet engaging ways to physicists and non-physicists alike.

Will you keep the initiative going?

EG: Yes, it will continue. Part of our mission is to strengthen intergenerational connections between physicists. We hope to encourage the connections made during #BlackInPhysics week and to build new links through our website and on Twitter with additional future events. A longer-term goal we have is to create a database of all Black physicists that can be used for job hiring, presentation invitations and so on.

Do you think the initiative could be mirrored in other countries?

XQ: #BlackInPhysics is a growing international collaboration. The 12 individuals in the organizing team have nationalities and histories that span the globe. One of the amazing things about living in this age of social media is that we can extend the invitation to this event to a global audience. We aren’t using the hashtag, “US Black physicists” or “Black physicists in America” for a reason. #BlackInPhysics is meant for the people of the African diaspora, for immigrants, for Black and African physicists across the world to connect with each other, to build connections and communities across oceans. #BlackInPhysics week is part of a global movement of Black scientists coming together to say, “We are here!”