This week’s blog post for my Black History Month mini-series is from Divya M. Persaud, a PhD student in Mars imaging. She is providing her American perspective in diversity in space science. Do remember to hop on over to her blog site and Twitter: @Divya_M_P
As a child first learning about science, it bothered me endlessly that there was an infinite void we could never touch. But something about planets, being so similar to Earth—in being material, in being colorful and spherical and relatively close—absolutely enchanted me as much as they were terrifying. For me, the discomfort with the scale of the Universe now often gives way to this sense that space belongs to absolutely no one—and thus knowledge of it belongs to all of us.
I started using the hashtag “#spaceWOC” in 2014 with colleague and friend Katy Wimberly (https://mkrodriguezwimberly.github.io/) as a way to celebrate being a woman of color in the space sciences. I find this celebration important; I have worked alongside a total of three women of color researchers in space science and exploration in the past eight years (not including a very small handful of interns), and have studied under no women of color geology professors. I am often the “diverse” face of an entire department or even institute, in both geology and space science, a reality that places certain responsibilities and burdens—unspoken (and unpaid) champion of diversity; silent and compliant witness of blatant racism, ableism, and misogyny, which is common in the physical sciences—on me, including when I was underage during my first two years in the field. The network of “spaceWOC” and women of color geologists I now have exists almost entirely via social media.
In both the earth and space sciences, we often talk about a “leaky pipeline” contributing to a lack of diversity in the field. But when our conferences, fieldwork, and classrooms are extremely inaccessible (physically, racially, financially), including due to directed harassment that we often feel that we cannot effectively report while maintaining safety, this isn’t a process of “leaking,” purely “unconscious bias,” or even a lack of diversity. The paucity of women of color (et al.) in any academic field lies in active exclusion of certain people from accessing knowledge about the world to which we belong. We actively eliminate the critical, creative perspectives of many—including Indigenous knowledges, analytical methods developed by disabled people, etc. However, importantly, beyond the framework of what labor minorities bring to the field, we also reify broader societal structures in places of learning, where we might expect (and certainly proudly claim) to think beyond discrimination. These claims in particular—even the most earnest—are often empty promises as those of us who remain slowly watch our friends leave our fields due to burn-out, heartbreak, and self-preservation. The question often becomes: is this worth it?
I—we—can have as much historical materialist analysis about why this is the state of academe as we’d like, but what can I do immediately to distribute this knowledge? In what way can I decolonize geology and space science—in our labs, out in the field, and in our practice—and serve my belief that space belongs to everyone? Critically, how can we study something so immense, the infinite rendering of our will and imagination, the ultimate test of human violence and power as well as hope and innovation, without most of us feeling incensed to deliver all of this knowledge to the entire population of this Earth? To, at the very least, interrogate academic hierarchy? And how can what we study color the ways we understand, e.g., the recruitment of international students (like myself) at British institutions of higher education relative to the dearth of British BAME Ph.D. candidates in the sciences?
Sagan discussed how knowledge only augments wonder; the fights I’ve had to stay in this field have similarly only increased my wonder, because there’s something all the more imperative about pursuing this knowledge when you have to consistently demand to study it. In 2018, I’m still telling myself it’s worth it. I have found incredible community on both sides of the Atlantic, in planetary science, astrophysics, geology, and ecology; I have my champions in my friends, family, and myself. But because I find it worth it, I’m making it my job not to make others feel like staying in space science and geology is worth it, but making these fields worth it. This work won’t finish with me, and that’s something with which I must contend. But I can try my hardest.
As we look in the face of something so mysterious and beyond human scale, something entrenched in probably millions of imaginations, remember that we have no claim to space, and that we belong to it. Our imaginations beget reality and we are able to investigate and admire this little solar system that is everyone’s to understand—and make it better.
If you missed the first part of this mini-series, it was me talking about my viewpoints on diversity in UK earth science: Curating the ‘Minorities in STEM’ account: Part 4.