#BlackinChem part 2: Personal experiences and allyship
Chemists Devin Swiner, Ayanna Jones, and Ashley Walker are the minds behind #BlackinChem, the hashtag that exists to raise the profiles of Black chemists and their work, and enables them to connect with one another.
This year they ran #BlackinChem week, which ran from 10–15 August. We caught up with them about the outcomes of the week, their experiences as Black women in chemistry, and their advice for others.
What are your experiences of being specifically a Black woman in chemistry?
Ayanna Jones: We don’t tend to get that question but I think that we should talk about it more. Personally I've noticed that it seems like Black women tend to encounter different prejudices in regards to how we are socialized – there’s an added layer of judgment. We’re policed in different ways and there’s this historical way that we are angrier.
I do think that Black women face a unique challenge – going against sexism as well as racism – and I think that that should be discussed more.
Devin Swiner: I’ve got some stories! To give some examples, if I say something in a meeting or at a conference, people always check my credentials. Are you checking my credentials because I’m a woman? Because I’m Black? Is it a combination of the two?
There’s a sense that people don't believe Black women when we say things - it's terrible in academia.
And we can't have a bad day, because we have these stereotypes. I vividly remember being completely overwhelmed that I felt like having a meltdown in front of one of my White male labmates and I had to stop myself. He said "what's wrong?" and I said, "I can't do this right now because I know if I freak out then this is going to turn into a thing".
I have to be "resilient". I hate using that word for Black women because we should not always have to be resilient. People expect us to take on the world and then still be okay. But I’m not okay, and I don’t have an outlet to show people I’m not okay without being labelled an angry Black woman or overly emotional.
Ashley Walker: We’re also labelled as "strong". Our experiences as Black women are romanticized, in terms of how we had to struggle to get where we are.
Something that I personally faced is the attitude: "If I struggled to do it, then you should too".
But that’s not always the case and as we go forward with #BlackinChem we want to make sure that it gets better for our younger scientists. We don’t want them to go through the equivalent of what we've been through.
So for me, seeing the idea of the strong Black woman who has to go through hoops and fire and daggers and police brutality – and then romanticizing our experiences, can be a bit traumatizing.
Ayanna: Firstly, I'm sure that all of the Black women here have experienced this, but sometimes I’ll be talking to people, just normally, and suddenly I’ll hear someone do a "blaccent", or someone using AAVE (African American Vernacular English). Black women are portrayed as a caricature, but not all of us fit into that mold.
Secondly, Black women are often seen as the help. I know lots of Black women who have been working in the lab and someone comes in and asks them to clean something up. And they have to say "I’m not the maid, that’s my experiment".
Ashley: AAVE is an amazing language, but I’ve seen people switch to AAVE or use a "blaccent" when they’re referring to a Black American woman, and it just feeds into stereotypes of Black people. It can actually be more harmful than helpful.
So changing how we see Black women in the workplace is really important.
Is there anything that you wish you'd get asked that people don’t ask you?
Ayanna: I wish I was asked more about my research. I love talking about #BlackinChem, but not only am I Black but I’m also a scientist, and the science that I do matters.
Often we can get pigeonholed into this idea that our trauma is the only thing that makes us marketable or it’s the only thing that we have to offer of value to the community, to change social aspects.
But we're also all doing research. So talking about that and giving space and opportunities to talk about our research and to publish our research and to collaborate is also very important.
What would you like to say to non-Black scientists about being allies and supporting their Black colleagues?
Devin: The most important thing that our allies can do is to actually show up. A lot of times we don't know who our allies are and that's not a good thing.
Identify yourself to the communities you are trying to serve, use your privilege in spaces where we don't have that privilege, and be very bold in your advocacy.
I am very outspoken but some Black students aren’t – and that’s where our allies are going to have to step up, and advocate every single time they see something that’s wrong.
Ayanna: For me, the time of talking about things has expired. We need to do something. What are the plans you are going to put on the table and say "let’s try this", instead of just talking about it?
I feel like there are so many forums and articles, which are great, but we really need to create action items now. It’s not just about bringing in Black students – that’s an accomplishment, but now how do we retain them? What resources are we putting in place to retain and graduate Black students within chemistry?
Ashley: There’s a whole thing about White saviourism. It’s okay to help but you have to know your boundaries, and know when to let Black students and faculty have the floor. Let Black people have the floor when they’re speaking, and don’t question their intentions or what they’re doing.
We also want to have more Black faculty and staff, because if students don’t see anyone who looks like them it’s very discouraging.
Devin: About letting Black people have the floor… it’s not about having Black people do the work for you. There are times when we get the floor because no-one else wants it, and that’s a problem. So as an ally you want to make sure you equip yourself with the knowledge as well, so you can advocate. You still can’t speak to my experience as a Black woman who’s a chemist – that’s a given – but at the same time you can’t put all of the work on us to help with recruitment and retention practices and so on.
About Devin, Ayanna and Ashley
Ayanna is co-founder of #BlackinChem, and a graduate student at Emory University. She studies the spatio-temporal chemistry and microbial interactions in the rhizosphere of plants – the zone around the roots of plants.
She carries out both experimental and computationaI research, and recently became a NASA intern with the NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in California. She’ll be creating a model that will contribute to carbon cycle research.
Devin is the founder of #BlackinChem. She is completing her PhD in mass spectrometry at Ohio State University. She develops new ionization sources for mass spectrometry using common materials.
She is currently using ordinary thread to do work in clinical diagnostics. She has worked on drug screening and is now working on disease biomarkers – using small molecules to identify the presence of conditions like obesity and cystic fibrosis.
Ashley has just graduated from Chicago State University and is in the process of applying to graduate school. She is the founder of #BlackinAstro, and cofounder of #BlackinChem and #BlackinPhysics. She studies planetary atmospheres, particularly that of Saturn’s moon Titan. She is studying stratospheric ice clouds of Titan, using IR spectroscopy to understand more about their chemistry.
The conversation continues under the hashtag #BlackinChem, which is becoming a thriving community. You can get involved by using the hashtag on Twitter.
#BlackinChem week will be held again next year. And the second week in August will officially be Black Chemists Week.
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