By: Guyton Harvey
I still vividly remember the day I chose to not pursue a career in science. It may, however, be more accurate to say that decision was made for me.
Sometime in April of 2015, my sophomore year in high school, I sat down with my Algebra II teacher to discuss my performance in his class and my future course trajectory in the math department at my high school. Throughout the year, I had put a lot of, albeit at times unconcentrated, time and effort into getting through his course, but I had struggled the whole time to wrap my head around concepts like trigonometric identities and matrices. Despite my clear aptitude, evidenced by my high scores on the PSAT and the SAT, my grades in the course were just ok. It is at this point in the story that I should probably reveal to you that I am a Black man and at the time, I was a student at an elite majority-white prep school in Washington, DC. Throughout my matriculation through the school, I had a reputation of being a soft-spoken kid who only meant well and seemingly ‘didn’t know any better.’ I was involved in a number of musical performance groups, was a heavily recruited two sport athlete, and a leader in the school’s newspaper. While I was ambitious, I sometimes struggled to focus on or commit to one thing at a time and I certainly was never known as a self-advocate. So, when he asked me what class I thought I should take my junior year, it was not necessarily out of malicious intent nor was it unexpected when my teacher, a white man, blindly and emphatically agreed with my opinion that I should take the “alternative” math course at our school instead of the notorious precalculus course. However, seeing as he was an educator in one of the, traditionally, most predominantly Black cities in the country, I would have expected him to provide a little more pushback. In our conversation, he cited some of my poor performances not only in his class but in my other STEM courses and paired that with a mention of my extra-curricular activities and effectively said that, at that point, math was clearly not a priority of mine and that it would likely not be a part of my career going forward. In his mind, with college applications at the center of all of this, I needed to make the decision then and there on whether or not I would challenge myself with math or just give up on STEM being a part of my application narrative. To his defence, he was only reiterating the oft unspoken results-oriented culture of the school and almost certainly thought he was speaking in my best interests. But given my ignorance and respect for the opinions of authority figures, I found myself agreeing with him. Thus, I was convinced that I could not succeed in a STEM career and tailored the next two years of my life accordingly. As a naive highschooler, I perceived what my teacher told me as “you are bad at math and should not pursue a career in which you would use it,” and I had few people at my side to challenge that notion.
What I was not mature enough to have considered on my own, which makes this a true travesty, was why I hadn’t succeeded in my STEM courses up until that point.
At no point in my seven years of science and math courses at my school had I been taught by a Black person. Likewise, the school only employed one STEM teacher of color who taught honors chemistry and upper-level physics courses, which I was discouraged from taking. So year after year I was met with the same type of person struggling, and at times not even attempting, to relate with me both inside and outside of the classroom. And in those classes we’d watch and learn about the same voices all the time. Even the pop scientists that we watched were white– we spent hours watching Bill Nye and David Attenborough and not once did we watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Danielle N. Lee. By not relating to me, they failed to communicate two very important things to me: science is crucial to the growth and preservation of our society and Black people can be and are frequently significant contributors to the field. For a long time, I agreed that science was not for me and that I had no business reading publications from scientific journals and keeping up-to-date with science news. Despite my mother being a doctor, my daily experiences with science told me that being Black and being in science were mutually exclusive.
I eventually was inspired to consider how science impacts our lives two years later, when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a disease which has puzzled scientists for over a hundred years and disproportionately affects the Black community. When I got to Morehouse, a historically Black college (HBCU), my Black professors successfully cultivated this interest in science by effectively communicating that science is important and that I can do it. And not just do it; I could do it well. They did not stop there either; they told me I should pursue science. A pivotal moment in my scientific journey was when I participated in Morehouse’s Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program (MSEIP), where I was taught mainly by Black professors specifically how science and bias in research affect the Black community. In that program we engaged in two week long research projects which were tailored to our interests but had a larger societal focus to them (my project was to design and engineer modern electric versions of traditional African instruments in order to introduce them to a more American audience). They related to me in a way that no one prior had ever done and they reinforced my self-image along the way.
At Morehouse, I have seen a lot of success in science, participating in important transformative research projects, achieving high grades in my STEM courses, and, yes, doing well in math. Taking that alternative course instead of precalculus, however, undoubtedly set me back and gave me a fair amount of catching up to do in college.
This issue of relating to one’s audience is a theme which is prevalent throughout the scientific community and genuinely precludes us from making substantive social and scientific progress. We often get so caught up in our passion for science that we forget that not everyone is having their individual scientific identities reinforced by society, whether that be in popular culture or in the greater scientific community– I can name countless science-fiction movies with a white protagonist and only a handful with a person of color at the lead and the same can be said for who runs the research labs with the most funding. By failing to acknowledge this, we do a disservice to the general public and only perpetuate the disparities that have long impacted minority communities to this day. We must reach out to those communities which are not always represented or involved in conversations in science by communicating to them that their participation in science does not only have a positive impact on society and the institution of science itself, but is crucial to their existences altogether.
Otherwise, we’ll end up with millions of capable young Black boys thinking they simply can’t do math.