Like many Black girls in the ‘90s, I grew up watching Serena and Venus Williams play tennis on my television and got the William sisters’ Barbie dolls for Christmas. So, when Serena Williams made headlines last year not only for tennis performance but for her pregnancy complications, catsuit snafu, and rebellious tutu, I took notice.
Black women are three times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women. In the state of Alabama, where I live, that number increases to five. In an NPR interview, Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, the president and dean of Morehouse College School of Medicine, attributed the disparities to the racial and gendered stresses of being a Black woman in America. While listening to the interview, my mind instantly drew a connection between Dr. Rice’s conclusions and the lyrics in the album I had been listening to for weeks.
When I started working on this piece, Grammy-nominated Rapsody released her latest project, Eve. I am always eagerly supporting my fellow Black North Carolinians, so I gave it a listen. The album, full of jubilation as well as pain and struggle, is an ode to powerful, successful Black women throughout history. In my view, the album is a true representation of Black womanhood. However, what stood out to me the most were the poetic words in track 11, Reyna’s Interlude: “to bear baby after baby, praying this time maybe, they’ll be birth into safety, ideally, a place where someone can love them.” The lyrics represent the stresses that Dr. Rice explains Black women carry into their pregnancies.
As a Black woman, Rapsody’s words and Serena’s story are personal. As a chemist who knows how much money is spent on research and development, the maternal mortality rates of Black women trouble me. So I am asking us, as members of the STEM community, why do we continue to fail Black women? I am urging the STEM community to get off the wall and aid in the fight for Black women’s lives. Whether in your local communities or on a national scale, we cannot sit back and let Black women die.
Whether in your local communities or on a national scale, we cannot sit back and let Black women die.
I am not asking everyone to research Black women. Historical and contemporary exploitation of Black women’s bodies illustrate how that can be problematic. Instead, I am pushing the STEM community to invest in Black women by advocating for policies that support, promote, and fund their intellectual pursuits.
When I was working on my master’s degree in chemistry, finding a research topic that appealed to my interest was a major challenge. After spending all day in the lab, I would spend half the night searching for ways to make my project more social justice-oriented and still fit within the parameters outlined by my academic program. A lot of folks would tell me to “just stick it out” — that when you graduate you can study what you want. But was that really true? When I perused through lists of funded projects, it was very obvious which topics received the most funding, and the number of grants awarded to Black women was low. Ultimately, my complicated relationship with my research topic inspired me to leave chemistry, but those experiences will forever shape my political identity.
When I perused through lists of funded projects, it was very obvious which topics received the most funding, and the number of grants awarded to Black women was low.
With the amount of money we spend on scientific research, there needs to be more stake in improving the quality of Black women’s lives. For a primary example of how to invest in Black women in STEM, let’s revisit Serena William’s story. This past April, Serena Williams’ investment firm, SerenaVentures, invested in the tech start-up Mahmee. Melissa Hanna, the CEO of Mahmee and a Black woman with mixed heritage, started the app in 2014 to “save new mom’s lives.” While Mahmee creates a space for all women, I am excited to see how the app improves outcomes for Black women, who are often afraid to speak up or are ignored by their healthcare providers. We need more smart investments like this one. There is a long-standing idea in science that your identity and your work are separate. But they’re not. So, who better to lead the charge against issues that plague Black women than Black women in STEM?
The STEM community must also step back and reevaluate its citation practices. The #CiteBlackWomen campaign began in November 2017, when Dr. Christen A. Smith’s work was co-opted by a colleague at a conference, in turn, silencing her intellectual contributions. Still today, the campaign pushes the community to engage in radical citation practices and critically reevaluate their everyday citation practices. Although I have seen #CiteBlackWomen rise in education, the movement has yet to catch on in STEM. This is critical; as engineer Regan Patterson puts it: “Since publication and citation are the institutional metrics of legitimate scientific research, the practice of citing black women is critical for our collective survival in white-dominated, hostile, engineering academic spaces.” So, I pose to the STEM community the same questions as Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinsten tweeted on November 8, 2018: “What would a #CiteBlackWomen in STEM look like? How might it shift STEM?” Citations are inherently political, and we need to answer the call.
Citations are inherently political, and we need to answer the call.
Beyond citations, we must vote. Vote for candidates that not only support policies that improve the quality of Black women’s lives but consult Black women-led research committees. Because beyond electing well-intentioned representatives, we must think about who lobbies and represents STEM in the public. So within your professional organizations, vote for social-justice oriented representatives that will push for policies that support Black women’s lives, vote for Black women to be placed in leadership roles on research committees and governmental agencies, and most importantly, give Black women STEM experts the space to speak about their research.
Within your professional organizations, vote for social-justice oriented representatives that will push for policies that support Black women’s lives, vote for Black women to be placed in leadership roles on research committees and governmental agencies, and most importantly, give Black women STEM experts the space to speak about their research.
All in all, I am asking the STEM community for inclusion. However, inclusion isn’t just having more Black women in STEM or plastering photos of Black women pipetting on your websites. Inclusion is investment — investment in Black women’s scientific pursuits and dreams. Inclusion is citing Black women — a radical practice that creates a future where Black women are permitted to conduct research on topics of interest to them and their work is valued. Inclusion is policies — policies that expand scientific funding for Black women so their laboratories are fully functional. These aspects of inclusion are essential because they not only propel Black women’s futures but also propel humanity.
Science Rising is a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Anyone can participate in Science Rising. Learn more at www.ScienceRising.org.