By Sikivu Hutchinson
Decked out in a white lab coat straight from central casting, the African American science teacher featured in Target’s latest “Back to School” commercial is a cartoonish reminder of the dearth of images of black scientists in American popular culture. Riffing about school supplies to the tune of Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science,” the teacher declares, “Parents, this year I’m going to teach your kids that magic does exist. It’s called science,” as he makes the rounds in a magical classroom filled with mostly white students. When youth of color see scientists in mainstream film, TV or advertising it’s usually the lone wolf, trailblazing bullet proof-Einstein white male (or the sexualized white female variant, typically buried behind thick attitude glasses ready to be whipped off before a sex scene) peering through a microscope with furrowed brow. Mainstream representation codes heroism, scientific discovery, scientific genius, and rationality as white. Recent media coverage of the Mars Curiosity rover’s ecstatic predominantly white Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) crew was yet another affirmation of this link.
As an aspiring oncologist enrolled at a South Los Angeles high school not far from JPL, college-bound twelfth grader Karly Jeter’s role model is African American surgeon Ben Carson. He is the only person of color in the medical science field that she looks up to. She says that this is partly because he “made it on his own” and partly because she doesn’t know of any other examples. Karly’s desire to be an oncologist stems from being a cancer survivor herself. She describes finding a cure for cancer as her biggest passion. On the other end of the college spectrum, planetary geologist Devin Waller has a Bachelor’s in Astrophysics from UCLA and a Master’s in Geoscience from Arizona State University. As a graduate student her concentration was in planetary remote sensing on Mars. At ASU she was also a research analyst for projects involving the predecessors to Curiosity. Although they are at two different stages in the science education pipeline, these young women both represent the challenges that confront African American women in science and technology.
In her book Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education, Sandra Hanson explodes the myth that black girls are somehow disinterested in science due to hyper-religiosity or “culture.” Hanson found that, despite significant institutional and societal barriers, there is greater interest in science among African American girls than in other student populations. She frames this seeming paradox in historical context, stressing that “Early ideologies about natural inequalities by race influenced the work of scientists and scholars as well as the treatment of minorities in the science domain. Racism is a key feature of science in the United States and elsewhere. This has a large impact on the potential for success among minority students. Early work on science as fair has not been supported.”
Hanson outlines some of the obstacles that confront budding African American women scientists from elementary school to the postgraduate level. Stereotypes about girls of color lacking proficiency in science, the absence of nurturing mentors, the dearth of education about people of color who have contributed to science research (i.e., culturally responsive science instruction), and academic isolation often deter youth who would like to pursue science careers. Science researcher Diann Jordan, author of Sisters in Science, notes that her study of black women scientists helped her combat the sense of isolation she felt in a field where she was often perceived as an interloper. Nonetheless, Jordan, Hanson, and other researchers have found that “African American girls in particular are very positive about science.” Stem cell scientist Valerie Johnson McCullar stresses that black girls begin with high interest in math and science in elementary school then begin to lose interest in quantitative subjects because “if there is not someone around you to constantly show you the beauty in certain things you get channeled in certain ways.” Hanson notes that black girls, as opposed to white girls, are actually more inclined to stay engaged with science throughout their K-12 careers. In elementary and middle school girls tend to outperform males in math and science. However the “trend tends to reverse itself in the white but not the African American communities as the young people enter high school.” Indeed, “African American girls have been found…to be in more advanced math classes, to get better science grades, and to participate more in science than their male counterparts.” But Hanson emphasizes that greater participation amongst African American girls does not necessarily translate into high achievement. Academic outcomes for students of color still lag behind their white counterparts. Indeed, the presumption of underachievement that dogs even the “best and brightest” science students underscores the depth of educational apartheid in the U.S.