As celebrated as it is to be the first black [fill in the blank], I have no interest in ever holding this title. It is 2018. Being black is wonderful. I love every day of it. However, as a college professor, I cringe when I have a student tell me I am his or her “first black science professor,” or even worse, his or her “first black professor.”
Last semester I sat in a bathroom stall collecting my thoughts as I stared pensively at a roll of one-ply toilet paper. A 20-something-year-old student told me I was his first black teacher in his life. His entire life. Not part of his life or the adult half of his life, but within his whole human existence a black teacher never graced his educational experience. He said he was so surprised to see me. He asked his mom (I kid you not) if he ever had a black teacher in elementary school. She said, based on where he went to school, no.
Let’s jump back to STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics) instructors. As an anatomy and physiology, biology and sometimes environmental science professor, black and brown folks can be limited. You may see us cleaning the labs, taking out the trash and spit-shining the whiteboards in the science classrooms, but it’s rare to see us holding the pointer and standing behind the podium. Don’t shoot the messenger, I just work here.
Some quick stats are as follows:
– According to PEW research, black persons and Hispanic/Latino persons make up over 25 percent of the U.S. population, but around 1 percent of STEM professionals
– PEW and other sources attribute the gap, not to black and brown kids' lack of interests in STEM, nor is it linked to deficiencies in intellectual aptitude, but to access to quality STEM programs and discriminatory hiring.
I can attest to some of this. I have always been curious about science. Always. For as long as I can remember, I loved science. My high school, however, could not afford (did not prioritize?) one microscope. My parents let me get science equipment, science textbooks, science VHS tapes and later DVDs for Christmas or my birthday. I was one of four other black students in my class campaigning for science equipment (and better instructors), but the B-word (budget) was always slapping us in the face.
To add, as recent as last year, I had a colleague tap me on my shoulder (yes, touch my body) while I was using a copier and ask, “Do you work here?” She also asked to “see my ID.” I’m clearly wearing business dress clothes and copying my exams, and you need ID to get in the building and office. She was white. I was polite and said I did work there, but didn't bother to give her ID. It is already blatantly obvious in meetings when you are the only black person, but to have a “colleague” (more like a trifling … let me stop) put her hands on you and question your existence is a lot for a work day.
In conclusion, I’m over being the “first black” or “only black” or “token black.” I just want to do my job, serve my students and my community. I want to pursue my passions and be great. I want to be challenged by my subject matters and my interests, not by my gender or color of my skin. In essence, I suppose I want too much.