Thursday, April 5, 2012

Guest Post: Nick Murphy on Why sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression must be considered together

This week's guest blogger is Nick Murphy. Nick Murphy is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. His research is on solar physics, including the role of magnetic reconnection in solar eruptions. He is active in several community groups in the Boston area that are working for gender equity and racial justice.

Why Sexism, Racism, and Other Forms of Oppression Must Be Considered Together

It is a long term historical trend that liberation movements tend to leave behind members of other marginalized groups. For example, as pointed out by authors such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde, the feminist movement through much of the last century focused on issues most relevant to white middle class women, and the Civil Rights movement did not sufficiently challenge sexism and patriarchy in the African American community. Both of these movements largely left behind women of color.

Intersectionality is the idea that different forms of oppression (such as sexism, racism, heterosexism, and transphobia) are interconnected and thus cannot be considered in isolation. The racism experienced by men of color differs from that experienced by women of color, and the way sexism plays itself out depends strongly on many other identities such as sexual orientation. Intersectionality is a powerful concept because it can help our community avoid excluding people who are members of multiple marginalized groups.

To make progress, we in the astronomical community must work to understand the ways that different forms of oppression intersect with each other, and how members of our community who are not traditionally represented by the CSWA might be excluded. For example, the focus of the CSWA is primarily on astronomers, but this also leaves out the members of the astronomical community who do things other than astronomy: administrators, janitorial and support staff, systems administrators, and so on. These people are often affected by sexism and racism within our community, but in different ways than we are used to thinking in terms of. Additionally, the Pasadena Recommendations for Gender Equality in Astronomy make no mention of transgender inclusivity. To remedy this would require amending these recommendations to directly address transphobia and employment discrimination.

Changing the culture within astronomy and throughout our society to be significantly more inclusive can only occur on generational time scales. Even so, I am optimistic that by working hard we will be able to make the changes we need to.