Thursday, July 23, 2015


The below is a guest post by Dr. Sarah Tuttle, a research associate at McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the instrument scientist for VIRUS, a massively replicated spectrograph being built for HETDEX (Hobby Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment).

Background: Campus Reform is a news organization website connected to the Conservative right “Leadership Institute”.  They describe themselves as a “watchdog to the nation’s higher education system”, exposing “liberal bias and abuses at universities” (from their author bios). They have aggregated a collection of tweets by an astrophysicist discussing the prevalence of systemic racism and the issues of white supremacy in our society which has led to personal attacks against her.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is the MLK Postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Kavli Institute. As a theoretical astrophysicist she studies a wide range of topics in cosmology and particle astrophysics, including axions, quantum gravity, and inflation. She did her undergraduate work at Harvard, and will be beginning her next postdoc at the University of Washington next year.

She also speaks out against the oppressive systemic racism she has encountered throughout her career. She is a passionate activist and speaks truth to power. She upholds a proud history (or perhaps more accurately an ideal) of the academy being a place where we wrestle with difficult ideas. She is an advocate and mentor for those who are coming up behind her. She has written elegantly and opened the eyes of many to understand injustice in our purportedly objective science.

There is a long history of Black women doing unpaid work to make the world a better place, and being discredited and punished for that work. This is a symptom of the white supremacy that runs through our society, as it has for centuries. If you ask a question about diversity almost any field, eventually the answer you will find is tied to systemic racism. Our systems are built to marginalize, oppress, and devalue people of color, especially women. The whiteness of physics isn’t some magical accident, it is by design. Until we all recognize that it will be impossible to fix.

A small group of women have fought their way into the academy, and have used their academic freedom to raise their voices against this system built to hold them back. Many of them are not involved in the academic study of racism – instead, it is the labor they do to access work they cherish. Like astrophysics.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an esteemed colleague of ours, is currently under attack for speaking out about white supremacy and the deleterious effect it has on our society and on her life. She is being attacked by Campus Reform, a website built to strong arm institutions into punishing people they disagree with. Dr. Zandria F. Robinson (now of Rhodes University) was recently attacked for a tweet about white supremacy, and then badly treated by her employer as she made a planned transition to a new job. Dr. Saida Grundy was attacked as she began a job at Boston University for her tweets about white supremacy. They went after Dr. Anthea Butler at the University of Pennsylvania two years ago. They often target academics at transition points in their careers. These are not haphazard attacks but a concerted effort. Campus Reform is a spinoff from an organization started decades ago to grow the right wing PR machine. They are funded by groups such as the Koch brothers. The parent organization for Campus Reform brought us Karl Rove and Grover Norquist, amongst others. Their agenda is not subtle.

We must speak out in support of Dr. Prescod-Weinstein and against those who would silence her. We must join together and say that we will not accept attempts to disregard and erase the voices of women of color. It is crucial that we respond as a community, swiftly and firmly. We personally must respond, and encourage our institutions to do so as well.

There has been advice about internet trolls and attacks such as this – “Ignore them and they’ll go away”, “Don’t feed the trolls” – but these are not only patently untrue, but this advice condones bad behavior. Communities must understand the corrosive nature of this behavior, the effects it has on those targeted, and the power to be had in confronting character assassinations head on.

There is sometimes an instinct to try and minimize public issues, especially of racism. We are often told it will be “handled” behind closed doors. This fails to understand the public and community aspects of these issues. We must as a community discuss and demonstrate what behavior is acceptable or unacceptable. Otherwise the status quo is perpetuated.

This is an opportunity to act right, and to teach our colleagues how to do the same. This is an opportunity to demonstrate how scientists respond to a spurious and malicious attack on a colleague. This is an opportunity to not only support Dr. Prescod-Weinstein, but to discuss the influences of systemic racism in our field and in our departments. We can make our field and our universities somewhere where our colleagues of color feel safe and valued. But we have to raise our voices and take actions to make it so. Speak out about this, and then commit to learning how to stop it from happening again. If “white supremacy” as a concept is new to you, investigate it. What if an attack like this was launched against someone at your institution? Is there a policy? Can you help create one? Institutions respond reflexively so it is up to us to build good reflexes.

Please join me in supporting Chanda. She is a valued colleague and friend. I will do everything I can to keep her safe and enable her to continue her fruitful career in theoretical physics. It is the least I can do. I #StandWithChanda and so should you.

Chanda is aware of and has given permission for posting. She has also posted a response to this ongoing issue here.

If you are looking for more resources on how to respond to attacks like this, check out this helpful article. It touches both on personal and departmental approaches.

And if you’re struggling with how white supremacy & physics are intertwined, check out some of Chanda’s writing on the topic.

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