Making The Outdoors Great For Everyone
It’s the start to a holiday weekend, which often means spending time outdoors, whether that’s going to the beach, on a hike, or grilling in a park. But not everyone feels safe enjoying the great outdoors—and we’re not talking about getting mosquito bites or sunburns.
In late May, a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police on a Black bird watcher who asked her to leash her dog. This incident felt familiar to many other Black outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom had encountered similar experiences of racism outside.
Transcript: I’m an African American doctor who grew up in New York’s inner city, and recently moved to North Carolina. I’ve always had a little bit of a fascination with the outdoors, given the fact that I grew up in the city. And I was really excited to start exploring hiking trails and camping in North Carolina. One of the first things my husband told me was, you can’t just go camping anywhere, it may not be safe. And I asked some of my white colleagues if there were any areas in North Carolina, where camping might not be safe for African Americans. And a couple of people told me yes, and that some counties that do have camping sites are also known to be a little bit unfriendly to African Americans wandering around in the woods. So I do think that as an African American, we do have to be cognizant of where we go camping, how isolated it is, how inclusive or diverse the areas in which we go camping.
To understand why the outdoors is an unwelcoming place for some people, we need to look back at our violent history. Joining Ira to talk about this is Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of the book “Black Faces, White Spaces.” She is also a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.
And later in the conversation, Ira is joined by two scientists, biology graduate student Corina Newsome from Statesboro, Georgia, and exploration geoscientist Tim Shin from Houston, Texas. They’ll talk about what it’s like to do fieldwork while Black, and what responsibility academic institutions should have in keeping their students safe.
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Carolyn Finney is the author of Black Faces, White Spaces and a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Burlington, Vermont.
Corina Newsome is the co-organizer of #BlackBirdersWeek, Community Engagement Manager for Georgia Audubon, and a Masters student in Biology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia.
Tim Shin is an exploration geoscientist at Total, in Houston, Texas.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You know it’s the start of a holiday weekend, which usually means going to the beach, going on a hike, or perhaps grilling in a park. But some of you told us on the Science Friday VoxPop app that you may not feel it’s safe outside.
AUDIENCE: I don’t go into the great outdoors because I’m very allergic to the great outdoors.
AUDIENCE: Yes, I have definitely enjoyed the outdoors in the past, but because of Lyme disease, I never feel comfortable.
AUDIENCE: Salt, sand, dirt, heat, rashes, sweat, sunburn, and bugs.
IRA FLATOW: Bugs, heat, allergies– those are the usual reasons we hear people saying they don’t feel safe outside. But you know what? That conversation began to change a few months ago. In late May, you might recall, a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police on a black birdwatcher who asked her to leash her dog. This incident unleashed a wave of other black outdoor enthusiasts saying this may be news to you, but hey, things like this happen all the time. And you told us this on our Science Friday VoxPop app.
AUDIENCE: I’m an African-American doctor who grew up in New York’s inner city and recently moved to North Carolina. I’ve always had a little bit of a fascination with the outdoors, given the fact that I grew up in the city, and I was really excited to start exploring hiking trails and camping in North Carolina.
One of the first things my husband told me was you can’t just go camping anywhere, it may not be safe. And I asked some of my white colleagues if there were any areas in North Carolina where camping might not be safe for African-Americans, and a couple of people told me yes, and that some counties that do have camping sites are also known to be a little bit unfriendly to African-Americans.
IRA FLATOW: So when did the outdoors become an unwelcoming place for some people? Joining us to talk about this is Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of the book Black Faces, White Spaces. She is also a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Finney.
CAROLYN FINNEY: Yeah, thanks for having me here, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: So let’s go on to talk about your book. What was your motivation for writing Black Faces, White Spaces.
CAROLYN FINNEY: Yeah. The second half of the title will tell your listeners something, which is reimagining the relationship of African-Americans to the great outdoors. And what I always tell people is that it was really personal. You know, in 2001, when I tried to do this, I started off doing this as a dissertation, and I went to the library and I hardly found any books on the shelf about African-Americans and the environment.
I found a little bit about environmental justice, but what I always say to people, you know, black people, like I think most groups of people, don’t like to be wholly identified by only the bad things that happen to them in life, which is often the way that environmental justice comes at, and rightly so, comes at the question of black and brown communities and environmental issues.
And so at that point, I was like, well, I don’t see myself here on the shelf in the stories of black people, which doesn’t mean we hadn’t been creating stories about ourselves and knowledge about ourselves, but if you think about the history of this country, we haven’t always been allowed in spaces of knowledge production to do that work. And I got really tired of hearing, you know, black people don’t fill in the blank, so things we don’t do as it relates to the environment, which are all myths. They’re simply not true. For a while, I believe the largest voting bloc, pro-environment voting bloc was the Black Caucus.
We show up everywhere, just like everybody else does. But those stories aren’t told, we’re not acknowledged, and we’re often erased. And so I really wanted to change that conversation. So part of my telling the stories of other black, people of myself, of engaging is not to point fingers, but instead to say, you know what, we have to own this past, because this past got us here today.
IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk a bit about how far back into the past does this go in history?
CAROLYN FINNEY: Oh, well, that’s an easy one, Ira. First of all, I’m just being blunt here, first of all, we stole the land from the original people who were here. So this will always be stolen land. It doesn’t matter how far we get down the road. This will always be stolen land. And number two, we enslaved a group of people to work on that land for free to build the backbone of our economy. That will always be true, as well.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t nuance or complexity. Of course there is. But those two moments in our history helped to found this country. It’s why a lot of people don’t want to look at it. That’s really hard to own. How do we own that? How do we own that we did that to two groups of people to get where we are today? But I believe that’s where we have to start, at least.
And if we want to talk about reconciliation, redemption, reparations, whatever it is we want to talk about, and meet each other in a place where we can really build a relationship that’s built in part on that acknowledgment, and not trying to pretend that we all got here in the same way. We did not. And all of our institutions, every single one, has been built on that.
I am not saying that everybody in those institutions are bad people. I work in a lot of these institutions. There’s some really good people out there, good organizations trying to do some good work, and to understand that the roots in there, those foundations of those organizations and institutions– and some of it’s invisible, that’s embedded right into those systems.
So you have mission statements that are 50 years old or 60 years old that were created at a time of Jim Crow segregation. If you were non-white, you couldn’t show up in these spaces, including parks, including the woods, the forests, including beaches. You could not show up in the same way.
IRA FLATOW: Because you did not feel safe or you were not allowed to?
CAROLYN FINNEY: It doesn’t matter. The continuum for me is it’s all the same in terms of it’s on a continuum. You either, at one end of it, you were not allowed to, and somewhere else it’s all the insecurity. It’s Kristen Cooper and Amy Cooper. It is the idea that you can be challenged by– I’ve had it happen to me, I know a lot of black and brown people it’s happened to, where you’re challenged about your right to even be there, whether it is weaponizing the color of your skin, whether it’s asking you, nine years old, walking home from school, basically challenging what are you doing here in this neighborhood.
So when I think about Amy Cooper, I bet you she’s actually a pretty nice person. And I think that she probably didn’t walk into the park that day going, if I see a black person, this is what I’m going to say. But what’s interesting is that somewhere, that’s what came up for her right away.
Not to say that a man was threatening her, not even to say that there’s a person threatening her. She could have nuanced that thing. And I’m not saying that would’ve made it right, but she could have nuanced it. But what she said was there is an African-American man threatening me. You know, I bet you she doesn’t even understand why she said it consciously. But it’s embedded in there.
And that’s the piece that I really am trying to sort of tease out. How do we finally just rip off those band-aids and actually deal with that truth? It’s ugly. It’s really ugly. But for those of us who have to live in that place of insecurity and discomfort all the time, if you ever watch Real Sports Tonight with Bryant Gumbel– and I just love that show– last week at the end, he did a short monologue that was personal, and he talked about something called the black tax.
And he explained it so succinctly about what that is. I knew what it was, but I know that a lot of my white friends and colleagues had never heard of it. But I’ve known what it is my whole life, the idea that it doesn’t matter how much money you make as a black person, how much education you have, what your opportunities have been. At the end of the day, you’re always up against potential instability, being challenged about who you are, that you have to represent the race.
In a country that promotes individualism, we are not allowed to just be ourselves and who we are. We are always representing the race. And so the energy that’s required at all times in every space to negotiate that, because you don’t know what the response to you is going to be.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk a bit about the name of your book because it provokes a very powerful image, Black Faces, White Spaces. What do you think it’s going to take for this country to stop thinking of the outdoors as white spaces?
CAROLYN FINNEY: I think that’s a great question, and it’s a hard one to just answer quickly. But I think part of what it’s going to take is what’s happening now. And actually, what’s been happening, what’s really important for me is to honor people– black, brown, and white– who’ve actually been doing this work to change that for some time.
I served on the National Parks Advisory Board for eight years, up until two years ago. And one of the things that I came to learn and understand when we’d go around the country, looking at different parks, meeting the staff and many of the people who take care of our public lands and work, is that there is a lot of love there. There are people who are thinking of what that means to go beyond diversity.
And I want people to understand that, when I say diversity, I’m not talking about assimilation. If difference is invited to the table, if we’re going to have different kind of people in the room, it is not making everybody assimilate to one way that it’s always been. Actually, it may be that you have to throw out the table and start over from scratch, which is what’s really hard.
And so one of the things I learned about the National Park Service as a huge government agency is that you can have individuals really trying to do that work, and they’re struggling because they’re up against a structure, an agency structure that’s been in place for a long time. So I think one of the things it’s going to take is a prolonged commitment. It is not about an end goal.
Diversity is not an end goal that we’re trying to reach. We have always been diverse in this country. Always. For me, it is about improving our ability to stand in good relationship with each other with our differences, and work together. It is going to be a prolonged attention to how we treat each other in our relationships, and our willingness to own what has come before.
It doesn’t matter if you weren’t alive 100 years ago. I wasn’t, either. But I am bearing the brunt and the consequence of that, as are you. So how do we look at that together and own that? And what does that look like? How do we determine where it is we want to go? We have so much potential. That’s what the incredible thing is for me about this moment. We have so much potential. And so a lot of it is our ability to get better at claiming that potential.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you know, I hear you saying this, and as someone who’s old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s and lived through that, and sometimes I think I’m back in the ’60s watching what’s going on, and yet there was the failure of that movement in the ’60s to move us to the place where you wanted to get. You seem to be saying now that you are more hopeful now that your time has arrived.
CAROLYN FINNEY: Well, what I’m saying, too, is I was really small during the ’60s, so I only remember it as a sort of vague memory, as you do when you’re a small child. But I actually would say to you that it did get us somewhere. Here’s what’s true.
It meant that my parents and myself had different– actually, me and my brothers had better opportunities than my parents did. What couldn’t happen in the exact same way would be someone, if I looked for a job as a park ranger, I could not actively be told that you can’t hire me because I’m Negro. So actually, we have come down the road, one.
Two, I want to say that actually I’m an incredibly hopeful, optimistic person because I’ve had to be. I have to believe we can be better as human beings. First and foremost, all of us are human beings, which doesn’t mean we get to skip over our differences to get to where it is we want to go. But we have done so many things as human beings that are simply amazing. We’ve gone to the moon. I mean, we’ve done so many things. We’ve proven to ourselves we are so much more than we think we can be. Why can’t we do it here around this work?
IRA FLATOW: Let me just take a short break and remind everybody, if they’re just joining us, I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And if you are just joining us, we’re talking with Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of the book Black Faces, White Spaces. She is also a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. Dr. Finney, your book has been out for quite some time now, but what is it like to have worked with this subject for so long, and now, all of a sudden, everyone is talking about it?
CAROLYN FINNEY: Yeah, Ira, that’s a good question. When that book came out six years ago– and this is not me patting myself on the back like I’m so great– I haven’t had to look for work at all, because the only way that I show up in somebody’s space is you have to invite me to have this conversation. And often, when predominately white organizations or groups invite me, this is a hard conversation to have. You know, and I use humor and I have all kinds of strategy to come into a room, but I have to be invited.
So this is now how I make my living. And it’s funny for me because the book just keeps– it just has this slow roll. And so I think there’s something about the lifetime of it. At this moment, I see my book as part of a larger set of– what do I want to say– books, papers, ideas, art, voices that are out there right now. And it’s coming up again, but actually, it’s been like this for me the whole time. I will say that I just think this stuff has always– it’s been bubbling for a really long time. And in the environmental sector, it’s been bubbling in very particular ways.
It’s also important for me to point out, too, man, the people who have been doing this work– Audrey and Frank Peterman, [INAUDIBLE] Angelou Ezeilo, Majora Carter– I’m naming names, people can look them up– there are so– Theresa Baker, [INAUDIBLE] about their afro, Jose Gonzalez of Latinos Outdoors– there are so many people who’ve been doing this work for a long time on the ground, right? John Francis, man, who spent 22 years walking across the United States to raise environmental awareness.
You know, there are so many black and brown people who continue to do this work. My book is just one piece. You know, it’s just one– it’s another little drop in that bucket trying to expand that voice and expand that platform. So I’m just really grateful that I get to be here. I understand this moment. You know, we get these moments as human beings, right? This is a moment.
I mean, does this not feel like a moment, between the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, everything that’s happening right now? For me, it means that it’s scary, yes. I’m scared, too. I’ve had days where I get really depressed. You know, but I also see the door has flung open. And for the rest of us, it’s about suit up and show up right now, because all of this disruption and dismantling makes space for something new to emerge, right? So that is what gets me up every day, like who knows what’s going to happen today, you know?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, I’m glad we could be–
CAROLYN FINNEY: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: –we could become part of this conversation.
CAROLYN FINNEY: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: And we wish you–
CAROLYN FINNEY: I’m glad you invited me.
IRA FLATOW: –and I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today, Dr. Finney.
CAROLYN FINNEY: Thank you for working me up. I love it.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of the book Black Faces, White Spaces. She’s also a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. We’re going to take a short break, and when we come back, we’ll continue this conversation with two scientists about making the outdoors more inclusive. We’ll talk about what it’s like to be a black scientist doing fieldwork and what responsibility academic institutions should have in keeping their students safe. So stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re continuing our conversation about making the outdoors more inclusive, but we’re going to shift gears a little bit now. We’re obviously a big fan of scientists here at Science Friday, and it’s not easy to get a career in, say, biology, ecology, or whatever your ology of choice is. And whether it’s in internships, universities, or out in the field, there are barriers for black scientists that don’t always exist for their white peers. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about right now.
Let me introduce my guests. Corina Newsome, biology graduate student at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Tim Shin, an exploration geoscientist in Houston, Texas. Welcome, Tim, to Science Friday. Welcome back, Corina.
CORINA NEWSOME: Thanks so much, Ira, for having me.
TIM SHIN: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you both. To start, I’d like to hear from both of you, are your respective fields diverse? And Tim, let me begin with you.
TIM SHIN: The answer to that is not particularly. Geoscience as a whole is very, very white, and there are very, very few black people as geoscientists in the United States.
IRA FLATOW: Hm. And Corina?
CORINA NEWSOME: In my field of bird biology or ornithology, there have been very few– I can count on one hand the number of black people that I have physically encountered, whether it be recreational birders or professional biologists. So not a very diverse field.
IRA FLATOW: And in fact, I know you’ve been very vocal about what it’s like to be a black scientist and a black bird watcher. You were one of the co-organizers of Black Birders Week, which happened, right, about a month ago?
CORINA NEWSOME: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Tell us what that event was and the goal behind it.
CORINA NEWSOME: Yeah, so Black Birders Week, the event itself was created rapidly in response to what happened in Central Park with Christian Cooper, who is a black birder that many of us look up to, and have for a long time.
And essentially, we felt that it was the perfect time to talk about our experiences, which have been happening long before that incident, which is that many of us are hyperaware, hyperconscious of the ways that white people perceive our presence when we’re out going birding. And many times, most of us have encountered white people being anything from visibly uncomfortable to following us. And some people have even been followed by the police on many occasions when they’re birding.
So our goal for Black Birders Week was, one, to increase the visibility of black people in the outdoor exploration world. Secondly, we wanted to kind of open the dialogue about our experiences, because oftentimes we’ve been silenced when it comes to voicing our thoughts and our experiences. And then thirdly, finally, we wanted to essentially display the importance of diversity in any community of people, but specifically in the realm of birding.
IRA FLATOW: And how did you feel the reaction? What was the response like?
CORINA NEWSOME: I was completely floored, in a good way, by the overwhelming response in the United States and around the world, to see so many black people visibly uplifted by seeing other black people doing the thing that they felt alone in doing. You know, birding or hiking or being outdoors.
And then I was even more surprised by the large organizations and even government agencies that backed our efforts and used their platform to amplify our voices. So I was absolutely delighted and thrilled by the response that we received.
IRA FLATOW: Tim, since Black Birders Week, there have been other viral movements to elevate black outdoor enthusiasts. Why was it so important for you to participate and say #blackinnature?
TIM SHIN: Yeah, so I’ve done a bit of outreach. I’m a committee member of the Diversity in Geosciences Committee for the Geological Society of America. And I find that, as we are black, we are highly underrepresented within the geosciences. And for me, it was a big deal when I saw other black scientists at my first conference, to see that there are other role models out there for me.
And so it was important for me to get out there and show young people that geoscientists are black people, and that black people are out in nature. And so that was really important for me. And also, it was a sense of community that I don’t otherwise have because I maybe went to school with in geosciences three other black students. And during my graduate degree, there was only one other black student in the department.
IRA FLATOW: We spoke to some other black scientists about this topic to get their perspectives on inclusivity, and here’s what we heard from Josh Anadu, who studies environmental geophysics in Oklahoma. Josh recently had an intimidating encounter with neo-Nazis while doing fieldwork. Josh is OK, but he says this is an extreme example of racism he encounters when he’s out in the field.
JOSH ANADU: You know, people like to know, often, when you’re doing fieldwork what you’re doing, which is understandable, especially if you’re on their area. But a lot of times, that’s where I get people not respecting me or not thinking I know what I’m talking about, or things like that.
IRA FLATOW: Tim, you’re also a geoscientist. Have you felt racism out in the field akin to Josh’s?
TIM SHIN: Yeah. I mean, most definitely. I’ve actually been pretty fortunate in that, unlike Josh, I’ve never actually encountered any neo-Nazis that have shown themselves to be neo-Nazis, and no one has actually gotten particularly aggressive with me. But just like Corina said, in our field, we’re constantly outside.
When you’re doing fieldwork, you’re often walking through other people’s land. And people get really suspicious, particularly if you’re black. And we’re often not allowed to go into the field alone. And I definitely recommend that black students or scientists don’t go into the field alone as geoscientists, because we’re often in the middle of nowhere, and it can be scary.
So yes, I’ve faced that. And I’ve done some fieldwork in other countries where it’s a little less aggressive, but I’ve also probably been the only black person for miles. When I did fieldwork in Turkey, everybody was watching me, if I was in the city or if I was walking down the street or if I was in the field. We drew a crowd. There were paramilitary that came to us at one point because of my presence. So I’ve faced sort of a lot of adversity in regards to that.
IRA FLATOW: Corina, how about you?
CORINA NEWSOME: So for me, I do fieldwork in southern Georgia on the coast, and I have not encountered any racist experiences directed at me. But the place where I live and where I do my research is very visibly and obviously hostile to black people.
You know, when you have Confederate flags everywhere and people protesting Confederate monuments and All Lives Matter signs, and even like plantation museums that erase the horrific nature of the enslavement of black people in the United States.
And because of the expression of hatred here, and even with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia here, every time I’m in the field, I am kind of doing everything that I can to look as least suspicious as possible. So I posture myself in a certain way, I carry my equipment in a very obvious way if I’m in view of the road or where people are walking or driving.
And there have been several times when I’ll be in the marsh, because that’s where I do my research on seaside sparrows, and I’ll be kind of walking back to my car, which is parked on the edge of the road, on the side of the marsh, and I’ll see someone like pull off the road and park their truck and just watch me.
And every single time, it’s like there’s a pit in my stomach that’s like, this is about to be when stuff goes down. Like, I feel like I’m always around the corner from some sort of incident or something happening. And I’m always prepared to, essentially, fight or defend myself or, you know, prepare for the worst.
But thankfully, and I know that for a fact, that, as a light-skinned black female, my experience is not the same as, for example, a dark-skinned black man in this kind of a context. And so I don’t want people to hear my story and think that everything is fine, because my experience is not the same as people of darker complexion who are black.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s talk a bit about what it’s like to actually get a career as a scientist. Here’s what we heard from Kawasi Rensford, who is a PhD candidate in behavioral ecology at Berkeley.
AUDIENCE: Who ends up in academia, who ends up getting to certain points I think is really important. I think one of the biggest things is that I think, for folks who look like me, for other black folks and other people of color, it’s hard to find and to see people who look like you doing this kind of work, you know? In my role as an academic, one of the things that keeps me going is wanting to be that for someone of the future.
IRA FLATOW: Let me ask both of you, do you feel yourselves as role models? Corina?
CORINA NEWSOME: I definitely posture and position myself to be a role model because the only reason I’m in biology at all and wildlife conservation at all is because a black woman who is a zookeeper at my home zoo in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Zoo, she reached out to me and invited me to see what she did as a zookeeper. And the crazy thing was I had heard about her. Her brother, who was a friend of my family, was like, my sister, she works at the zoo, and she would love to connect with you.
And my first thought was, she probably works in concessions and can’t help me, which looking back as an adult professional in this field, I’m so embarrassed and hurt by the fact that I ever thought that. But the reason I thought that is because I saw zero black people ever doing this kind of job, and I only ever saw white people doing this job. And that literally directly impacted how I considered myself positioned to exist in such a career, or not exist in it, and the way that I interpreted other people’s existence in this career, or lack thereof.
And the moment I saw her doing her work was when I realized that I could do it, too. And again, it wasn’t a conscious thought that I’m black, that means I can’t be a zookeeper or I can’t be a biologist. My mind had just been structured that way, to interpret the world that way.
And so now, because of my experience with representation and how powerful that is, I definitely recognize that someone just seeing me doing my job, a black person just seeing me being an ornithologist or being a birder or a zookeeper is a powerful image to see. It can change the trajectory of someone’s career, as it did for me.
TIM SHIN: Yeah, it really is, actually. And I had a slightly different story, where I also had no idea what geology was when I was growing up, and then, after spending three painful years in electrical engineering in undergrad, I switched into geology after a couple of Hispanic friends told me about it. So I switched into that, but really, at the University of Texas at Austin, where I got my undergrad and my masters, there were no black faculty in geosciences, so there wasn’t any sort of representation for me there.
And like I said earlier, when I went to my first Geological Society of America meeting, I met some of the most high-powered black geoscientists out there. And seeing these people out there doing this, and not just in lesser positions, but actually incredibly powerful head positions like this was huge for me. And because of that, I actually then started thinking of myself as sort of a role model, or a role model in the making.
IRA FLATOW: Tim, is representation a barrier to even getting a foot in the door in science?
TIM SHIN: I think it is, actually. I’ve been having discussions recently about the pipeline, and really the leaky pipeline to STEM, as they call it, and saying that there aren’t enough qualified black or BIPOC candidates to come into the field, but really, having based on my own experiences and what I’ve read from Corina and what we’ve just heard from Corina’s experiences, I think that it’s not particularly a pipeline problem, it’s really more that there’s no representation. I mean, there are black scientists out there in a lot of places. They’re just not– perhaps they’re not spread out enough for people to see. And so mentorship and that representation is incredibly powerful.
IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. Let me remind our listeners that I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the barriers black scientists face in their careers, their job, their education. My guests are Corina Newsome, a biology graduate student in Statesboro, Georgia, Tim Shin, an exploration scientist in Houston, Texas. Corina, you’re still in graduate school. Would you like to see more diversity in your department?
CORINA NEWSOME: Absolutely. And I think one of the kind of exhausting things about being the only black person in a space– and Tim has been kind of speaking on this, as well– is that you’re essentially representing all black people to the white people in your space.
And it shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the way that it is. And so for example, when I’m in class, or when I’m in a group of white students, even in a quote unquote friendly environment, I feel like I can’t afford to ask certain questions that other students can afford to ask because I’m thinking, how does this make black people look?
Will this make people think that I am incapable because I’m black? And I go through a whole series of thoughts and questions and answers within my own mind to determine if I can present any sort of weakness or flaw or question or something that I don’t know because, again, what I do and how I act and the things that I say are going to inform what the people in my space, professionals and the other students, think about black people in this space, because I’m the only one here.
And so because that is exhausting, I can see that as being a contributor to someone dropping out of that space, because it is tiring and it costs a lot of your energy and emotional capacity. And so I would like to see more black people in the science space for even that reason, so that black students can breathe for once and just do the job of being a student, of being a graduate student, of doing the research, and focus more specifically on why they’re in graduate school in the first place.
IRA FLATOW: Well, then, do you think it’s the responsibility of the schools and their departments to be more inclusive as part of their jobs?
CORINA NEWSOME: I definitely do. And they think that, oftentimes, they do put that burden on the one or two or three black people in the department to bring in other black people and to fix the problem. But the issue is that a lot of the reason why science is so white is because it’s a structural problem. And so there are things that need to change in the way that departments operate, in the way they recruit, in the way that they do community engagement. Like, all of these efforts and initiatives could be fine-tuned to make the space structurally one that is welcoming to black people.
IRA FLATOW: Do you feel hopeful now, with the Black Lives Matter movement moving and gaining momentum it never had before, that you will see those changes, Tim, that you would like to see?
TIM SHIN: Yeah, so I’m hopeful because I feel like a lot of people right now are really awakening to what we as black or other marginalized communities face in getting into the sciences and being supported, as well as just basic human rights. And I think that a lot of people who were otherwise sitting on the sidelines before are actually speaking up now.
However, for the sciences, in my own experience as a geologist, to get into a professional job or to be a professor, it can take you four years in undergrad, three years for your master’s– two to three years for your master’s– maybe another four years for your PhD.
So you’re talking about 7, 10 years before you make a new professor, barring any other things to slow them down. And so I think it’s going to take a long time before we see any positive effects, even after we start to hit the ground running and make positive effects in the present day right now.
IRA FLATOW: Corina, are you discouraged by what you hear Tim talking about, the length of time and then the added burden of being a black student, or are you really hopeful?
CORINA NEWSOME: Well, I am hopeful. And I think that the good thing is that a person in the science realm doesn’t actually have to be a professor to then contribute to the next generation seeing people like them. So even though it will take some time for, say, someone who’s currently in undergrad to reach the professor stage, they can still make a massive impact on young black children who might have passions that are untapped or unrealized or unpursued in the sciences. And so I am very hopeful, despite how long it might take for them to get to the professional stage, that changes are happening.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I’d like to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today. Tim Shin, exploration geoscientist in Houston, Texas. Corina Newsome, biology graduate student at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Thank you for letting us know what it’s like to be on your side.
CORINA NEWSOME: Thank you so much, Ira.
TIM SHIN: Thank you.