Hi all, it’s your favorite sunflowering baddie, and I’m here to quickly let y’all know that activism and survival in academia are not mutually exclusive. It is not necessary to pick one over the other, and the fact that a lot of (old, white, male) folks in academia are insisting that you do so should tell you all you need to know.
I’m talking about this right now, in brief, because of a conversation I had this morning with my advisor about whether or not my significant branding within the institutions I participate in dilutes my science. My advisor argued that I needed to maybe begin toning it down, because what I needed right now is science publications and not Internet notoriety for having loud opinions.
To me, this conversation is wild because the entire reason I had enough clout in the ecological community as a whole to even get into graduate school was because my activism gave me the voice and space I needed to be able to do science. As a first-year student at a PWI, I needed not only to speak up to advocate for myself and my ability to do science; but I also needed allies willing to hear me out and create a space with me. This was the only way I could craft my eventual science persona as a biogeochemist, and the fact that I do advocate for justice in STEM shouldn’t detract from my actual scientific work. Think about it: for what other extracurricular activity could you be shamed for in this way? No one says that someone’s knitting habit detracts from their ability to be an amazing bird ecologist; so why does my social justice activism define my ability to use a thermal conversion elemental analyzer and write about it?
In truth, the reason white women and POC (especially qtWOC) get flak for their activism is because it makes the gatekeepers of power uncomfortable. If we are constantly clamoring for change while tossing around additional weight of our science, it throws into disarray a lot of the dogma that white academia has clung to for so long–namely, that science is an apolitical meritocracy. If URMs point out that our strength in the sciences is in spite of the machinations of an academia made for white men, it forces those white men to reconsider their existence in the system. This is uncomfortable, and it should be. White men have never needed to fight for their humanity in a system meant to exclude them; the idea that they’ve gotten along not just because of their science (stellar or not) but because of a system functionally built to value them (the person) is scary. Which, welcome to the world of URMs–where we constantly juggle the micro and macroaggressions of the people around us just to be able to do the science that should be buying us a seat at the table.
Believe you me, there is nothing I would’ve liked better for me to only talk about my love of carbon cycling and the root-soil interface. I wish every day that I was in a position where my academic life functioned only as a vehicle for my science. Unfortunately, my existence as a queer first gen Latinx means my entire existence in academia is mediated through the intersections of my race, orientation, and class status. Academia does not exist in a vacuum: and is just as affected by the society it exists within as academia affects the society it is part of. The current way academia is run, I have no choice but to to amazing science but also incredible amounts of activism. It the only way I survived to this point. For a lot of URM’s, there comes a point in our lives where simply staying silent endangers us more than making noise does. I lived a lot of my undergraduate years trying to sit silently by, eating the injustices done to me by white academics who constantly discounted my science and my mind because of my ethnicity and gender presentation. All it did was leave me at the end of a jetty at a Famous Biological Lab, debating whether or not I should just leave science or leave this world entirely.
In the end, I am still here in academia because I spoke up: I spoke up about my science, and I spoke up about the injustices done to people of color who just wanted to do science. Through both sets of being active, I was able to find the people I now call my mentors and friends; and the people who ended up writing my letters of rec to get me into graduate school. The day that academia lets URM’s thrive without the constant slam of micro|macro|aggressions and harassment, the day that kids who look like me don’t have to buy their humanity by overworking themselves or hyperactivism; on that day where students of color can go into academia with the same expectations placed on them (and same benefits given to them) as their white peers,
On that day, I will finally shut up about social justice and do nothing but run the thermal combustion elemental analyzer and write about the soil-root interface.