I think a lot about what it is to be a woman in science, but I have the inherent privilege that comes with being a white woman to shield me from the worst of it. I had an absolutely eye opening conversation with classmate of mine last year, and I’d like to share it with y’all.
This other lab member of mine became a great friend of mine around the time I decided to switch labs. She had a different PI and was a year ahead of me, so I was comfortable bringing my concerns to her. Her support was instrumental in my decision and my current happiness in my new lab. She presented in a lab meeting the day I went to the director of our grad school and requested a change in PIs, so I missed it. I knew she had been nervous (it was meant to prepare her for for her preliminary exam) so I asked her the next day how it had gone.
Now. To put this in context, I need to explain my old PI. He was an almost eighty year old white man, and if it wasn’t his opinion, it was wrong. He was very, very bad at being a PI. He was also probably worse at being a co-worker. I recall at least three lab meetings that devolved into him yelling with another PI, and several student presentations that he was terribly mean and unnecessarily fixated on insignificant details. So it comes as no shock that he went after my friend.
My old PI (who was not involved in bacteria research AT ALL) had taken some issue with the strain of bacteria she was using, one that was selected based on clinical relevancy. This had resulted in a dissolving of my friends presentation into him interrogating her about this strain, interrupting her explanations and generally getting louder and louder and louder until her PI stepped in. Upon hearing all of this, I apologized profusely for his behavior and asked how she was doing now. She expressed to me how she had struggled to remain calm, and how she was ultimately grateful to her PI for de-escalating the situation.
Now here’s the part that hit me hard: my friend explained to me that she was grateful mostly because she wasn’t sure how much longer she would have been able to withstand his nonsense without raising her voice, to which I responded, “he would have deserved it. You were right and he was wrong, and it’s beyond time he was put in his place. He’s not your PI, and he’s not on your committee, so I think you would have been wholly justified in standing up for yourself.”
“If I’d had raised my voice at him, even a little, I would have been labeled an angry black woman, and everyone in that room would have written me off as a stereotype of my race.”
Oh. Ohhhhh. OH that hit me in the heart and the brain and the soul and I’m shocked I didn’t get a bruise. My sweet, strong, smart friend, who was a mom and a wife and a brilliant student and a kind soul, had to weigh every word out of her mouth with a gravity I couldn’t understand, and had never considered until that moment. And it probably says a lot about my white privilege and my bubble I’ve grown up in that I was 24 years old before this came across to me. But this conversation has lived in my head ever since, and my perspective of the world shifted because of it. I think what made this particular incidence so eye opening to me was that being interrogated by this man over stupid details was something that happened to me regularly, and had just pushed me over the edge. Realizing some level of privilege had protected me all along from it being worse was enlightening.
I’ve benefitted my whole life from white privilege (a thing my family doesn’t think exists). I’m nowhere near perfect as an ally or a friend or a person, but I want to be better at standing up for and alongside those who need the protection my privilege offers. I share this now in case it resonates with someone else the way it did with me.
Black lives matter. Black people matter. Your hearts matter and your ideas matter and your feelings and your dignity and hurt and anger and fear. It shouldn’t require stating but it does, and I am so so sorry for your pain, for every situation I wouldn’t think twice in that you have to navigate carefully. I’m sorry, and I stand with you.