A Breakup Letter With Astronomy, From a Young Black Woman

Photos: Beachmite Photography/jtyler/Getty Images

Dear Astronomy,

It’s not me, it’s you.

I had intentions of leaving you for over three years, even before I finished my astronomy undergraduate degree. The original reason I cited — to myself and others — for wanting to leave is that I felt I would never be fulfilled by the content of what a career in astronomy would look like. Spending a lifetime studying stars and galaxies while watching my neighbors suffer from structural inequalities — inequalities that I have studied rigorously and am capable of fighting against — felt irresponsible and selfish to me.

I didn’t leave because I felt at all incompetent or insecure about my ability to be an astronomer.

Make no mistake, I knew that I could have stayed with you and been successful if I wanted to. For those who need evidence to accept that claim: I graduated magna cum laude from Yale, winning departmental prizes for my research in both astronomy and African American studies, and won the American Astronomical Society’s Chambliss prize for an exceptional undergraduate research poster. I didn’t leave because I felt at all incompetent or insecure about my ability to be an astronomer. Nor was I pushed out — I was exceptionally lucky to have many supportive mentors in the field across multiple institutions, I never had a research experience that was anything short of delightful, and I (generally) enjoyed myself and felt welcomed during the two years that I worked as a software engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope mission at Space Telescope Science Institute.

Despite all this, I realize I have been kidding myself when I tell myself the only reason I left you was the inhumanity of your objects of study and my changing academic interests. It’s an easier pill to swallow for everyone — “it’s not us, it’s me.” But an even stronger force that turned me away was the inability of astronomers to be respectful community members, and to acknowledge the terrestrial effects of our celestial research.

As I stated in my undergraduate African American studies thesis: Technological behemoths like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, or the Hubble Space Telescope have “been the result of international scientific collaborations, and [have] led to great discoveries and advances in their respective fields that are certainly worthy of celebration and appreciation. Yet each of these facilities has also been the result of colonialist cultures that value the collection of basic scientific knowledge about fundamental particles and distant galaxies over the consumption of environmental and human resources necessary for their creation and operation…. in the context of these feats of innovation, I do not attempt to make a value judgment; I rather hope to draw attention to the complex entanglement between colonialist values and modern science.”

This is not a case of a few bad apples — it’s all the apples.

What I do attempt to make a value judgment on, however, is the ethical treatment of all people.

Just three years out of undergrad, I have accrued countless stories of dear Black and brown friends who have been literally abandoned by their graduate advisors; Black and Brown friends who have been yelled at by research advisors; Black and Brown friends who have faced both colorism and sexism from mentors; Black and Brown friends who have been forced to change jobs due to lies from their bosses; Black and Brown friends who have been underpaid by their advisors compared to white peers. Some of these advisors, mentors, and bosses are vocal and well-known “allies”; some of them are widely celebrated for the work they have done to improve the environment of astronomy; some of them are women or people of color themselves. This is not a case of a few bad apples — it’s all the apples.

Has the fact that we spend our waking hours interfacing primarily with Python scripts and our lunchtime conversations discussing events taking place hundreds of light-years away made us feel that we are exempt from the human realm? Don’t we realize that there are real people on the other side of adversarial emails and social media posts? That our institutional leadership needs to be held to account when they make a mistake? That building a telescope can be an act of harm?

Astronomy, you need some time alone to work on yourself.

Like any person leaving a field where they have invested years of their life, I carry feelings of loss as I think of the mentors, peers, and friends I left behind. Like any minoritized person leaving a field where they have invested years of their life, I carry unjustly heightened feelings of guilt and shame for failing to be the academic role model that those following me might have wanted me to be, and for becoming yet another statistic of a Black woman who will never join the ranks of the astronomy professoriate. Like any scientist leaving a field where they have invested years of their life, I carry feelings of sadness that I am no longer surrounded by thinkers who explore natural phenomena that enchant and inspire me.

But…

Yale Astronomers Questioned Systemic Racism Because They Hired One Black Employee 35 Years Ago, Emails Show

Two More Women Accuse Neil deGrasse Tyson of Sexual Misconduct

Police in Hawaii reportedly arresting protesters in standoff over construction of Mauna Kea telescope

As the weeks and months pass and I find a new niche for myself in a new field, I am increasingly happy to have left.

I hope we can still be friends.

Staff Technologist at the ACLU of Massachusetts | Exploring how to use data & tech in pursuit of justice

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