A Breakup Letter With Astronomy, From a Young Black Woman
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…