On women and minorities…

Xinyu Li/File

While I do my best to intentionally recognize the strides being made by institutions to ensure that diversity and inclusion become practices embedded in their ways of functioning, I still do not understand how the term “women and minorities” continues to be a widely used phrase when we think about who should be accounted for in these efforts.

It assumes there exist women who are not minorities — be that in terms of race, ability, sexual orientation, being trans, gender-nonconforming or queer, among other marginalized identities — who are underrepresented and need platforms provided by outreach and recruitment programs. This is a sentiment I find to be incorrect. Numerous programs and opportunities geared toward diversifying postgraduate institutions are usually advertised with the tagline “women and minorities are encouraged to apply.”

So, here I am, both a woman and a minority — surprise, but yes, we do exist — wondering exactly what is meant, because when I search through the admitted student pool for women in these programs, all I usually see are white women. In my mind, a more honest tagline would read “white women and minorities are encouraged to apply.” But, you felt that too, right? It would be really awkward. It would also be offensive to minorities, more specifically those who are women, to equate the two. The awkwardness does not change the truth as we know it: While women become more and more underrepresented in academia as we go up the ladder ranks, white women are overrepresented when the racial demographics are parsed, but somehow this is rarely talked about in discussing diversity efforts.

While the campus’ Office of Planning and Analysis has not done this parsing yet, I visually have, and if you don’t believe me, look up a random department on campus — save for the African American studies department — to see that while female faculty members are underrepresented, those who are faculty are mostly white. Those of us in science departments can testify to this as a fact, even at the level of our GSIs and other graduate students.

This brings us to the real tea: Here we are in 2019, facing a reality that the vestiges of white and first-wave feminism still have a stronghold, reflected in the way we account for which women are represented in the fight for the equality of genders, particularly in professional fields such as in research and academia. I often ask myself, how is it that after such a long time, with many strides made toward fighting for racial equality, anti-oppression, anti-Blackness and civil rights, I still find myself choosing between my struggle as a woman and as a minority?

This is not meant to be an attack on white women, their achievements, or the level of excellence they display in the many fields they are overrepresented in. White women have played critical roles in my journey as a female minority scientist, and they continue to be advocates, role models and mentors for me.

I, myself, often reflect on the privileges that being a Nigerian immigrant affords me — ancestral knowledge not possessed by Black slave descendants living in the diaspora because of the intentional erasure of Afrikan slaves’ ancestry. It is fitting to recall, on the 400th anniversary of the enslavement of Afrikan people, that in addition to the violence inflicted on the bodies of those enslaved, their family and community structures were also destroyed. They were tortured and killed if they chose to speak their own language or bear their traditional names; practice their indigenous religion, which was termed witchcraft practice; among other atrocities, all in a bid to rid them of their ancestral memory and strip them of their identities.

Being Nigerian also means I am part of a group of Afrikan immigrants overrepresented in institutions of higher learning and professional fields, which usually allows me to find and be in community with other Nigerians, or more broadly, Afrikan immigrants. Now, while it is more likely than not that we will be among the few Black folks at these institutions, I acknowledge our overrepresentation. I actively work to ensure I am engaging my community members and anyone else who cares to listen in difficult conversations such as these. A byproduct of oppressive structures is replicating oppression, and I believe it is no good to fight against the oppression I face if I fail to concurrently acknowledge the way my positionality as an individual produces unintended effects and propagates the very oppressive structures I am countering.

This is meant to be a call for us all as a community to practice the values we claim to hold so close to our hearts, embodied by true equality and justice, while recognizing the privileges we hold. In doing so, we need to acknowledge the spaces we occupy, which prevents other individuals equally needed, and sometimes more, from existing in those spaces, the impacts of institutional oppression and how we unknowingly play into this agenda. We also need to realize how much work there is to be done, still, and be willing to use our platforms to uplift issues that shake us up, threatening to our comfort as they may seem, if we are going to progress toward changing this tide of untrue feminism.

Ifechukwu Okeke is a neurobiology major, undergraduate researcher, STEM co-director of Underrepresented Researchers of Color and a part of the Biology Scholars Program.