Volume 45, Number 2 | Winter 2020
Department of Physics and Astronomy and Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of New Hampshire, Durham
Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Abstract: In this article I take on the question of how the exclusion of Black American women from physics impacts physics epistemologies, and I highlight the dynamic relationship between this exclusion and the struggle for women to reconcile “Black woman” with “physicist.” I describe the phenomenon where white epistemic claims about science—which are not rooted in empirical evidence—receive more credence and attention than Black women’s epistemic claims about their own lives. To develop this idea, I apply an intersectional analysis to Joseph Martin’s concept of prestige asymmetry in physics, developing the concept of white empiricism to discuss the impact that Black women’s exclusion has had on physics epistemology. By considering the essentialization of racism and sexism alongside the social construction of ascribed identities, I assess the way Black women physicists self-construct as scientists and the subsequent impact of epistemic outcomes on the science itself.
Who is allowed to be an observer in physics, and who is fundamentally denied the possibility? In this article, I propose that race and ethnicity impact epistemic outcomes in physics, despite the universality of the laws that undergird physics, and I introduce the concept of white empiricism to provide one explanation for why. White empiricism is the phenomenon through which only white people (particularly white men) are read has having a fundamental capacity for objectivity and Black people (particularly Black women) are produced as an ontological other. This phenomenon is stabilized through the production and retention of what Joseph Martin calls prestige asymmetry, which explains how social resources in physics are distributed based on prestige. In American society, Black women are on the losing end of an ontic prestige asymmetry whereby different scientists “garner unequal public approbation” in their everyday lives due to ascribed identities such as gender and race (Martin 2017, 475). White empiricism is one of the mechanisms by which this asymmetry follows Black women physicists into their professional lives. Because white empiricism contravenes core tenets of modern physics (e.g., covariance and relativity), it negatively impacts scientific outcomes and harms the people who are othered.
White empiricism comes to dominate empirical discourse in physics because whiteness powerfully shapes the predominant arbiters of who is a valid observer of physical and social phenomena. Based primarily on their own experiences, white men, who are the dominant demographic in physics, construct the figure of the observer to exclude anyone who does not share the attending social and intellectual identities and beliefs. These beliefs can limit investigations of what constitutes a reasonable physical theory, whether the scientific method should be brought to bear on this physical theory, and the capacity to understand how incidents of racism disrupt the potential for objective discourse. Essentially, white empiricism involves a predominantly white, predominantly male professional community selectively failing to apply the scientific method to themselves while using “scientific” evaluation to strengthen the barriers to Black women’s entry into physics. White empiricism is therefore a form of antiempiricism masquerading as an empirical approach to the natural world. By denying agency to Black women in discussions of racism, white empiricism predetermines the experiences of Black women in physics.
To provide an example of the role that white empiricism plays in physics, I discuss the current debate in string theory about postempiricism, motivated in part by a question: why are string theorists calling for an end to empiricism rather than an end to racial hegemony? I believe the answer is that knowledge production in physics is contingent on the ascribed identities of the physicists. Contingentists focus on top-down social forces, or the contingency associated with laboratory instrumentation; in this way, they challenge any assumption that scientific decision making is purely objective.1 Scientists are also typically monists—believers in the idea that there is only one science—who, rather than feeling burdened to prove there is only one science, expect contingentists to prove that there can be more than one (Soler 2015b). This monist approach to science typically forecloses a closer investigation of how identity and epistemic outcomes intermix.
Yet white empiricism undermines a significant theory of twentieth-century physics: General Relativity (Johnson 1983). Albert Einstein’s monumental contribution to our empirical understanding of gravity is rooted in the principle of covariance, which is the simple idea that there is no single objective frame of reference that is more objective than any other (Sachs 1993). All frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws that underlie the workings of our physical universe. Yet the number of women in physics remains low, especially those of African descent (Ong 2005; Hodari et al. 2011; Ong, Smith, and Ko 2018). The gender imbalance between Black women and Black men is less severe than in many professions, but the disparity remains (National Science Foundation 2018). Given that Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity regardless of their simultaneously experiencing intersecting axes of oppression, we can dispense with any suggestion that the low number of Black women in science indicates any lack of validity on their part as observers.
Somebody should send this to Paul Johnson because this paper not only vindicates the opening chapter on Relativity in his 1981 history Modern Times, it takes it to a whole ‘nother level.
It is instead important to examine the way the social forces at work shape Black women’s standpoint as observers—scientists—with a specific interest in how scientific knowledge is dependent on this specific standpoint. As Jarita Holbrook notes, Black students have their capacity for objectivity questioned simply because their standpoint on racism is different from that of white students and scientists who don’t have to experience its consequences.2 …
In this article, I use a combination of critical race theory, feminist standpoint theory, and contingency theory to show that race and ethnicity do impact epistemic outcomes in physics and that white supremacy in physics produces Black physicists as a permanent ontological Other.
As proof of white supremacy in physics, here is a photo of the 2018 U.S. Physics Team of top high school physics student who represent America in the Physics Olympics:
Prestige asymmetry and the manufacture of white empiricism
Social history insists that identity matters, and since science is a social practice, identity is also a factor of scientific knowledge production. Social practices in the regions that were historically part of the transatlantic slave trade occur in the wake of slavery (Sharpe 2016, 8). Thus, Martin’s prestige asymmetry is a phenomenon that occurs in the wake of slavery in the Americas, in the African continent, and in Europe (Sharpe 2016, 14). Yet Traweek’s particle physicists (interchangeably known as high energy physicists) imagine themselves to be unshackled by this history, as participants in a “culture of no culture” (Traweek 1992, 162).
Martin is concerned by a specific aspect of this nonculture: why particle physics and astrophysics are considered to be more prestigious than condensed matter and materials science (2017). He argues that this prestige asymmetry is evident in and is reproduced in science journalism, which treats advances in particle physics as major intellectual achievements, while advances in condensed matter are regarded as mere material, technological achievements. Here I note, too, that minoritized individuals are discouraged from pursuing lines of work that are considered especially intellectually challenging (Hernandez 2010). Their absence from these lines of work is then proffered as evidence of their lack of adequate preparation or competency.
… Notably, the majority of Black American women who have earned PhDs in physics, astronomy, and related fields have done so in areas on the “wrong” side of prestige asymmetry (see, e.g., Valentine 2018). The most highly esteemed field, high energy physics theory (which covers particles, quantum gravity, and some aspects of cosmology and nuclear physics), has only seen about six completed PhDs by Black American women, with a greater (although still disproportionately low) number going to Black men.
The experiences of Black scientists in professional physics can be described by frameworks developed in the field of social epistemology: epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and conceptual competence injustice.
… Making aggressive behavior a requirement for academic success is especially harmful to Black women, since Black women are demonized for engaging in behaviors that even hint at aggression (Harris-Perry 2011, 89). …
Disentangling physics from the norms of patriarchal white supremacy must begin with an honest accounting of the roots of the Western scientific project in the project of slavery. Slavery is rarely the starting point for discussions of what many of us would call the post–Enlightenment era development of science, which Jonathan Marks helpfully defines as “the production of convincing knowledge in modern society” (2009, 2), but in order to understand the epistemic dismissal of Black women, we must begin with slavery. Science, mathematics, and slavery were intimately connected: whether it was the early evolution of insurance and actuarial science to calculate the value of jettisoned cargo—brutally murdered people—or efforts to minimize the bow wave—the wake—of ships, to make them faster, to speed the movement of kidnapped Africans from the torturous Middle Passage to a tortured lifetime and usually death in the bondage of chattel slavery (Sharpe 2016, 35). Even a century and a half after the end of slavery and with Black intellectuals making inroads in white-dominant academia, they continue to face epistemic injustice, epistemic marginalization, presumed incompetence, and the cognitive dissonance of consciously recognizing the white supremacy that pervades the scientific culture of “no culture” (Traweek 1992, 162).
While Black men in physics face racism-related epistemic challenges, Black women in particular are in a double bind, subject to both racism and sexism. Black women’s unique experiences with sexism are misogynoir, a misogyny that specifically targets Black women (Bailey 2010).4 Perpetrators of misogynoir can include both Black men and non-Black people, necessarily making Black women’s experiences with white supremacist practices in science, including white empiricism, distinct from those of Black men. Misogynoir can take the form of epistemic exploitation, where Black women are expected to educate colleagues and acquaintances about their experiences with sexism and racism (Berenstain 2016; Dancy, Edwards, and Davis 2018). White empiricism is therefore also a tripling down on epistemic exploitation: it involves both exclusion and a demand for labor to explain the experience of exclusion and then disbelief in response to the victim’s testimony (Langton 2000; Gutiérrez y Muhs et al. 2012; McKinnon, forthcoming).
To give a very explicit example of how white empiricism operates within the physics community, I must analyze recent debates about the future of string theory. …
Surveying what should happen next, there are at least three distinct possibilities:
1. Patience is required, and evidence is coming.
2. String theory has failed to succeed in expected ways because the community—which is almost entirely male and disproportionately white relative to other areas of physics—is too homogeneous.
3. The scientific method overly constrains our models to meet certain requirements that no longer serve the needs of physics theory.
… The second option is effectively unconsidered in the literature.
But the Theory of Intersectionality proves that because Women of Color have been marginalized since 1619, they have all these amazing thoughts about how to fix String Theory. That’s why you’ve seen all those opeds in the New York Times recently by young women of color with titles like:
My New String Theory: My Hair Is Not Stringy!
And there’s a whole lot more …
8 Without distracting too much from the main point of this text, it is worth noting that at the time of this writing, there has been no publication of a history of Black women in physics, and this is a future project potentially of interest to the author. Hidden Figures provides some insight into the lives of Black women mathematicians (by training) who became space scientists on the job at NASA (Shetterly 2016; Edwards and Harris 2017). Because these women did not have the opportunity to work as principal investigators, they are not a focus of the text here. But Hidden Figures provides a model for future, needed work that analyzes what is nearing a half century of Black women PhDs in physics, since 1972 (Valentine 2018).
Movie executives, have your people call my people. We should do lunch! The Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Story will sweep the 2022 Oscars.