I am married to a beautiful, intelligent Black man. He’s been Black the entire time I’ve known him. He’s not “special Black”–of African or Caribbean descent–he’s “regular” Black, with roots in South Carolina and Florida. I feel compelled to say all that because of what I’m going to say next. My husband is a chemist. He’s a Black chemist.
For people who understand there is no limit to the realm of potential in a Black man, that statement isn’t revolutionary. I let the words slip out of my mouth easily because I have known him 11 years. He’s been a chemist that entire time. But I know that for many other people, a Black male chemist (or just scientist, period) is an oddity. So when I meet new people, the conversation has gone like this:
New Acquaintance: So what brought you to DC?
Me: My husband got a job here.
New Acquaintance: Oh, cool! Is he in the military or something?
Me: Nah, he’s a chemist.
New Acquaintance: A chemist?! Is he White?
Me: Nope. He’s Black.
New Acquaintance: MIND. BLOWN.
People have been asking if my husband is White because it’s inconceivable that he is a Black scientist.
I’ve gotten this response several times, and it never fails to dismay me. I don’t think people say it out of malice. I don’t even think they say it because I’ve given any indication I’m a “White guys only” type of chick. They tell me this because Black + scientist is so anomalous to them.
When I was growing up, I didn’t know any scientists at all, let alone Black ones in my community. The current popularity of encouraging kids toward STEM fields probably grew from that lack. Even though men still outnumber women in STEM, Black men are severely underrepresented in STEM fields. People do not “see” a Black man when they think “scientist.” But I have to admit, it does bother me.
The disbelief that a Black man can be a scientist impacts my husband in other ways than just errant conversations where his wife must set folks straight. For my husband’s peers and colleagues, it is also unbelievable that this relatively young, Black male is a chemist (with a Ph.D.)
Black people in STEM in general, and especially women, have to constantly prove themselves professionally in every interaction. My husband tells me that when he goes to STEM conferences with majority White scientists, they grill him in private conversations. They’ll try to informally test his knowledge of chemistry like he must demonstrate he belongs in that space. And when they feel he “deserves” to be there, as if he has to prove anything to them, they relax, switch to sports, trivialities. It gets tiring.
I also make sure to mention he graduated from an HBCU. Here’s why.
Even among Black people, there’s a misconception that HBCUs give subpar education. White academics also quietly hold this belief. What’s funny: HBCUs produce more Black STEM and medical professionals than other colleges.
When HBCU grads do make it into the room, they are tokenized by White counterparts. You only got here because your HBCU received a handout. Not only do White STEM professionals silently judge you for being one of a few minorities in predominantly White fields, but if you come from an HBCU? They see you as having been an undeserved recipient of Affirmative Action twice over. It would be one thing to resent Affirmative Action for overpopulating predominately White, STEM fields with Black professionals.
THAT DOESN’T OCCUR.
Black males are so underrepresented that the mere presence of one, from a Black college, instantly makes White scientists suspicious. They get mad that you’re in the space AT ALL. So many STEM conferences with super-small percentages of POC/Black professionals and they’re mad at it. Or, as my husband also experienced, it makes White scientists feel proud of themselves for even having one Black man in the room.
Plot Twist: The people who assume he’s White…are Black.
But it’s not really a plot twist. Representation matters in Black communities. All the Black scientists I heard of were Black History Month fodder: Garrett Morgan (inventor of the traffic signal), Charles Drew (pioneer of blood transfusions), George Washington Carver (botanist, patron saint of the peanut). But what of modern day scientists like Lonnie Johnson, who invented the Super Soaker? I knew a little of Mae Jemison as a kid, but not enough to pique interest in STEM fields. Black communities need up-close-and-personal folks they can touch to normalize Black STEM professionals.
We are starting with my daughters. At home, when Beanie asks why the toilet seat gets warm after you sit on it, my husband puts on his scientist hat. “Thermodynamics,” he answers. He breaks the word down into syllables, breaks the concept down into 5-year-old terms, breaks the barriers of STEM for a little Black girl. We grow green beans, peppers, and basil in window sill pots because he wants Bean to be exposed to different kinds of science. He volunteers at local school science fairs and takes our family to events like this upcoming Math Festival in DC.
My husband has made science a part of our lives because it is a part of him. I could not imagine life without him explaining the molecular structure of silicon dioxide at dinner. I’ve learned so much from him, especially this: With every interaction, we will slowly change the perception of Black (male) brilliance. To me, it is absurd that the man I married must be White because he is a scientist. One day, conversely, it’ll be inconceivable that a scientist married to a Black woman could be anything but Black.