A Taxing Burden: On Being a Minority in Academia

MinorityBurden

It’s weird to be in a place that was never meant to include someone [that looks] like me.

That’s a (slightly paraphrased) quote from a conversation I had with a woman of color and graduate student, following our conversation about the state of our university’s diversity.

“Especially when you see all those pictures of old, white men hanging on the walls of some of the seminar rooms,” I replied, half-joking. After which she exclaimed that I was the first person she’s known to comment on this. Others, she’s mentioned, just didn’t really get it.

I’m a PhD student at Caltech and as you may have already guessed, I’m also an underrepresented minority. Person of color? Check. Woman in science? Check. First-generation student? From a low-income background? Check. Check. But, if I’m being honest, I never thought too much about my “minority status.” Granted, that’s likely because I’ve lived a privileged life where being a minority never played a big impact on my life. Nevertheless “minority” was still a label I wore proudly. Yet, for some reason, the word has started to take on a different meaning, lately.

Now, it just makes me feel tired…and a bit lonely, too.

But, why now? I mean, college was a struggle, but university life was never felt quite this isolating. It is only upon entering grad school where I really felt like a minority–really felt like I don’t belong. What changed?

Well, because I’m a scientist, I did some investigating.*  

My alma mater is the University of California, Riverside (UCR). For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on their science and engineering colleges. When I entered as a freshman in 2011, undergraduates in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS) was made up of 51% women and 33% underrepresented (racial) minorities. UCR also lists how many CNAS undergrads identified as first-generation (~50%) and/or low-income students (~49%), all numbers which are comparable with their engineering college, with the exception of gender. Women made up only 19% of UCR engineering majors. Now, UCR gets minus points for the poor gender balance amongst their engineers, but overall it’s actually pretty amazing seeing these numbers written out. Because, though I am a minority in more ways than one, I can honestly say that at UCR I was just one of the crowd.

Let’s compare this to Caltech. Overall, the school as a gender balance of 36% female and 64% male. However, if you split this up between undergrad and grad students, undergrads actually have a more even gender ratio of 45 to 55% female-to-male, while grad students, on the other hand, have a 30/70 split. As far as racial minorities go, it gets worse. They make up 16% of undergrads and only 5% of grad students, and though Caltech doesn’t present any data on the percentage of students who are first generation or come from low-income backgrounds, I can only assume these numbers are also quite low as well, especially when you consider that you’re statistically more likely to fall under those categories if you’re a racial minority.

Looking at these two schools, I feel that at UCR, I could scream into the crowd and get a least a handful people could relate to me in one way or another… I would bet that there were many students that could read the plethora of articles discussing the disadvantages minorities face in academia and from experience say, “Yeah. That makes sense.” However, the purpose of this post is not to praise one school over the other. Because though UCR’s demographics look impressive at the undergrad level, their diversity diminishes as you move higher up the ivory tower. Though women make up the majority of CNAS graduate students (54%), only 22% identify as racial minorities. Move up another rung to faculty as a whole (school-wide) and the population becomes more male (30% women) and white (10% racial minorities). More so for tenured professors.

Now, I don’t have these statistics for Caltech, but I do have eyes and it’s troubling to realize that diversity has such a strong, negative relationship to your height on the academic ladder. It honestly feels as if at some point on their academic journey, women and minority students just throw up their hands and say “Fuck it. I’m out.” And as I stand here in the intersection of gender and race, I can totally see why! That’s right, I can honestly say from experience, “yeah, that makes sense.

It makes sense for a multitude of reasons; reasons that have been the basis of articles upon articles discussing this very topic. But I would like to focus on one reason in particular that is often touched on but rarely talked about from a student’s perspective: “minority tax.”

Because even though universities love to boast about their diversity centers and their constant efforts to recruit women and minority students, it’s often these same students that are forced to fight for increased diversity when they discover their campuses are not as inclusive as they thought. Planning diversity events. Organizing community outreach. Figuring out where resources are lacking and how that can best be corrected? All of these things take time and effort, most of which, unfortunately, occurs during normal work hours… The times we’re expected to be working. Times we’re expected to be in the lab.

See the problem here?

And I would like to add that you don’t have to be actively engaging in these diversity initiatives to feel this “tax.” I say this from experience. Because though I’m ashamed to admit it, I have actively tried to avoid these kinds of things in the past to avoid being labeled as “that girl.” You know, that overly enthusiastic, Latina Millennial that’s ungrateful for the opportunities she’s been given. But no matter how hard I tried, I’m still often put in situations where I am forced to engage in one way or another. Like when male professors overemphasize the word “woman” or “female” every time they talk about accomplishments of a scientists that happens to not be a man. Or when I have to explain to white colleagues that many reasons why our university is likely lacking in diversity. Or, even more subtle, when white colleagues make snide comments about people eating “weird food” whenever the office or break room “smells” after lunch. Because it never crosses their mind that what smells weird to the majority is absolutely normal to me. In fact, to me, it just smells like home. 

Again I stress, these are not situations which I chose to be in but I was forced into nonetheless because I’m still considered an anomaly. And when I choose to fight there’s such a gigantic barrier in the way that sometimes I question if it’s worth the effort. I am always forced to educate, but not everyone is willing to learn. And I can go on and propose many solutions that have been given time and time again, such as increasing diversity of faculty and blah blah blah. But when solution to alleviate this “tax” remains nothing short of a paradigm shift, there’s no question why many minorities decide it’s no longer worth it to bear this burden.

*Disclaimer: In this text, underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities refer to students who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, mostly because Caltech uses this definition and it makes it easier to compare statistics. This does not mean I necessarily agree with this definition, but I shall keep my opinion on this to myself. Also when I talk about gender, I refer almost entirely to cis-men and cis-women. This is not by any means a way to ignore the issues of non-binary or trans people. I see you. I just don’t feel comfortable talking about a demographic that I’m not a part of and statistics on this demographic are very hard to find…

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