Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry. We're continuing our series: Black, Queer, Rising, highlighting Black LGBTQ+ change makers who are making an impact on our world, or in the case of our next guest, it might be more accurate to say making an impact on our universe.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I really believe the cosmos belongs to us and the cosmos is super queer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an assistant professor of physics and core faculty in Women's and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Chanda is also the author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime & Dreams Deferred. Chanda has a distinct memory of her aha moment.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: My mom was always trying to find enriching activities for me. When I was 10, she took me to see the Errol Morris documentary, A Brief History of Time about Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Hawking: Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain in planet Earth, but to spread out into space.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Halfway through the movie, it clicked in my brain that you could have a job doing math that describes how the universe works, and solving problems that Einstein hadn't worked out. I was a working class kid from east LA. I was like, "I'm doing that. If I can get paid to do math all day. That's sweet." That was basically how I chose particle physics.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If you're not a hardcore math or science person, you might be asking, "Just what is particle physics?"
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I study the smallest constituents that comprise everything in the universe, and also the stuff that we think is in the universe but we can't really see, yet anyway. I'm an expert on dark matter. We think most of the matter in the universe is actually stuff that we can't see, and what we can see is actually a very small fraction of what's out there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The term dark matter is one that Chanda really explores in her book. The work she's done to challenge popular notions around this concept have been eye-opening for me.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I like to tell people that we are the cosmic weirdos, not just because we think humans don't occur very often in the larger universe, but just because anything that we can see, stars, galaxies, gas, dust, all of that is a very small fraction of what's out there. We actually think galaxies are dominated by something that we've come to call dark matter. One of the things that I get into in the book is the name dark matter for it, which I think can misrepresent what it is. It's actually invisible. It doesn't have a color, it's not dark, light goes right through it. You might call it transparent matter. It's not actually dark.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why does it matter that we call it dark?
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: One of the things that I realized in having conversations with people about dark matter, is that when Black people heard the phrase dark matter, they heard something different than maybe what scientists were thinking. That sometimes scientists who are not Black, who thought that they were being really smart with the language thought that they could make some interesting analogies about racism and dark matter, or Black people and dark matter. You also see this come up in Black studies, but usually with very different impulses. What this translates into is that people who have a strong-lived intuition for racism and what race is, we're being misinformed by this analogy between dark matter and Blackness, about what dark matter is as a physical phenomenon.
People who don't really understand race and racism, thinking that it was a really smart analogy, were really misunderstanding the phenomena in the other direction. They weren't really understanding racism through the lens of dark matter. What I argue in the book is that these two things should actually be disconnected from each other because it just leads to misinformation. My primary concern as a Black physicist who does public science writing and is interested in getting science to general audiences, and particularly concerned with Black people hearing that science is for them, that science belongs to us. I want people to understand what dark matter really is. Not through the lens of their experiences with white supremacy, but because the universe is awesome.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think the universe is awesome. My eight-year old, Anna, looked at me the other day and says, "Mom, black holes take everything in, and we're not sure if there are white holes, but we think that there might be and it might be that a white hole made the universe." My only response was, 'I wonder when we have booked Chanda," because I felt like there was a lot going on, not only in the science there. Again, apparently I've also got a little nerdy Black baby here who thinks the universe is awesome. I also cringed in that moment having, again, been working my way through Disordered Cosmos to hear how she was describing black holes and white holes, and what creates and what destroys.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I think one of the things that's really interesting here is that we tend to be socialized into thinking that science is this objective thing, and it doesn't have a relationship with politics or with social phenomena. Of course, all of these words are being selected in a specific social context where blackness has a particular connotation. These words and these phrases are coming up at a time when in certain parts of the world people are referring to Black folks as spooks. They're all of these different ways that these words invoke things socially, and they're tied to a particular time period. The phrase dark matter comes out of the 1930s, and comes out of Western Europe in the 1930s.
In the case of the black hole, that's coming up in the 1960s. That's when research on black holes really takes off. All of the people involved in this work are, in their particular time period, people who would be articulated as white. Not just to us today, but back then. Certainly there's this element of me wanting people to really think about where did these words come from and are they the words that Black people would have come up with if we had had the same opportunity to be participating in science as white men did at that time? I also want to ask, when is your daughter interested in coming to do research in my group?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I do think maybe she should go hang out with you, because I do think I'm going to get some of these answers wrong. I think maybe what I'm most excited about is that she's curious. That she's asking these questions, that she wants to know how these things work. I'm drawn to this point that you're making about our belief somehow that science and math are neutral of social conditions. That those are simply answers that exist in the world that can be found, and they're not gendered. They're not raised. There's not presumptions around self-presentation of sexuality or identity. You really work through or, I think, are helping many of us work through and break through that idea. In fact, in 2020, organized a strike for Black lives along with another physicist, Brian Nord.
Talk to me about the importance of understanding that science, that math are not neutral, and outside of these important social, political and power questions.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Just to tie it to what you were saying about your daughter, Black curiosity matters. I think that that's actually a statement that needs to be said, in the same way that we need to say that Black lives matter. In some ways, there's a version of that where it's like, "Well that's obvious,' but it's clearly not structurally built into how our systems function. That is a point that we need to be vocal about, and Black curiosity about dark matter matters. Black curiosity about black holes matter. When Brian and I worked with the rest of, we have a crew called Particles for Justice that was responsible for putting the strike for Black lives together in coordination with a group of astronomers shut down stem.
When we started talking about having a strike for Black lives, and Brian is a fellow Black cosmologist, we were thinking to ourselves, "Look, we need to make the point to the community that loves to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion." This is like the hot words that people are throwing around all the time, that when you talk about inclusion of a Black scientist, if you're not talking about whether that Black scientist is safe in their bedroom in the middle of the night, then you're not really talking about making sure that that Black person can do science.
If you're not talking about, is their mama safe, their brothers, their cousins, all the people that we got to worry about, then you're not really talking about making space for Black scientists to just do their work and to be curious, because being a scientist isn't just about being in the lab, being in your office. It's about being able to get safely to your lab, get safely to your office and have the mental space to actually focus and sit and wonder about the universe and that requires a freedom that we are denied in the current conditions that we live in.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I need the Black curiosity matters. I'm keep sitting with all of the different possibilities that emerge from thinking about exactly the idea that the things we're curious about are relevant. You talked about the particle physics community being intensely white and male, not just demographically but also culturally. How does that shape what we seem to be curious about in that field?
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I'm going to reference your work here because it was really instrumental for me in framing what I think happens, which is that in Sister Citizen you talk about Black women and citizenship trying to stand up straight in a crooked room. I really feel like that's often what we're trying to do in physics. We're trying to take on this identity of physicists and at the same time at every turn having people tell us like, "People like you didn't really do science until white people taught it to your people." If someone says, 'I had an experience with racism or microaggressions," you have people coming to you and saying, "Are you sure that you understood what happened to you?"
Your entire capacity to interpret the world around you is constantly being questioned, whether it's your inherited cultural capacity or your individual capacity. That means that people who come in really excited about physics, I think the scary thing when we think about little eight-year-old girls who are excited about black holes is what happens to them when they walk into their frosh physics class in their first year at university and look around the room and feel like an outsider and then people start treating them like an outsider. Then suddenly, it's hard to be excited about science anymore. Maybe she doesn't stay in that classroom.
Obviously, I fight hard so that those girls feel they can stay there, those non-binary people feel like they can stay there. When they choose not to be in the room, which is choice, air quotes. When they feel forced out of the room, they're taking their ideas with them. If we extend this forward to, for example, African American women, Black women more broadly who have earned PhDs in physics, so few of us stay in the academy at the faculty level that it means that we are not here to advocate for the ideas that were in our dissertations, that were in our post doctoral work. Those are whole lines of thought that are getting dropped because we're getting shoved out of the room.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On exactly that, do you have a message for Black Queer young folks who are curious, who are interested and who are feeling that hand on their back not supporting them, but pushing them out of the room?
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: The advice that I always give to my mentees is that if you're going to leave, let it be your choice and not somebody else's. That is an easy piece of advice to give in some sense. It hurts me to say it, but I can say words. It is a harder piece of advice to follow. The important thing to remember is, as Robert Jones says in his beautiful new novel, The Prophets, "The cosmos is on your side." I really believe the cosmos belongs to us and the cosmos is super Queer. It's just super Queer, because it's strange. Particle physics is some weird stuff. You own that, don't let anybody take that away from you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say one more bit about the Queer universe.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I will just say, particles can be waves or they can be like little billiard balls. They can be the same thing at the same time, so this is called wave particle duality. That's basically they're non-binary. As an example of how things are Queer, they are non-binary. I heard an interview with a non-binary drag queen, British-Iraqi drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi, who made this comment when a broadcaster was asking them, basically something along the lines of, "How do you convince people that being non-binary is natural?" Amrou was just like, "Particles come that way." [laughs]
Melissa Harris-Perry: This conversation is part of our series Black, Queer, Rising. Let me go ahead and ask, when you hear Black, Queer, Rising, what does it mean to you?
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I think one of the coolest things I did in 2021 was participate in an event that was celebrating Black Queer Scientists. to be embraced in that way and to see that there are others out there and it's not just me, for me that's part of it. It's like "We're out here, we're doing science.' One of the chapter titles in my book is, Space Time is not Straight. Originally I texted a friend as a joke. I was like, "I can't really call this chapter, space time isn't straight?" He was like, "Why not? You absolutely can." For me, part of Black, Queer, Rising is being able to have my own book and put my Black Queer stamp on it.
That's part of what we're doing and I hope to see this as a door opening and not the end of the conversation, but really the beginning of the conversation. Along those lines, I'm really excited for Dr. Moiya McTier, she's a Black bisexual astronomer. She has a book coming out this summer called The Milky Way: An Autobiography. I'm not going to be the last one, even though I may have been among the first. I'm really excited for that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Isn't that always the point? Sometimes we have no control of being the first, but we should never, ever, ever be the last. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Core Faculty Member in Women's Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Chanda, thank you so much for joining The Takeaway.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Thank you so much for having me.
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