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Am I paid to be a role model?

November 9, 2010

I’m reading a book of interviews of various science/engineering/business African-Americans. It’s hit or miss. Some are all business and kind of dull, others have some insights or at least interesting stories, particularity those who came of age in the 1960s. I’ve noticed a few interesting things so far:

-The self-made person from nothing narrative is much less common than the people supported me and put me in a good situation narrative. That may seem obvious, but perhaps it needed to be noted.

-One question in particular seems to constantly get shot down by the interviewees. Did you have a mentor? A role model? Perhaps some person who shaped their early development. Something in the vein of what you see in the movies: an anonymous superman like the principal in Lean on Me or half the roles that Denzel plays. Again and again all of these accomplished folks basically say no, not really. The vast majority do mention a person or two who was helpful to them in a somewhat transient way. A high school teacher, fellow student, professor, etc (whom is sometimes black but certainly not always) that gives them a break or points them toward some opportunity. There are no stories about one great person changing the course of their life, professional or otherwise.

That surprised me a little. I thought perhaps my own experience might be atypical. Did I have science role models? Black role models? Both? Neither? First, I’ve never had a black science teacher. Never, not even close. I’ve only had three in any capacity. 1rst grade, 4th grade, 12th grade (religion class). None in college, none in graduate school (K- grad school how many teachers have I had, 50? 75?). I can only even think of one black professor from my college days that I even knew of1. He was a high up admin and would give me a non-perfunctory hello whenever we crossed paths.

My experience seems to be similar to these people. I can think of many folks who have been helpful along the way, at least in some small way. But there’s no one is dominant and virtually none are also black scientists2. Would things have been better for me if there were? I’m not sure. Now that I am essentially a science teacher/researcher I think about that a bit. How I got here and the role I might be playing for the students I interact with. It seems that there’s a actually a decent chance I will be only black scientist they will see in a long while, if not ever3.

1. I should note, there was some diversity in my professors, just none were black.
2. My fellow students are another story and another post.
3. Current department actually has 2 out of 60+ faculty.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 17, 2010 10:28 pm

    Nice post! My experience is the same FWIW. I had no great mentors, just people who helped me out here and there. And I’ve never had a female science teacher (not that I am equating our experiences in that respect). I don’t think that role models necessarily need to look like us or act like us, since many of the scientists I know from underrepresented groups of all kinds don’t have role models from their respective groups.

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