a token for your thoughts

A friend of mine recently told me that me being who I am, I will have interview invitations left and right and will have employers throwing themselves at me. There was a small pause between all she said before and “being who I am.” The silence read – black woman scientist. She made this allusion multiple times in our conversation. While I know this to be true, have known it for some time, I still don’t know how I feel about it.

Yes, people like me don’t come around that often. There aren’t a lot of black women scientists, especially those in the field I’m in. I just don’t know how comfortable I feel being commodified. Granted, by getting various degrees we turn ourselves into “commodities” almost by default, trying to build skill sets that will make us the most marketable, getting those pieces of paper that “prove” we are readily employable. Then, the application and interview processes puts us at the mercy of academic institutions who will sift through us, pluck us out of applicant pools, examine and test us, and see if we’re shiny enough to place amongst all the other pieces/people in their collection/institution. This happens for most everybody applying to academic jobs. But I feel the process takes on another level as a woman of color, and yet another level as a woman of color in STEM fields. Especially when the job ads include a line encouraging “women/minorities” to apply (I will refrain from the “ain’t i a woman?”-esque statement I always want to make when I read “women and minorities”).

Say I apply to a job with that encouragement and I get chosen to interview or get the job. Was it because I’m awesome and fit the job requirements, or was it because I’m a woman of color? I imagine that their internal dialogues would read like “wouldn’t that be great to add to the our collection of science professors, a sparkly woman of color? We’d get a twofer!” I believe this is a fair assumption. Now, I know I wouldn’t get an interview or job without meeting the requirements, but my WOC status certainly plays a role, especially at majority white institutions.

So how comfortable do I feel with this? On the one hand, I want to feel like I got the interview/offer/position on merit. I want to know that I moved forward/ahead because of what I’ve done in my work, or what I can offer. Not because my shear existence would diversify their department/school. But on the flip side, I want to do just that – diversify that department, diversify this field, add some color. Show that I cannot be ignored. Show that I cannot be discounted. Show my face and show that I exist in the academy.

It’s interesting because I almost shy away from using the word “merit” or from saying I want to know that I move ahead based on my work. I even hesitated before I wrote it above. I say this because I am reminded of a conversation I had with my mother where I was expressing this to her. To paraphrase, she said she could see where I was coming from, but asked “how many of you are out there?” How many of us have gotten that far? How many of us are doing big things? So you don’t exactly know the motives of the people/institutions that help move you up or forward, but does it matter? At the end of the day you get to where you want to go, regardless of why you got the chance, and do what you know you can do, regardless of what they think you are or aren’t capable of doing.

It’s this constant tug-of-war with feelings of being tokenized vs. proudly being. As I get older I move away from the “I want to know I got x because of my work…” thinking/feeling, especially as I’m constantly reminded that many things in this country don’t work on a meritocracy. But even as I move away from it, I have to admit that the feeling still lingers. Not so much the feeling of getting ahead on merit, but the fear of being the token.

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