White Supremacy Culture in Physics

In Tema Okun’s writing, White Supremacy culture, various attributes of workplaces and attitudes that help enforce a culture of white supremacy are outlined. There are three that I believe are huge factors in the culture and world of physicists that reinforce a population of male physicists, as described by Sharon Traweek’s Beam times and Lifetimes, and those are a sense of urgency, individualism, and objectivity.

  1. Sense of Urgency — Okun describes this sense of urgency as something that prevents inclusivity and allies. By focusing too much on achieving visible data, one might only focus on one population of interest, take less time coming to thoughtful conclusions, or work with less people to come to a final finding. In Traweek’s piece, it was made clear that this sense of urgency is prevalent in the community of physicists. They are constantly trying to come up with the next big idea or concept, and how important those findings are in their culture is likely to influence them to cut corners or to narrow their focus. This can lead to physics findings only being applicable to certain, likely privileged communities, but it could also have affects on the population of the workplace too. If already existing scientists are mostly focused on producing visible achievements, they aren’t looking for the input of “outsiders”. So, for a community that is currently male dominated, that means it is likely to stay that way for the sake of fast production of results.
  2. Individualism — Okun describes people who are individualistic to be unable or not used to working with a team, and want to solve their problems alone. This adds to the idea of a sense of urgency, in a way, since that also results in limited viewpoints, but goes even further because of the way our culture idolizes successful scientific figures. The field of physics has become so individualized because of the way that we honor famous scientists. We always remember them solely for their work, not their team of people who helped them. There is a growing idea off of this that in order to be a successful physicist you yourself has to make groundbreaking discoveries. And on top of that, almost every well known physicist, and scientist even, is a man. When you think of a physicist, most people likely would imagine a man, and therefore, even if not intentionally, look for those qualities in someone up and coming in the field.
  3. Objectivity — One of the greatest shortcomings of science, I think, is the belief that it can be unbiased. Any information that comes from a person has a viewpoint, and cannot simply be identified as neutral. Okun talks about how objective parties believe that emotions are disruptive and unnecessary. Physicists and scientists alike try to form their field around true, unyielding findings, but that can not always actually be the case. The pride themselves on their current discoveries and methods, and talk back on old ways of doing things as there’s are inherently better, and never acknowledging that their ways could eventually become old news as well (Traweek). In addition to that, though, this also means that they do not recognize the need for different viewpoints in their labs. If they all believe that their findings are neutral, it wouldn’t matter who found them. This is not the case however, but it does influence the amount of women and minorities allowed to enter into the field. The already existing male domination will not likely be broken if the don’t see a need to use different perspectives other than their own.

Reflecting on both pieces from Okun, outlining ideas of white supremacy culture, and Traweek, depicting the experiences and cultures within the scientific community, it is clear that they continually enforce one another. Already existing culture and ways of doing things allows for a continued male dominated field, and doesn’t allow them to see how changing could make a positive influence. Because they are so focused on discoveries, and making those discoveries, themselves, and because our society praises male figures in the historical and present world of science, women and minorities have a very difficult time integrating and entering these professions.

Fall 2020 LB 492 011