TPM Cafe: Opinion

When A Black Female Scientist Gets Called An 'Urban Whore'

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Lee is certainly more than qualified to seek pay for her writing. She is an established writer and accomplished scientist who earned her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and did her post-doctoral work at Oklahoma State University. She is also a black woman, and it is impossible to fully understand the implications of Ofek's slur without the contextualizing her identity within some basic facts about the scientific community.

In representational terms, women continue to lag behind men in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields: Women make up less than 20 percent of full professors in these disciplines. Women of color are an even smaller minority -- though they make up 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, a recent study found that women of color represent only 2.3 percent of the tenured or tenure-track faculty in STEM-related fields. Women of color holding Ph.D. are statistically less likely than their white and male counterparts to ever make full professor. In the STEM world, and academia in general, the odds are stacked against women of color like Lee. That's part of what makes Lee's educational accomplishments all the more incredible.

In a political setting, which demands that people of color pick themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and overcome institutional racism through hard work and dedication, it is telling that a black woman as intelligent, accomplished and professional as Lee is subject to such offensive ridicule when she refuses to work for free. Here is a black woman who has obtained the highest level of education possible, who is a well-respected scientist and writer. On the surface, Lee has done everything that neoliberalism has demanded of her, yet as soon as she politely declines an offer to work for free, she is labeled a whore.

By calling Lee an "urban whore," the Biology-Online editor was essentially chastising her for not taking what she could get. The editor couldn't possibly understand how this black woman wouldn't jump at the chance to work for free, given that women of color are so rarely featured in publications, scientific or otherwise. This offensive slur reinforces the notion that women of color should be thrilled with the meager scraps they are thrown, and that they should smile and nod while doing so.

Biology-Online reports that "Ofek" the editor has been fired, and rightly so. But the fact that someone felt entitled enough to represent the site while so viciously deriding a black female scientist speaks volumes to little regarded women of color are in this context. Perhaps Ofek thought that Lee would silently take the slur, as women of color are so often expected to do. Or perhaps Ofek assumed that even if Lee did go public with the horrific incident, that the scientific community wouldn't take it seriously. Given that Lee's original post on her "Urban Scientist" blog was originally deleted by Scientific American because the post wasn't considered germane to the topic of discussing science, this assertion wasn't completely wrong. In response to public outcry, the post has since been re-instated.

Women of color are certainly no strangers to racism and sexism, and understanding their lived experiences of those oppressions is vital if STEM fields are going to become more welcoming to women of color. Efforts to increase diversity with STEM fields, like the Center for STEM Diversity at Tufts University, or the Tapestry Workshop, which helps STEM teachers recruit and retain girls in STEM fields at the middle and high school level, are an important step in diversifying this predominantly white, male field. These efforts, and others like them, should aim to center marginalized people and eschew a compartmentalized notion of existence in favor of an identity-based understanding of how we live. Diversity efforts in STEM fields must remember that one's lived experience within varying identities is not tangential, but integral to helping them succeed.

We should applaud Dr. Danielle N. Lee's bravery in the face of such an offensive slur and her pursuit of the highest level of education, despite overwhelming odds against women of color like her. May this be the beginning of a more holistic understanding of identity, in STEM fields and beyond.

Lauren Rankin is a feminist writer and activist. Her work has appeared at publications such as Salon, RH Reality Check and TruthOut. Currently a graduate student in Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, she focuses on reproductive politics and the political use of sexual shame. Follow her on twitter at @laurenarankin.

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