As I walk into Black Feminist Thought for the first time, I feel like I'm walking into a party. The Nicki Minaj and Beyonce collaboration of Flawless is playing, the energy is high, and I'm surrounded by friends. In Black Feminist Thought, we read essays, books, and articles by amazing women and men such as Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, and W.E.B Du Bois. Although it's only been a few weeks, this class has made me think about the world in a completely new way. It has made me realize the urgency of black feminism, that if black women are free, we all are. I feel blessed to be included in a space where we can talk openly about the intersections of race and gender in hopes of dismantling systems of institutionalized oppression.
So why are there no white guys there?
The class is one of the more diverse at Brandeis, no doubt. English classes are mostly white women, Economics white men -- research has shown the race and gender divides in humanities versus STEM again and again. "Several studies have documented the relatively low representation of women, blacks, and Hispanics with degrees in the sciences and engineering," according to Lisa Dickson, professor of Economics at the University of Maryland. So, why is it unlikely for women and people of color to pursue engineering degrees? Dickson identifies four reasons why race and gender can affect college major choices-
1. Differences in college prep. Students who don't do well in math before college are unlikely to pursue engineering when they get there.
2. Likelihood to switch majors. Women, blacks, and Hispanics who begin in engineering are more likely to switch majors.
3. Monetary rewards for each major. Studies have found that women receive unequal returns from the same major as men.
4. Personal preference.
What none of these reasons can answer is -- why are women and minorities less likely to have the math skills when they get to college? Why are men more likely to stick with an engineering major? Why do men just seem to prefer STEM jobs?
Any student who spends a week at a liberal arts college will quickly learn about the different ways that races and genders are socialized. While girls are given Barbies, boys are given blocks. The differences are systematic, institutionalized. So it shouldn't come to as a surprise that a class as far away from STEM as Black Feminist Thought should be almost completely devoid of white men.
In class one day, a black man brought up the lack of white men. "I see a lot of different faces, black faces, white faces, but the white faces are all women." The people at the top of the social totem pole, white men, were largely absent from the discussion.
"I don't recruit people," our professor Jasmine Johnson said. "I'm just happy you're all in the room."
I understand Professor Johnson's unwillingness to recruit people into our class. With a nearly full lecture hall of passionate students, why should she reach out to be who simply aren't interested?
Historically, white women have been among the first of the free to take stands against slavery. White middle class women, who may have felt constrained by marriage and domestic life, "felt a certain affinity with Black women and men, for whom slavery meant whips and chains," Angela Davis writes in her book Women, Race, and Class. Even though the slavery/marriage comparison may have been severely flawed, it led to a rise of women abolitionists during the 1830s. However, it wasn't until white men became involved that slavery could become eradicated. White men, who held the most power in society, could evoke change in a way that women and people of color simply could not. Clearly, things have changed since slavery. But gaps between race and gender still exist, privileging the white man over every other group.
With the risk of sounding preachy, I will end with this.
To the white men of my school: take a class on race and gender. Learn why "only the black woman can say 'when and where I enter... race enters with me,'" as Anna Julia Cooper wrote in 1892. Talk to people you may not encounter in computer science or physics classes -- hear about their experiences, and why they are different from yours. Or, at the very least, come for the Nicki Minaj.