Last weekend, I was a panelist on the Engineering Gals “Black Women in STEM Gals Chat”. In our chat, I offered the perspective of what it meant to be an Afro-Latina during this time in my respective field. It was one of the best panels I’ve had the privilege of being part of, and I was surrounded by some amazing, smart, and beautiful Black women. For those that are interested, you can check out the video below the post.
I identify as an Afro-Latina, as my mother is African-American and Puerto Rican, and my father is Nicaraguan. I’m aware that my light complexion may not indicate that I am a black woman, but I am indeed black and proud of it. I want to preface this entire post by saying that because it is important to understand that there is no single Black experience, as we all have different origins, languages, and cultures.
What is an Afro-Latinx?
So what exactly is an Afro-Latinx? To put it in simplest terms: a Latinx person who acknowledges, understands, and embraces their African roots. In history class, we learned that the Slave Trade took slaves from Africa and placed them across the Americas. However, you may not remember that when coming across Univision or Telemundo. Many Latinx cultures have large Black populations as shown by this graphic from the Pew Research Center on Afro-Descendents in Latin America.
It wasn’t until recently that some Latin American countries started to allow their citizens to identify as Black. And even self-identification is an issue because many Latinx don’t want to identify as Black due to the internalized racism.
So you see, Afro-Latinx people in the United States are conflicted right now. We are empathizing and fighting alongside other Black Americans while trying to dismantle racism across the entire Americas.
Black and Latinxs in STEM Education
I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a problem within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field. In terms of representation, Blacks and Latinx make up 9% and 7% of the STEM workforce, respectively. Yikes!
What is the cause of the problem? If you were on Twitter earlier this month, you might have seen some tweets floating around about #BlackInTheIvory which detailed Black STEM students’ experiences with racism in educational institutions. Latinx and Black students leave the STEM field at higher rates than their white counterparts (about 37%, 40% respectively, and 29%). While it’s hard to quantify the reason, the stories shared center around race-driven exclusions, microaggressions, unconscious biases, and a lack of community.
I battled with this in college, as I was originally a Computer Science major. I was enthusiastic about it, having done web design for so long and wanting more of a challenge. I had a classmate, who was also Black, and we were the only two Black students in our classes. Our professors would purposely target us, wouldn’t give us any aid, and just overall made us feel like we didn’t belong, while our other classmates excelled. Shortly after, we both switched to become business majors.
Retaining Black and Latinxs Workers in STEM
If a Black or Latinx person can make it past the issues in STEM education, they often face another hurdle in their careers: staying at their jobs. Much like colleges, many STEM fields have an issue with retaining their Black and Latinx workers. 62% of Black workers and 42% of Latinx workers say they have experienced racial or ethnic discrimination at work.
Racism and discrimination often play into other factors that cause companies to lose their Black and Latinx workforce, such as lack of diversity, upward growth, and pay disparity.
Note that the statistics above are solely based on Black and Latinx workers overall. It’s important to understand the issues both groups experience because Afro-Latinx workers in STEM can technically be in both groups. The statistics for women are a different story and topic entirely.
I acknowledge that I have a different STEM experience than most. My field of work, where I work and live, and the companies I have worked for are all contributing factors to my experience. But one thing I can say is that I have experienced workplace discrimination. I’ve dealt with countless microaggressions regarding my hair, my gender, the languages I speak, my name not being a typical “Latino name,” and the way I speak. There have been STEM events that I have attended, where I haven’t seen a single Black person present aside from myself.
What Can We Do About It?
First, people and corporations need to acknowledge how institutional racism affects Black people in the United States, and within STEM fields. I’m not just talking about the PR statements that have been floating across our timelines for the last few weeks. They need to put their money and resources into action.
Invest in emotional and cultural company-wide training. I’m talking more than just showing slides of M.L.K. quotes. Training should foster open dialogue and support for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Make employees feel understood and seen.
Invest in underserved communities with limited access to STEM education and resources. This could be done by forming or sponsoring clubs and groups in schools and reaching out to universities that are not part of the “normal” recruitment pipeline. There’s not a shortage of BIPOC talent, but there is a shortage of companies who do the work to truly find it.
For those in a place of privilege or have the opportunity to advocate for others, do it! Hold ourselves and the companies we work for accountable for the changes they are promising.
The faster we fix the diversity problem in STEM, the faster we can change the world.
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