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MIT Technology Review

Dismantling the racist mindset

Making MIT welcoming to Black students begins with teaching our children to be antiracist— and learning how ourselves.

August 18, 2020
Corban SwainCorban Swain
PhD student Corban Swain is developing microscopes to study brain activity.
Nathan Fiske

It was March 2012, and I can still remember the feeling of going to the mailbox and seeing that silver tube. The red-and-black confetti inside truly marked the accomplishment of a lifetime: I was accepted into MIT. The previous summer I, a bright-eyed Black boy a long way from the Alabama sun, had spent an incredible week in Cambridge at the E2@MIT summer experience. After learning about the biosciences at the Broad Institute, getting to know students from all over the country, and jumping in the ball pit in Simmons Hall, I’d undoubtedly put MIT at the top of my list of colleges. I was ecstatic and could not wait to share the news with everyone I knew.

One of the first places I wanted to share was in my high school physics class—one of my favorite classes. I had immense respect for my teacher, who had poured his wisdom into me for nearly three years; he’d taught me big things like how to solve equations of kinematics and made sure I also understood the importance of seemingly small things. (“Always WRITE YOUR UNITS” was a constant refrain.) I carry his knowledge with me to this day as I mentor students in 8.02. However, after I shared my news with the class, the first thing my physics teacher said was “Well, [name] applied too, and it seems he did not get in with the same AP scores—I wonder why that is?” His comment trailed off with that lingering, loaded question. Unbeknownst to me, another student in my class, a white student, had applied to MIT and had not been accepted. 

Honestly, this refrain is one I hear too often as a Black student. It initiates an internal dialogue of self-doubt. You say to yourself, “Oh, maybe he’s right—maybe I didn’t deserve to be accepted.” Then you say to yourself, “This doesn’t make sense—why is there no moment of celebration? Why is there only a question—an asterisk—next to who I am?” And then you begin the work to internally outline the tutoring hours and the artistic pursuits and the science projects that may be among the reasons you were accepted and someone else wasn’t. This internal conversation is the time-consuming effort that Toni Morrison describes: “The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” 

Beyond distraction, the most insidious aspect of the comment my teacher made is the culture and the mindset behind it. It is the mindset that creates scholarship programs aimed at increasing diversity while remaining ignorant of how educational disparities are connected to lack of funding: non-white school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts even though both serve the same number of students. 

It is the mindset that blames both the death of George Floyd and the disproportionate lethality of covid-19 for Black Americans on underlying health conditions when the former is due to racist police brutality and the latter to inequities in health care access and air and water quality, as well as other structural factors.

It is the mindset that led professors to tell Black students at MIT to “go somewhere and do things you people can do,” as reported in a survey of Black students who attended between 1969 and 1985. And it has left us dealing now with a “lack of administrative investment in confronting and changing the institutional climate,” as a 2017 report commissioned by the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education put it. 

Ultimately, it is the mindset that allows us to barely recognize anti-Black racism around us and remain blind to the ways we uphold and perpetuate racist ideas within ourselves. 

Although I ended up deciding for financial reasons not to attend MIT as an undergrad, I’m now in my fourth year as a PhD student in biological engineering at the Institute. And as a student, I often get asked, “How can we make the MIT community more welcoming for Black students?” Many resources and recommendations—most of which exist thanks to the leadership of Black women—address that question in detail. (For example, I encourage you to read the 2020 Petition to Support Black Lives at MIT, which you can find at bgsa.mit.edu/sbl2020.) But I will leave you with my personal answer:

Teach your children to be antiracist. Teach them the breadth of Black and Indigenous history left out of schoolbooks. Teach them not to be silent in the face of jokes and anecdotes that perpetuate racist ideas. Take them to a protest and teach them to march for Black lives. Teach them to vote for policies that acknowledge and deconstruct institutionalized discrimination. Teach them to sacrifice their privileges and financial power for the sake of those unheard and unseen.

If you do not, they will default to the mindset I described above—to the culture that is already present. They will become students, professors, and leaders who will make comments and take actions that perpetuate the very devaluation of Black people that led me to write this. But if you do teach them, they will contribute to the dismantling of racism in themselves and in their communities. They will begin to embody what a full picture of a “welcoming MIT” and a welcoming world looks like.

I approach this as someone who is continually learning. I do not have all the answers, and I am still growing in my understanding of how to effectively fight against racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry within myself. But my posture as a lifelong student does not keep me from changing, acting, and teaching at the same time. 

So I hope that as you teach your children—even before you teach your children—you will take the time to learn, change, and act yourself. The humanity of all of us depends on it.

Corban Swain is a PhD student in biological engineering at MIT.

At the MIT Community Vigil held in June in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Corban Swain read two of his poems on racism.