In March, Martha Gilmore delivered an unusually moving keynote lecture at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Woodlands, Texas. Woven into a talk about the geology of Venus was a challenge for the mostly white, mostly male audience to think deeply about who is — or rather, who is not — doing research in this field.

According to data from the American Geosciences Institute, people from under-represented minority groups — including Black people — made up less than 6.7% of those awarded geoscience doctorates in 2019. And the proportion of those who continue in geoscience in some capacity shrank from 23% in 2010 to 19% in 2017.

“If I’m under-represented, then white folks are over-represented by definition,” said Gilmore, who is Black and a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “So what I’m going to ask you to do is think about, scientifically, why that’s an issue.”

A protective bubble

Gilmore fell in love with geoscience as a child in the 1980s — first through watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series, and then at what she laughingly calls “nerd camp”, a summer science programme for high-school students at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In those early years, she lived in what she calls her parents’ protective bubble. She knew she wanted to be a scientist, she knew she loved rocks, and nobody in her orbit deigned to tell her that she couldn’t or shouldn’t.

It was in graduate school, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, that the bubble burst. In white spaces, racism is often characterized by the most egregious acts — shooting Black people in a supermarket, burning down historically Black churches or saying the n-word, for example. But for Gilmore, racism has been an undertow, a persistent current in everyday interactions that threatens to drag her under if she isn’t careful.

It’s getting on a plane to a conference, chatting to the person next to her and, after telling them what she does for a living, “they say I’m lying”, says Gilmore.

It’s the white colleague who asks why she’s parking in the faculty lot. “I’m like, ‘Really?’” Gilmore says. “Because we were just in the committee the other day, and you used to know who I am.”

“The subtle racism is so persistent for me, it is a constant hum that I notice only when it eases,” says Gilmore.

Racism is also the quiet isolation of going to conferences for months, years, decades and being one of the only Black people in these predominantly white spaces. The issue, says Gilmore, is not just one of comfort, but also of safety.

“There’s this feeling that if you say the wrong thing, they can find ways to punish you,” she says. This could be through the peer-review process, for example. And the feeling that you don’t belong can itself push people out of their field.

“We’re on the edge of a knife,” she says. “I have had many bad days, right? And we all have. And so you need to have someone to help you through those.”

A heavy weight

For a long time, Black academics have shouldered most of that task. “Any Black professor will tell you how many students she or he counsels that are not even in their field,” she says.

And the Black students who come from abroad — such as from the Caribbean — to the United States have really helped her to visualize the weight of racism and its effects.

“They come in as freshmen, and they’re like, top of their class, doing their thing. And then, by the time they leave as seniors, we have given them being Black in America, we’ve given them that experience. And it’s awful,” she says. As they go on to graduate school and medical school, some of them reach out to her. “They’re calling me to say, ‘How do you deal with this?’ And I have to tell them, tell my babies, and help them through, I mean, the most explicitly racist shit you can imagine.”

For a long time, Gilmore kept fairly quiet about her frustrations around her field’s racial gatekeeping, but as she has developed a reputation as an excellent scientist, she’s started speaking up — during the keynote earlier this year, and in other ways. She recently organized a colloquium and invited only Black speakers, for example. It took a while, but a colleague eventually noticed her efforts and praised her for them.

“The thing is,” she says, “he could have done the same thing, too. It’s not like I knew these speakers personally.” For Gilmore, many white scientists are great at research, but not when it comes to diversity.