Space Race Matters

NASA Astronauts

One of the bitter ironies anti-racists face when working to end white-supremacist thinking and action is that the folks who most perpetuate it are the individuals who are usually the least willing to acknowledge that race matters. (bell hooks, Teaching Community, 2003, p. 28)

You may be wondering what 7 astronauts have to do with a quote about anti-racism work from bell hooks. I too would be curious. Well, let me attempt to fill in several bits of context and hopefully you’re wonder will be satiated.

Last week, while checking out a NASA-related post from one of my favorite blogs, the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture Blog,” I happened to observe that none of the 7 astronauts for NASA’s latest space shuttle mission were people of color.

There were already 15 comments on the post. Most of the comments praised the ingenuity of NASA or extolled the fantastically big pictures on the post/site. I decided to post a seemingly innocent question regarding the racial makeup of the 7 astronauts in picture #23:

The pool of astronauts isn’t the most diverse is it?
7 white people. 6 guys and only 1 woman. Where are the astronauts of color??? ~Eric Stoller

I had no idea that my comment would generate a shower of racist rhetoric and inflammatory comments.

Here are the comments (that specifically refer to my comment) that were posted after my first comment:

(Note that not a single comment after my initial one references or responds to the fact that not only is the photo racially homogeneous, but it is also lacking in very much gender diversity.)

diversity and the best for the job don’t always go hand in hand. ~nasausa

Thus begins the trope that people of color are not present in the photo of the 7 astronauts because they are automatically assumed to not be qualified. It is apparently the only vinyl in the room because it is the broken record that is played over and over again.

@Eric: Diversity for the sake of diversity is just not diverse. That’s political correctness. Also, if you want to sound politically correct, you might not want to call them “astronauts of color”. ~Brendan

I never said anything about diversity for the sake of diversity…oh and look Brendan has pulled out trope #2: dismissing any conversation or observation of race as being “pc”.

ERIC. You are drawing the line at color. These incredible people draw a line between us and them. They are trully amazing and gifted people who are not just the kid that got all A’s in High school. Research just one of their stories. ~Dean

I wonder if he means that I am “drawing the line at color” like how Crayola used to have that one crayon that was called “nude” or “skin tone” when it really should have been called dominant paradigm or white privilege.

Maybe Eric is looking for the TOKEN black guy? ~Peter

People of color apparently only means Black folks to Peter.

I decided to respond to their comments:

It’s interesting that the comments in response to mine assume that there are no astronauts of color (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_of_color ) because there were no qualified people of color for the job. Why not assume that institutionalized racism was the cause as opposed to the qualifications of the white astronauts. Why not assume that the white astronauts got to where they are because they didn’t have to overcome institutions that oppress folks of color?

Why would an astronaut of color automatically be considered a “token”?
How am I “drawing the line at color” when every astronaut in the photo is white? ~Eric

This is when I apparently pulled out my social justice can opener because the worms were released… I have not yet responded to the comments that ensued after my last comment, #51…the rhetoric went from bad to worse:

Looks like there’s a brother in pic 19… ~Son of R2D2

Somehow my comment, that clearly referred to just the photo of the astronauts, was misplaced by the Son of R2D2. Stick with Star Wars trivia, it’s easier.

Eric Stoller – there have been quite a few “astronauts of color” over the years that the Shuttle has been flying.

Or are you offended because there aren’t any on this mission? Well, I’m sorry – but as an American Tax Payer, I’d prefer that the people qualified for the mission be the ones training and set to do the job – not someone who goes just because NASA is afraid on stepping on someone’s toes. I’d prefer that the Commander of the shuttle be one who has the training and experience – not some wet-behind-the-ears pup who is chosen just because of the color of their skin. Spaceflight is no place to be playing the Race Game. You must chose the people who are ready and trained and qualified – Period. ~NB

Words keep coming out of my mouth but I’m not saying them. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I wasn’t offended. I merely made an observation. Once again, what’s up with the trope that folks of color are not qualified while white folks are automatically promoted to Commander status? When did race become a game? Oh I get it, that’s just one more way of dismissing the importance of race and how it plays out in large U.S.-based institutions. Keep paying your taxes mister status quo.

I am pretty sure that “Token” was meant to be a joke.

Not that your argument should be taken aback as I feel you have valid points. Yet unfortunately, I think that there is a lot more to talk about (at least on this page of the site) than ANOTHER conversation involving ethnicity or color of skin. ~Anonymous

I wish that had I gotten the token joke. Sometimes my funny bone doesn’t work when it’s already been fractured. Ok. Awesome, I have valid points…umm wait, stay, don’t leave…here we go again. Race in space doesn’t matter to the anonymous commenter.

To Eric S.- I suppose the concept of determining color of a person is getting a bit more difficult these days, and should be evidence to the pettiness of keeping score ad naseum by color-counters such as yourself. Do you have a color meter to determine if someone meets your criteria of being a person of color? Can you “just tell” when you look at a group picture to be able to pick out people of color? Is there a color test you give? How many non-color parents can an individual have, and still qualify to be a person of color that meets your specifications? Tell me, just how do you determine that someone is an individual of color? ~robroy

Why isn’t anyone using their full names? Curious. I’m not keeping score. I actually don’t even like sports trivia. Oh, I see. This is another reference to the trope that discussions of race are just a game. Nice tie in! In all fairness to robroy, I should have stated that the 7 astronauts were read by me as being all white. It’s a guess. No color meter present.

Eric Stoller – your own commentary is in its self racist.

I am a Caucasian American of Irish and German descent. My wife is mostly Irish. My two daughters are mixed Irish/German. My step son is 1/4 black, 1/4 Cherokee indian, and1/2 irish. His father is ½ black and ½ Cherokee, is a mathematician and a successful well respected businessman, and he and his cherokee mom black dad and mixed siblings attend our MIXED family get togethers such as Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. …So DON’T YOU DARE call me prejudiced, sir.

AMERICA IS A MELTING POT. Color is not anymore and should never have been an issue here. I work with a multitude of black engineers and scientists, just as I work with a multitude of Asians, and Middle-Easterners. Caucasians such as myself are just part of the mix in my world. –In fact, current estimates have shown that demographically I may actually be a minority in my field within 20 years or so.

People like yourself are merely pushing an agenda based upon fear and hostility bred by events that took place years before our present generation had anything to say about it!

Does that mean that atrocities were not committed? NO! Of course things were wrong! That’s why change was necessary. Nowadays, however, the change is done. Color is not the issue at hand anymore.

That is why I can safely say that with respect to any given crew of astronauts… Crew selection has nothing to do with gender, race, or skin tone. The issue is, HOW QUALIFIED AN INDIVIDUAL IS TO GET A JOB DONE, and on the part of NASA’s mission planners, the issue is also about PICKING QUALIFIED INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE AVAILABLE TO SUPPORT A MISSION AT THAT TIME. This is the very same reason why AGE is an important factor in astronaut selection for missions… Just because there is no one 60 years old flying our missions, do you hear folks screaming anything about AGE discrimination? Of course not! We all know that a certain level of physical fitness must exist for any one person to be selected to fly on a mission costing American Taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

….So, please, just accept the fact that the crew was selected for the right reasons… And if you’re not happy with that then feel free to get over it, stop complaining, and work happily alongside the rest of us in this world who are most interested in making this world a better place and doing something to make that happen every day. ~Engineer Jones

Wow. When the hell did I say that this fellow was prejudiced? Am I making comments in my sleep again? Can we all just place this comment in the rhetorically racist bucket and move on…all in favor? Okay. Done.

All I see are seven brave folks. Mainly Americans, but more importantly, human. With the help of 10’s of thousands of other brave folks who spend their careers, and in some cases, their lives, to do the impossible. Every day.

To be honest, I don’t care if the crew is black, white, green or purple. Male, female or ‘other’. I have just one question – Are they the best people for the job? Nothing more. Nothing Less. ~Fred in IT

Fred in IT doesn’t see color. Fred is a white dude. A guess of course…but usually when someone starts mentioning green people or purple people, they are almost always white. Green + Purple = White.

Eric, and others wondering about lack of diversity – according to NASA, 13% of America’s 136 astronauts are African-American, Asian-American or Latino. There have been at least 10 NASA astronaunts of African American ancestry, including one who died in the Challenger disaster. See more here. Also, see the diversity in this mission from 2006.

Just because there are no faces like that in these 23 photos, do not infer an institutional bias.

Now, please, can we drop the discussion of race or diversity in this context? Thanks. ~Alan Taylor (Alan Taylor is the creator, admin, and journalist/programmer that runs the Big Picture Blog. ataylor@boston.com)

Dear Alan, I’m surprised that you weighed in on this comment thread. I had assumed that as a journalist (it’s a default title that comes with the gig) and proprietor of the site that you wouldn’t join in on the “race doesn’t matter in space” bandwagon. By the way Alan, Native Americans are people of color too. Apparently if you’re Native American, you don’t get to go to space. To reiterate, my comment referenced a single photo, not the entire history of the space program. 7 white people. 0 people of color. In what context would you be comfortable discussing race and diversity? Just curious…

Not quite yet alan. I want to add that from the STS-107 (Columbia’s fatal mission) flight, Kalpana Chawla was an immigrant from India, Ilan Ramon was an Israeli citizen, and Michael Anderson was, I believe, African American ~James

Once again, my comment was regarding a single photo. I was not referring to any other moments in the history of NASA.

You might want to add that the current female record holder for number of days in space is a local girl, Suni Williams, recently returned last year from the Int’l Space Station. One of her parents (father) is Indian according to web info, and her mother is described as being of Slovenian descent, with Suni being described as Indian-Slovenian. See how this ethnic counting breaks down so fast and loses relevance? But for some reason, in my experience, when someone protests like Eric about not enough color, being of Indian descent (as in Asian-Indian) doesn’t seem to quite count as “color.” I hope the ethnic milestones cited above in previous posts and put to rest any preoccupation with the “first ethnic this” or the “first gender that”, and the science and engineering achievements can be celebrated and appreciated for themselves. ~robroy

My comment has been upgraded to “protest” status. I think that needing to clarify that fact over and over again really says a lot about how people read what they want to read and how that might not quite match up with what was actually written.

Mr Uppity Eric,

African Americans represent 13.8% of the US Population and represent 13% of the astronauts.

Noting these facts, you really sound like you are grasping at straws with your commentary on “institutional racism”, since they have EXACTLY proportional representation. I seriously HOPE that *only* qualifications and skills are taken into account in the selection of shuttle crews. A number much HIGHER than this would indicate that maybe the case, wouldn’t it?

Given 13% of the population, any given group of 7 people has a 38% chance of NOT containing someone in your magical “pick me” color box.

The mission in 2006 with three black astronauts… well, by random statistics, that would be highly unlikely, seeing that they comprise just 13% of the population (only about a 5% probability of finding 3 on a crew). On the whole, “people of color” are actually represented MORE than their constituent 13% should dictate over the last several years. Maybe I should write the anti-defamation league. That’s not fair!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or maybe you’re just full of hot air?

So, next time you choose to gripe, perhaps you should do it with a tad more deference to reality rather than some fairy tale rainbow-circus world. ~Matt

“Uppity.” Interesting word choice. Especially since it’s connected with all sorts of racist rhetoric. I guess Matt decided that I was “griping” in addition to the “protesting” and “complaining”. I really should mention that the most common theme that runs through most of the comments is dismiss, dismiss, dismiss.

And for Eric Stoller: sweetheart, just take a nap. you’ll feel better. really. ~Marjorie Brown

I felt fine when I wrote those two comments. Alert, creative, and sincere. Why is it assumed that when someone asks a question about race that they are not feeling well. Discuss race and you must have a temperature.

Matt. Please be careful using the word “uppity”. It has a long well known history of being followed with the “n” word. ~Clifford

Thanks Clifford. Although you sort of seem to be protecting Matt and not really addressing the racist theme that saturates the comments.

It would be nice to keep our race issues on this planet and out of space and the exploration of new world’s, that would be wonderful. Peace to all. ~S.M.S.

Yes, because in space, white astronauts can still not see color. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

They are all astronauts of color: Orange. ~Freddie

Dismiss. Call it a game. And mock. The trifecta. Oh and don’t forget to never, ever use your full name. Wouldn’t want anyone to know that you troll around the web cementing racist comment threads.

Eric Stoller:
Obsession with people’s race is precisely the OPPOSITE of Martin Luther King’s dream. I am sorry to inform you that you are a Politically Correct Neo-Racist. That being said… Go Astronauts! ~Mark G.

I never did say that I was obsessed with race. All of these interesting words that keep being placed in my mouth. I think I need to floss. Wow. I’m a what?!

As for those who make racial comments, “Wake up to the world”, Crew members must be selected on technical ability and not on some politically correct basis ~Robert Flemington

Welcome back trope #1. Folks of color don’t have the skills according to Mr. Flemington. Hey! He used a full name and everything. I thought the world (isn’t NASA just a United States venture?) was a diverse place made up of lots of folks of color and white people.

My son Alan has created this wonderful series of photo essays. He has discovered a venue that allows him to interact with the world that fascinates him. As many have noted, it is not just the rich and substantive photos that he selects, it is the opportunity to thoughtfully explore topics that we might otherwise have missed. Most of his followers share his wonderment of this place we all share. Some out there could do some work on forgiveness and understanding. For example, this piece is about the space program. Why hijack it for race relations? You can be sure that if a current event highlights race relation issues, Alan will find a thoughtful and sensitive way to depict where we seem to be. His work stands on its own merit.
Needless to say, his friends and family are delightfully pleased and proud. Look forward to each piece and hope he shares his perspectives so long as it makes him happy. Love you son. ~Mike Taylor

Dear Greg and Gail (the parentals), I am appalled and saddened that you have never come to my defense on a comments thread. Shoddy parenting…just kidding :-) . WTF. Mike, I was not commenting on the quality or editorial process of the Big Picture Blog. Just that single photograph with 7 white astronauts. Read my damn comment! Wow. I “hijacked” the post with my comment. Are you serious? Are you saying that once again, in space, white astronauts do not see color and therefore this post should not either? Race exists in every single context.

I just have to comment on how great it was seeing Eric “I Am A Racist Myself” Stoller getting absolutely floored by his totally unwarranted and 100% ridiculous comments regarding racism in NASA. Anyone who follows the space program knows that NASA has an outstanding record when it comes to fair representation in regards to race. I am so sick of seeing the race card pulled out especially in places like this. The ignorance that it requires to accuse NASA of such unfair practices is absolutely staggering. It shows that not only are such people utterly clueless about the space program but also completely incapable of doing any sort of research on such topics before making such outlandish claims.

The only racist I see in here is you Eric and again it was absolutely beautiful seeing you get your you know what handed to you in brilliant fashion. It brings a new meaning to the term owned. I guess that’s probably why you quickly disappeared and havent come back since. Good riddance as this quality website doesn’t need people like that.

To the people that destroyed Eric’s comments, Very nice job indeed!! ~OrangeCrush

I need to create a book with all of the names that I have been called in the blogosphere. Name calling. Still not nice, even in the virtual sphere. Oh snap. Did I just see another mention of the elusive “race card”? Oh yes, there it is. It would seem that “this quality website” doesn’t need uppity folks like myself causing a stir by mentioning race. Racist – check. And Orange, I prefer to be “pwned.” “Owned” is so 1990’s. And I didn’t really disappear. I just didn’t want to sink any of my energies into the web of racist comments on the post. Trolls bore me and according to Marjorie’s comment, I am already in need of a nap.

Eric…..just a little clue…….You’re an Idiot.
A super accomplishment by AMERICA and you throw a race card in the mix.
Now, go get you Food Stamp card and your WIC card and go get some free groceries from Star Market for all the little liberal kids you and your many concubines have fostered.
Please don’t forget to buy condoms this time. ~You Got Told

Yes, America is raceless. How could I have forgotten. My bad. Wow. YGT decided that racism wasn’t enough and decided to sprinkle in large amounts of classism. Bravo for changing our ism mix.

Reply to #16……Comments like yours usually come from stupid people !
You don’t have to do a ton of research, to figure out why there aren’t an abundance of people of color in NASA or many other high tech positions……Just check out Bill Cosby’s comments on Oprah recently………. He said, “The high school DROP OUT RATE ( For people of color ) IS ASTRONOMICAL” !!!! So tell me Eric, should we put them right into the space program, as soon as they drop out, and hope that they catch on ???? Get a life !…..Get a job !…….Get educated before you mouth off ! ~Les Madaus

Les Madaus, you don’t have to do any research to see that my comment referred to the photo of the 7 white astronauts. And damn, your comment is quickly headed to the rhetorically racist bucket. Goodbye.

So now dear reader, I hope that you understand why I placed the most excellent quote from bell hooks’ “Teaching Community” at the beginning of my post. Race matters here on Earth as well as in space.