White Supremacy in Physics

Samantha Finkbeiner
2 min readOct 4, 2020

How are the ideas from Okun’s writing on white supremacy culture manifest in the culture and work of physicists?

Okun’s writing on white supremacy focused on the perfectionist culture that has been put on people in the workplace and in general life. The ideas that engulf us and say we can’t step outside of the box or “norms”. These unreachable expectations that are upheld by those who haven’t known struggle and lack the flexibility that comes with change. White supremacy culture can be found in every line of work; the business men who work all night because if you don’t work all night someone will get a leg up on you, the research assistant working all night to try to get their results out as fast as possible, that person in the meeting who points out what’s wrong with your idea or plan and fails to acknowledge the good in it. Physics is not an exception to this statement. An example of this is from Traweek’s publication about particle physics, in it he states

Clearly, inquiry by participant-observation cannot maintain the distinction between subjective and objective knowledge.

This statement really dismisses how anthropologists perform their research. This line of thinking isn’t abnormal to see research. Many organizations that fund research have very strict guidelines for what can and can’t be done depending on what people consider important. This white supremacy culture has been around sine the Manhattan Project and the Nagasaki bomb. During this time there were some famous physicists like Albert Einstein who kept out of the bomb business but there were still many that assisted in creating the plutonium bomb that ended up killing a total of 140,000 people (Cole Uncle of the Atom Bomb). In this piece by Cole had a few pieces of dialogue between Robert Wilson and Truman that I thought exemplified the worst of white supremacy in physics:

“When Robert famously confessed to Truman in fall of 1945, “I feel I have blood on my hands,” Truman told Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.” A year later, he called Robert a “cry baby”.

This quote shows Truman exhibiting what Okun refers to ask Power Hoarding and Only one right way. He didn’t care that this physicist was upset that hundreds of thousands of people died, he just dismissed him and talked poorly of him because he thought differently. Not all examples of white supremacy in physics are all horrifically bad, but they are unhealthy and do exist. Even if it’s postdocs staying all night to work that ‘have to do this now/get this done’ attitude exists in every research capacity. It’s important to be aware of this white supremacy culture in order to help try to make changes that benefit everyone.