In a recent episode of "Ask Dr. Isis", the domestic and laboratory goddess fielded a question from a person underrepresented in her field of endeavor:
I'm a black female graduate student ... I've been very careful in choosing schools and advisors that seem to value my ideas and potential, not just the diversity I can bring to a brochure photo. At the same time, I recognize that there are doors open to me that are unavailable to the vast majority of people in my field- fellowships that seem tailor-made for my circumstances. I'm not one to turn down free money, but at the same time it makes me feel as if I'm something of a novelty item, a token, or in the worstcase, a fraud who's only there because of her skin color and reproductive system. It can be hard to tell if this stems from my own insecurities, or if this is something I should be genuinely concerned about.
I absolutely hate it that people are made to feel this way. Unsurprisingly, as with most academic one-upsmanship and tear-downsmanship it is based on the underconfidence and personal failings of the one doing the tearing, not the limitations of the one being dismissed. Nevertheless, I hear questions related to grant/fellowship seeking and I perk right up.
Take the money and run; you are going to need every ounce and dollar of advantage you can get as you try to navigate science. You may not even know yet what you are missing out on by being female and black, but the people who made those fellowships know...so take advantage of them.
Hell yes! Do not for an instant think of not applying for or not taking fellowships, grants or jobs that are "set aside" for one of your class and characteristics. This business is far too hard for any individual to fail to take advantage of any opportunity. The only caveat I would suggest is that, as always, when there are multiple things you can be doing you need to do some head's-up thinking about your chances of success versus the payoff (smaller, more limited grant funding may not be the best opportunity even if it appears slightly harder to obtain a larger award, for example).
Are some people going to look down on you for taking advantage of applicant-selective programs? Yeah. But here's the thing...those are the exact same individuals who are going to carp about you no matter what you do. Because their reflexive orientation is that of bigotry. So screw 'em. Why would you shape your life around idiots and their stupid opinions? The opinions are silly, pernicious and wrong so why would you credit them? Don't.
It is far, far better to take the money and publish more good science (because you don't have to take that second TA-ship thanks to a "minority" graduate fellowship, for example). Lemme tell ya...whenever I've heard someone being reviewed on the basis of his/her papers I've never, ever heard someone say "Yeah, well she only got that Cell paper as a junior faculty member thanks to an affirmative action graduate fellowship so it doesn't count!". Ha. The point is that ultimately the papers are going to be the thing. And there it is very difficult for someone to carp on about how you got there with respect to admission to graduate school, fellowships along the way and even "the Dean's hire" faculty positions.
Back to larger points, DearReader, it is imperative for you to combat this corrosive nonsense if it is ever raised in your presence. Now, I do know we have some unreconstructed trilobyte readers so I'm not talking to them. For the rest of us, it comes down to first and foremost recognizing the affirmative action set-aside programs for members in the majority. Here in the US that is generally English-speaking white male heteronormatives but I imagine the principles generalize to most in/out groupings of interest. Plenty of majority group scientists perform poorer than expected and flail out of grad school. More have dismal, unproductive post-docs and have to take the sneered-upon "couldn't hack it" jobs. Many struggle to acquire grants and publish papers and succeed. How many of these do we chalk up to their whiteness, maleness, etc? Don't make me barf.
I think it is an old Bella Abzug quote that reminds us that success is when the lower performing member of the out group can have just as good a success as the low-normals of the majority in group. That is what we need focus on. Not that there are not brilliant minority and underrepresented scientists. There are and we should honor them. But for encouraging a change in which all scientists of any skin hue or dangly bits can just...exist. Without worrying about stupid perceptions we need to fully embrace the notion that the performance of the whole distribution is the acceptable target.