In 2013, Rob Robinson, a fifth-grade public school teacher in Brooklyn, overheard a group of students in his predominantly minority class having a conversation about the American Girl doll store. I’m guessing he probably didn’t pay it too much mind, until one of the girls said, “I know about this place; only white girls can go there.” That’s when he interjected.
Robinson made it his mission to prove to them that everyone who wanted to go there – or anywhere else – was free to do so. He created a fundraising website, raised $14,000 in five weeks, and took 27 girls in a limo to the Manhattan store, where they were treated to lunch, got a doll of their choice, a photo shoot, and a stylist makeover.
It was an expensive endeavor, to be sure, but ultimately one that had very little to do with the dolls themselves. The fact of the matter is, the girls believed only white girls could go there because they had only ever seen white girls go there. For them, especially at that age, that was their reality.
This is precisely why, beginning last week, we launched our bi-weekly blog series, “What They See Is What They’ll Be”, adopted from the motto of 100 Black Men of America – of which I am a member of the Charlotte chapter. The series features profile articles on Black males from the UNC Charlotte community (current students, alumni, faculty, etc.) who are actively engaged in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.
The goal is to show that Black males, although underrepresented in those fields, do exist. Reading about Benjamin Banneker and George Washington Carver (albeit one of my biggest role models) can only go but so far. The fact that these men we’ll feature are all somehow connected to UNCC brings it that much closer to home, and makes it that much more tangible.
The purpose for this is that, just like those 27 young Brooklyn girls, if young Black males have never met another Black man who was an engineer, a doctor, a physicist or mathematician, it narrows their level of perceived possibility.
I came to UNCC from the Atlanta area, a city that is no stranger to African-American success. But I recall my friend in college telling me the story of the West Virginia customer who was so amazed that she was an hourly manager at Forever 21. The woman said she had never seen an African-American in such a high position.
In finding people to feature on the blog, I’ve explored a number of avenues – LinkedIn research, Facebook, asking around in my networks, my own memory from my time as a student; you name it. I remembered a former student I knew who graduated in 2014 with a Chemistry degree. I sent her a text: “Hey can you send me the names of any Black male Chemistry faculty members you knew so I can shoot them an email?” Her response was disappointingly simple: “There weren’t any.”
We have our work cut out for us.
The My Brother’s Keeper Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is an endowment fund targeted to Black males majoring in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields at UNCC. Learn more at www.unccmybrotherskeeper.org.