This is a guest post by Morgan Halane.
“As a minority student, the applicant might serve as a role model to other such students interested in STEM careers. He has participated actively in a wide variety of outreach activities (none specifically targeted at minority students). This application has merits but a number of weaknesses temper my enthusiasm.”
I received this review back in 2014 after applying to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP), but its impact has stuck with me since. Growing up in Sedalia, Missouri, a town nearly 90% white and less than 5% black, I imagined academia would be something better, an environment where my color would never be used against me, where I did not have to ever again hear people driving by in their trucks yelling the N-word at me as I waited on the corner for the bus. How naïve. Yes, the visible racism was still there- cotton balls strewn across the lawn of the university’s Black Culture Center, swastikas etched into the library carrels. I was used to this visible racism. What really stunned me was the invisible racism- the sinister biases that were so commonplace, so traditional, that it was hard to believe that they even existed. I felt and lived through their negative impact but there was no calling card left behind- no swastika, no Confederate flag.
As a new black grad student in a challenging environment where I already felt like the outsider, the “Other,” I struggled with how to respond to that 2014 review. I wrote an email to the National Science Foundation pointing out how unjust it was, only to hear back that the reviewer actually made a good point- that as a black student I should have done more to help other black students. I imagined multiple scenarios- in one, a privileged white man sitting in his Ivory Tower happily writing his review, protected by a veil of anonymity and relishing in his cruel power of denying yet another black student from achieving his similar position. Protected by a government agency he knew would do nothing to hold him accountable. The powerful protected, the powerless imperiled. In another, a well-meaning reviewer who was blind to their own unconscious biases. While the intents of both scenarios are different, the result is inevitably the same.
Based on my experience as a black person in STEM, often when we bring up these instances of racism we are suggested to simply “let it go.” The egregious murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more have brought us out into the streets during a pandemic which already disproportionately kills black people. We know that the virus of systemic racism has hurt and killed us for far too long to simply “let things go.” Letting things go means returning to the status quo- nothing changes.
In academia, so much of the burden of defeating racism falls squarely on the shoulders of black scientists. This needs to change and change is possible- we have seen it over the past few weeks. “Black Lives Matter” has shifted from being a taboo phrase to one largely embraced by the public. Systemic racism is being openly acknowledged in the corporate sector.
You might be asking, “where do I start?”:
- Recognize that those with the most power to help realize this change are typically non-black scientists who have been unburdened with the pitfalls wrought by systemic racism. Rather than putting the burden on black scientists to solve systemic racism in academia, leverage your own platform and privilege to affect change. There are far more of you than there are of us.
- Realize that black scientists have not only the intense personal pressure to succeed in science but also the burden of being representative of black people as a collective. When we make a mistake, take a moment to reflect on the fact that we feel guilty not only on a personal level but also feel that we are somehow reinforcing the negative stereotypes of black people in our society and in the profession.
- Avoid minimizing our concerns- amplify them. It takes bravery to speak out about microaggressions or instances of bias that we face. If we do speak out about them, understand that the situation is probably even worse than it sounds. We really wish that we did not have to speak up about these things, so if we take the time and emotional effort to speak up then listen and act.