Anti-black racism in STEM is pervasive, and we must change this reality

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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?”:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

8 thoughts on “Anti-black racism in STEM is pervasive, and we must change this reality

  1. In order to demonstrate that a phenomenon is pervasive, you have to show the data. In this case you have a very specific claim: anti-black racism in STEM is pervasive. You have offered us an anecdotal account, one data point. There is systemic racial bias in STEM, which is backed by scientific studies, but pervasive racism? That has not been my experience. Show us the data!

  2. Thank you for this post. The longer I’ve been in academia, the more my eyes are opened to the gatekeeping that reinforces the status quo. The GRFP is a particularly egregious example, as the reviewers can set their own standards with little oversight. My own application was derailed by a reviewer who dismissed me, because I should have published as an undergrad (really? that’s the standard?), while my friend (white, who has yet to publish even post PhD) got one.
    The problem is that the GRFP is often funded on the basis of whether the applicant has “potential”, in addition to the quality of the science proposed. It sure seems like some reviewers feel students of color have less potential than white students.

    • I served as a GRFP reviewer for years. I found myself increasingly frustrated with the process, for the reasons you mention here. Even if our review group leader (there is probably a specific term but it’s been a while) was tuned in to bias issues and attempted to step in and norm our standards, the louder voices in the room insisted on “merit” and “potential” as our guiding principles, and often derailed the discussions, insisting that without X publications or Y activities the proposal should be ranked down. (and completely ignoring resource differences in institutions, race and socioeconomic factors, etc.) I eventually stopped responding to invitations because I felt like I was shouting into the void..

  3. So true. As a black scholar in STEM, I agree with everything you write here.
    GRFP is one of the most problematic programs that I have ever seen, which makes the rich richer by ensuring that an overwhelming amount of their funding is directed only to rich, exclusive institutions.
    I also agree that the subtle forms of racism in academia are so wild, so hurtful, and so pervasive. Some may try to hide behind a lack of data to show this (to be fair, there is actually a lot of data to prove this out there). But, you and I, and every black scholar in the academy know that our experiences were hard, and made hard because of our race.
    Stay strong. I hope you have supportive mentors and sponsors that can support you in your academic journey.
    Peace

  4. To remove racism

    We must recognize white privilege

    To remove racism

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