I don’t know about anyone else, but in the wake of the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and allllllll the other people of color assaulted and made dead by police), I had a tough time getting work done. I felt distracted and depressed, exhausted from the excuses I saw on social media and how backwards everything seemed. Yet, as Jon Stewart (another person of considerable privilege) put it, I could only imagine what it would be like to actually live these experiences as a person of color. On twitter, we discussed briefly if the Diversity Journal Club should address the current state of things more directly, or if we needed to stay more academic.
Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci) had a great solution:
For me, these articles (found here and here) made painfully clear that diversity issues directly concern academic and scientific communities. Even if you feel racial injustice doesn’t affect you directly, these articles demonstrate they do impact your colleagues, your friends, and your students.
Our discussion opened with the divide between racial groups, and how this persists in academia. These can be physical, such as living in a very white or racially divided area. They similarly exist in academic communities, where departments are very often dominated by white men.
Yet the divide also manifests in less obvious ways: When you are not part of the minority group, you don’t have to care about minority issues. We don’t have to talk about them, even when we talk about other major social events.
And if we do talk about them, we can be woefully, painfully, ignorant.
And this is at the mild end of the spectrum. The excuses I heard on social media were downright disturbing.
But even if you do care, and you are aware of the real issues, and you do discuss them appropriately, as the articles make clear, they don’t affect you nearly as acutely.
This has real repercussions across academic communities, and across the career arc of minorities. As students, as the article points out, their science may not feel as immediate as the injustice they and others deal with every day – injustice that may get them arrested or dead. This is a real threat to their person, and their ability to work and learn.
Furthermore, if the community around them while in school isn’t discussing very real injustice, or is outwardly dismissing it, this only increases the divide, deepening the difference between a student’s life and their academic training and community. They can feel so disconnected, as albatrossphd (@albatrossphd) noted, some mentees don’t even know others would care. If this isn’t enough, they are often also expected to shoulder the responsibility of enacting change, while others around them don’t have to care.
As students progress in their careers, they continue to be the minority as faculty. They continue to be surrounded by colleagues that don’t appear to care or be affected, and remain responsible for changing things when others don’t speak up. They are likely to also want or be expected to sit on a range of committees and do additional work as the token minority faculty member. Little of this work is acknowledged, valued, or included in the tenure process.
This is how diversity directly impacts people – your colleagues and peers and students if you aren’t in a minority group – throughout their careers. From start to finish.
Add to all of this the fact that white peers and colleagues don’t have to care about anything but their research, and can focus their passion on science and science alone. This is likely not the case for minority students and academics, as one of our articles argues. There is a struggle to balance your life’s work, with your life.
In addition, academia operates as if we are all under the same standards. It wants us to believe it is a meritocracy. If you are smart enough, work hard enough, are passionate enough, you will succeed. This idea is willfully ignorant of reality.
So. What do we do? While we discussed why and how diversity matters to academia, we also discussed what steps we can take – especially as allies for people of color. First, we talked about whether or not we should bring these issues up with our students – is it appropriate to talk about Ferguson in class? Did we need to? How do we bring it up and in what space?
Personally, I believe we have a responsibility to discuss these issues, to make clear that we do care and we are not going to be silence. We need to initiate conversations, “signal support” to mentees (Laura Williams, @MicroWaveSci), and figure out “stating your stance” to the community at large (Luna CM Centifanti, @LunaCentifanti). As Chris Rock has put it recently, racism is really a white problem. It is about white actions, it is white people that need to be educated and it is our behavior that needs to be altered. It is up to us as white people to make change. Our silence, our inability or unwillingness to speak up, does nothing for that change.
But how do we go about it? We also shared some experiences and some tips for bringing up what are indeed difficult subjects that are outside the scope of the classes we seek. For instance, it can be as simple as checking in with our students.
…and it can be helpful and safe to have the conversation one-on-one:
In addition to smaller conversations, we can bring these things up in class:
Sometimes other issues are more important than science.
There is a larger world out there with significant problems we as a society need to address, issues that feed back into scientific institutions and communities that claim to be above the fray. They are not, and if we do nothing, they will remain that way.
One piece of advice was to bring recent events and transition them to discussions of why they matter to the science we’re doing and discussing.
However, albatrossphd (@albatrossphd) shared that her attempt at conversation didn’t go that well at first:
Despite this, we determined that even bringing it up at all still demonstrates these issues are important to you, and could be helpful in the long term – that students may think about later. It still clearly mattered to some in the classroom, even if they didn’t know how to continue the dialogue:
In addition to students, as Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci) pointed out, we also need to be thinking about ways to reach out to staff, faculty, and others.
We can mentor and support junior faculty and junior staff, including postdocs. In addition, for me, this means being visible and vocal. Show up for rallies and on-campus conversations, volunteer to be on committees. Share your views on the importance of diversity at your institution and be informed on why diversity matters. We are scientists – every day we discuss evidence and make arguments. We can and should do that with diversity at our respective institutions. Speak up about student issues, hiring, promotion, etc.
…and encourage our institutions to directly address diversity:
This is also happening at my previous institution, the University of New Hampshire, but we need people ensuring it isn’t just lip service and translates into action. This, of course, means we get leadership and administration on board. After all, leadership is key for systemic change, and determining the direction, priorities, and environment of an institution:
We can do more to make clear that these things matter to us. That we are allies, and we are (or want to be) engaged in the movement.
We can also “just check in” with our friends and colleagues, with our peers.
But we should follow such check-ins with “what can I do?”
Check-ins should also be done broadly, as a way to focus attention on these important issues. It’s not just checking in individually, it’s checking in with our communities, our institutions, asking “how are we doing on this? What are we doing about this?” Doing this alone makes clear you know these things affect everyone together, and that it is something we address together.
Doing all of these things are critical steps we can all take, and they have a secondary result: they also mean you help share the responsibility of creating change.
Of course, it’s more than just our immediate academic communities. We need to look at the people around us, too – including our families and our kids.
In the end, I realized the connection between science and diversity is not just about how we speak up and take action around diversity and for social justice specifically, but it also means doing great, interesting science that we share with others.
This is also where it matters. Where we connect with others, with the next generations. Where we encourage passion and curiosity – and where we say “yes. You can do this too.”
For me, it also means doing the best science now will put me in a better position, in a leadership position, later down the line – one I can leverage to address diversity issues, to amplify diverse voices, and support diverse careers. This is also how my science can make a difference one day. I am committed to a career that focuses on diversity issues, as well as a career of interesting and useful science. These are not mutually exclusive career objectives.
I know I am not alone.
Thank you to everyone who joined in and followed the discussion! Please let me know if there are any errors here, or if I missed anyone. Leave additional thoughts, questions, etc, in the comments here, or on twitter under #DiversityJC!
Give these fine folks a follow, too (in no particular order)!
Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer)
Luna CM Centifanti (@LunaCentifanti)
Megan McCuller (@mccullermi)
Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci)
Rebecca Pollet (@rmpollet)
urbie delgado (@urbie)
Joshua Drew (@Drew_Lab)
Cynthia Malone (@cynth_malone)
Cleyde Helena (@cleydevan)
Roy W. Smolens Jr (@smoroi)
April Wright (@WrightingApril)
Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee)
Thanks again and watch for a new article – the last of 2014! – on Monday 15 December.
Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS)
Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein)