Scientists’ role in this
“Hear it. This anger that’s playing out, it isn’t new.”
– Jayson Gay, The Wall Street Journal
We are all accountable for the inequalities in our system and longstanding and systemic racism that divides our cities, communities and neighbourhoods. Certainly, we should take responsibility for biases we exhibit in hiring, reviewing publications and grants, granting speaking opportunities at conferences, showcasing scientists and giving them credit for their accomplishments – topics we’ve written about before and issues that remain as pervasive in our community today as when we began The Black Hole more than a decade ago. At their core, these are basic human rights issues encompassing race, gender, lifestyle, ethnicity, socio-economic class, nationality, and faith that we know disadvantage visible minorities over their (predominantly) white counterparts.
But we should also hold ourselves accountable for the inherent human rights issues our respective countries are facing on a national level – like the recent murders of George Floyd and too many other brown and black men and women. These are not isolated instances, but a pattern of behaviour that is propagated by a series of disproportionate responses not at all commensurate to the crime (when a crime is committed at all), and should not be tolerated. As scientists, we are meant to be the voice of reason and fact. We know that despite our superficial differences and biological variability, we are all essentially genetically, physically, psychologically, and behaviorally identical, and we should be speaking out when society incorrectly takes the opposite view.
We are supported by society to provide an educated voice specifically in times like these – not retreat into our offices or labs. Our education is subsidized by those same people being hurt. By people who have paid for us to learn statistics and math, logic, ethics, understand finance and laws, learn how to educate, and then apply these skills in all aspects of our professional lives, not just our academic pursuits. Because we are qualified, we have a moral obligation to provide our educated perspective: that there is no factual scientific underpinning for any argument to support the racial differences propagated to exist between people of different ethnicities and genders, and that these divisions are only politically motivated. It is because they are politically motivated that we should also be the ones asking the question who specifically are segregative policies serving? And proposing solutions that correct this obvious and generational imbalance. That we have our own issues to deal with as a scientific community doesn’t excuse us from not also dealing with the broader roles we are responsible for assuming within our societies. Now is exactly the time for us to speak up.
We see these things happening in our society and we know they aren’t right. Watching this happen and saying nothing is worse. We need to recognize that ours is a position of privilege and influence, and that soapboxes allow our opinions to be heard and shared – not just when it is convenient, but also when it is uncomfortable. We should all be angry, and whether or not we feel equipped to speak, we must actively participate in listening, because the anger being felt isn’t new, and the injustice persists because most aren’t being heard.
If you are paying attention, you are probably angry right now. You feel the outrage and exasperation of people of color (POC) in America, and you want to do something about it. As a human, you know that the unacceptable treatment of black and brown people by police (and by society at large) has gone on far too long, and it’s time for real, systemic change; as a scientist, you know that an evidence-based approach can help change minds. So what do you do?
Real, systemic change will not happen overnight. In the long term, we are all accountable for combating systemic racism, in all its forms. As scientists working in an extraordinarily white-/non-POC-dominated field, we must double down on a commitment to create space and opportunities for POC at all levels of science, from STEM education to academic and biotech hiring decisions to the board room. Educate yourself, understand your privilege and your biases, and commit to making decisions in the name of change and equality.
But beyond this, what can you do now? What is happening now in America also requires immediate action. Well, your scientific training has taught you to question and verify facts, and to share those facts when they have been properly vetted. Many of our social and political scientist colleagues have been working for years to dismantle systemic inequality and oppression through scientifically rigorous study; now is the time to amplify their qualified (and peer-reviewed!) voices. Politically-charged misinformation, largely on social media, abounds; demand evidence for unfounded claims and use your scientific tools to refute them. If it really matters to you, you will make the time.
Above all, do not stay silent. Real, systemic change will not happen until the chorus of voices demanding it is loud enough for those in positions of power to finally hear them.
I struggle to write this article. What can I say that has not been already said a million other times or even better than I could?
I guess all I can do, like any other science experiment, is to offer another data point – something that provides some clarity about our role within humanity. I want to share my story in hopes that it’ll give some productive solutions toward a shared vision.
It was 2008, and Obama had just won the presidency. It was a pretty momentous occasion for not just for Black Americans, but all Americans.
My father said he’d never thought he’d be alive to see a black man elected president.
I was proud because I found that science and technology were terrific at being able to connect so many diverse people toward a shared dream. Obama’s campaign use of social media was instrumental in his election.
I remember that day; I turned to my father, “I love science and technology. The internet is a great defining moment in my lifetime.”
I then casually asked him, “What was yours, dad?”
As he watched the 2008 celebrations, and just as casually, he replied. “When I was able to sit next to a white man to have a meal.”
My father’s response blew my mind. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of Obama’s election, his comment made me reflect on how far we’ve come as a society, but also how much further we still have to go. At the time, I was very aware of the high incarceration rates for black men, and I wondered, for people who shared my skin colour, would things change for the better?
It made me question my career in science and whether I could be a scientist. There were very little, if any visually prominent black scientists, at the time. Then I watched Neil deGrasse Tyson speak passionately about the universe. There was no mention of race, just the image of someone with my skin tone who spoke passionately about science. This left a positive impression and gave me the courage to pursue a career in science.
My father’s steady hand and my mother’s compassionate heart further instilled a sense of confidence to be relentlessly me. Their coaching and mentorship gave me the courage to ignore disparaging and subtle racist comments. For example, there was a woman who assumed I was the janitor, asking me where the toilet paper was, while I was working at the lab bench. A similar comment was made by a campus police officer asking me if my bike was stolen, as I rode to class. And another similar incident where a professor was telling me that southern fried food could affect my cognate ability.
We all can use inspiration, but the journey can be especially challenging for visible minorities. Fortunately for me, I had an amazingly supportive family and community. These outside negative influences which could have to detracted from my success were thwarted by a series of caring people and a supportive network. They not only modeled positive behaviour but also provided me with compassionate perspectives, access to specific resources, and help along the way.
They also expanded my network by connecting me with others who saw past my physical attributes, traits, or anything else which had little to do with my capabilities, passions, and dreams.
My supportive community helped me to be the best version of me, and they continue to do so.