I was completely paralyzed, and felt like I had no way to articulate what was wrong with what she just said. She happened to leave the room shortly after her statement. I turned to my Asian-American friend.
"Doesn't see race?" She almost shouted. Tears sprang to her eyes. "When she says that, she doesn't see ME." I looked at her, mute, wanting to cry myself for the shame of not knowing how to be a better friend.
I haven't always been the best ally. At times, I probably haven't been an ally at all. The story I related above was the only one I dared share where I could sufficiently pseudonymize the characters. It was not the first, nor was it the last, time I was struck dumb by racism.
I did learn to speak up and interrupt racism, and slowly have figured out ways to make the elimination of racism and sexism priorities in my life. But I have a long way to go.
The MLK, Jr Memorial panel at Science Online 2011, like the women scienceblogging panel, was up against some stiff competition: Defending Science Online, Standing out: Marketing yourself in science, Blogging networks and the emerging science communications ecosystem and Not All Marketing is Evil: Getting Life Science Companies to Support Science Online. I'll admit to sitting near the back with the thought I might divide my time between this session and one other. Yet within the first few minutes I sat there, I knew I was in the right place. David Kroll, who you know all over the internet because of his great blogs Terra Sigillata and Take as Directed, opened by playing the guitar and singing Bob Marley. Within a few bars, about a third of the audience was singing along with him. I was too busy trying not to cry to join in.
I was emotional for a number of reasons... because of the wonderful contradiction of David sitting up there and singing, because of the warmth of the room, where it felt like we had a shared mission. David contradicted the paralysis a lot of allies face, because we are so afraid of doing it wrong, of making the mistake that exposes the racism and privilege we are working so hard to cover up.
In addition to discussing Martin Luther King, Jr's history in Durham and the surrounding area, David shared with us the following quote from Irving Epstein (which it turns out David wrote about a year ago here):
In 2005, more than two-thirds of the American scientific workforce was composed of white males. But by 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the population. If the pipeline fails to produce qualified nonwhite scientists, we will, in effect, be competing against the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our backs.Danielle Lee of Urban Science Adventures, and Alberto Roca of Minority Postdoc, were also panelists. Danielle was engaging and smart: she talked about issues of underrepresentation in science, as well as access and trust of science in minority communities. Alberto, who I had also heard speak as an audience member at a few other panels, also talked about underrepresentation issues in science, the invisibility and isolation of being a person of color in science, and how to operate against that isolation. Here are a few of their broader points (any butchered or incomplete thoughts are my fault only):
- People of color and from underrepresented groups often have to pass in order to survive in science.
- People have to be mentored all the way up the chain: several stories were mentioned where women and people of color were not adequately prepared or professionalized for their jobs and suffered for it.
- Impostor syndrome is universal.
- You act like a role model when you have a voice, so if you aren't speaking up you aren't a role model. Also, if you are invisible or are ignored/underappreciated, you will have a harder time being an effective role model. So the knife cuts both ways.
- As Danielle says, science needs a new PR campaign. The African American community has serious trust issues with science and with good reason: this community has been exploited, undervalued, ignored.
- Related to the above, there was some discussion of issues of religion and science; namely, that it is a mistake to completely discount or scoff at those with religion. Religion, faith, and religious practices have an important cultural component for many minority communities in the United States and beyond, and to write off their beliefs is to write them off as people. Even if that's not what is intended, that is certainly what is heard.
First, I don't think white people or people with privilege should shy away from conversations about underrepresentation, race, or ethnicity. It is time to just be comfortable with the fact that we are going to make mistakes. If we are well-meaning and want to eliminate racism and other oppressions, then the mistakes we are going to make will not be as bad as the worst ones faced by those to whom we're trying to be allies. Those of us in this community who are academics tend to encourage our students to make mistakes, because we know they will learn from them. But the stakes feel so high in this situation that we are paralyzed. Guess what? Being paralyzed is actually worse than making a mistake. You can apologize for a mistake. There isn't much you can do to fix things if you stay out of an important fight.
Second, you know the isolation we talk about as women scientists and science writers? Multiply that times a million and you probably have the isolation of being a person of color in the sciences. There are some different ways in which sexism and racism play out in the public sphere, at least in the US: people might be a bit more willing to make sexist comments than racist ones. However, the impact of racism is at least as harmful, probably more harmful in most ways, because it leads to social disparities in education, health, salaries, living conditions.
There are people out there who study the effects of social disparities and internalized racism on health, and folks, it's not good. For instance, the mortality rates of blacks are significantly higher than for whites in heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, flu and pneumonia, HIV, cirrhosis and homicide (Williams 1999). Measures of internalized racism are correlated with a higher waist circumference, abdominal obesity and insulin resistance (Tull et al 1999, Chambers et al 2004). Issues of acculturation plague immigrant women, especially second-generation women, who experience more explicit instances of racism in their lives through acculturation (Viruell-Fuentes 2007).
Finally, science will be a richer, more interesting topic when there is more diversity. And I don't just mean it in the Small World sense: I mean that while I love the scientific method, I know the process of science to be strongly biased by who performs it, and so it is absolutely necessary that we have many different people doing and thinking about science in order to have the best possible perspective on it.
Back when I was a union organizer in grad school, my organizer and mentor told me that graduate school doesn't weed out the weak, it weeds out the strong: it weeds out those with strong senses of self who don't want to be exploited, who realize there are other things to do in the world and other ways to live a meaningful life. I think that is true for a lot of people who leave academia and science, and unfortunately most of the ones I know who left were women and people of color.
Here's the problem. I want them back, I miss them: they were my dear friends. Those are the kinds of people we need to lead science, do science, communicate science, encourage and excite young people to be scientists.
Reach out for people. Be an ally. Interrupt racism and sexism. Implement changes where you work to better recruit and retain people of color. Put people of color in positions of power: they probably know how to fix this mess much better than you do. Risk making mistakes; say you're sorry once you realize it.
But whatever you do, don't just sit there.
Chambers EC, Tull ES, Fraser HS, Mutunhu NR, Sobers N, & Niles E (2004). The relationship of internalized racism to body fat distribution and insulin resistance among African adolescent youth Journal of the National Medical Association, 96 (12), 1594-8 PMID: 15622689
Tull SE, Wickramasuriya T, Taylor J, Smith-Burns V, Brown M, Champagnie G, Daye K, Donaldson K, Solomon N, Walker S, Fraser H, & Jordan OW (1999). Relationship of internalized racism to abdominal obesity and blood pressure in Afro-Caribbean women. Journal of the National Medical Association, 91 (8), 447-52 PMID: 12656433
Viruell-Fuentes EA (2007). Beyond acculturation: immigration, discrimination, and health research among Mexicans in the United States. Social science & medicine (1982), 65 (7), 1524-35 PMID: 17602812
Williams DR (1999). Race, socioeconomic status, and health. The added effects of racism and discrimination. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 896, 173-88 PMID: 10681897