Friday, January 28, 2011

Science Online 2011: Underrepresentation hurts us all

In my second year of graduate school, I was in a study group with a few other grad students: in particular I remember a white female student and an Asian-American female student. Somehow we got on the topic of admissions, where we all admitted, jokingly, to feeling like impostors. Then the white female student stated that she didn't believe in affirmative action, and expressed her view with quite a bit of anger. "Besides," she finished, "I just don't see race."

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.
The entire session was moving -- all three panelists were so thoughtful and kind to one another, they answered audience questions so well, and the audience was committed to the issue of underrepresentation in science. I have a few last thoughts of my own that I'd like to share, as a way to extend the conversation about women scienceblogging to be more inclusive.

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


  1. This is the MLK Jr. session post I was waiting for. Thanks for writing it. I felt it was one of the most important sessions I attended.

    Not to be self-promotional but I tried to take a look at the situation in marine sciences for black professors and compiled a brief history (too brief sadly):

    I hope I can find the time to carry out more discussion during black history month.

  2. Great post Dr. Clancy! I was just commenting about Dr. Lee at Ed Yong's place:

    This is, once again, a great summary and I loved how you included your personal perspective. I hope it raises as much discussion as your other post on women in science did. Also, it is sometimes a tough line to walk when you choose to not stay silent and champion a minority group that you don't belong to. You have to be alert to the risk of taking over their voice. You did an amazing job with this post!

  3. Kate, thank you ever so much for your elegant and impassioned reflections on our session. I had not considered that opening with "Redemption Song" would be so emotional - I simply wanted to set the tone and illustrate that Bob Marley was a fervent admirer of Dr. King. I know that we upset the folks in the session in Room A with our noise but I was so delighted to have so many folks sing along. I think that we had the only session with live music AND the only one that didn't mention the arsenic life episode.

    Moving to a historically-Black college/university (HBCU) three years ago has been an incredible growth experience for me and broadened my mission to contribute to diversity in science. I feel like I've made some contributions to encouraging women in science and medicine but increasing ethnic and racial diversity has its own additional challenges.

    Being at a HBCU - traditionally serving African-American students but increasingly Hispanic students, low wealth students, and first-generation college students of all backgrounds - also convinced me that I can never fully appreciate what it's like to be an African-American or Latino/Latain in the American South. That's why is was so, so important to capture the voices of Alberto Roca and Danielle Lee. They each have perspectives I could never have. I've learned so much from them and I plan to continue this conversation, especially as Alberto expands his efforts at and Danielle continues to be the vocal advocate she has always been.

    We need to have these discussions no matter how uncomfortable they may be. By facing these challenges, we are all enriched. Learning exactly *how* to be an ally requires work to confront our assumptions, privilege, and ignorance without defensiveness so we can operate with sensitivity and understanding.

    Thank you to everyone who chose to come to our session over the other superb, competing sessions.

    And to you, Kate, you are totally on a roll! I'm so glad to see how much this meeting inspired you. You are a terrific writer and scholar and I look forward to reading more from you. Thank you, again.

  4. Kevin, I think that's a good goal, and at least one small thing we can do to bring continued attention on these issues.

    Arvind, I so hear what you are saying. I struggled with how to write this post because I don't want to champion people of color, but be their ally. I'm not sure whether I achieved that here, but I'm willing to put myself out there and make some mistakes so that someone can correct me!

    David, as you get to know me you'll find it doesn't take much to make me cry... but even someone with more hardened lacrimal glands than I would have had a hard time in your session :). You were so smart to include Danielle and Alberto, because they were crucial to the success of the panel. Their sites are now must-reads for me.

  5. Very interesting discussion. I'm a Canadian female bi-racial grad student in CS (very male dominated). To be honest, I've always considered myself white (although others don't) and, except for this topic, would never have mentioned my race since I believe it's unimportant.

    I grew up with out my parents ever pointing out or really even discussing race. This sounds terrible, but the point, was that they just taught us to treat everyone equal. This was great, I never focused on people's skin color or really noticed it. Until university when people started making comments based on my name (doesn't (and isn't) a "white" name) or skin color. The "where are you from" comments started.

    I do wonder if in your example, the person who said she didn't notice race, wasn't trying to be racist, but saying that really meant she didn't notice it - instead she noticed people. I'm not sure where I stand on affirmative action - I dread getting hired because I'm female and not white instead of because of my skills. But when you put down your name, or show up for an interview, you just can't kind those characteristics.

    I also am never sure how to work with people who define themselves first by their race. Something I know I need to learn. My department is mostly international students - Chinese, Iranian, South American, Indian, everywhere. I find that they students often group themselves by race, and talk in their native language. I don't blame them, I'd be more comfortable like that too, but it does make it difficult to know how to interact with them.

    I find this topic very interesting, and one I'd love to know how to deal with better. It's too bad that so many people find it hard to just look at your skills and ignore everything else. :(

  6. akajb, I really appreciate your perspective and am glad you wrote. I think we all can have really different ways of experiencing our identities, and I certainly don't want to assume there is only one way to do it.

    In my example, knowing the individuals, the person wasn't trying to be racist, exactly, but probably was trying to be hurtful. This is why it's good to notice that with racism and sexism, intent doesn't necessarily matter, but impact. My friend placed a real importance on her identity and race, which she had mentioned previously, so the speaker must have known what an invalidation it would be.

    In any case, I think we're all trying to get better, and at least for me, that is the biggest deal of all.

  7. The bloggosphere is really no different than academia. We will see the few people of colour leave the science bloggosphere if there is a lack of support. Increasing the presence of minorities in mainstream communities like Scientopia is really important because of the global scale of outreach. I don't have to be in City X to be a role model to a female minority undergraduate or graduate student. It is one of the reasons I stay and blog about science and the challenges I face. I worry a little bit, however, that as minority scientists, we won't be taken seriously unless we blog about these issues.

  8. GPD, that's an interesting point you make, about not being taken seriously unless you blog about minority issues in science. I hope that is not true, but I don't know; I'd trust your thinking over mine here. I have a feeling that we are embarrassed at our poor representation and how poorly we handle race and ethnicity issues in the science blogosphere.

    For me, it was only in the context of the Science Online session on women bloggers that I felt I could open up and talk about these issues, because blogging on them for the sake of blogging about them felt like something I could get attacked for (after all, there are plenty of examples in the blogosphere of women getting attacked for daring to speak about these things). But it seems like, now that we've talked about these issues for the millionth time, people are finally saying, hey, yeah, sexism is real, and we want to do something about it!

    I really wish this conversation would get more broad. I wish networks would do a better job recruiting lots of different folks. I wish the support system was stronger for people of color. And the only way I can think about improving things is to not let this conversation get lost while we're all high-fiving each other for finally getting the gender thing.

  9. This is great, and I hope that it can spark a bigger conversation online! I've had a few very positive conversations about stuff like this with my real life lab friends and many very discouraging conversations with scientists at conferences and online. It feels like there's a pervasive shoulder shrugging even amongst seemingly progressive people along the lines of, "Well, it's engineering (or whatever), the numbers are always going to be like this. If people aren't choosing to become scientists (or stay in academia or whatever) it's not my fault."

    Even worst there's still a surprising number of people who use "science" to back up their prejudices, saying things like "there isn't any overt discrimination anymore, any differences in representation are due to differences in innate ability." For a depressing recent example (about gender, but he generalizes to all discrimination/diversity): I hope that this can change soon, but it's going to take a lot of people to fight the trolls.

  10. Thanks for coming by, Christina! I think it's interesting that this post has gotten a lot less attention than the other one that was just about women. I was thrilled to see you asking the same questions on your blog, because it meant I wasn't the only one left unsatisfied with our conversation.

    Sometimes I think the shrugging has to do with the fact that the leaky pipeline for a lot of other underrepresented groups, especially for people of color, is a lot earlier than current working scientists and academics feel they can impact. I remember being told by a Latino professor once that most Latinos/as don't finish high school, let alone go to college (this was years ago, perhaps the stats are better now). So there is a pervasive notion of having nothing to choose from, because they aren't even in college, let alone choosing to major in science. There is an element of truth to this, and that means our broader impacts/outreach efforts need to focus on grade school and middle school kids and their teachers.

    However, there ARE people of color who want to be, or are, scientists RIGHT NOW, and we suck at supporting them. So all that shrugging makes their struggle invisible. That's where I think you and I and many others get frustrated.

    There are many great bloggers who are minorities. How can we support them? What needs to change structurally in the science blogosphere to make them less invisible? That's what I desperately want to know.

  11. Having mentored "historically underrepresented" students in the sciences through programs that target them and having taught them through similar programs, I can say that the efforts are out there but quite piecemeal. There are many factors that feed into the gaps, including a lack of encouragement of students from underrepresented backgrounds to engage in math and science in the early grades and encouraging all first-generation college attendees to consider the sciences. These steps and others can help bring much-needed different perspectives, goals, and yes, biases to the practice of science.

    Why would someone say that they don't "see race"? Do they not also see if someone is blond? That's just stupid. Colbert mocks that on many levels by saying it all the time on his show.

  12. " 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."

    I've noticed this too...and I'm fighting this cross-roads urge between being in the trenches (teaching/outreach at smaller schools, closer to students I identify and want to mentor) or breaking the glass ceiling (R1R2 schools, researching and publishing like crazy and making inroads to diversify science/academia at the top). And I bet alot of women, first gen graduates, folks from blue collar/immigrant families and people of color feel similarly.

    I wonder if it's something about our 'service' oriented interests/reach back and help others/nurturing inclinations that keep many of us from going to all out Big Science Big shot path.

    And just, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this post. Awesomeness, indeed.

  13. DNLee, that is such a good point. The TT culture needs to change somehow so that people don't get screwed for trying to maintain their trenches work while breaking into the R1R2 world. And by TT culture, I mean senior faculty and administrator attitudes, so that those things are valued rather than discounted or worse. I hate that about this process.

  14. Thanks Emily, Danielle, Arlenna. Emily, I think you make some good points -- I just saw on twitter today that programs that pair grad students with teachers seem to be pretty effective (Yale had something like that while I was there, a program through the NSF; a friend of mine was involved).

    Danielle and Arlenna, you are so right. I am at an R1 and want outreach to be a major part of my work as faculty. But I have no idea how to get that work legitimized or counted. If it helps, I am meeting with a dean this week to chat about this some. There should be a way for us to do Big Science and still reach out to and support our communities.

  15. In case anyone's still reading these comments, go check out this comment over at the Hermitage on affirmative action. Absolutely brilliant:

  16. Whites who resort to the would-be postracial mantra "I just don't see race" aren't typically being hurtful, racist, or insensitive: they're merely trying to find a way to wriggle out of the cognitive dissonance progressivism has saddled them with. On the one hand, "race" is a discredited 19th-century white supremacist construct; on the other hand, minorities like the Asian woman mentioned in the post define themselves by racial identities. On the one hand no one should ever be given unfair consideration over another based on race; on the other, we must be sure that racial diversity is promoted. Cognitive dissonance pervades racial constructions, perceptions, relations, politics--at least if you're white, the one race expected not to have any sort of pride in its identity or celebrate its heritage. All other races and identities are encouraged to. Is it any surprise then that the natural reaction of many average white men and women is to stick their heads in the sand and wish race and the cognitive dissonance necessary to deal with it in progressive culture away?

    The reality is that we really should banish race from the room when trying to resolve inequalities, and focus on socioeconomic status instead. Affirmative action policies based on economic factors alone naturally benefit minorities overwhelmingly, while not complicating the issue with centuries of racial baggage and exacerbating racial divisions.

    If we're ever going to evolve toward a truly progressive egalitarian society, we have to abandon tribalisms wherever possible. This includes race and policies which stem from historic racial differences. If we can ameliorate present racial socioeconomic disparities by focusing on affirmative action which benefits all economically disadvantaged people, and leave race at the door while doing so, everyone benefits.

  17. Tay, while I see your point in some ways, and agree that the way many white folks handle race is in some ways understandable if incorrect, I don't think socioeconomic status is enough. It's not just poverty but generations of systemic oppression of people of color that has created the inequalities we see today.