Racism in Science: Where do we go from here?

By: Abdullah Khan, PhD

I think many of us are learning, whether for the first or the umpteenth time, just how difficult it is to have any sort of calm and productive dialogue about race and colour. For a lot of us, myself included, these are uncomfortable conversations to have. Even as a first generation Asian immigrant with less than the average allocation of limbs, being a minority and all that entails is a big task. 

Far more articulate and better qualified voices than mine are tackling the big issues on the global theatre, but I’d like to extend that conversation to some of my experiences within our own microcosm within academia. In many ways, the world of universities is still an antiquated and bloated remnant of an imperial and colonial past. This is not only evident in the curriculum of many universities, but in a faculty which remains largely exclusive to the archetypal white male. 

Of course, progress is being made. There is more dialogue and positive action than when I started my PhD 5 years ago, but to say that there are no rampant issues featuring an all-star cast of institutionalised misogyny, homo/transphobia, racism, and elitism is at best willfully ignorant. A quick Google will take you to plenty of resources which show just how much of a minority the minorities are in our world (please find said resources linked below). 

Examples of micro- (and macro)aggressions are not hard to find. It was not so long ago that a respected lecturer leaned over to me during a seminar in which a minority colleague was speaking to mock his accent. I couldn’t list the number of times a senior academic has said something to the effect of, ‘you know what that lot are like’. I once found a PhD student in a neighboring lab in tears because her supervisor had said to their whole group that she would be able to help them save grant money because of her race and ‘poor socio-economic background’. Another personal favourite quote of mine includes ‘the ridiculous feminisation of science’… it’s a list that goes on and on… and unfortunately for many of you reading this, the sentiments are sadly all too familiar. I have heard detestable sentiments and comments about race, disability, and gender – all from respected senior academics who will are often also guilty of a casual and childish dismissal of any and all efforts to address, or even discuss, these issues. 

I think you can tell by now that I am angry. For me, the anger comes from the fact that we should be better. I fully accept my own naïveté in saying this, but we should, as intelligent innovators on a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and understanding, be better than the world we find ourselves in. Despite this, the dialogue can quickly become toxic in the way it does everywhere else – particularly in certain circles where lip service is given to initiatives aiming to include and involve, while disparaging comments are quickly made once doors are closed.

Despite this I am hopeful for two reasons. One is that science is very much a ‘tribe’ in which we all have found kindred spirits willing to engage in a healthy dialogue. And that word is key: ‘dialogue’ is a two way street, not the tweeting of inflammatory comments and an unwillingness to adjust your position despite a barrage of evidence and reasoned argument. As the global conversation around race intensifies, we, as academics of all ages, races and colours need to be engaging in that dialogue within our own house. Why are women, LGBTQI+, and people of colour (most significantly Black minorities) still a frighteningly small portion of our communities? The answers will not be comfortable ones, but they are there, championed by people within those minorities but supported by the community as a whole. 

From my perspective, it is a huge comfort that the dialogue is being gamely taken up by people of all backgrounds. There are healthy and constructive discussions around what it is to be an ally, and people seem, to me at least, to be understanding that and responding to that concept. Funding streams to support diversity (a friend pointed out the Hanna H. Grey Fellows scheme as a good example) are an example of a tangible efforts, as is the increasing emphasis on mandatory unconscious bias training. There are many powerful voices who far more eloquently discuss the delicate subject of race in academia, and I point you in the direction of Dr Esther Odekunle (@science.uncovered), @BAMEedNetwork and #BlackintheIvory to name a few. 

Universities are an interesting microcosm of dualism and contradiction. On one hand rich in these historical cultural problems, and on the other breeding grounds for dissenting thought and activism. We are starting to see the consequences of the ‘conversation’ in campuses across the UK, where there is a steadily increasing emphasis on EDI (Equality Diversity and Inclusion) initiatives like Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charter. Prominent funders like the Wellcome Trust and journals like eLife provide resources and perspectives which appeal to the scientist in all of us, examples of which I’ve linked to below. 

I think I am mostly giving voice to a small part of that unhappy marriage of shapeless rage and helplessness that so many of us are feeling, confined to our homes. If nothing else, I hope this will encourage those of you who have not engaged in the conversation to do so, or to at least listen. I would like to emphasise that this isn’t an exercise in pointing fingers and extending blame – but in identifying where our institutions are failing and working towards redressing those imbalances.

We have a responsibility to do better therefore we should, and in moments of rare optimism, I think we will. 

Here are the aforementioned resources with numbers and more articulate and likeable authors: 

https://wellcome.ac.uk/reports/what-researchers-think-about-research-culture

https://elifesciences.org/inside-elife/313036d9/workforce-diversity-let-s-talk-about-race

https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/3/237/5714639

https://stemeducationjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40594-018-0115-6

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/333/6045/1015

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/university-black-minority-ethnic-pay-gap-academics-professors-ucu-staff-a9155451.html

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46473269

https://theconversation.com/black-and-minority-ethnic-academics-less-likely-to-hold-top-jobs-at-uk-universities-125253

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/644644/pdf

One thought on “Racism in Science: Where do we go from here?

  1. Thank you so much for this powerful piece, Dr. Khan. We, as white people, have so much work to do and it is so long overdue. Thank you for inviting us, as white people, to be bigger than taking this truth as a personal attack and instead, use it to motivate us to do better. Listening is the bare minimum and now with truths like yours, it is our job to create, with black people and people of color leading, spaces that encourage diversity to flourish. It’s never your or any other POC’s job to teach us, the white community, but I am so grateful you took your time to share your story. Thank you and I applaud your bravery, I can’t imagine this was easy and I know writing something public has many risks.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: