Equity is more than a buzzword

Ashley Paynter at a Black Lives Matter rally in Seattle, Washington.Credit: Maile Anderson

Often, research university departments recruit students of color by offering a highly fabricated dream, an appearance of fairness and inclusion. But many of these students eventually find that they are being used as a tool to contribute to the illusion of departmental fairness, which usually benefits the department and faculty members, not the students.

Anti-racism cannot be diluted to simply increasing the representation of students of color. The importance of real equity investment at the institutional level became more apparent to me after participating in the Black Lives Matter protests organized in response to the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. It has been difficult to reconcile my place in academia and coming back to the lab after everything I had seen happen on the streets. I felt like I was at an intersection, struggling with a dual awareness of my two identities, as a scientist and as a black woman. How could I continue to work ethically in labs when my mind was infiltrated with images of my people being brutalized on the streets and on social media every day? How could I keep protesting when my research demanded time and attention? But more importantly, how can I have a meaningful relationship with science in a way that makes me feel worthy?

In response to both racial tension in the United States and my deep love for science and education, I started the Decolonizing Science podcast in December 2020. My goal is to amplify the voices and experiences of black and indigenous scientists and others who were injured. by inherently racist medical and educational systems. By delivering clear and inclusive talks and organizing local gatherings, I hope to fight scientific illiteracy, health inequities, and systemic underrepresentation. As a black scientist, I want to educate communities about how science, academia, and health care can be improved through the lens of anti-racism.

I sometimes struggled with conflicting senses of identity and duty. It’s mainly because my relationship to being Black in academia is complex. Science makes me feel alive – it allows me to ask questions and investigate our world and our species in new and dynamic ways. However, the freedom that scientific thinking allows me is often diluted by the discomfort of being Black in historically White-centric environments. Unfortunately, when pursuing higher education, the experiences of students of color are often riddled with microaggressions and rejection of conversations related to race and equity. As an activist, I worried that merging science with anti-racism would be deemed inappropriate or unnecessary, as I had been conditioned to believe my whole life. Despite this, I came to discover that my dreams of being a scientist were intrinsically linked to black liberation.

Decolonizing science allowed me to solidify and strengthen my confidence as a black woman and as a scientist. I became a more equitable and ethical scientist by extending the accessibility of science to a wider range of people. I can apply my education where it’s needed most: teaching listeners something new, advocating for families impacted by medical racism, distributing food and personal protective equipment to Seattle’s homeless, and mentoring young people. black women. By sharing interviews that educate listeners about how universities and healthcare systems can harm people of color, I hope we can one day improve these institutions.

While hopeful for the future, I fear that some attempts to make academia fairer are misguided. Many colleagues have said to me, “Academia needs more people like you. As much as the sight of more scientists of color is satiating, the priority should be the quality of life, well-being and appreciation of those scientists. Until academia confronts its systemic inequalities, bright students of color with the potential to unequivocally improve science will be deterred. Below are some key steps I want institutions and employers to take to create truly respectful environments for students of color.

Representation alone will not be enough to repair the evils of racism

Those who are committed to fairness must understand that the evil of racism cannot simply be “fixed”. The ramifications of colonization, slavery and segregation permeate almost every aspect of our society, including our education systems. Simply increasing representation is not an effective way to increase equity in predominantly white institutions. In my own experience, this has been symbolic and, frankly, demeaning.

Instead, institutions should focus on improving the quality of life for these students. A concrete action they could take would be to hire a trained diversity officer, an expert who can give faculty members and students resources to help facilitate and maintain truly inclusive environments. It also relieves the burden of this work from the shoulders of seekers of color. A second concrete action would be to increase departmental funding for student mental health care and direct students to resources outside the department. Students of color want to be treated as humans, not as props for onlookers, grant applications, or self-validation. Equal representation and equity are not the same thing. Optics will not free us; structural change will.

Do not designate yourself as an ally

Giving people access to education is a human right, not an excuse for self-congratulation. Students of color entering graduate programs are just as highly qualified as any other student, and they have faced the weight and pain of racism since the day they were born. They will continue to feel that weight in new and overwhelming ways throughout their careers. De-center yourself by approaching student interactions with empathy, humility, and respect for their valuable expertise.

Ashley Paynter argues that PhD students of color need to have their voices heard and amplified by departments and faculty members.Credit: Ashley Paynter

That said, don’t assume that a student’s presence at an institution automatically means the student is comfortable. It would be much more productive to ask them directly if the university environment feels like a safe space. Initiate communication with them about how they feel in the institution, department or research group without judgment and with their consent. This not only gives the student a space to share their criticisms, but also reinforces that their experiences are valid and important. You cannot declare a space “safe” if you do not have a legitimate connection to the members of your environment and compassion for them.

Take risks to make environments more comfortable

To be an effective mentor and advocate for students of color, you must first recognize your privilege. Then you must use this privilege to fight for structural change. There is no fairness if those in the upper ranks are unwilling to sacrifice their power and potential reputation to dismantle the systems that have been established by white supremacy. You heard me right – if you don’t commit to putting the well-being of your students of color ahead of your colleagues’ perceptions of you, then your calls for fairness are nothing but selfish and performative. You can’t defend fairness with empty promises or small gestures — you have to make tangible improvements. One way to do this would be to solicit student suggestions on how to improve department culture, and then raise those suggestions at faculty meetings, even if the opinion is unpopular or polarizing. Student groups around the world have described ways in which institutions can effect real change, but they are often overlooked. As students, we rely on faculty members to defend us.

Give your students the permission and freedom to be advocates

This is potentially the most tangible way to show students you care about fairness: let them fight for what they believe in. Students are multi-faceted, and each student’s journey while pursuing a PhD is different. Departments need to deconstruct what they currently view as “valuable work”. Viewing race-based work as disruptive or unprofessional is detrimental because it leads to a less accessible, less inclusive, and less accessible field of science.

As a black student, my work in anti-racism and science communication is fundamental to my well-being and the well-being of my community. Joining a graduate program does not mean that I give up my identity, my dignity or my autonomy. If departments really value diversity, why punish students for bringing their diverse backgrounds? This work should be celebrated and respected as it is fundamental to a more prosperous and inclusive scientific community.

Understand that this is not an attack

Sometimes the best action item is to listen. Good intentionality alone does not equate to actionable change. Sometimes potential helpers say and do the things most harmful to students of color. That’s why having difficult conversations about racism and your contribution to it can be emotional and complicated, but the health and prosperity of departments and institutions depends on facilitating this change. Let’s apply the rigor of science to the facts of systemic racism and the damage it inflicts on scientists of color.

This is no easy task – it means removing ego from conversations about racism and dismantling the power dynamics that have become all too familiar in academia. More importantly, we as a scientific community need to consider what are the ramifications of perpetuating a culture that systematically ignores the voices of students of color while preaching equity.

Ask yourself honestly: what are you willing to do to make science fairer, and in doing so, which voice needs to be centered?

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