Racism still pervades the academic sciences

Another Black History Month is drawing to a close. Daniel Akinbosede wonders whether there's any point in observing it again

Daniel Akinbosede is a PhD candidate in biochemistry at the University of Sussex. 

The truth is that no one in academic science cares that it’s Black history month (BHM), and to be honest, I’m not sure how much I care.

BHM in academia is a funny time, it begins alongside the new academic term and making sure the latter goes smoothly will always win the battle for senior leadership’s attention, and even that of most rank-and-file academics. As a result, the best BHM campaign one can realistically hope for is a piece profiling one of, if not the only Black academic in the building and some half-assed paragraph reaffirming the “institution’s commitment to EDI.”

In my experience, most academic scientists don’t really care much about race, let alone the specific complexities and nuances of anti-blackness in science. If you broach the subject with them, you’ll hear phrases like “I don’t see colour” or some waffle about a meritocracy. I doubt many of them have ever really thought about why it is that they have so few Black colleagues or why it is that all those Black undergraduates they teach are nowhere to be found in postgraduate research (PGR) or early career researcher (ECR) spaces.

Hostile environments

Racism and anti-blackness are rampant in academic science, despite the public image associated with the discipline suggesting the opposite. I was only one day into my PhD when I started experiencing direct racism from a young, white early career researcher colleague. I wasn’t taken seriously when I initially complained about this. In my view, because scientists see themselves and their colleagues above such bigotry. Bigotry that has conveniently been socially tied to the “uneducated” or those from an out of touch generation. When my complaints were eventually formally investigated, the evidence which vindicated me was so substantial that the HR department actually found in my favour. Although, not before a senior academic in the department effectively accused me of bullying the person that was exhibiting racial discriminatory behaviour towards me – typical.

Stories like mine are far from rare for Black people in academic science; most wouldn’t risk making such a complaint. If I hadn’t lucked out with a very supportive supervisor, I might have chosen silence too. Part of the racism I experienced from this individual was the vocalisation of ancient tropes about Black people. That I was uppity, lazy, and not intelligent enough to be a serious scientist. These views are fairly common in science, echoed at all levels, by undergraduates in my own school and renowned science deities like James Watson. The assumption that these views would somehow be less common amongst scientists has always felt strange to me, because scientists have historically been most responsible for popularising and legitimising them.

It is clear that addressing anti-blackness ranks very low in the priorities of academic science institutions. One need only look at the recent criticisms of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) who provided £4.3 million in research grants to study the disproportionate mortality of Black, Asian and Minority ethic people during the Covid-19 pandemic and gave £0 to Black principal investigators. In their response to the critiques, UKRI blamed a “broken pipeline” that leads to an underrepresentation of Black scientists in academic research, with little to no acknowledgement of how they contributed to breaking it.

Structural problems

These breakages are not created by unknown forces of nature, they are the result of decades of systemic and normalised anti-blackness within scientific disciplines. In science and technology subjects, Black scientists are less likely to complete their degree – at all levels, less likely to be awarded a “good degree”, less likely to get PhD funding, less likely to secure post-doctoral positions, less likely to be awarded a research fellowship, and of course less likely to climb the ivory tower all the way to professorship.

In my experience, those scientists who make up the disproportionate ethnic majority in these disciplines see this inequality as the natural order of things. If Black scientists were better, maybe they would fare better in academia. This might sound a little extreme, but how else would you explain that when confronted with these stats, institutions typically respond with mentoring schemes, application support schemes and “demystifying research” workshops. Rather than acknowledging pervasive anti-blackness or providing a program for structural change, they see us, and our perceived innate deficiencies as the problem.

So maybe it’s a good thing that academic science doesn’t fall over itself to celebrate BHM. Maybe the disciplines are self-aware enough to know that BHM pomp from them would be disingenuous. I doubt it, but it is possible.

Despite all the odds, Black people have made ground-breaking and world changing contributions to science. Both through hard work and ingenuity, as well as through racist dehumanisation and torture. Black contributions can and should form a basis for discussion during BHM but those discussions will always be passive and empty if not paired with structural change that will drop the barriers that keep so many talented Black scientists out.

I always find myself torn when speaking with Black students just starting to consider science as a career at school or undergraduate level. On one hand I know that I need to encourage more Black people to enter these spaces to force changes and to improve representation for those coming after us. But on the other hand, I know that by doing this, I am almost certainly dooming them to have experiences like the one I described here, or worse.

3 responses to “Racism still pervades the academic sciences

  1. Thanks for a thought provoking article. Do you have any suggestions for where I can find out ideas for what kind of structural changes might help overcome the issues? At my institution we do acknowledge that we have a problem, and do the usual things – ask all staff to complete unconscious bias training, etc, but I’d love to hear some more radical ideas.

  2. Very lucid piece, thank you, Daniel for your eloquence. I will probably continue to support and celebrate BHM in academia as an act of resistance but acknowledging the disproportionate burden on the very few of us, Black HE professionals/academics that can commit to organise it. And also that the interest of HE leadership is usually limited, lukewarm, performative or non-existent.
    @Becky: plenty of resources out there, which include “radical ideas”. Googling is a good start.

  3. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “anti-blackness”? I mean, are you referring to overt racism that would be apparent to any observer, or something that a (presumably non-black) person behaving with ‘anti-blackness’ may not even be aware of? My motive for asking the question is simply “if there is anti-blackness in my lab, would I spot it?”. Being in a city with almost no black faces makes spotting this even harder as there are so few encounters to observe.

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