Racism and Silence in EEB

I emailed this letter on June 24, 2020 to all members of the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior (EEB) department at the University of Minnesota. This letter is a companion piece to An Open Letter to the University of Minnesota Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior Faculty about Diversity and Inclusion. Though I am the sole named author, the impact of this letter would have been minuscule without the supplementation of racist experiences by many folx in the EEB department who shall remain anonymous. Thank you all for being brave. I would also like to thank Taryn (Taz) L. Mueller, Sarah P. Hammarlund, Josie A. Griffin, and Janine Mistrick for their help editing this letter.

Dear EEB Community,

I shouldn’t have to write this letter.

As a person of color in the EEB department, the discourse concerning the existence of racism in academia over the past week has left me incredibly unsettled. There should be no room for debate on this issue. Academic institutions developed from deeply racist societies, so naturally they will inherit racist values and structures present in these societies. That logical progression seems obvious to me. No need for studies to prove anything. Yet a debate was still had.

In writing this letter, my intention is not to reignite the “debate” from last week. Strangely, I find myself lacking the energy to debate those whose position denies the reality of my lived experiences. My intention in writing this letter is to demonstrate just how toxic our community is for BIPOC (and Black people especially). I aim to accomplish this by: 1.) Describing racist experiences that I have been subjected to by members of our community and 2.) Presenting anonymized racist experiences that postdocs and graduate students anonymously contributed. These experiences involved professors, graduate students, postdocs, and staff that operate within the EEB Department. Each of these divisions is responsible for cultivating the racist environment of our department.

As a light skinned Black person, it is quite rare for me to experience explicit racism. By explicit racism, I mean racism that any rational person, Black or non-Black, would acknowledge as such. For instance, I am fortunate enough to have only been called a racial slur once in my life thus far (not in EEB); if I were darker skinned I likely would have been subject to explicit racism far more. Nearly all of the racism that I experience is more covert. A common racist experience for me involves white people refusing to show me a baseline level of respect by pronouncing my name incorrectly as len-no when it is correctly said as lee-no. I don’t mean someone accidentally mispronouncing my name once or twice after I correct them. I’m referring to people continuing to mispronounce my name for months (in some cases years) after we’ve met and they have been informed of the correct pronunciation many times. In my relatively brief time in EEB, multiple members of the community have shown me this level of disrespect. Many more have overheard this pattern of deliberate mispronunciation unfold and remained silent.

Another kind of covert racism I have experienced in EEB concerns fetishizing me as a biracial person. For whatever reason — I suspect in a horrendously misguided attempt to prove just how not-racist they are — a lot of white people have taken to fetishizing mixed race people. In my experience, this fetishization is directed at mixed raced children more so than adults; I’ve heard comments like, “Mixed kids will always be cuter than white or black kids.” These comments are harmful because they imply that racism can be ameliorated by having more mixed race kids. Personally, they make me feel like society will never value me as more than an object to be gawked at. At a crowded EEB Happy Hour event, a member of our community inquired about my racial background. When I told them I was mixed race, they made multiple fetishizing comments about mixed race adults and children over the course of several minutes. Community members that overheard these comments remained silent.

I am not the only person of color that has experienced racism within the EEB Community. Below this letter I have included a list of anonymized racist experiences that I have solicited from grad students and postdocs. This does not represent the totality of racism that people of color have faced in EEB. These are merely the experiences that were easily anonymized and that grad students and postdocs felt comfortable enough to share publicly. A common thread that you’ll see in several anonymized experiences as well as in the experiences I shared above is the utter failure of onlookers to speak up when racist things are being said or done. If y’all are committed to making EEB a place that treats people of color with dignity and respect, this silence must be broken. I know it’s difficult to call out someone you consider a colleague or friend for being racist. But it needs to happen. This is especially true in the case of professors. Your voices carry more weight than the voices of graduate students, postdocs, or staff.

I leave you with a quote of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s that has crossed my mind at least once a day this past month. It is from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, published in 1963:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Regards,

Leno

Anonymized racist experiences from graduate students and postdocs:

I was directly asked by a faculty member: “When are they going to kick you out of the program?”

I was essentially called lazy after giving feedback on ways to make work loads more equitable for all teaching assistants in a course.

I have been made to feel that white teaching assistants are better prepared and smarter than me (even when that is untrue).

White professors ignore me whenever I salute them in the halls or hold doors open for them. Their behavior makes me feel like an accessory in the department.

I spent a year hearing sexist and racist comments from students in Foundations. Faculty never intervened.

My advisor told me I should focus on important things rather than going to BLM protests.

I repeatedly heard a white graduate student say that one of our black peers did not belong in the program and was not “good enough”. As far as I know, there were no repercussions for this student being openly racist.

This is not about a professor, but is sadly about a fellow student and the department’s complicity. In a conversation I had with them, they made a racist statement, followed by, “Don’t get me wrong, I love black people…” Unfortunately, I am pretty sure that the department was aware of this person’s racism before they were accepted.

My name, and the names of fellow BIPOC, are misspelled and mispronounced repeatedly. Sometimes on purpose and after being corrected several times.

Not only professors, I have seen and heard white students and white international students saying Black and Brown people should not be so aggressive or should not be so reactionary. They basically say there is “reverse racism”.

At a gathering in 100 Ecology where we champagne-toasted someone’s accomplishments, a faculty member asked an Asian student if she gets the “Asian glow” when she drinks alcohol.

Some faculty feel ok interrupting my meetings with my advisor.

BIPOC have historically done A LOT of unpaid labor for welcome week. Welcome week coordinator positions have historically gone to white students despite BIPOC continuously expressing interest.

During Welcome Week, a prospective student upon seeing BLM signs during activities meant to highlight the cultural richness and diversity of Minneapolis, pushed the “All lives matter” narrative. Myself and other current graduate students informed faculty, and voiced our opinion that this prospective student not be admitted to the program. By knowingly admitting someone who holds these values, they tacitly condoned them.

I have been called angry and problematic.

During a TA meeting for a lesson plan highlighting the contributions of POC scientists, a white graduate student denied the existence of systemic discrimination against any underrepresented group. This same TA claimed it was a disservice to accommodate different cultures because “hiring institutions wouldn’t”.

Several faculty have assumed that as a POC, I am a first generation college student. Some seem utterly shocked to learn that POC have gone to college for more than a generation.

A faculty member refused to provide a simple informal accommodation for an undergraduate student of color. This resulted in decreased course performance and final grade for that student.

A white student said something disrespectful and discriminatory in class, I laughed and said something along the lines of “Are you serious?”. I was told by faculty to be respectful of my peers.

A graduate student repeatedly mispronounced the name of a Black undergraduate student and laughed off the mistake numerous times. This could have contributed to an unwelcoming or hostile working environment for the undergraduate student.

Faculty have dismissed my scientific work and ideas, they later praised the same work or ideas when presented by a white collaborator.

Faculty have dismissed my outreach work or initiatives, they later praised the same work or initiatives when presented by a white collaborator.

Several faculty have raised their voice or changed their tone when talking to me.

Faculty have told me directly that without “fellowships” there would be no space for students “like me” in this department.

A former community member who is still at the UMN still can’t say my first name, let alone my last name (after multiple years and attempted corrections).

I heard a faculty member jokingly saying to a colleague that American students complain too much.

A faculty member who was commenting on a fellowship personal statement said it sounded “braggy”. I questioned whether I would have gotten the same comment if I was a white male student. I walked away feeling simultaneously gross and unsure of what I’d just experienced.

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