An open letter to the EEB community

This letter was authored by a number of people at different institutions, and representing all career stages. We write this letter in a composite voice representing a variety of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) experiences. The letter emerged from the heat of ongoing events and an opportunity to contribute our voices to a constructive future. You may read this as an unsolicited screed, or you may read this as the cry of our desperation, but what it is not is an attempt to shame white people.

Many of us BIPOC in EEB have watched the rippling effects of Black Lives Matter on the EEB community with interest. The EEB community at large is white. We are surprised that it took a national outrage to notice and reflect on the lack of diversity in EEB. We have been here all along, in the shadows, mostly ignored, and doing our best to truck along. For a scientific discipline obsessed with diversity, with measuring and teasing apart the origins of differences, this discipline is maddeningly uniform. Is it our fault if we feel we are mere props for that ‘broader impacts’ section on grants, and to checkbox that ‘diversity’ hire? Even as the force of the world is behind us, amplifying our voices, and we should feel empowered, there is part of us that cannot but help feel exasperated. Why did it take so long? Why did you not notice what was happening around you and amongst you? We can’t help feel paralyzed by fear, that this moment too shall pass. What from the past should tell us it will be different this time? We are afraid to hope. Yes, we are afraid to hope for better.

It’s all dandy to form enclaves, and shut your lab for a day, to decide what you will do better. This was a necessary moment of reflection, and we thank you. That you could afford to do so is a privilege and we hope you realize that many BIPOC faculty couldn’t do so due to institutional barriers. How much of your outrage and activism can we rely on in 1 week, 1 month or 1 year from now? Why should we take these exercises seriously, when it feels like it was done to assuage your sense of guilt? Why do so many statements ring superficial and hollow? You see, racism is corrosive to the very fabric of society, but it’s real target is the trust between ordinary, well meaning humans. The way forward is to rebuild a foundation upon mutual trust, and justice is a key element of trust.

If you are interested in changing things permanently (as permanency goes), then you need to hear us, but before that you must understand what it feels like to be BIPOC in academia and EEB. It will be difficult for you to fathom the astonishing variety of ways racism invades almost every space of our professional life. Here’s a sampling of our experiences and we dare you to put yourself in our shoes and relive these experiences:

“Went to an evolution meeting and was eager to meet a professor who was a hero to me. I (Black male) found her during the social and waited as she finished talking to another student. The professor, without turning to look at my face, handed her empty drink cup to me and asked for another one. I politely took her cup, and then I left the social. The experience so traumatized me, I still hesitate to approach people at conferences. Has this ever happened to you?”

“In a genetics class, the professor was explaining the concept of alleles, and pointed to the two Asians in the class (I was one of them), and without losing a step said, ‘lets call the alleles pong and ping — they are both the same and look identical, but they are different’”

“Showed up at the rendezvous for an ecology field trip with my overly prepared backpack. Professor asks me (a middle-eastern woman) whether I am packing my suicide vest, and starts laughing loudly. ”

“Do you know the feeling of having to reintroduce yourself for the nth time as a faculty because you are invisible and no one knows your name even after years at the institution? The feeling of senior faculty passing you in the hallways without acknowledging you, like you do not exist? how hard is it to acknowledge another person 2 feet from you?”

“I was in a grad conservation biology course and the discussion on invasive species morphed into a discussion on immigration. The professor, with agreement from several students, said that immigrants are like invasive species, and that people from some countries take root wherever they go, and are difficult to ‘eradicate’. Then the professor wanted me (Indigenous) to play devil’s advocate and defend immigration. I, a descendent of people who died because of colonialism, was the only voice against racism. It was an ambush.”

“Was told by a search committee chair that ‘You were the best candidate, but the committee was worried that if we hired you (a Latinx), it would send the wrong message to our students that only minorities get hired’. Why is their social experiment my problem? After two jobs that fell through, I gave up on academia”.

“Getting a manuscript review back with a comment about my name (a Black woman) saying that my name had too many syllables and they had found it ‘curious and distracting’! They rejected the paper FYI, and criticized it for being ‘wild and confused’. If only they paid the same attention to my science.”

“Heard at a faculty search meeting: ‘We should hire that blonde from ABC University. She just lights up the room and you can't take your eyes off her. I mean, she is popular on social media and is so pretty she could be a movie star. She would draw a lot of publicity and funding with a face like that’. As the only POC in the department, I was too stunned to say anything. Besides the obvious sexism and objectification espoused by my colleague, is ‘blonde movie star looks’ a requirement now? I keep wondering what I have to do to get the same enthusiastic support from my colleagues...”

These are but a few run-of-the-mill situations we face in our everyday lives. Social media is full of more horrifying stories if you check #BlackInTheIvory on Twitter. For a minute, visualize the BIPOC students or faculty in your program, and know with certainty that have experienced this, repeatedly. Beneath their calm and genial facade there’s the anguish of repeated assaults on their dignity, and a dread about when and where the next one will land. Increasing diversity doesn’t require making special provisions and accommodations for BIPOC. It requires building and maintaining an environment where dignity for all can be guaranteed, and where no one is more equal than others.

Please use this (incomplete) list of suggestions to guide your action to bring about real change:

1. Help us reject and uproot racism from our workplace, and even minor changes you make will help bring substantial change. There is no joy for us should you fail, for we realize the uphill task that lies ahead, but even slow, gradual change is a (R)evolution (as we all know).

2. Lend your voice to your BIPOC students and colleagues. Many fear reprisal for speaking out. Many speak out knowing they will be targeted privately and publicly.

3. The past cannot be undone, but we may yet undo the future that feels almost certain for the disenfranchised. Introduce BIPOC students to your network, invite them to work with you, and give them opportunities to build their CV. Nominate them for recognition when theres a chance, and not just for diversity categories.

4. Words matter, and actions speak louder than words, but your simple words can stop the myriad expressions of racism. This will be a powerful action. Help design systems and practices that challenge institutional cultures where they are discriminatory.

5. Don’t treat your BIPOC students, postdocs, or faculty as curiosities. They got there with their wits and hard work, same as anyone else. Acknowledge them, respect them, hear them, criticize them, just as you would any human.

6. Say our name. If you have to say our name, please do not say “I will butcher this, so I will not say it”. Nothing makes us feel like we don’t belong than to be reminded that your name sounds different, or worse, unpronounceable. Learn our names and say it loud and proud.

7. The lengthy history of racism is full of white people ‘doing what’s right for the colored’. Think twice about making plans for them, and preferably never without their embedded participation.

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has said that in the fight between the wall and the egg, he will always stand with the egg, no matter how wrong the egg is, and how right the wall is. Ultimately, we are all fragile eggs facing a powerful wall - the wall made up by our collective biases, fears, contradictions, insecurities, and prejudices. Or maybe the wall is a powerful entity resistant to change it's old ways. No one but the enlightened few are free of the wall’s influence. Here, that wall is wrong, and the egg is right, so your choice is easy. Thank you.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store