Racism in Research and Academia

Racism is not an interpersonal phenomenon. It is not simply about something one person said to another; it is more than a slur about skin colour. Racism operates through institutions and policies, that are reinforced in everyday words and actions. Racism is not comprehending that things you say and do – as well as the things you fail to say and do – contribute to the alienation of people of colour. Well-meaning White people contribute towards racism – through their silence. Whether intentional or not, racism has material consequences on the life chances of racial minorities. Below are some examples of racism at work in research contexts. I examine what it means to be an “ally,” and I discuss ways to proactively respond to racial discrimination in the workplace and online.

Racism in research workplaces

Racism is that conversation involving “jokes” of racial stereotypes, or which belittled a racial minority, which you overheard at work and decided not to intervene on behalf of your colleague.

Racism is looking around a table at a meeting without noticing that everyone is White. Or that the only person being silenced is a person of colour.

Racism is praising the work and ideas of White people daily but ignoring the achievements of people of colour, choosing only to see mistakes (however minor).

Racism is asking a person of colour who is a professional to justify their expert opinion despite their years of experience and credentials you don’t have.

Racism is having the only person of colour in your organisation come to you and say: “This isn’t fair” or “this isn’t right” and yet you still ignore their concerns.

Racism in meetings

Racism is dismissing a person of colour’s comments about organisational exclusion by referencing policy or budget decisions.

Racism is choosing to stop inviting a person of colour onto committees because you think it’s “disruptive” to have someone point out problems stemming from committee’s whiteness.

Racism is not seeing how every time a person of colour speaks up against racial inequality will be twisted and interpreted as “not being a team player” at the next performance review.

Racism is telling a person of colour that now is not the right time to make that policy change but you’ll look to improve outcomes for minorities “later.”

Racism is using your minority colleague in witty stories to other White people (that singular person of colour “friend”), but not recognising that person is unable to be their true self around you because you don’t recognise what they go through as a minority. Are you really friends, if you can’t acknowledge and help with the burden of racism?

Racism is not knowing the amount of time people of colour waste planning emails and rehearsing responses to discrimination knowing the professional risk this carries.

Racism is benefiting from the brilliance, labour and dedication of people of colour in your workplace but not noticing how they are alienated and harassed every day, in plain sight.

Racism in research

Racism in teaching

Racism is thinking that having one person of colour in your classroom amounts to “diversity.”

Racism is using that one unnamed, magical student of colour you “mentor” (whom nobody ever seems to see in your office) as a defence to vouch for your diversity credentials.

Racism is never stopping to notice that your curriculum, the textbooks you ask students to discuss in research and exam papers, and your presentations are filled with the work of White scholars. And no: that one video clip you use of [insert pop culture reference to a person of colour] does not count as “diversity” in your teaching. Racism is not recognising the lifetime of racism students have suffered before they walk into your classroom, and then contributing to their silencing and exclusion because you’re unaware of your biases.

Racism is expecting people of colour (usually postgraduates and early career staff) to look after the needs of other minority students but never giving them resources, support or credit for this unpaid work.

Racism is using resources that should be directed to increase diversity of research students and junior staff into areas where people of colour will never enter. Usually this plays out by redirecting all efforts and funding into programs that primarily benefit White women from majority groups.

Racism is using the work of students of colour to boost your career but never giving them public credit, and yet privately undermining their progress.

Racism is thinking that there’s a “nice” way for students to approach you about racism. Racism is punishing students for pointing out your racism.

Intersectionality

Racism is thinking that gender equity is separate to diversity. Note that women of colour are women who do not benefit from Whiteness – and so a panel full of White women is not an example of “equity and diversity.” It is an example of racism. White supremacy, even when it benefits White women, is no cause for celebration.

Racism is thinking that gender equity should come first, and that minority women of different backgrounds can wait their turn (women of colour who are disabled, LBTQIA, working class, and beyond).

Racism is presuming programs and policies benefiting White women will have flow on effects for minorities. This attitude erases women of colour and Others.

Racism is women of colour being constantly told we “take things too personally” or that we should “be more professional” when we respond to racism in the context of gender equity and diversity programs, decision-making and policy review.

Racism is thinking that it’s someone else’s job to look after people of colour who experience multiple inequalities as gender and sexual minorities, as disabled women, because separate services exist for gender and sexual groups, disability advocacy. These organisations are often exclusionary and do not provide culturally and religiously relevant support. These organisations are often hostile to racial minorities who are forced to navigate racism in both mainstream and minority services.

Minorities need advocacy. They do not to be redirected to existing groups that perpetuate racism.

Racism in equity and diversity panels

Conditional “allies”

An ally is an advocate who actively works with people of colour to create solidarity in tough times as well as in everyday instances of prejudice. An ally takes specific and measurable action to end racism, as defined by the needs and leadership of people of colour.

Racism is calling yourself an “ally” and thinking that you should be praised for that One Time You Said Racism Is Bad but getting upset when you get called out for racism.

Racism is thinking you’re an “ally” for listening to the life story of discrimination from a person of colour colleague and then likening racism to the One Bad Thing You Experienced. People of colour also experience personal tragedy and unexpected life hurdles, but they do so whilst struggling against systemic racial discrimination. White privilege is overlooking the humanity of people of colour, while elevating your own life circumstances, to erase your responsibility to end racism.

Racism is appointing yourself the role of “ally,” but treating a person of colour as a “problem” or as “aggressive” for being the only person to point out inequities in your research/workplace equity and diversity committee that is run by White people.

Allyship in research and academia

Racism is asserting yourself as an “ally” and presuming people of colour should educate and make you feel good about the low-level effort you put into anti-racism. In turn, you expect people of colour not to point out your mistakes or problematic behaviour because you’re “trying to be a better person.” This sets up people of colour colleagues to suffer in silence about how your inexperience as an “ally” hurts us. You don’t want to know about the real impact of discrimination.

Racism is holding onto your self-ascribed label as an “ally,” but feeling relieved when a person of colour leaves an organisation in response to racist institutional culture. You are not aware of the serious health implications for enduring relentless racial antagonism. Now you can go back to pointing at your written policies as if these alone mean your organisation is committed to equity and diversity.

Racism is being proud to be an “ally,” but ignoring that your organisation does not hire, promote and retain people of colour in senior roles.

How to help

Here are some ways to actively address racism day-to-day. To start with, be honest with yourself: could you be contributing to racism, unconsciously or not? It’s great that you occasionally tweet other people’s anti-racism activism. Good to know you think it’s bad to be racist. It’s not enough. It is not collegial to expect people of colour, whether it be students or colleagues, to fight racial inequality. It is White people’s responsibility to proactively address racism. Try answering some of the following questions and suggestions to come to terms with your bias and to make a positive contribution to change.

Do better

How many people of colour have you actively supervised and mentored? Students in your undergraduate class are not enough. One or two Honours or PhD students don’t make up for the hundreds of others that went out the door without your full support.

Do you know what minority students go through daily? Racism impedes education in many ways. It is absolutely not okay to be business as usual with students and early-to-mid-career researchers facing institutional racism. Students of colour often have to educate their White peers about racism while also navigating institutional and everyday racism. Are you proactively dealing with institutional racism, or merely coasting on White privilege?

Allyship is sacrificing White privilege, like giving up speaking spots, grants and other career opportunities so that people of colour can shine. Allyship is not a crown White people can give themselves. It requires centring people of colour, making concerted efforts for positive change, and not passively upholding the status quo. What career sacrifices have you made to end racism, which are meaningful to people of colour?

Are you proactively dealing with institutionalised racism?

Get trained… and keep on training

Do you know your biases and their impact on racism in your organisation? When was the last time you had training on racism and intersectionality that involved a plan of follow-up concrete actions to lead change?

Start by taking the free online test by Harvard University to get you thinking about unconscious bias. How will you work on this bias over time? Pretending you have nothing to do with racism won’t change anything. Being called out on racism – intentional or otherwise – should not lead you to get defensive. It’s also not okay to dismiss concerns saying “everyone is biased.” Move past your discomfort and get training that is tied to key performance indicators.

Ongoing training can be life changing for your staff. Managers and anyone sitting on recruitment, promotion of funding panel should renew this training every two years. Know that training is a starting point, but in and of itself, training does not lead to systemic changes. Staff career progression should be tied to your ability to support the career progress of Indigenous people and other racial minorities. People shouldn’t be in management positions in research organisations (or anywhere else) unless they are directly responsible for the career ascension, success and career satisfaction of Indigenous people and other people of colour.

Review your policies using a critical race framework. Statements against bullying are not enough. Telling staff not to be racist in some obscure place in your policies and procedures manual meets the bare legal requirements. This is not enough. Anti-racism in the workplace means regular evaluation, consultation with staff and experts on racial inclusion, and ongoing changes with special attention to the career goals and needs of Indigenous people. In Australia, that means hiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to sit on boards, review panels, hiring panels, and in other key decision-making roles to ensure your organisation makes effective changes. And – no – your Reconciliation Action Plan means very little if your organisation fails to recruit and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To affect structural changes that will eliminate discrimination, your organisation needs quotas, clear goals and deadlines, and public accountability.

Take responsibility

Start a journal club at your institution. Read academic and policy papers by people of colour. Discuss their research excellence and use their science in your everyday work.

Add more people of colour authors and journalists to your regular general reading and news feeds! For starters, check out law professor and member of the Referendum Council Professor Megan Davis, academic and health worker Dr Chelsea Bond, journalist Celeste Liddle, health expert Kelly Briggs,  news and social media platform Indigenous X (founded by journalist Luke Pearson), anthropologist Professor Marcia Langton and author Anita Heiss.

Actively engage with people of colour, both online and by bringing them in as experts into your organisation. The fact is that most of White people interact exclusively with other White people. White people are not experts on race and racism – so hire people of colour from minority backgrounds to challenge organisational culture and lead change. Pay people of colour for their travel, time and expertise. 

Get your head around reality of racism faced by your women of colour colleagues. The only reason you don’t see it is because you don’t want to. Learn about how institutional racism, sexism and homophobia concurrently impact people of colour, and contribute to mainstreaming intersectionality in higher education and science. Share resources by people of colour with colleagues and students.

Include the knowledge and activism of people of colour as part of your syllabus, conference or industry presentation. Anti-racism is not just a state of mind. Being an ally is not an identity you hold. Anti-racism and allyship are verbs: they are the sum total of actions you take daily, and the sacrifices you make to give up your White privilege.

Raise representation

The next time you go to a meeting, check the representation in the room: it’s not okay to leave out Indigenous and other people of colour from meetings and committees.

Organising a conference? Just as it’s not ok to leave out “women” think about racial balance. White women can’t speak for “minorities” (don’t forget women of colour are women too and White women can’t speak to our experiences).

Walk around your offices and campus. Do you see only White faces on walls, on your marketing materials and on your other media? Speak to your Vice Chancellor or Director on the importance of intersectionality in representation.

Online solidarity and beyond

There is no “devil’s advocate” on discussions about racism. There is no valid opposing side that we need to listen to about racism. Racism is the norm, and thus already dominates all platforms of public discourse. Allowing people of colour to do all the labour educating on racism is why racism persists.

Are you a White person who doesn’t know what to say about racism when you see it unfold at work? Opting in and out of discussions is a luxury of Whiteness. People of colour don’t have this option.

Feeling too tired to deal with racism online? The first and last thing people of colour see on our social media mentions are cases of racism and abuse, not to mention in our offline lives. The least thing that White people can do is to stand up against prejudice online and in-real-life places dominated by White people.  

Most White researchers and academics are more comfortable listening to other White people about racism. It is not more courageous or objective or powerful for a White person to speak out on racism.

  1. Do speak out on racism.
  2. Encourage your White friends to do the same.
  3. But don’t forget to listen to and uplift the voices of people of colour.

Get real about how your online behaviour contributes to racism. Do a quick mental analysis of whom you’re following, retweeting and interacting with on Twitter (and elsewhere). Who are you speaking to? Who are you failing to engage and listen to?

Retweeting people of colour is a good start, but really listen. Don’t look away because it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t be a bystander to hate, violence and exclusion.

Ending Racism in Research & Academia You’re Helping Progress If You Can SAY “Yes” to These Questions: Have you reviewed your curriculum, presentations & other materials for racial inclusion? Have you refused to participate in all-White panels, whether for science or “equity & diversity” events? Do you know your biases & measured their impact on racism in your organisation? Do you meet quotas & key performance indicators to boost hiring, promotion, retention & career satisfaction of people of colour in senior roles? Have you made career sacrifices to end racism, which are meaningful to people of colour?
Ending racism in research and academia

Notes

This post is an expanded version of a Twitter thread from 2 May 2016.

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