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.
There have been an increased number of public attacks on underrepresented academics for their education and activism on social media. The term “activist academic” describes the longstanding tradition across nations where intellectuals engage in conscious protest in support of social justice and dissent against the status quo. Activism by academics asserts that the university has a social function beyond the provision of education and scholarly critique. Activist academics see that their role serves a social purpose to provide independent social criticism through volunteering, program interventions, public engagement outside academia, protests, and beyond. In some circles, the profile of activist academics has declined, particularly amongst White academics from majority groups. This led to the misperception that recent international protests by scientists were novel. This is misguided, as minority academics are often inextricably activist in their pedagogy, not-for-profit service work, and activities.
Sociology is centrally concerned with activism, especially in applied contexts. Our social justice focus is misconceived as bias or as an attack to those not used to having history, culture and politics viewed through a critical lens. Sociology is centrally concerned with social transformation. We do not merely observe the world; we aim to challenge existing power structures and to reduce inequity. Having said that, women academics in general are penalised for their work, and the outcomes are even worse for minority sociologists as they seek senior roles. The stakes for minority activist academics is therefore higher, as I will show below.
Over the next couple of days, in the lead up to the March for Science, happening globally on 22 April 2017, I’ll be republishing a few of my articles and analyses of the March here on my blog.
On 13 April 2017, an article in Science Magazine featured the academic research planned about the March for Science, and interviews with one of the march co-chairs. The journalist reported that George Mason University was seeking email addresses of supporters for a planned study.
Scientists around the world who have been holding the march organisers accountable criticised the ethics of such a proposed study. This eventually led to the organisers requesting a correction from the journalist.
How did this major error happen?
Two days later, on 16 April, the March for Science was forced to issue a public apology after appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in a now-deleted tweet (below). This was heavily critiqued, especially by Black researchers, who pointed out the hypocrisy of using AAVE when Black scientists had been marginalised by the march, and received abuse for speaking out on inequalities within the march. Black scientists were also ignored when they encouraged the organisers to work with established social justice groups, including Black Lives Matter. Cultural appropriation of AAVE is doubly offensive in given these patterns of exclusion.
These are just two recent examples in a long line of problems. The organisers have established a damaging cycle of communication failures and weak apologies since the March for Science was first promoted.