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Black scientists call out racism in their institutions

‘It feels like in academia, you’re just not welcome. So that’s why I’ve taken to Twitter.’

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Justice For Black Lives
A man raises his fist during “Justice for Black Lives,” at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, MA on June 06, 2020.
Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A reckoning has come this week for systemic racism in the sciences. Black scientists and students are sharing their experiences on Twitter of being dismissed and discriminated against in academia using the hashtag #BlackintheIvory. Many also participated in a June 10th strike meant to shut down STEM industries in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Thousands of tweets detailing what it’s like to be black in the ivory towers of universities and research institutions point to deep-seated problems. Tweet after tweet describes similar, horrifying experiences from individuals spread across the world. Some leading institutions, including academic journals, are now taking steps toward ending the systemic exclusion, exploitation, and belittling of black scholars. 

“We always try to separate science from these kinds of things, [as if] science is not at all impacted by racial bias and racist histories, and that’s just the biggest fabrication you could be telling anyone these days,” says Alex Moore, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History. She joined the strike yesterday and says her workplace was supportive of her decision. “It matters a lot to me to see scientists and academic institutions saying that we are not separate from these issues,” she tells The Verge.

Academic institutions participating in the strike include American Physical Society, the journal Science, the journal Physical Review Letters, and the preprint server arXiv, among others. The goal of the strike is to push institutions to consider how they’ve marginalized black people and take steps to do better. It’s also a time to prioritize the needs of black people in STEM, “whether that is to rest, reflect, or to act— without incurring additional cumulative disadvantage,” according to the strike’s organizers. Nearly 6,000 scientists signed on to participate.

The journal Nature decided to only publish content on the day of the strike that is “directly relevant to supporting Black researchers or that amplifies their voices.” Referring to stories on social media, the journal said in an editorial, “This outpouring is, in part, because Black researchers have long been denied a space and a platform in established institutions and publications such as this one. We recognize that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship. The enterprise of science has been — and remains — complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices.”

“The enterprise of science has been — and remains — complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices.”

The injustices are innumerable. Many scientists using the hashtag #BlackintheIvory described being mistaken for a janitor or housekeeper. “[A]t a fellowship induction ceremony the woman at the door greeting asked the White student in front of me for their name so they could retrieve their nametag and then asked me if I was “The help.” I went back to my dorm and sobbed until I vomited,” University of North Carolina PhD candidate Mya Roberson tweeted.  

“I was robbed of that joy that I felt like I deserved and even beyond that, I don’t think that that’s an appropriate way to greet anyone regardless of their role,” she tells The Verge

Others described being hassled by security guards or having the police called on them on their campus or at their places of work. For Nneoma Adaku, being black in the ivory tower meant having a security guard call police on her five years ago while she was working in a lab at Yale, she tweeted. She says she reported the incident to administration, but ultimately began using a different entrance to the building to avoid the same security guard. Adaku is now an MD-PhD candidate at Rockefeller University researching mechanisms of cancer metastasis and also participated in yesterday’s strike. 

Yale responded to The Verge in an email saying, “[it] will not tolerate discrimination or bias.” The university also noted that “In the past year, the school has provided unconscious bias training for security guards.”

Black scientists also shared experiences of being told by other students or co-workers that their presence was due to efforts to diversify the institution and not because of merit. That happened to Tracy Edwards when she was an intern at Vanderbilt University. (She’s a nuclear physics PhD student at Michigan State University now.) “I got in on my own merit and my own credit and for someone to just reduce that down to my race is a complete insult,” she tells The Verge

“I’m being honest with you, I get so tired of hearing the stories of black scientists being pushed out of STEM,” Edwards says. Only 9 percent of STEM workers in the US are black, compared to 69 percent who are white, according to the Pew Research Center. Black males and black females each made up about 2 percent of full-time professors in 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. “It feels like in academia, you’re just not welcome. So that’s why I’ve taken to Twitter.”

I get so tired of hearing the stories of black scientists being pushed out of STEM

“Things that are caught on camera that are physically abusive and egregious are terrible, but we are unable to really grasp and acknowledge the covert racism that happens,” says Joy Melody Woods, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. Woods started the #BlackintheIvory hashtag along with Shardé Davis, PhD, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Connecticut. Woods says the momentum their hashtag has garnered online is evolving into specific demands for universities and other institutions. “We’re calling for structural, radical change for other institutions that perpetuate white supremacy,” Woods tells The Verge.

The social media campaign and STEM strike are playing out alongside worldwide protests against racism and the deaths of black people at the hands of police. “It’s only people of privilege who have that notion that science is separate from these societal issues, because as black scientists we’re not all given that same ability to separate our scientific lives and our lives outside of science,” Adaku tells The Verge. What people are comfortable sharing on social media barely scratches the surface of that abuse within science and academia, others tweeted

“Black students were fed up,” Woods says. “Black people as a whole are fed up in the country right now of racism.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Tracy Edwards was an intern at Vanderbilt University. A previous version of this story identified her as a student at Vanderbilt.

Update 6/11: This story has been updated to include Shardé Davis’ position at the University of Connecticut.

Update 6/12: This story has been updated to include a response from Yale University.