‘A time of reckoning.’ How scientists confronted anti-Black racism and built community in 2020 | Science

C. Smith/Science

Tiara Moore strolled along a beach, waves crashing in the background. “Welcome to Black in Marine Science Week,” the University of Washington, Seattle, postdoc declared in a video posted to Twitter late last month. “We’re celebrating Black people in the ocean. Let’s do it!”

The video went viral, receiving roughly 20,000 views and 1000 likes, and set off a week of networking and community building. Black marine scientists introduced themselves on Twitter, convened panel discussions on YouTube, and answered questions on Skype. “Experiencing racism and sexism while doing fieldwork and being isolated in the classroom suck,” one grad student tweeted. “But having Black idols to look up to gives me energy and hope.”

The social media event was one of more than a dozen that have taken place this year, starting with #BlackBirdersWeek in May. The purpose of these events, organizers say, was multifaceted. They served to raise the visibility of Black scientists and bring them together in a virtual community. They also highlighted for the broader scientific community issues Black people face on their paths to becoming scientists. “We wanted to not harp on so much of our trauma, but to let people know, ‘Hey, we exist and these are the realities of what we face day to day,’” says Ashley Walker, an astrochemist who recently completed a bachelor’s degree at Chicago State University and helped organize #BlackInAstro, #BlackInChem, and #BlackInPhysics.

Given the chronic underrepresentation of Black researchers across scientific disciplines—according to the most recent data on U.S. STEM Ph.D. recipients, for example, just 3% were Black—the virtual events proved a powerful way for researchers to see that even if they are the only Black person in their group, program, or department, they are not alone. “We’re few and far between, so having us come together as a conglomerate in one virtual space—it really helped,” says Ti’Air Riggins, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student at Michigan State University, who helped organize #BlackInNeuro. “You got to see … someone out there who’s doing something that you want to do who looks like you.”

Many of the online discussions were positive, but some touched on difficult topics, Riggins says. For example, some of her peers wrote about wanting to leave their graduate program because they felt isolated, couldn’t find a good mentor, were worn down by a barrage of microaggressions, or experienced other challenges. “It was just something that I saw over and over and over again,” she says. “And I was saying to myself, ‘This is something that we need to fix.’”

The responsibility to make changes ultimately lies with those in positions of power, Riggins notes. But she also hopes the community formed through #BlackInNeuro may help more Black neuroscientists persist in their field. She’s part of a Black In Neuro Slack group, which has amassed roughly 180 members and provides a safe space for Black neuroscientists to discuss challenges and seek support. Group members, including Riggins, also organized a #BlackInNeuro virtual conference, which attracted more than 1000 scientists from 48 countries. It’s “a really helpful and uplifting community,” she says.

The broader scientific community also engaged in discussions this year focused on the need to create a more equitable, welcoming environment for Black people and other people of color—spurred, in part, by the anguished response to police killings in the United States and the Black Lives Matter movement. Although it’s too early to tell whether the events of this year will spur lasting change, many are hopeful.

“I definitely feel like our voices are being heard and in a different way,” says Tanisha Williams, a postdoc at Bucknell University who spearheaded #BlackBotanistsWeek. “I’ve been to a lot of the online conferences and these issues have come up again and again. They’re getting special sections or talks for the whole society to start thinking about these issues.”

“This year feels different,” agrees Shirley Malcom, a senior adviser at AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers) who has worked on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues since the 1970s. “All of a sudden, after George Floyd and everything else that came out after that time, you could at least get people’s attention long enough to say, ‘OK, we have a problem.’” For instance, in June many institutions and organizations—including AAAS—took part in #ShutDownSTEM, a day that called for non-Black STEM professionals to educate themselves about the history and ongoing impacts of anti-Black racism and to develop plans for combating it in their workplace.

“I’m more convinced than ever that we are not going to get change unless the institutions themselves change,” says Malcom, who heads SEA Change, an initiative launched in 2018 to provide support and recognition for institutions making transformational progress on DEI. “It’s a time of reckoning for all of us to ask, ‘What are the institutional responsibilities?’” She notes that many past DEI initiatives have failed to move the needle because they didn’t address structural problems that lead to inequities. “It was fixing the students,” she says, “so they could cope with the rules … that came out of the institution—as opposed to acknowledging that maybe there was something wrong with the way the institution was doing this because it was doing it in ways that were exclusionary.”

SEA Change aims to alter that equation by encouraging entire institutions to rethink their policies, cultures, and traditions—to evaluate what’s working and what might be holding some students back. “It requires a level of commitment,” Malcom acknowledges. “It also requires reflection at a deep level for institutions to figure out, ‘OK what is it that we are doing that is having differential impact? What is it that we’re not doing that is having differential impact?” The fledgling initiative—which is partially modeled on a successful long-standing U.K. gender equity program—currently has eight member institutions, and Malcom hopes many others will follow.

One of those institutions is the University of California, Irvine, which in August announced a university-wide initiative that aims to confront anti-Blackness—by, for instance, changing the campus culture, hiring new faculty members, and intensifying recruitment of underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students. “We need to mobilize the entire campus—not just the early adopters or the usual suspects, but really all dimensions of the university” so the burden of solving problems doesn’t fall just on Black people, says Douglas Haynes, vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“This is a systemic problem—an institutionalized problem that has been going on for many years,” #BlackBotanistsWeek organizer Williams says. “I do have hope, but we have a long road.”

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