Black Lives Matter, and White People Need to Act

It has been a week since #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives on June 10, which was a day to give Black academics in STEM a brief rest and non-Black academics in STEM a time for reflection, education, and planning to eradicate anti-Black racism from our institutions.

Courtesy of header images from WeRepSTEM

Resources and personal experiences poured in through Twitter (especially the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag). The first thing that became immediate is that I have a lot of reading to do. The second thing is simply that reading is not enough. We cannot have this movement end in a day, in a week, in a month, in a year. We all need to work to disrupt the status quo of academia, and there have been calls to action (Michael Eisen’s editorial and Black in Computing’s open letter are just two of many examples). So, in my small way, I’ve made a plan of action.

It’s important to say that I am writing this for my own accountability – optical allyship1 does nothing for the Black Lives Matter movement. Tracy Edwards2 has some great Twitter threads on allyship in an academic setting and more generally how to be an ally to the black community. Call me out on this if optical or performative allyship happens, and I will learn.

Since this is for my accountability, when I talk about “you” I mean White academics, particularly those in a position of power. I should also restate that the opinions expressed here are my personal views and do not reflect the views of Reed College or any other affiliation. Ok, here we go…

1. I will listen to Black people about their experiences. Like really listen.

I will listen to my colleagues. I will listen to my students. I will read, watch, and sit with others’ personal experiences. My gut reaction will be to convey empathy, but I cannot empathize. I must learn from Black voices how to support Black faculty and students.

2. I will work to make change at all scales.

I need to learn enough about anti-Black racism in academia so I can make it part of routine conversation with students, colleagues, friends, and family. At the same time, I need to learn how to contribute to larger efforts within my institution to combat anti-racism. Mary James, Reed’s Dean for Institutional Diversity , wrote an impactful letter to the community and is a leader in every sense of the word. There are also scales between those two — my classes, my department, my division, my scientific community — I need to address anti-racism at each step.

3. Whenever I can, I will try to present a solution along with the problem.

This is my responsibility as a White person – if I see something that can be fixed, I should try to help fix it. It may also be easier to make change with “here’s the issue, but here’s a way to make it better.” Has your scientific society released an anti-racism statement yet? If not, draft one and send it to the leadership. Concerned about the lack of visible diversity in your department? Look for virtual opportunities with which your students can engage (such as the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing). If I start with sustainable small solutions, hopefully they will lead to larger and long-lasting change.

4. I will recognize and start to compensate the work done by BIPOC3 within academia for diversity and inclusion efforts.

I bet this is ingrained in every fiber of higher education. Yes, representation matters, but when there are not many BIPOC those few individuals get asked to do so much. Compensation needs to happen at the institutional level in many ways, but I can take small steps now while I work on the bigger picture. Start with all of the anti-racism resources now available – if you can afford it, pay people for this important work. Here are two examples:

5. I will broaden my research network to include more BIPOC in my field.

Talk about great timing for the formation of the Black Women in Computational Biology Network4 – it has already been a fantastic group of individuals to follow. Through recent efforts such as #BlackBirdersWeek and #BlackInSTEM, I get to follow so many new people on Twitter. I can’t wait to learn about their work, especially the PhD students who are truly the future of our colleges and universities.

6. I will become more engaged in campus groups and activities.

Danielle N. Lee’s5 recent video provides a sliver of the cognitive work that Black scientists need to do in order to function in academia, and offers excellent ideas to help dismantle the white supremacy in academia. In the video, she talks about finding alternative news sources, even on campus. I haven’t engaged in the campus community enough to know about how students are collectively taking action to combat anti-racism. Part of being in the Reed community is actively participating in it, and I have failed in that aspect. I will do better.

7. I will speak up, even if I am uncomfortable.

I am worried I may put my foot in my mouth. In fact, I will put my foot in my mouth. However, if I am a little uncomfortable, that is loads better than my BIPOC colleagues who are afraid to speak up, and also better than my BIPOC colleagues who are just so darn tired of speaking up. In the past I tentatively used my voice to talk about diversity in science, but now I need to shout.


1 Tweet by Mireille Cassandra Harper (@mireillecharper), a freelance writer and assistant editor at Square Peg Books.
2 Tracy Edwards (@thetracysimone) is a nuclear physics PhD student at Michigan State University. Her tweets are illuminating.
3 Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (see the BIPPOC Project)
4 This network is for Black women in computational biology, but there are ways to be involved as an ally. See the website for more details.
5 Danielle N. Lee is a neuroethologist and a professor at Southern Illinois University.


One thought on “Black Lives Matter, and White People Need to Act

  1. Pingback: Removing Racist Terminology from Code | Ritz Bits

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