Racism, unconscious bias in academia, and random thoughts
Updated: Jul 21
Unconscious bias is basically the prejudices we have without us being aware, and for someone that talks a lot about awareness and mindfulness (me), this is important. I remember clearly the first time I realized of unconscious bias in myself, and around something I was very passionate about: gender bias in academia. I was chatting with my friend Alex during one of our coffee breaks at the lab when she said that probably all scientists have unconscious bias. I must have put a face of “not me”, because she asked me, “do you visualize the reviewers of your papers as females?”. And I thought: “Oh S**t!!!”. I unconsciously had the image that the reviewers of my articles, scientists with enough reputation to be asked to assess my work, were male. All of them. Now, I’d like you to reflect, how many of the reviewers of your papers that you visualized were black?
The world is experiencing right now a social revolution. The match that started the fire was the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery with the color of their skin as the reason behind. But we have been piling up wood for this fire during decades of systemic racism, also strongly present both in academia in general and in the publishing process in particular. You may think this does not apply to you because you don’t live in the USA, where discrimination against black people is staggering. But if you are a scientist, please have a look around you, and I am sure you'll find racism too. I believe that you are not racist consciously. But unconsciously, I am convinced that you, and most scientists including myself, have a bias that we need to collectively change.
Before you continue reading, we need to get clear in why do we need more black scientists in academia? We could also think about this question from another perspective…why do we need white scientists in academia? Or: why do we need men in academia? (I know, this one made you wonder! ;)). There are plenty of reasons, and my number one is to stop the horror stories of micro- and macroaggressions to black students and scientists (you can read some in twitter #Blackintheivory). But a very practical reason is because science needs diversity. Diversity of races, ages, cultures, gender, sexual orientation, and more. Because this will translate into a diversity of ideas. And similar to the diversity of genes being the basis for the evolution of living organisms, diversity of ideas is the basis for the evolution of scientific knowledge. And for that, we need a diversity of scientists (this has quite some circular reasoning but I hope you get my point).
Here are some of the random things we can do to stop that unconscious bias in academia (a very personal view, and by any mean an exhaustive list):
Hire black professors
Just to start... Among other ways of influencing, when an institution has black professors, black students can feel that they belong in Academia. If you don’t think we need this because black students are clearly welcomed, let me give you an example: you are a white person (if you are not, just imagine), and your black friend invites you to a party. Once you arrive, every single person is black. And they are all very happy to see you. You feel very welcome, but you probably feel don’t belong. And the sense of belonging is one of the factors that can close the publication gap between white men and underrepresented minorities in science.
Use images of black people in academic jobs
Because we know than an image is worth a thousand words. You may have heard about the bias in the google algorithm sowing images of “unprofessional” or “professional” hair for work…yes, guess which search shows more images of black people. But if you now go and search for “scientist”, can you guess what images you get? This influences the views since childhood of the kind of profession you can have. If you are going to use images of scientists in any presentation or communication, please be sure black people are also in there.
Recruit black scientists as editors of scientific journals
When you go to the editorial board list of a scientific journal with pictures, you are not going to see many black editors. But this is something we can start working on now. The British Ecological Society for example is now searching associated editors for all their journals and actually states in their website and twitter that everybody is welcome. After the previous point, you may think welcoming is not belonging, but it is a beginning. So please tell your black colleagues to apply!
Invite black scientists to the table
Imposter syndrome is a common issue among scientists and it is even stronger among minority groups. Encouraging black people to apply to leadership roles, to ask questions in conferences, and to give talks contribute to their necessary visibility. And more importantly, they will bring a new scientific perspective. But for this, we should invite black people to talk about their science or to collaborate on research projects. Not just to talk about their traumas (unless they volunteer for that of course!).
This is a post written with anyone in mind, and if you are a black scientist you may also recognize this unconscious bias. But it is especially written with the view of academics in countries with a majority of white people. If you are academic in Kenia, many of these points may sound irrelevant to you. Today this post is about black people. Because right now, the discrimination of black people is what we need to change. And if you read this post again and add to “black” the words “woman” or “LGTB” the change is even more necessary. Academia just needs to stop being a white-men place.
It took me forever to write and decide to publish this blog post (i have 3 other versions...). Because I was scared. Scared of saying the wrong thing. Scared of sounding promotional in the middle of a social revolution. Scared of offending members of any minority who it is the last thing they need. And even of offending those white males that I appreciate and love. I feel like an "imperfect ally" in this fight, ready to learn and to embark on the journey of becoming an anti-racist. And I had to make clear that "I focus and write" firmly believes not only that #Blacklivesmatter, but also that #Allblacklives matter.
By the way, the reviewers of my papers in my imagination are now females, black people, and yet far too many white males.
P.S. There are so many small actions you can do that I don’t even know where to start…donating, following, reading, educating yourself, supporting, listening, inviting... If you are interested in insects like me, you may want to donate to “Entomologists of color”, and follow them on twitter. Through their account, you will find many other black entomologists to follow. Also in twitter, you can follow "Papers by authors of color in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior"