Growing up in the world of academia, it was impossible to miss the issue of representation in my field. I just had to look around at the faces walking the halls of the elite institutions I was lucky to inhabit. I worked as an undergrad in Yale’s psychology department, where one out of 31 current faculty members is Black. I did my Ph.D. in MIT’s brain and cognitive sciences department, where one out of 57 professors was Black. I’m now a postdoc at Rockefeller University, where one out of 78 heads of lab is Black, and the first Black professor in the university’s history, Erich Jarvis, didn’t join the faculty until in 2016. These liberal strongholds, which have openly espoused the values of diversity and inclusion for decades, remain very white at the top levels.
A few weeks ago, our country watched George Floyd be slowly choked to death by a police officer, while pleading for his life. Amid the ensuing nationwide uprising against police brutality and systemic racism, a growing movement of academics has intensified its call to address discrimination and underrepresentation in science. The movement demands that all of us in the field pause and self-reflect: Are we doing all that we can to move the system toward a better outcome? Are we doing anything to perpetuate the status quo, even without noticing?
I come to these questions with a complicated background. I look like and culturally identify as a white person, but my heritage comprises an odd mix: I’m an eighth Black, a quarter Jewish, and otherwise a mix of German, Austrian, English and Irish. From a young age, I heard my dad’s stories of being stared at or asked not to enter a beach because his mom was half Black. I have close cousins who are mostly Black and identify as such. Through my heritage and family, I feel attached to multiple historically oppressed groups. But when I interact with the NYPD, I have all the privilege of a white man. It’s a curious feeling to know that I benefit from a system that actively oppresses my family members.
So, I enter the conversation on representation in academia with somewhat of a split identity—deeply empathizing with underrepresented groups, but also feeling some guilt about my own potential involvement. Through this lens, I’ve been interrogating myself, putting a microscope on my own behavior. I recently started a fellowship that involves a role in selecting speakers for Rockefeller’s neuroscience seminar series, and had submitted a list of 17 young neuroscientists to invite. I wasn’t actively thinking about race and representation when I made the list; I just thought briefly about whom I was excited to hear speak. On June 10, 2020, as calls to #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia encouraged scientists worldwide to consider these issues, I looked back at my list. I immediately noticed a familiar problem: 90 percent of the names were white professors.
It’s one thing to hear slogans like “white silence is violence.” It’s another to directly observe the subtle mechanics of systemic discrimination, self-perpetuating through your own behavior.
I spent the next hour or so thinking about academics of color to add to this list. And I found that it wasn’t hard to think of these people; it just wasn’t my default. The next time I make a list of potential speakers for seminars or conference symposia, I won’t forget to think about race.
As bothered as I was by my own behavior, I’m inspired by the simplicity of the fix: just flag the importance of representation when making decisions about who exists and is heard in academia. Scientists at all levels make these decisions. As trainees, we decide whom to cite in our manuscripts, whose research to read and engage with. Later, we begin choosing people to invite to talks, and students to mentor. Ultimately, as senior scientists, we have an even more direct gatekeeping role, deciding whom to hire and, thus, who constitutes the scientific enterprise. These choices are all levers that can be used to nudge the system away from its default, white male–heavy state.
We tend to think about racism as a personality trait: someone can be racist, nonracist or antiracist. But this simple model that we use to understand other people belies an incredibly complex underlying reality. We contain multitudes. We can be aware of the problems, read Baldwin and Coates, and still have patterns of thinking and behavior that perpetuate racial discrimination.
I’m not sure if we can convince the rest of the country to make concrete behavioral changes, to focus their effort on this issue and face the uncomfortable need to change. But I have more hope for science, which is largely composed of liberal and thoughtful people. The growing size of the movement against systemic racism in science shows that many academics are open and willing to evaluate the system that they and their behavior create. Effectively fighting deeply entrenched patterns of discriminatory behavior will require a widespread and sustained movement. If we can pull this off, maybe a future version of me will find neuroscience departments with more Black and brown faces.