The Work to Be Done

Note to my Readers: The last time I posted, we were discussing Antarctica; I have more to say about that, and it is not disconnected from issues surrounding human activity on this planet, but current events have overtaken us, and that discussion will pause for a time, allowing us to focus on the convulsions our society is facing in light of global responses to the coronavirus pandemic, and now the long-overdue rebellion against the injustices visited upon people of color around world. It is of the latter that we will speak today. – s


As the current upheaval embraces our society, sparked by centuries of racial injustices in our country, I have heard scientific colleagues express quietly they are uncomfortable. Their quiet mumblings take the usual form of “I just want to be able to do my work.”

There is undeniable resistance to participating in the calls for racial justice, to demanding that we begin to tear down the structural support of all the systems that enable and prop up racial injustice. Such resistance is born from an indelible recognition that we, white people and mostly males, have benefited from and enjoy the protections of those systems. In science in particular, indignation in the face of worldwide protests and disruption of “normal life” is born of an intense understanding that no matter what we do or have done to combat the ills of our society, no matter how aware we claim to be, each of us is a paragon of privilege, embedded in a system that has favored us, unaccountably in contradiction of our stated ideal of “merit alone.”

I hear repeatedly, “but this is politics; I want to work on science, not participate in politics.” This is NOT politics; the label “politics” is a shield we hide behind to avoid conflict. This is precisely our work as scholars, and in particular as scientists. The fundamental purpose of teaching and practicing science is three-fold:

  1. To objectively solve problems using data and evidence based reasoning;
  2. To build human knowledge;
  3. To use that knowledge to improve and enrich our lives

All scholarship, but science in particular, thrives from having many minds together. Science advances through a diversity of voices and minds, a diversity of experiences and worldviews, a diversity of thought and approach. In spite of our proclaimed ideals of dispassionate logic and evidence based thinking, we as a profession have eschewed and avoided that diversity, and are less than we imagine ourselves to be as a result. Like the rest of society, we have marginalized our fellow humans who have aspired to participate in the most unique and valuable of human endeavours, the seeking of knowledge which serves no other purpose but to improve and enrich our lives.

We are well accustomed to data and careful scholarly research, and claim to have an unswerving respect for facts no matter what cherished beliefs they challenge. The data tell a sad and malevolent story of our failure to engage and support people of color in the scholarly enterprise. We have an undeniable bias against people of color. Witness: Despite making up nearly 13.5% of the US population, Black Americans only make up 6% of the professoriate; Latinx and brown Americans make up 18.3% of the US population, but only %5 of the professoriate (Pew Research link). Our chosen metric of success, particularly in the sciences, is citations of published work, a supposed mark of scholarly awareness of your contributions. Scholars of color are severely and uniformly undercited (Journal of Communication, 68, 254 [2018]). Studies of racial representation at scientific conferences is nascent, but conference talks and panels are still dominated by white males (Nature 573, 184 [2019]).

These findings are all based on research and data; their implications are uncomfortable to contemplate but clear in their message: there is tremendous work to be done. The protests around us are, in part, about exactly this work — the structural inequities built into our system that prevent people of color from engaging in the same work as you and I. The protests around us are, in part, precisely about the fact that we have ignored this for decades, or at best, ineffectually addressed this for decades.

My white colleagues may be reading this right now and saying, “but I’m already doing my part.” It is time to do more. Whatever you’ve done before was good, but the work is not over. The work is never over, and you know that, otherwise you would not recognize that you’ve attempted to improve racial justice in our society.

There are many many suggestions for what you can do as a white citizen to help break down the structural inequities in the country; I will not repeat them here (nor could I possibly link to all of them — I’m personally starting with suggestions from Perri Irmer, President and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago). But as scholars and members of the university community, there is plenty you can do beyond your own personal education — just look at the data I linked to above, then take it to heart.

Work to improve the representation of people of color in university faculty; ensure that your citation practices do not exclude scholars of color; and do not allow your professional societies or colleagues to host conferences with exclusive speaker line-ups or panels of white males.

This is the beginning of the work to be done. Within your departments do not let unjust language be used without penalty; do not let people of color be silenced in departmental debates and conversations; do not let their work and contributions go unnoticed or be claimed by someone else; promote them as you would promote yourself or students who work with you.

It’s time to speak up and use the positions the system has put you in. You may be uncomfortable, but this is the work to be done, and you are the only one who can do it. It’s no different than what you tell your students: you aren’t being graded for how hard you work, you’re getting graded for what you accomplish. There is no extra credit, just the work you have to do.

One response to “The Work to Be Done

  1. Thank you, Shane, for your thoughtful commentary. Sadly, a century and a half after the Civil War, we are still a country fighting that fight.

    If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

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