Group Report-Backs on Anti-Blackness in Research Culture

Word cloud generated from Group Report-Backs
Word cloud generated from Group Report-Backs

This is the second of three articles from the Addressing Privilege and Anti-Blackness in Research Culture workshop, part of the Asking Different Questions program. You can read the first one here: Update: Impacts of Anti-Blackness in Research Culture.  (Sign up for our email list to make sure you get an invite to future events.)

What follows in this article is a report-back on the workshop.

Changing the norm in a way that promotes diversity and acceptance gives more to more people. It doesn't take things away from those who are already successful in academia.” – A workshop participant

At the Addressing Privilege and Anti-Blackness in Research Culture workshop, more than 200 UC Davis faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, community members, and researchers from other institutions gathered virtually to discuss the causes and practices that perpetuate anti-blackness in research culture, and identify actions to take.

Following the small-group discussions, FRI-trained facilitators shared and compiled anonymous insights from their groups. What follows is a summary of participants’ words. It is important to note that there was great variance in what groups discussed, with each group member speaking from their specific perspective and position within the research enterprise. As a composite, I hope that this offers a perspective on the scope of the issue and ways to move forward. 

Question: What is the problem? 

Answer 1: History of white supremacy in discipline
  • Many groups discussed the history of white supremacy in their discipline, which perpetuates inequity. White supremacy is the implicit belief that the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are better than those of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Teaching, running a lab, and mentoring practices can be grounded in racist assumptions, or prop up white privilege and white culture. This can influence the questions asked, who gets grants, and limits understandings of how to do critical research. 
  • Participants called for changes in biased language, and in the persistence of Eurocentric canons. Bias particularly emerges in how research culture defines and conceptualizes “objectivity.” 
  • Groups noted that bias manifests in the “deficit model” often used to study Black communities, the way turning people into “data points” is dehumanizing, and in the power dynamics in the quantitative/qualitative divide
  • There is a need to redefine standards in many disciplines to account for the historic impact of white supremacy and ongoing perpetuation of white privilege. 
  • Finally, one group noted that UC Davis is a land-grant agricultural school, and that slavery and exploitative labor practices are the foundation of the agriculture industry in the US. How do we acknowledge this? 
Answer 2: Access, treatment and culture in research spaces
  • Participants noted that the process of belonging to a research lab—both in the sense of getting in the door and feeling like you are welcome to stay—is also an issue. The how-to of becoming part of a lab, whether as an undergrad or as a new graduate student, is not transparent, and successful researchers often rely on their networks to find labs. This can result in the maintenance of the status quo. 
  • Undergraduate research work is often unpaid, which can make the opportunity inaccessible for those who support themselves. 
  • The culture of research remains grounded in meritocracy, which is a concept bounded to whiteness. A belief that the best ideas naturally rise to the top ignores histories of racial exclusion that continue to influence research priorities. Hierarchical structures can produce a right/wrong mindset and foster combative competitiveness. This creates a space vulnerable to abusive behavior. 
Answer 3: Lack of leadership
  • We need stronger and different leadership in research culture, and solutions that are not outward-facing (marketing) but look inward and lead to real systemic change. 
  • Participants noted that equity efforts are often led by those lower in the hierarchy, including graduate students and staff, and that the work often falls on the shoulder of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to develop strategies and execute on tactics. This displaced labor leads to a dynamic rife with a lack of accountability.
  • Chairs, tenured faculty, and administrators need to take a larger role. Faculty often have more power than they use. Participants noted that leadership tends to be white-dominant, and that the majority of faculty are not educated on diversity, equity and inclusion issues. This can lead to a “White Savior” dynamic emerging in DEI work. 
  • Training audiences tend to be mostly BIPOC and women. We need to get past “preaching to the choir.” 
Answer 4: Flawed reward systems
  • DEI work is often uncompensated and unrewarded. In some circumstances, it can even hurt one’s career. 
  • Participants also noted that the demand for fast publication and immediate returns discourages reflection and attention to long-term impacts.

Question: What next steps can we take?

Answer 1: Enact structural changes

Participants called for more funding and resources for efforts to address anti-blackness and white privilege. They suggested building strong relationships with Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). One group pointed at the importance of working with unions, staff organizations, and department staff to dismantle systemic racism.

Answer2: Change who is leading and who is in the room

Groups pointed toward the need to work with experts, both internal and external. They challenged us to listen to our Black colleagues and create safer ways for them to speak their experiences. Many shared strategies for how to recruit more diverse faculty and staff. These included building equity work into job descriptions, putting less emphasis on pedigree, making DEI a part of faculty evaluation, and increasing transparency in the hiring process. 

Answer 3: Value research on equity, inclusion, and white supremacy

The university should demonstrate a research commitment to ending anti-Blackness. This can be done by supporting research that engages in the study of white supremacy and that studies problems that predominantly affect Black people. Participants encouraged the creation of a Diversity Impact Statement, like an Environmental Statement, for impact rankings. Finally, they suggested that professional organizations and departments can find ways to address the history of white supremacy in high-profile ways, such as through hosting plenary sessions and panels in desirable time slots. Presenters can also cultivate more diverse panels and decline all white panels.

Answer 4: Be accountable to the work

Finally, many groups pointed toward the need to be continually accountable to this work. They called for regular reviews of DEI work, both internally and externally. They wanted to see action plans, not just diversity statements. These plans can include clear expectations and self-reflection that helps us to recognize how much we don’t know. 

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Thank you to all who participated in the workshop and shared your perspectives and wisdom. I hoped you learned as much from each other as I learned from you! We look forward to future discussions. Sign up for our email list to make sure you get an invite.

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