For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. This post is from Sandra Klemet-N’Guessan, (@SandraKlemet) a PhD candidate in the Xenopoulos lab, Trent University, Canada, where she studies the role that aquatic animals play in the cycling of nutrients in lakes and streams.
Am I a Black ecologist?
I was ten years old when I first heard of climate change. I had just watched a documentary on the effects of climate change on our blue planet, including the then-famous hole in the ozone layer. I was furious at the adults who had damaged our planet to that extreme but determined to dedicate my future career to saving our planet. Five years later, I had my first research lab experience during an internship at the Institut Pasteur of Tunis. Today, I am studying the role that fish and insect larvae play in the cycling of nutrients in streams and lakes in Ontario, Canada by analyzing the nutrient content of their excretion (i.e. urine). I owe my current wonderful position to my strong support system and to books such as “Mes étoiles noires” [My black stars] by Lilian Thuram and “Les identités meurtrières” [Murderous Identities] by Amin Maalouf, which have guided me through my identity journey and taught me that anyone could shine in any professional field.
When I was asked to write a piece on Black ecologists in this blog series for the UK Black History Month, I instantly wondered: am I a Black ecologist? This label sounded so foreign, yet I knew that this was probably the one that scientists and non-scientists had in mind when they saw me and learnt about my current research. Two components of this label puzzled me: the word “Black” and the two words joint together “Black ecologist” that perhaps was meant to be more specific but that had, for me, loaded connotations. The truth is that I have never used either of these terms to define myself nor do they speak to an identity that resonates with me. So perhaps I should start there: my identity.
Here is how I would define my cultural identity: I am Tunisian, French, Ivorian. Or I am Tunisian-French, Ivoirian. Or I am Ivorian, Tunisian, French. I am also French in North America, or more recently, I am mixed African-European. Depending on the order of the words I use or whether I add a hyphen somewhere, I can convey different nuances of my cultural identity or put the emphasis on one culture over the others. But in any case, all these nuances are part of my cultural identity.
Now, here is how my cultural identity may be perceived by others: In Côte d’Ivoire, I am white; in Tunisia, I am black African or mixed Caribbean; in France, I am “métisse” (a person of mixed ancestry which, for historical reasons in France, is often understood as a mix between a black and a white person) . In North America, I am Black French or just Black. In any case, the way I am perceived in each of these contexts is as “an other”, someone different who is not necessarily part of the dominant community. People also like to simplify: three citizenships being hard for them to grasp, they often assigned me to one that they deemed appropriate.
Yet, my cultural identity goes beyond all of that. I have also lived in five countries across three continents (including 16 years of my life in Africa); I have traveled in various other countries in the world, speak four languages, and at this point see myself as a “third culture kid” – a person who was raised in other cultures than my parents’. Is my identity limited to my cultures? Of course not! I am also a woman with a personality, a family, a story, a spiritual life, an occupation, human relationships, countless hobbies, and so little time. Identity is a simple word that encapsulates a complex reality that is flexible, changing, and unique to every human on this planet. The perception of each individual’s identity by others is what makes the process of identity exploration and assertion challenging.
My experience of racism in Africa vs. North America
From my experience thus far, I can safely say that in most Western countries I am perceived as a black person. Yet, my upbringing probably tells more about my experience of racism than how people may perceive me. I have had a privileged upbringing: I was born to lawyer and diplomat parents and I grew up attending private French schools in safe neighborhoods in various countries. This allowed me to cultivate an open mindset and to receive the support I needed to dream of becoming anything I wanted, without anyone telling me that I could not because of my gender, my skin tone, or where I was from.
I have also experienced discrimination in various forms. In Côte d’Ivoire, being perceived as white was automatically associated with beauty and some sort of superiority to darker skinned Ivorians. Yet, it also meant that I was “too white” to be a “real Ivorian”: my accent from France, my behaviour, everything indicated that I was foreign and thus not part of the dominant group. I felt rejected by my people and sometimes felt the need to fake an Ivorian accent to blend in. In Tunisia, being perceived as Black was associated with being a descendant of slave or a set of negative ideas attributed to Sub-Saharan Africans. There again, I felt rejected by my people which made me first reject speaking Arabic, then later embrace it fully to blend in. My experience of racism in Tunisia was personal and unique and differed, for example, from that of my brother who had spent the first nine years of his life there: for me, rejection by my people empowered me to claim my three cultural identities loud and clear, whereas for my brother, this experience crushed his feeling of belonging in Tunisia and led him to bury this part of his identity deep in the ground. It is only now, eight years later, that he is starting to reconnect with his Tunisian heritage; evidence that the process of identity construction is everchanging throughout one’s lifetime and that two people’s experiences of racism are not interchangeable.
The context in which experiences of racism take place also matters: the experience of racism in Tunisia, while similar, is not the same as that in France or the USA. When I moved to North America seven years ago, I began to learn more about what “being Black in North America” meant on a day-to-day basis. Yet, I still wondered: what is a “Black identity” and what does it capture from my experience?
Following the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer, I was asked by the CBC-radio to comment on the topic “being Black in nature” or on “being the only Black researcher in my department”. I did not know what to say because I did not feel I had experienced discrimination in nature, nor did it really matter to me that I was perceived as the only Black researcher in my department. Being one of a few was nothing new to me as this was my life-story; I only saw myself as a regular graduate student going through the same struggles as any other graduate student, with the added challenge of being an international student in Canada. I often ask myself why my lived experience in North America seems different from that of many other “Black people” or “Black researchers”.
I still do not have a fixed answer but my intuition thus far tells me that the combination of my privileged upbringing mostly in Africa, my lived experience of being different from the dominant community wherever I was, and probably a lot of luck have all contributed to making my experience of racism in North America unique.
The risk of labels and the power of self-identification
“French, Tunisian, Ivoirian”; “Black”; or “Black ecologist” are all labels that we may assign to ourselves or get assigned by others. Depending on the context and our life stage, we may choose to claim some labels over a multitude of others, without necessarily denying the existence of our other labels.
When the pandemic hit and my university campus closed, I had just taken my candidacy exam two weeks prior, so I was feeling the combined effects of working from home and post-candidacy exam exhaustion. One method that enabled me to overcome these challenges was to engage in several science outreach activities. Every time I participated in these events, I introduced myself as a “PhD student”, feeling proud of finally holding the title I had dreamt of for years. Yet, I soon realized that this title was triggering my impostor syndrome. Following my partner’s suggestion, I tried for two weeks to introduce myself as a “researcher’ rather than a “PhD student”. The relief I felt from this exercise was immediate; I was no longer carrying the unnecessary burden of a label that I had associated with the immense and overwhelming task of completing my thesis. I felt like I could do the science without having to feel like I had such big responsibilities; yet the label “researcher” did not deny the fact that I was a PhD student, too. This experience marked the moment I became aware of the risk of labels and of the power of self-identification.
Labels can be empowering and allow one to feel like they belong to a community characterized by a history, a culture, and values. Labels can also gather individuals through a process of exclusion from other communities and allow them to feel a sense of solidarity through shared pain and struggles. Yet, labels can also be a burden and limit our ability to be and do. Sometimes, we “become the label” rather than fully understand what that label encompasses and means to us. I, Sandra Klemet-N’Guessan, choose to define myself broadly (e.g. researcher; African-European etc) or specifically (e.g. ecologist; French, Tunisian, Ivorian) depending on the context and the number of individuals I want to connect with. But what matters is that it is a personal choice rather than an identity imposed on me.
This month, the UK celebrates Black History(ies) and Culture(s). Through the Functional Ecology blog series, the British Ecological Society acknowledges the experiences and celebrates the contributions of Black researchers and practitioners to ecology. Black researchers’ achievements, like any other researchers’, ought to be celebrated, especially in a context in which systemic racism in academia is a reality that many racialized researchers experience daily. Far from taking away from this reality, my post aimed at enriching the conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion in academia. For me, inclusion starts by recognizing that every individual is different and has a unique lived experience that cannot always be captured through generic terms such as BIPOC or BAME. Only then, can the diverse faces of science inspire budding scientists from all backgrounds.