Piatã Marques: It is time for efficient diversity actions in academia

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. The theme for UK Black History Month this year is Time for Change: Action Not Words. Piatã Marques—an Assistant Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and mentor at the Odu initiative—is an Urban Ecologist that is curious about how aquatic species adapt in cities. Piata is committed to facilitating the next generation of BIPOC scholars in STEM. You can find him on Twitter @urban_streams.

I was startled with the theme of this year`s UK Black History Month “Time for Change: Action Not Words”. As a Black scholar, this theme resonated deeply with my recent thoughts about racism in academia and the need for effective and efficient anti-racist actions. Thus, in this blogpost I will share a (very opinionated) perspective about some of the diversity actions I see being promoted in academia. My goal is to spark a debate around the type of diversity actions that scientists have been promoting.     

I am an Ecologist, and, just like in any other scientist, I am trained to be critical. I question the data: “Do these numbers make sense?” I question theoretical assumptions: “Can this premise be applied to my system of study?” I question the analysis: “How well does this model fit my data?” I have this approach to questioning and criticism because I want to make sure that my interpretation of the natural world is as close as possible to reality—I want to make sure I provide information that can be translated into meaningful actions for the benefit of society.

To my surprise, I have recently realized that many scientists and institutions are not critically considering the strategies they implement towards racial diversity. I have been closely following the upsurge of actions to promote racialized groups in academia in the last few years, and my feelings pertaining to these actions are very conflicted. Most of the actions that I see focus on one or a combination of diversity statements and social activities for individuals belonging to racialized groups. Such actions are proposed with the good intention of promoting diversity and I fully acknowledge that. But I invite you to sit back in your chair and think with me… How long have you heard about such actions? Probably for a long time. Now, picture the people in higher positions in your academic institutions (postdoctoral fellows, professors, principal investigators). Can you see any significant results from diversity actions manifested in the higher ranks of academia? I posit that, like me, you do not. So, why is that we do not see more racially diverse individuals in academia after years promoting diversity actions? Of course, many factors play a role here, but let’s keep our attention on the diversity actions. My impression, inspired by my experiences and readings from the social sciences, is that the diversity actions promoted in academia are often not critical enough and miss the point.

Social researchers have, for decades now, indicated that racism is systemic (Almeida, 2019; Bonilla-Silva, 2021). As such, it runs unconsciously though the cultural, political, and institutional structures of academia. This means that systemic racism is replicated by regular folks in their everyday behavior and practices (Bonilla-Silva, 2021). Thus, we would expect diversity actions to focus on making changes to that system. However, far too many scientists and institutions promote diversity actions that are focussed on racialized individuals rather than the system. Such a misreading most likely makes diversity actions inefficient because they do not prevent the replication of racism in academia. In fact, in this scenario, diversity actions can cause more harm than good because they give us the false perception that the profound lack of racial diversity in academia is being efficiently addressed. I understand that for most white scientists, structural racism does not factor in their lived experiences, thus making it hard to recognise and confront. Here, instead of directing the reader to reading lists, I will provide a quick example that identifies structural issues and proposes actions that could effectively address these issues.  

Back in 2019, myself and some BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) colleagues founded the Odu initiative. Odu helps BIPOC students to succeed in academia—Odu is a word that means “destiny” or “path” in the Yoruba language. Instead of focussing on actions that target individuals, Odu aims its actions at fighting systemic issues. As BIPOC scholars, me and my colleagues know that the experience of racialized groups in academia is permeated with isolation, a lack of role models, microaggressions, and tokenism (Domingues & Gordon, 2021). We understand that the current academic environment gives a sense of ‘not belonging’ that pushes racialized individuals out of academia —at the same time, the lack of diversity feeds back into a sense of estrangement that keeps individuals from racialized groups away from academia. Through Odu, we aim to break this systemic cycle of exclusion. Odu connects BIPOC students in STEM fields to BIPOC scientist mentors. This helps students to overcome the sense of not belonging by providing them with role models and peer support. Odu mentors provide emotional and academic support to help BIPOC students navigate systemic racism in academia. Luckily, Odu is not the first or the only initiative to target systemic issues. Others, such as the Canadian Black Scientists Network, have been devoting tremendous efforts to fighting systemic racism in academia. Such initiatives show us the importance of well thought diversity actions and give us experiential lessons.

My experiences with diversity initiatives that were truly committed to systemic change left me with useful teachings. First, diversity actions should have a clear systemic target and lead to changes in the behavior and practices that replicate racism. Second, actions that are likely to succeed must either be produced by or in conjunction with racialized groups—there is no way around this. The position, sympathy, or literacy of non-racialized individuals alone will not replace the lived experiences that are fundamental for identifying issues pertaining to systemic racism. Third, allies are needed, not saviors. This means that people from non-racialized groups (occupying higher ranks in academia) are needed for promoting effective actions towards increasing and improving diversity. However, the attribution for such actions should be placed on racialized individuals to avoid self-promotion of already dominant groups. I believe these objectives can be instrumental for anyone concerned with diversifying academia. I further believe that these targeted actions can inform and contribute to the development of more efficient diversity actions in the near and distant future.

I hope I was able to give you a glimpse of the many challenges in developing efficient diversity actions in academia. I urge my fellow scientists to step back for a deep reflective think on how and whether racial diversity actions promoted by you, and your institution, truly tackles the status quo that reproduces racism within academia. If you do not have a straightforward answer for that, I urge you to reframe or demand reframing of actions. We desperately need to fight systemic racism in academia. As scientists, we are already equipped with the critical reasoning necessary for designing effective actions for that. The only remaining question is: Will you join us in promoting REAL change?

Cited references

Almeida, S. (2019). Racismo Estrutural. Pólen Produção Editorial LTDA.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2021). What Makes Systemic Racism Systemic? Sociological Inquiry, 91(3), 513–533. https://doi.org/10.1111/soin.12420

Domingues, V., & Gordon, S. (2021). Diversity in nature and academia. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 5(4), Article 4. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01415-1

Enjoyed the blogpost and want to reach out to Piatã? Find him on Twitter here.

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