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This article is different since it is not about sharing my personal experience. This time I did what I should have done weeks ago, or even better, years ago. I sat down and listened to two black female friends and fellow PhD candidates who shared their stories with me. I listened to their perspectives and tried to grasp how it feels to be in their shoes. Asking them to have this chat was awkward, listening to their experiences was uncomfortable but it is a necessary step not only to acknowledge the inequality, injustice and privilege in our communities but also figure out how to become a better ally to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and a louder advocate for diversity, equality and equity in our society and STEM community.
Below, you can read our conversation.
Melina: Thank you so much for taking time to have this chat with me! Could you please introduce yourselves?
Amirah: My name is Amirah. I am a black, third year PhD student at McGill University in the laboratory of Dr. Masha Prager-Khoutorsky. During my PhD studies I am focusing on regions with an incomplete blood-brain barrier and special cells in these regions called tanyctes.
I am active on Twitter, so feel free to reach out @AmirahImanHicks!
Axelle: My name is Axelle and I am from France. I am conducting my PhD at Université Laval at Quebec City under the co-direction of Prof. Martin Lévesque and Prof. Yves De Koninck. I am working on Parkinson’s disease and I am black.
Melina: How have the recent events in US affected you and your family?
Axelle: It saddens me to see what has been happening, but taking a step back I see that the whole world is going through an exceptional crisis. George Floyd was one of many victims of discrimination and racism and it is terrifying to see the injustice in our society nowadays. However, the fact that this time people reacted the way they did and raised up against these inequalities is positive and I hope that will lead to a long-term change.
Within my family these events started a discussion. I am metis, my mother is white, and my father is black. My mother was trying to better understand the situation and what was my position. She was concerned about the fact that I could suffer from racism and how I have been dealing with similar issues on my daily life. Overall, we discussed and shared our experiences since my brother is currently based in U.K. and we all see different sides of the same coin since we live in different countries.
Amirah: In my case, my mother is from Jamaica, my father is from Trinidad. They both immigrated to Canada when they were about nine or ten years old. However, the rest of my family, who are not in the Caribbean, are mainly located in the States. This part of my family is more affected since they are Black-African Americans living in the States and experiencing this racial discrimination every day. However, the protests themselves have not affected them in any way, and they have stayed safe and healthy.
As Axelle mentioned, the whole situation initiated a discussion on social media and especially on Twitter where there is a huge movement about black academics and especially black neuroscientists. People are having more discussions and openly talk about black research, black faculty members, black researchers, not only neuroscientists but also neuropsychologists, clinicians and other relevant professions. The main thing I have noticed is that it opened a discussion in all fields of academia as well as the community outside.
Melina: Could you have predicted the events following the death of George Floyd in which prosecutors charged the officers involved with murder? Do you think that the exceptional circumstances, as Axelle previously mentioned, added more fuel to what happened?
Amirah: I completely agree with Axelle; I didn’t expect all these protests to happen in response to the death of George Floyd, but I’m not surprised especially considering the coronavirus, the unemployment which affects more black people and the fact that people are getting sick in the U.S. where there’s no health care. I think that the coronavirus virus provided the baseline or fuel to the fire. Moreover, that fact that George Floyd’s death was filmed and shared throughout social media, exacerbated everything even more.
Axelle: The death of George Floyd was truly tragic but unfortunately it followed many others. I think that the pandemic gave the opportunity to people to see all the things that are wrong in our society and led them, at the end, to take action. I believe that people are more open and ready to listen and change things. Only time will tell if this is not just a trend.
Melina: How did your colleagues react after these events? Were they supportive or more like ‘’business as usual’’?
Axelle: With my friends we were able to openly talk about it. This observation includes a bit of bias since as they are my friends, so I always felt welcomed and supported. It was not the first time we were discussing about inequalities, inequities, and issues we have been facing in our daily life. On the other hand, the rest of my colleagues and acquaintances at the lab did not mention anything to me and they did not react to these events. I can understand though, that everyone’s life has turned-up-side-down due to pandemic.
An aspect that has changed a lot is our working conditions. Coming out of the confinement, we do not have so many opportunities for social interactions. In my research centre, we are only a few black people which makes these conversations even more challenging. It could be considered a cliché to find the only other black person in the whole centre and talk to them about this topic. I can understand that even though this subject should not be a taboo that is hard to initiate such a conversation.
Amirah: Similarly with Axelle, with my friends we had discussions about these topics I feel comfortable to be open with them. For example, if somethings happen to me, I will tell them that this racist event happened the other day. My friends showed interest and curiosity and were asking me about the protests and the BLM movement since for a lot of them I am their only black friend. These questions led to a lot of relevant discussions.
The most shocking reaction was the one from my supervisor who initiated a meeting two days after the protests where we spent around 20 minutes discussing. She was concerned about both mine and my family’s well-being. She also realized that there are very few black people within the Department of Physiology, and she was very proud of herself, that one of those colleagues is in her laboratory. For her, these events lead to awareness.
However, even though we received emails from the university and the Faculty of Medicine that they support black lives, our department did not proceed to any relevant announcements. In my opinion there was a hierarchical response to this matter and even though it would have been nice to receive something from my department, I do not hold it against them since relevant communication can be awkward and considered as a taboo. Overall, in some cases business as usual but in other instances it led to a more open discussion and awareness.
Melina: Have you ever experienced racism or any other kind of discrimination in your academic career and personal life?
Amirah: I have experienced overt racial discrimination in my personal life since multiple times during simple actions like entering a metro station or a store, people are staring at me. Surprisingly, I have experienced racism at a black hair store where I went to buy products for my dreads. The last time I went, I noticed that the owner started following me around the store making sure I would not steal anything, which I found very odd since the owners should expect that black people would visit their store.
Within academia, I have had similar experiences when colleagues would turn to stare at me especially if I were the first black person they see in their lives. This story is repeated when I would enter a lab or ask a question. I understand that for some students interacting with me is their first contact with a black person and not everyone is aware of their reaction, which most of times is being shocked. For me, this kind of behavior is not based on racism, but rather ignorance and naivety. I feel lucky that, overall, within academia this is my worst experience, but I know that others have not been so fortunate.
Axelle: As a black woman, I am combining two discriminating factors; gender and race. The toughest part is to understand the underlying discrimination since it is quite rare that the rejection will be straight forward. Most people will subtly discriminate and never really tell that their final decision is based on my skin color or gender.
In my personal life, I was lucky and privileged since I grew up in a mixed family and never paid attention to my skin color. As someone who has always been surrounded by people of all backgrounds and origins, I grew up appreciating our differences. This allowed me to open up to other cultures and customs. This experience enriched me as a person. Thinking now about my childhood years and early professional life I can better pinpoint signs of discrimination that were derived from either curiosity; I wish I had a dollar for every time someone would touch my hair without asking, or ignorance as Amirah previously mentioned.
Until my early twenties I never realized that being black could be an obstacle, however, in my early academic life, one of my professors told me that I would need a tremendous amount of luck as a black woman aspiring a career in neuroscience. That was my wake-up call to acknowledge the fact that I was different, and that people would first notice my gender and skin color and then my research abilities. I am currently paying more attention to, what I consider, details meaning my gender and skin color since I realized that my academic potential comes third for the majority of decision makers.
Melina: We have recently seen a huge movement, from academic and research organizations, for example, the International Society for Neuroscience, about the BLM movement and STEM. Do you think that academic institutions are doing enough to promote diversity and support their students who belong to minority groups?
Axelle: I wish I had a better idea about the actions taken by my university but unfortunately, I am based at a research centre far from the main campus and I barely go there. I do not know if there were gatherings discussing the recent events in USA or any groups formed supporting the BLM movement. However, I believe that the city in coordination with the university could do better not just within the campus but in the community in general. Quebec City has evolved a lot the last years, but it is taking time for the city to become more cosmopolitan.
As in many other parts of the world, people still have a long way to go in accepting differences. For example, my answer ‘’France’’ to the question ‘’Where are you from’’ is never enough since people cannot comprehend how a black person can be from metropolitan France. I always feel like I have to justify myself and explain to strangers my origin and give details I would not in any other case. This intense interrogation only happens to black people.
I believe the university needs to take stronger actions to increase the visibility of minorities especially in STEM by showcasing success stories from black people to inspire students to continue their studies and excel. The university and academic community need to reflect the diversity of the world and the value that comes with it.
Amirah: I agree with Axelle that the academic community needs to mirror the population statistics. The recent events placed universities in the spotlight and people started paying attention at the percentages of black faculty members comparing to the total numbers. For McGill University, the numbers are depressing with only a small handful of black faculty members.
We need more successful black faculty members so the black students can have someone to look up to as role models. After the death of George Floyd, the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University created and promoted an event where black graduate students within the faculty could come together and discuss their experiences and how the university could better support them. We were only around thirty who participated, and I remembered I felt so happy to see black colleagues since we are spread in different research centers and campuses and did not have the opportunity to interact in the past. It was a very powerful event and I hope there will be more organized especially within different faculties because they offer an amazing opportunity to build a strong network between us.
I think that worldwide, universities need to find a way to promote black research, black faculty members, black students, to show that we are here because it is really hard for black high-school students to continue their university studies and for graduate students to visualize themselves in faculty positions if they have never seen a black faculty member.
Melina: To expand a bit further on this topic, what events, or initiatives you would like to see organized from your university?
Amirah: There are several networks and societies like the Black Students Network within McGill University but I think they lack resources and are not very known. I wish there was a stronger and more powerful main network within the university to promote the black community in general and share what we are doing and what we would like to achieve.
Unfortunately, the situation we are in today with very few black faculty members is the result of a vicious circle starting with very low numbers of black students in undergraduate courses. Increasing the recruitment of black students in both undergraduate and graduate level programs should be a priority and hopefully shift the statistics in the years to come.
Axelle: As Amirah mentioned, networking and social events offer a great opportunity for people to meet and build support groups. I believe that the university should be the fueling power to relevant initiatives. My only hope is that all these conversations and initiatives will continue in the future and that the movement towards a fairer and more diverse academic environment is not just a trend. Awkward conversations need to take place since the first step towards a more diverse academia is to recognize that the current structure was built on inequities and privilege. Announcements and support statements are nice but concrete actions need to be placed if we want equal opportunities for the upcoming generations of researchers.
Melina: Axelle, you mentioned, that awkward conversations need to keep happening, so I am wondering what would you like to say to your peers?
Axelle: I would like to say that they are crucial to better understand different perspectives and put your feet in someone else’s shoes. It is not a fight, so none has to choose a side, it is simply a matter of recognizing the differences that exist, respect them, and try together to build a society where the skin color, religion or gender have no impact on someone’s career development.
We just need to be there for each other, be ready to start a conversation and maybe practice our listening skills.We should take advantage of this moment since inequities and injustice exist in our societies form the dawn of time but we currently live during a unique movement where we could actually make a change or at least build a stronger foundation for a future change.
Amirah: I agree with Axelle, it is time to move past the words towards actions. The rise of the BLM movement gives the opportunity to everyone to take a retrospective look at their colleagues, their friends, think about their beliefs and try to recognize and be aware of the injustice in their surroundings. The universities, as traditionally open-minded places should lead the conversation and also continue withs strong actions for a society built on equality, equity, diversity and inclusion.
Melina: Thank you so much for your time and this amazing conversation! It will definitely be continued!
Microaggression and prejudicial attitude are two forms of racism people belonging to minority groups are facing daily. Subtle or not, conscious or unconscious, the mindset behind is that difference is not tolerated neither accepted. There are no excuses for ignorant, hurtful, or racist comments and behaviors when people’s lives are on stake.
Below I have listed a few resources for those interested in exploring this topic further:
- Society of Neuroscience
- What Black scientists want from colleagues and their institutions
- The time tax put on scientists of colour
- For Black Scientists, the Sorrow Is Also Personal
- Coursera teach out: Police Brutality in America
- Black in Neuro
Featured image is under Pixabay License and free to use.