As yet another Black man suffocates under a policeman’s knee, cities burn, and the coronavirus spreads a disproportionate burden of suffering and death to communities of color, we are in a moment that calls for action. It would be heartfelt and true for White scientists like me to say to our colleagues and fellow citizens of color that we hear you, we stand with you, and we want to help make things better. But it would not be enough.
We can and should read the many heartbreaking accounts of innocent Black men like LZ Granderson who have been repeatedly traumatized by encounters with police who regularly mistake them for a fugitive criminal. But it is not enough. It is too easy to conclude that this is someone else’s problem, a problem between Black men and police.
We can and should read the eloquent words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar putting current events in the context of the ubiquitous and inescapable racism that permeates this country. “Racism in America is like dust in the air,” he says. “It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands.”
Acknowledging pervasive racism gets us closer, but it is still not enough. Only when White people understand our own complicity in the system that holds people of color in this country down, can we really begin to change course. I learned this truth by reading the book “White Fragility,” and I urge you to read it too. The author, Robin DiAngelo, opened my mind to an idea that was and still is abhorrent to me: I have come to realize that I, as a White person, was born into privileges that have propelled me upward at someone else’s expense. More cutting still, I have perpetuated racism in this country—albeit unconsciously—by accepting those privileges. Once we truly and deeply understand these facts, it becomes unbearable not to act.
This moment is a call to each one of us to take action against the institutional racism and inequality that are woven into the very fabric of our society. It is not enough to watch and comment from the sidelines as people revolt against the outrageous murder of George Floyd—and so many before him. This is not just a problem caused by racist and overly zealous police officers and their enablers. This is not someone else’s problem. Racism is everyone’s problem.
So what can we do? We can start by listening to our colleagues to uncover the racism in academia that is hiding in plain sight. We can learn what they experience. We can begin every lab meeting with a statement of commitment to a more just and equal lab, society, and world. We can acknowledge painful ongoing events that may be affecting some of us more directly than others. We can educate ourselves about movements for racial justice. I am sure there is much more we can do. I am just a beginning student in this endeavor. But it has become unbearable not to act.
This week the GSA Board of Directors will be discussing what actions the Society should take to confront racism within scientific communities. While acknowledging the historical role genetics and geneticists have played in promoting racist thinking and actions, we hope going forward to provide support for Black scientists and all others affected by racism in science. With the help of the GSA Equity and Inclusion Committee, we will provide an update on our ideas and plans within the next two weeks. In the meantime, we welcome your feedback and suggestions via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.