PhD Life

Black Lives Matter (in Academia).

Black Lives Matter – a viewpoint of racial inequalities in academia.

This post takes a slight detour away from finding a job outside of academia, as it’s important that we address ethnic diversity, racial discrimination and fundamentally the lack of representation from black and ethnic minority backgrounds (BAME) in higher education at a PhD or more senior level. Over recent months, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has gained a significant amount of (and quite rightly so) media coverage, attention and wider discussion about the topic of white privilege. This is a topic that can span hours and cover a wide range of public and social issues – but for the purpose of this post, the main focus will be around PhD students, the representation of BAME groups in academia and research. Certainly, this does not undermine other obstacles BAME groups face in society.

Is white privilege actually a thing in academia?

Short answer. Yes. In 2019, a report by the national union of students report a 13% ‘gap’ between the likelihood of BAME students successfully achieving a 1st (1:1) or a 2:1 degree. And for those who try to use the argument that it’s because there are less BAME students attending university, BAME students don’t work hard enough, and all that other bulls**t – you’re wrong. This gap is occurring despite BAME students being more likely to go to university in the first place. More BAME students enrol, but then fall behind whilst at university, most likely due to navigating feelings of social isolation, racial discrimination and social exclusion alongside completing their degree. Of course, this education attainment gap makes it inherently more difficult for them to move onwards and into higher education as the application and entry criteria for PhD’s is extremely competitive and dependent on your educational accolades. So, before shortlisting has already begun BAME students are not starting from an equal footing as they have been let down by the institutionalised discrimination experienced in their early contact with academia.

In addition to this educational attainment gap, the absence of BAME students in PhD positions or more senior academic roles can be extremely detrimental to potential future PhD students. Often BAME students at universities report experiences of exclusion, racial discrimination, and subtle micro-aggressions of racism. In simple terms, the absence of BAME students and staff perpetuates this unwelcoming and hostile environment for BAME PhD candidates – deterring them from pursuing PhD’s – reducing the number of BAME staff/students in academia – preventing the chance to educate, inform and challenge the current racial status quo – which allows this vicious cycle to continue. Given this framework, it is categorically not the fault of the BAME community. It is in the hands of white PhD students, white staff members, and white academic’s in senior positions to challenge the status quo, educate themselves, and concentrate on making academia a conducive and welcoming environment for everyone, irrespective of your ethnicity or racial background. Much of this comes down to acknowledging and having awareness of the faults in the system, the wider social issues, and the impact it has downstream.

I haven’t met anyone in academia who’s racist

Maybe, but it’s highly unlikely. You just don’t know they’re racist. They operate within a system that reduces the exposure and contact with people of differing backgrounds. If not careful, this can become a very destructive echo chamber – where you’re never exposed to alternative points of view. This can re-enforce any bias you may hold that you’re unaware of and actually stunt your own growth and understanding of the topic at hand. Furthermore, being surrounded by other highly intelligent people can create this false narrative that ‘these people are smart so they can’t be racist’. Intelligence is not related to racism. In fact, intelligence probably pushes you away from being aware of racial issues and your own biases.

In the current education set up as outlined above, majority of senior academics are from a white background, so as you pursue the educational ladder and make progress your exposure to other people from differing ethnic backgrounds will substantially reduce. Often, being around other people who are different from you helps combat false stereotypes you may have and allows for an opportunity to educate yourself indirectly. Even if you look throughout history, the people who help victims of racial atrocities are usually from working class backgrounds. Those who are in more senior positions are actually further removed from the reality of the situation, oblivious in their ivory towers.

“I wonder what’s going on down there?”

The consequence of racism in research

The last section to touch on here is maybe one a lot of people fail to think of. Considering my PhD is based within a medical field this is something I’ve fortunately (or unfortunately) had greater exposure to. Generally speaking, BAME groups have lower engagement in scientific research. One reason for this is that there is a lack of cultural, racial or ethnic understanding from researchers themselves. Ethnic minority groups are widely considered ‘hard to reach groups’ in most health-related contexts, and that’s about as far as the story goes. Researchers fail to consider the differing needs of BAME communities and in turn fail to adapt, change or consider different approaches that might be more effective at engaging them. At face value, this doesn’t seem too much of an issue. However, it can lead to some pretty dire results over generations as research findings are based on predominately white samples.

Research helps inform medical practice, allowing for medical advancements such as new drug development, understanding of particular conditions, and other medical innovations to be made. Over time, the effect of not including BAME groups will aggregate, resulting in medicine being better tailored and more effective for white people. Our understanding of specific conditions, certain drugs, and other medical advancements may not be suitable for different ethnic groups as the innovations we make are solely based on white individuals. If we’re not careful, this can further perpetuate racial inequalities as healthcare costs won’t be the same (medicine gets cheaper over time due to improvements), healthcare outcomes will be worse for BAME groups for the same conditions (race-specific outcomes/treatment response), and inhibit our understanding of certain conditions that might be more prevalent in BAME groups (due to various genetic, social and psychological risk factors).

To move forward in the academic world, it is imperative that white academics acknowledge the current inequalities in the educational system and actively try to change it. For those who read this blog that are in academia, I ask the question as to whether you have considered ethnic diverse samples within your research? And if not, why not? Because maybe you should.

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