An Annotated Bibliography as a Tool for Helping Address Racism in Plant Science
by Haley Carter
When police officers murdered George Floyd earlier this year, they were acting within an established pattern of police brutality against Black people, and a larger pattern of white supremacy. But this time, as most of the nation and the world were relying on virtual communications due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, news of the incident and the accompanying outrage spread quickly and became a worldwide movement, one that I hope has real staying power to effect change in our homes, workplaces, and governments.
While many organizations and institutions have released public statements committing themselves to anti-racism, it feels like at the individual level there are still many people asking the question “but what can I actually do?”
There are many resources out there to help you answer that question, but if you’re reading this blogpost, you’re probably a scientist. And you know how to address difficult, complicated topics; you start with the primary literature. Racism is not new, and there is a wealth of knowledge out there for you to read, digest, and incorporate into your own life and work. This is particularly important if you are white and have the privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it. While I recommend that everyone take the time to educate themselves about the history of the police force and today’s policing practices and policies, there is another institution much closer to many of us with just as deeply racist roots: science. White scientists need to do the work to ensure our BIPOC colleagues don’t face extra challenges because of the color of their skin.
As we have these discussions in my own department, the lab group I’m a part of is compiling an annotated bibliography on the topic of racism and has included research specifically related to science and academia. This has helped guide and inform our group discussions, and will also inform our practices (hiring, recruitment, mentoring, collaborating, etc.) going forward. This second part is crucial because simply amassing knowledge is not enough to develop our anti-racist community.
Starting from the literature means tapping into knowledge wider than anyone’s own and adding the support of data to broaden the context around personal experiences. While providing a space for discussion of racism and the importance of diversity and equity within our labs, departments, or other groups is vital, uninformed discussions can be harmful. They can unwittingly become spaces where people are forced to relive past traumas and others make hurtful ill-worded claims based on assumptions and personal privileged experiences. Having each person read and contribute to a document such as an annotated bibliography allows discussion to be grounded in more informed and substantiated ideas and might bring up more ideas than would otherwise be covered by the people in the room.
I would suggest this to any lab or other working group. To get you started, I have included just a few of the entries from our lab. As it is a group document, I want to acknowledge that authorship belongs to Dr Norman Wickett, Dr Angela McDonnell, Colby Witherup-Wood, Elena Loke, and Maya Bickner in addition to myself.
1. Poodry, C.A. and D.J. Asai. Questioning Assumptions. CBE–Life Sciences Education 17:es7 DOI: 10.1187/cbe.18-02-0024
This paper highlights some of the rationalizations people make when asked to think about the underrepresentation of BIPOC in academic positions. These rationalizations are often used to argue, “It’s not my fault,” or that, “things are beyond my control.” The authors suggest that these rationalizations are hypotheses that can be tested with data (hypotheses include “There aren’t enough qualified candidates”). In this paper, the authors focus on rates of graduate student publication, looking at both race/ethnicity and gender. The authors note that, when presented with data, many people choose to question the veracity of the data, which is a reflection of their bias towards thinking that there is not actually a systemic problem. The paper asks us to question assumptions about who we think are the "best" people for a position (here, talking specifically about graduate students, but I think this could be extended to undergraduate research, or the postdoctoral and faculty hiring process).
2. Taylor, Dorceta E. Racial and ethnic differences in the students’ readiness, identity, perceptions of institutional diversity, and desire to join the environmental workforce. 2018. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 8, 152–168. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412...
The author presents strong evidence suggesting that despite minority students being interested in environmental sciences (in a broad sense) and the increase in diversity programming, the actual number of people employed in environmental organizations is low. Many of the tables include useful diversity statistics for racial minorities and also for gender minorities, like women. This paper can serve as a springboard for discussions about getting more diverse students “into the pipeline” and what institutions should look like so that diverse individuals and groups feel welcomed, appreciated, and respected.
3. Philip, Kavita, Lilly Irani, and Paul Dourish. "Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey." Science, Technology, & Human Values 37, no. 1 (2012): 3-29. www.jstor.org/stable/41511154.
While most of humanities and social sciences has already been reframed in a post-colonial light, the “hard” sciences have resisted this reframing, instead sticking to the narrative that the West creates and other countries try to copy. The authors give many examples of this. In computational design, western work gets labeled as culture-free, while eastern and southern work gets labeled as culture-laden. Similarly, in science, work gets labeled as “indigenous knowledge”, suggesting it could never be applied outside of where it was formed, whereas Western work is considered “universal”. They also discuss the emphasis on “innovation” in the Western world, and the devaluation of labor.
4. Hofstra B, Kulkarni VV, Galvez SM-N, He B, Jurafsky D, McFarland DA. The Diversity– Innovation Paradox in Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2020;117(17):9284-91. https://arxiv.org/abs/1909.020...
This study looked at 1.2 million US doctoral recipients from 1977-2015 and used text analysis methods to analyze their theses for new ideas/innovations. They found that underrepresented minority groups scholars produce higher rates of scientific novelty. However, their novel contributions are more likely to be devalued and discounted. Meaning that the novel contributions by racial and gender minorities are taken up by other scholars at lower rates than novel contributions by majorities.
5. Das, S. and Lowe, M. 2018. Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, Volume 6, 4 ‐ 14. http://www.natsca.org/article/...
This paper was inspired by a Twitter post: “December 4, 2016, in a Twitter thread of 100 unpopular opinions about museums, Danny Birchall, Digital Manager at the Wellcome Collection, tweeted, “52/Natural history museums are more racist than anyone will admit”. This work, written by two BIPOC scholars, has a couple of goals. First, they illuminate some history of racism in science which has precolonial roots during the Enlightenment. Specifically, the field of taxonomy (including Carl Linnaeus) included humans among animal species and divided them into categories based on physical appearance and behavior. While rankless, Europeans were ‘acute, inventive, governed by laws’ but Africans were ‘crafty, indolent, negligent, governed by caprice’, reflecting prejudices. The history portion of the paper also touches upon the ideological role of natural history collections; objectification of cultures and people, competitive collecting of Native American remains and artifacts, craniological collections which established superiority of white Europeans over nonwhite people, collection of plant specimens and plant products from around the British Empire for distribution to schools in the British Isles, and the impacts of Nazi eugenic principles on mainstream science and the perceptions of science. Much of the paper gives detailed examples of racist practices that gave rise to institutions and structures we have today. Their second goal was to suggest an important way to decolonize the natural history museum. The authors advocate for accurate interpretations of collections; “We, collectively as museum professionals, need to do better at acknowledging past wrongs for what they are, and telling the whole of the story of science.”