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Diversity

Black chemists speak out about inequity in STEM

They share stories of injustice and offer suggestions on how the community can provide support and solidarity

by Linda Wang , Megha Satyanarayana
June 19, 2020

 

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Credit: Courtesy of Kayunta Johnson-Winters
Kayunta Johnson-Winters

When the video of George Floyd surfaced, I immediately tuned out because as the mother of an African American male, I simply couldn’t watch. Why? Because there is a part of me that has not recovered from my own personal trauma; my 14-year-old son was the victim in a shooting incident in 2018. When I received the call concerning my son, I went to class and struggled to teach. After which I couldn’t concentrate. I later explained to my students what had happened to my son. I booked a flight and went to Wisconsin, where my son was spending the summer with my mother.

This story from Kayunta Johnson-Winters, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, is one of several C&EN heard from Black chemists in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody. Johnson-Winters continues:

My son, this sweet honor roll student, who was a part of an elite STEM academy at his school, never got into trouble. [Yet] he was still a black boy who didn’t deserve justice in the eyes of the establishment. As the district attorney argued his case, my status as chemistry professor was meaningless. We felt invisible due to the systemic racism that has plagued this country from inception. The story of George Floyd is all too familiar—we have seen it play out time and time again in this country. In 2020, African Americans continue to live in fear. Every time a death occurs at the hands of a police officer, we are reminded of our worth and our value—that our lives do not count.

Other Black chemists shared with C&EN similar stories of injustice within the chemistry community:

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Credit: Courtesy of Cicely Shillingford
Cicely Shillingford

As a 5th year chemistry PhD student at New York University, who had been the only black student in the department until the past year, who has devoted months of exhaustive voluntary work toward combating diversity and inclusion shortcomings on behalf of the department and institutes within, I have waited years to be adequately acknowledged. Only after convening fellow minority students to draft a petition detailing our demands for racial justice did my superiors finally address the persistent violence toward Black people and ensuing trauma inflicted upon graduate students. Institutional silence sends a message that is loud and clear: some faculty are more concerned with political correctness than they are about assuaging the pain imposed upon their black students and colleagues. Silence speaks deafeningly to the effect that optics are valued above denouncing the malignant white entitlement that is laying black communities to waste. And yet, statements only scratch the surface. True institutional leadership will be judged by whether the faculty heed the demands of their black students and enact lasting structural change.

Cicely Shillingford, graduate student, New York University

On social media, some Black chemists shared their experiences of microaggressions:

Some Black chemists shared ways they have worked to change the culture:

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Credit: Courtesy of Sibrina Collins
Sibrina Collins

As a former assistant professor of chemistry, I would frequently incorporate biographical narratives into the chemistry curriculum to broaden the image of chemists in the classroom. Most chemistry textbooks do not include images of chemists of color. If we want to establish an inclusive chemistry workforce, students need to see themselves reflected in the classroom. Students can write essays about Black organic chemists like Alice Augusta Ball, Dr. Percy L. Julian, and Dr. Saint Elmo Brady, and we can align these scientists’ stories with course content. These chemists should be celebrated because of their remarkable scientific achievements, which occurred during a time when opportunities for chemists of color were severely limited.

Sibrina Collins, executive director, Marburger STEM Center, Lawrence Technological University

Whether I want it to or not, my whole being is a political statement.

Black. Woman. Biomedical Engineer. PhD. It gets under people’s skin in any way I choose to celebrate it, so I’m gonna celebrate it some mo’, dedicate it some mo’, recognize it some mo’.

I dedicate my PhD to any person that has ever felt unseen, unheard, and underrepresented, especially in STEM.

@teamkorie via Instagram

And they offered their advice on how allies can help:

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Credit: Courtesy of Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy
Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy

For colleagues who want to support their black colleagues and students, I would encourage them to interrogate or question what is happening around you. Be willing to be in uncomfortable spaces, without debilitating guilt, to hear the truth of your colleagues and students. Be courageous in acknowledging the realities of systemic and institutional racism and our personal conscious and unconscious biases and how these influence our lived experiences today, not just yesterday or days gone by. Be committed to our shared humanity and the truth of our human experience. This is more than simple words meant to heal hurt and anger. There is an old quote that ‘actions speak louder than words.’ Ask yourself, your colleagues (both those of color and those who are not of color), what actions must we take collectively, collaboratively, together.

Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion and associate professor of research, chemistry education, Louisiana State University
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Credit: Courtesy of Candice Bridge
Candice Bridge

Open, honest, uncomfortable conversations are a start to healing. When all people can understand what Black people (or any marginalized community) feel, then hopefully they can allow their compassion to set in, which would allow them to put themselves in the Black community’s shoes and try to feel what it would be like to decide to leave your house everyday, not knowing who is targeting you or your family, nor if you will make it home just because of how you look, how you feel, who you love, who you worship, etc. We need these conversations, as well as active engagement in these conversations, and all parties involved should be open to accepting criticism, if warranted, and listening with their heart to the other party and not focusing on the individual but attacking the problem (or the systematic and systemic problems) together to effect change. I am not sure how an ‘ally’ can approach someone to start these conversations, but ultimately that ‘ally’ should be genuine in their pursuit to effect change and not just appear genuine, because people can feel when you are genuine or not. They must also be in it for the long haul. Being genuine is critical.

Candice Bridge, associate professor of chemistry, National Center for Forensic Science, University of Central Florida
Send a simple text or email that expresses your sentiments. A simple, ‘I really don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I am thinking of you’ will go a long way! Be sensitive to the circumstances, and try to understand their perspective and be empathetic. It’s important to have a mutual respect. It is OK to say, ‘I cannot pretend to relate, but I stand in solidarity with you.’ 
Kayunta Johnson-Winters, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, University of Texas at Arlington

University of Michigan chemistry graduate student Matthew R. Culberson calls for a different future for Black chemists.

 
20200616lnp1-winters.jpg
Credit: Courtesy of Kayunta Johnson-Winters
Kayunta Johnson-Winters
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Credit: Courtesy of Cicely Shillingford
Cicely Shillingford
20200616lnp1-collins.jpg
Credit: Courtesy of Sibrina Collins
Sibrina Collins
20200616lnp1-wilson.jpg
Credit: Courtesy of Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy
Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy
20200616lnp1-bridge.jpg
Credit: Courtesy of Candice Bridge
Candice Bridge
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