A quote you have probably heard over the last few months is “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” Said by Angela Davis, this message is the kick I needed to stop feeling complacent about being non-racist, and start doing my best to be anti-racist.
Just deciding to be anti-racist doesn’t really cut it, though – and it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why physicists Brian Nord and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, along with others, set up the website Particles for Justice (particlesforjustice.org) and organised the Strike for Black Lives on June 10th. This was a single day for all academics to step back and recognise the ways in which racism is manifest in the academy – especially in my own field, physics. I was very enthusiastic to get involved, and together with some people from my research group (the Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre), I set up a day of reading and discussion – taking the resources shared by Particles for Justice as a starting point.
We discussed a variety of topics, many of them deeply sobering and eye-opening. One particularly awful topic is the history of racism in medical ethics. In the Tuskegee study, Black men were led to believe they were receiving treatment for syphilis, when in fact the study was to observe the long-term effects of the disease, and they were only given placebos. Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman with cancer whose cells were taken without consent to develop the ubiquitous HeLa cell line – almost every lab in the country has a supply of HeLa cells. The father of modern gynaecology, J. Marion Sims, developed many ground-breaking procedures by experimenting on enslaved women who had not been given anaesthetic. Knowing the history of this subject is sickening but necessary, but the follow-up question has to be: what about the present day? What needs to change? Black men and women are still under-represented in medical trials, Black women commonly report that their medical complaints are not taken seriously, and Black people are dying from coronavirus in the UK at around twice the rate of white people.
I’ve been asked several times how racism can be present in physics – surely physics is an objective science, and so there is no room for bias – unlike sociology, psychology or biomedical science. Dr Prescod-Weinstein has previously written about “the racialization of epistemology”, focusing on the question: who do we consider to be an objective scientist? She argues that while physics itself is independent of human behaviour, the biases of those who practice it are a fundamental and inescapable part of being a physicist. We grant white male physicists an objectivity which we deny to Black people who speak out about racism, or women who speak out about sexism. A Black woman who speaks out about discrimination is therefore considered a less reliable scientist, and so via racial bias we construct a self-supporting system of white male objectivity.
One day of reading is also not enough to become anti-racist. I am right at the beginning of my development as an anti-racism advocate, but already the Doctoral College has expressed interest in supporting long-term action. I’m in the process of setting up an anti-racism reading club, which would open the floor for a discussion session once a month and help foster a culture of anti-racism. The DC is looking at setting up workshops, with speakers ranging from academic experts to community activists. I can’t wait to see what ideas others come up with and realise, and I’m going to continue to learn, continue to be challenged, and hopefully take active steps to improve the academy.
Anti-Racism Reading Group
Starting Friday 24th July at 11am on Zoom. Joining information will be circulated nearer the time.