July Journal Club Review: How Students Cope with Racism in Academia

July Journal Club Review: How Students Cope with Racism in Academia

July’s journal club was led by Sam Anderson. Amanda Hurley wrote the journal club review.

In the wake of recent events, including the high profile murders of several Black people and the shooting of Jacob Blake here in Wisconsin, CaSP has recently, and belatedly, committed to being an anti-racist organization. Our efforts include internal training and re-structuring to build active inclusivity. Furthermore, our position as a science policy org gives us ample opportunity to explore evidence-based policy to combat racism in academia. In our July journal club, CaSP discussed a 2012 article, “Responding to Racism and Racial Trauma in Doctoral Study: An Inventory for Coping and Mediating Relationships.” At the time, it was only the third published study addressing coping mechanisms in response to racism experienced by doctoral students and the only study that addressed a diverse cohort of race identities and graduate programs. 

We began by defining “racism” used in the document. Briefly, it’s a system of dominance, power, and privilege based on racial-group designations…where members of the dominant group create or accept their societal privilege by maintaining structures, ideology, values, and behavior. Create or accept. Right there in the definition, I see my own conflict-avoiding inaction when witnessing racism as racism. It was through this lens, my own discomfort and desire to become a better race ally, that I participated in this discussion. 

First, let us dispel any notion that academia is an unbiased sanctuary. Academia has a history of institutionalized racism and has not risen above it. Professors are products of their time and culture; university scholars used to lecture on racial inferiority and argued that slavery was crucial to America’s economic success, which actively reinforced their privilege. Legal action in the Supreme Court against racism in higher education was levied as recently as 1991, determining “race-neutral” admission was not effective at dismantling segregation. Anecdotally, graduate students specifically can experience racism in truly appalling ways, as demonstrated through the #BlackintheIvory movement on Twitter and in written examples (here, here, and here), which causes varying degrees of racial stress and trauma. 

How students cope with racial stress and trauma can be categorized into three different strategies: internal, controlled, and external responses. Internal responses are those used individually or internally to ensure well-being, such as reflecting with social support networks and seeking counseling. Controlled responses indirectly address racial experiences to avoid negative consequences from challenging racism, such as suppressing reactions or soliciting intervention. External responses directly address racism through speaking up, documenting and filing complaints, and restructuring committees. The authors interviewed 26 students from 13 disciplines like anthropology and communications to biomedical science and biostatistics. All students reported using coping mechanisms from at least two categories, but the list of external coping mechanisms was the shortest, with only three options mentioned above, compared to nine coping mechanisms inventoried for internal responses. 

The relative lack of external coping mechanisms, of directly addressing racist experiences, for doctoral students is not surprising. The hierarchical power structure within academia generally prevents the direct attack of inequality, abuse, and exploitation. If academia truly stands against racism, we must provide avenues to directly address racism. These policies can subvert the power structure, i.e. allowing for anonymous reporting of racism, or within the power structure, i.e. recruiting faculty of color with records of mentoring and supporting underrepresented minority doctoral students. In no way do I suggest that people of color monolithically experience racism and any person of color must be able to help. However, the authors do find that students of color typically seek support systems from other people of color. Providing a safe ally in a position of power could tip the scales for whether a doctoral student experiences resilience or agony during racist encounters in graduate education. 

The power structure not only represses external coping mechanisms of students experiencing racism, it suppresses allyship as well. Graduate school can generally be described as a stressful time, rife with imposter syndrome and competitive tunnel vision to complete one’s studies. Alienating powerful professors could be professionally devastating for anyone speaking up against racist encounters. While staying silent is more comfortable for white allies, this is our privilege. White allies don’t have to deploy racial coping mechanisms or fear further racial encounters. Racial stress compounds graduate school stress. Reflection on allyship through this tumultuous summer has only strengthened my resolve to speak up for my colleagues who are black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Because, truly, what is important? Do I want to be known as someone who’s really, really good at Western blots and pleasing professors or someone with the strength of character to stand up for equality? 

Here, I share my plans to move from a fearful, complicit position into an active race ally. First, recognize discomfort is par for the course; it is not scary, and validates that “yes, indeed I’ve identified room for growth – keep going.” Second, I’ve read documented cases of racism in higher education so I can better identify and address it. As it turns out, a lot of racial encounters are not career-ending experiences and there are many documented strategies for bystander intervention. A simple microaggression that can haunt people of color with non-Western heritage is the repeated mispronunciation of their name. What is easier than learning the correct names of your colleagues and speaking up for them if someone says it incorrectly? During journal club, we also discussed documenting racist encounters when they happen to assist BIPOC colleagues if they need evidence, corroboration, or a witness for official action. It is my hope that incremental steps of allyship will build confidence and experience to deftly and safely address larger, more stressful situations. Finally, if I witness a racist encounter and want to intervene but don’t know how – I commit to asking for help! Asking for help from other leaders and allies (as opposed to the target of racism to avoid additional burden) not only makes racism visible to a wider audience, but it provides experiential training to address similar experiences in the future. This is my own pledge. Combating racism in academia can seem like a huge task and, certainly, big changes need to be made. However, I wanted to show that there are small steps each person can take to make your lab, your department, and your institution a safer and more welcoming place.

Policies addressing racism in higher education should be crafted around pre-existing coping mechanisms and actions for race allies. BIPOC student organizations should be sponsored by departments as they provide a social network for students where they can seek support after racist encounters. Counseling services should be normalized and advertised. Truly anonymous reporting systems for experienced or witnessed racism should be established for the minimal goal of tracking racism within a department to more effectively address it and ideally lead to cultural or structural change. However, such reporting systems could backfire and professionally isolate BIPOC students or cause them to experience retaliation. An interesting option being developed in the fight against workplace sexual harassment is a “train-the-trainer” model. Requiring sexual harassment training focusing on individuals to personally avoid a list of forbidden behaviors is proving to be ineffective. However, inspiring managers to become harassment watchdogs in their own offices to protect their staff is actually enacting culture change. Perhaps the managers of academia, tenured professors, could be inspired and trained for racism interventions from an offensive, rather than defensive, mindset. 

While CaSP explores mechanisms of anti-racism at UW-Madison, our science policy parent organization, National Science Policy Network (NSPN), has hosted town halls to discuss anti-racist actions for our wider community of science policy STEM trainees across the country. The next steps discussed at the most recent meeting include a new set of funding opportunities aimed at purchasing anti-racism learning resources, developing partnerships with minority-serving institutions and organizations, and hosting racial justice workshops. Furthermore, the NSPN Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee is working on developing allyship training in order to make the NSPN community and science policy more inclusive. It is upsetting that BIPOC STEM trainees have so few coping mechanisms that directly address racism. It is my hope that the science policy community can use its expertise in researching and proposing effective policy along with a deep understanding of academic culture and structure to enact change for BIPOC students in STEM.