What I've learned about being a Black scientist

Written by: Neil A. Lewis, Jr.
Published on: Sep 29, 2021

writing lines on paper
Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by eduardrobert/iStock

Under normal circumstances, I try to write columns that are optimistic and uplifting. I am, after all, a motivation and goal pursuit researcher, and thus I feel a duty to provide readers with information that will help them achieve their goals. But, dear readers, these are not normal times, and so this will not be a normal column.

My backstory

In some ways, I am incredibly fortunate. I am a scientist and professor at an Ivy League university. To many, that is the pinnacle of privilege. I'm allowed to study more or less whatever I find interesting. I teach the classes I want to teach, imparting knowledge on fantastic students who pay far more money per year to attend my university than my family had to survive on when I was growing up. It's a pretty good life. I'm a walking example of the American dream: the poor Black boy who immigrated to the United States and worked his way up to running his own lab at one of the world's elite universities. That is one version of the Neil Lewis, Jr., story. But there is a detail in that version that opens the door to a deeper version, the version I want to talk about today.

I am not just a scientist. I am also a Black man in the United States. My job may be the pinnacle of privilege. But in the country in which I do that job, scientists who look like me often have to wrestle with not just our research questions, but also with being seen—due to the color of our skin—as a problem.

These two streams of thought constantly run through my mind in parallel as I study racial and economic disparities in the United States and, at the same time, stay connected to friends and relatives who bear the brunt of those disparate impacts. Some of these impacts still manifest in my own personal life and career.

Challenges off-campus

Despite earning the same degrees, living in the same city, and working on the same campus, there are still fundamental differences in how my colleagues and I have to navigate the world that we all study. To illustrate, I'll share an example.

Three years ago, I was driving back to campus from a conference when I was pulled over by the police. I went through the life-preservation routine that my parents taught me when I was a teenager, in the hope that one day it might save my life. I turned off the car, rolled down my window, and put my hands outside so the officer could see that I wasn't holding anything. The officer asked for my license and registration. After he did whatever they do when they take your information back to their car, he came back and asked what I did for a living. I told him I was about to start a job as a professor, and that led to a long conversation about my life story. Once satisfied, he said I was free to go.

Before I drove off, I couldn't resist asking him why he pulled me over. "Your license plate is dirty," he responded. "You should get your car washed." If that was the true reason he pulled me over, then I'm not sure why he needed to know so much about my life history. I suspect the true reason was because he saw a young Black man driving a nice car. That likely raised enough suspicion in his mind to warrant a thorough investigation of my life so that he could make sense of how such a thing could happen.

After that encounter, I went to the campus bookstore and bought two alumni license plate covers to put on my car. I also signed up for the unlimited car wash service at my local car wash and started to take my car there whenever my license plate looked to be dirty enough to potentially trigger an unwarranted traffic stop. Wasting money on a car wash subscription, and water to clean a mildly dirty car, went against my financial and environmental principles. But those are some of the extra taxes you have to pay as a Black person to live in a country that tells you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then surveils you with great suspicion when you actually do. Nina Simone sang about the dream of being young, gifted, and Black, but she left out the part about the target that puts on your back.

Challenges at work

Getting to and from work is one challenge that marginalized scientists face. Getting one's work done after arriving at work is another. In a previous column, my colleagues and I wrote that scientists from underrepresented groups often face unequal institutional burdens because they're asked to do a disproportionate share of service duties. Today, I want to expand on that by saying marginalized scientists may also struggle to have their work counted, and to do the work that they truly want to do.

This is a lesson I've learned a few times in my career, beginning in graduate school. I was trained as a social psychologist to do basic research. I also used those skills during my Ph.D. research to study applied questions related to social disparities. My advisers were incredibly supportive. They saw the value, as I do, of conducting research that simultaneously advances theory and generates insights for practical applications.

Unfortunately, others were less thrilled about this approach. Some (presumably well-meaning) senior faculty members in my program told me that if I ever wanted to be successful in the field, I needed to set aside my research on social disparities and devote my full attention to my basic research. They told me that my applied research—the research I was most passionate about conducting—would not "count" in the field when it came time to apply for jobs. They also told me the work wouldn't help me keep a job that I might be "lucky" enough to get.

In some sense, they were not wrong to give that advice. When I did go on the academic job market, I was fortunate enough to interview at some of the most prestigious departments in my field. But I was dismayed to find that faculty members in those departments expressed similar sentiments. When I asked about expectations for tenure and promotion, in all but one department (the department whose offer I ultimately accepted) senior faculty members told me that if I wanted to get tenure I would need to prioritize my basic research and set aside my "disparities stuff" until after tenure.

Those experiences were jarring, particularly given the implicit message they sent. These academic departments—some quite famous for espousing egalitarian and progressive values—were willing to hire a scholar with a Black face, but they made it crystal clear that they did not want the mind that came with it. The issues that mind wanted to study—issues of racial, economic, and gender inequality—simply did not belong in their hallowed halls. What they taught me is that the institutions were willing to do what Sara Ahmed calls the "image work" of diversity, but they were not willing to expand their ways of thinking to be inclusive of a range of ideas and approaches. The "gatekeepers of tenure" wanted ideas from people who are just like themselves.

Where do we go from here?

Over the past few weeks, in response to the recent wave of social unrest following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, I have seen a resurgence in calls to diversify the scientific workforce. Academic leaders are mulling new pipeline programs, cluster hires, and other types of recruitment and hiring initiatives. Those are all nice ideas and, in principle, I have few negative things to say about them. What I will say is that if fields and departments do want to go down those pathways, they need to first take a step back and do some deep reflections to ensure that (a) they know what going down that path really means, and (b) they are fully committed to supporting the so-called "diverse candidates" they wish to recruit into their institutions and broader scientific communities.

I think I can safely speak for most marginalized scientists when I say that we do not want to be your token candidate—someone who is brought in to diversify your website, but whose daily experiences in your institution will be toxic and demoralizing. If you do not want to take my word for it, then perhaps you may be persuaded by the 32% of Black economists who reported not applying to particular jobs in their field to avoid harassment, discrimination, and unfair treatment in the workforce, and the one who described the field as so toxic that she would not recommend that her own Black child go into the field.

A few years ago, the comedic academic Twitter account @AcademicsSay posted an insightful tweet: "Deep down, academics want the same thing as everyone else: acceptance, with minor revisions." That's certainly true for minoritized scientists. We want to have our experiences acknowledged rather than invalidated and dismissed; to have our work "count" like that of our peers, rather than being relegated to second-class status; and to be able to bring our whole selves to work rather than having to code-switch to assimilate to the dominant culture that exists within academia. To borrow and adapt a quote from Sarah Grimke—an antislavery and women's rights activist in the 19th century—"[We] ask no favors for [our] sex [and race]. [We] surrender not our claim to equality. All [we] ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright."

So, yes, please do work toward increasing representation in your respective part of the scientific workforce. But as you do that, take a long and hard look at the structures and cultures you are recruiting minoritized scientists into and change them so that they can become places where those scientists can thrive, rather than merely survive. If you don't know how to do that, do some reading. You may also want to ask your minoritized colleagues (if you have any) what would improve their experiences in your organization, and when you do that, actually listen to them. If you don't have any such colleagues, the Twitter conversation #BlackintheIvory may be informative; many Black scientists have shared their experiences there.

Finally, remember that these issues will not be fixed in an afternoon training session or a momentary pause to recognize racism, such as during last week's #ShutdownSTEM event. We got to where we are today due to hundreds of years of exploitation and marginalization; it will take persistent and bold efforts on the part of individuals, groups, institutions, and broader society if we are to achieve anything close to equality.


I thank Anthony Burrow, Sonya Dal Cin, and Eve De Rosa for their comments on earlier versions of this column.

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Neil A. Lewis, Jr. is an assistant professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University.