It's lonely being a Black scientist
I have been weighed down by tragedy, passed over, and exploited
I am almost always the only Black person in the room.
Some days I wake up ready to go to work — I'm a biomedical researcher — and out of nowhere, a news report or a Facebook post shatters my peace and calm. Another Black person was murdered by the police. Notoriety and character assassination will follow soon. This isn't justice, anybody can see that. It is painful to watch. It feels personal and I grieve. It's like the world telling me that I am — we are — powerless. I feel like I don’t belong here.
I go on with my day, with less strength, sometimes holding back tears, sometimes dreaming of a place that doesn’t exist where I could go to escape all of it. The boost with which a successful person starts their day is irretrievably gone. Those days, I silently contend with the intrusive thoughts and the heavy heart. Excuse me if I seem a little distracted.
Some days I wake up physically tired, as if I weigh a ton of bricks. I'm not ill. The anger, hopelessness and sadness of Black lives not mattering is a heavy burden. The people around me, where I spend most of my day, my life, most likely are not yet aware of what happened and what is weighing on my mind. They most likely will not be aware of it until later, unless or until a riot takes place or enough digital outrage occurs that national news or social media users take note. Most likely, it will not affect them the way it affects me. Most likely they will talk about it because a cop was killed in retaliation.
Eventually, race-related conversations happen about specific incidents. They are sometimes awkward and superficial, a tick in box to say "see, I'm not racist." But they're better, to me, than not having any conversations at all. At the same time, I don’t know how to relay that the problem is so much more than the murder that is in the news today. How do I tell them that they too are, in less obvious ways than murder, a part of the problem?
I have so far been silent about the ways in which racism and white supremacy has affected me in the workplace. Nobody called me the n-word. But I have heard coworkers be openly racist towards other groups. Once, an entire room of fellow scientists exploded in laughter at the thought of good science coming out of Mexico. Another time, a professor was heard using a derogatory term for Latinx people – people who that individual hoped to work and share an academic environment with. On several occasions, coworkers made fun of and scorned Indian immigrants as dirty. But it was all a joke, right? Do they make jokes about Black people when I'm not around?
To my face, people have mostly spoken with kindness and friendliness. I’ve also seen them readily work with each other to get things done but be completely uncomfortable working with me, and will find ways to avoid it. It is lonely and painful. But I haven’t said anything.
In my lab, I am the only female, only postdoc, and only Black person. I have been given tougher projects and nearly impossible to reach targets. I attempted all of them diligently and gotten some great results. Yet, I have had blame heaped on me and success withheld when I didn’t sacrifice my physical and mental health to reach them all. I have seen my good, hard work be shelved for the future, for someone else to benefit, because my success wasn’t on my employer's list of priorities. Because I was good at it, I was made to troubleshoot one experiment after another, start project after project yet never allowed to spend enough time or effort on any one of them to make a first author paper. Despite making good progress, the moment I hit any difficulty, instead of receiving support, I was asked, and told it would be better, to work on something else. I accepted this guidance naively, working diligently until I realized that the same projects I had pushed forward would be offered as tantalizing bait to newcomers, and projects I was told were no longer viable were still being developed for someone to work on in the future. I can’t really tell if that is par for the course as a “not assertive enough” postdoc, or if it is something worse. But, still, I haven’t said anything.
I have been silent because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I’ve been silent because I don’t trust anyone to have my back. I’ve been silent because I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I’ve been silent because I was afraid I would be ostracized. I was afraid I might even lose my job or cause someone to lose theirs. I’ve been silent because I don’t want to be an activist — I just want to do my job like everyone else.
I’ve been silent too because I blamed myself. Maybe I wasn't doing enough? So I worked long nights and weekends, joined groups and served on boards to finally be worthy of the support and camaraderie I witnessed others receive. It was like swimming forever upstream and what I felt was mostly used, for my hard work and as a token for diversity. I’ve been silent because I’m not sure if I’m just being too sensitive. I’ve been silent because I was taught that it is safe and well-behaved to be silent.
I’m silent because when I have tried to speak, I was steamrolled, drowned out, or misunderstood. I’m silent because I don’t like confrontations and have acted out in self sabotaging ways instead of standing up for myself when I felt my rights were being violated. I thought, therefore, that maybe I had lost the right to protest. I’m silent because academia has so many intersectional abuse issues and I’ve been pretending to be okay all this time. I’m silent because an honest conversation is long overdue and I don’t know where or how to begin.
Ed: The author of this piece requested anonymity to protect themself from reprisal. They are a biomedical scientist living in the United States.