Black Lives Matter – an interview with Dr. Calvin Tiengwe

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The Black Lives Matter protests have shone a light on the systemic racism present at all levels in developed countries, including in academia. TIR spoke to Dr. Calvin Tiengwe of Imperial College London to get his perspective on the protests, the problem, and possible solutions.

1.Can you provide a quick biographical sketch?
I am a Research Fellow at Imperial College London. I’m originally from Cameroon, but I’ve lived in the UK and USA for the last 15 years, studying and researching various aspects of trypanosome biology and its related disease, African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). My current research is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society under the Sir Henry Dale Fellowship Scheme. The fellowship provides generous support for early career biomedical scientists to establish an independent research programme at a UK University. Prior to this, I did my PhD at the University of Glasgow, UK followed by two consecutive postdoctoral fellowships at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (Baltimore, MD) and SUNY Buffalo (NY), USA. You can find out more about my background and current research interests here.

2. Do you think academia has a racism problem, even if the overwhelming majority of academics are not overtly racist?
Of course. The subject of race has recently taken centre stage due to recurrent killings of black people (by the police) in the United States, and the Black Lives Matter protests that emerged in the wake of the Killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. These protests have crossed the globe and prompted a collective reawakening on the problem of race, the disparities that come with it, the challenges we face as a people, and what actions can be taken to bring about meaningful change. Racial disparities are replete in every fabric of society and academia is no exception; they will exist as long as people of different races, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds interact. Identifying what constitutes racism is a complex problem because it occurs to varying degrees – from unconscious to overt. The higher the social class, the more subtle, with the lowest rungs of the social ladder definitely experiencing it more. While the vast majority of academics are not overtly racist – I have certainly never met one in the academic sphere –  it is vital to  recognise that systemic racism exists in academia, and very little is proactively done to raise awareness, to respond to specific racial disparities at academic institutions, and to actively put together clear guidelines, formal structures, and policies in place to minimise its effects.  I consider racial inequality to mean actions taken by individuals that predispose people from ethnic minority backgrounds to feel less-valued, to feel isolated, to feel that they have to work harder than their average white colleagues, to feel pushed to the side (intentionally or otherwise), and to doubt whether they have an equal shot at getting a promotion. In general, any practice at an institution that places minorities at an unfairly disadvantaged position to perform optimally because of their race or ethnicity perpetuates racial inequality. I think it is very important to recognise too that not everyone will be affected to the same degree – more often than not racist practices will not be overt, but the reality is that racial inequality is a significant issue in academia.

3. Have you personally experienced overt racism in an academic context?
The simple answer is NO. At least not to the degree that is seen at sporting events where bananas are thrown at black sportsmen on football pitches in Europe, or in American football where, for example, the quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been hung out to dry without a contract because he initiated a peaceful civil protest against racism by taking a knee on the pitch during the anthem, and where slogans and songs inciting racial hatred are chanted by fans. I cite these examples to draw attention to the wider race problem in society. In an academic environment, however, no one in their right moral senses would replicate the examples cited above, at least not to the degree that I have encountered or experienced. I have to admit that I have been extremely fortunate to have studied and worked in five major cities in both the UK and USA, and have had the utmost support and guidance from all my mentors without exception. However, this doesn’t mean that other minorities have not been victims of racial bias and does not in any way undermine their experiences. It would take a lot of nerve to be overtly and intentionally racist in an academic setting where a vast majority of the engagement and interactions means making direct contact with students/staff from different ethnic backgrounds.

4. Have you personally experienced discrimination in an academic context?
The obvious response to this will be NO. I see racial bias as a subset of a wide variety of discriminatory practices that may prevail in an academic context. I think there is broader careful scrutiny in academia than elsewhere in handling most social identifiers (religion, gender, age, and sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity) that may be prone to discriminatory practices. Some just get more attention than others, and how to achieve the right balance in tackling these is something that has to be systematically orchestrated from the top down. I say so because much attention has been dedicated to mental ability (health) with more funding allocation, but an equivalent response to the detrimental effects of discriminatory practices based on other social identifiers in academia is still lagging.

5. Do you think there is a tacit acceptance of racial inequality in academia?
I think the recent global protests on racial inequalities have been unexpectedly enlightening, stimulating, and have amplified voices from academia that otherwise might never have been heard. It is the same reason that we are having this conversation. As a consequence of these protests, many academic institutions were quick to declare their support, released general statements on racial inequality and injustice, subscribed to trending social media hashtags like #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia, #Strike4BlackLives, and halting routine activities to draw attention to racial inequality. The view of most critics is that this was more of a publicity stunt than a sincere attempt at enacting long-term sustainable and meaningful change internally. Whatever their collective silence on racial issues in the past signified is anyone’s guess. The fact is that most academic institutions had chosen (unconsciously or otherwise) to turn a blind eye to racial inequality, didn’t see a need to address it, didn’t care enough to ask questions about it, and may have been wilfully unaware or genuinely ignorant about the racial disparities that prevailed in the academic context. Far too many academic institutions are guilty of one or more of these charges. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal”. Conversely, it is important to highlight that in the UK many academic institutions are beginning to make well-defined commitments and are proactively taking steps to tackle racial inequality, something that had previously been non-existent. Some institutions are voluntarily signing up to the Race Equality Charter (REC) run by AdvanceHE with the goal “to improve the representation, progression and success of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff and students within higher education”. This is a positive step in the right direction. Similar to the Athena SWAN Charter that recognises representation, achievements and progress towards gender equality in higher education, academic institutions which subscribe to REC will be awarded a medal in recognition of its commitment to curbing racial inequality.

6. Do you think black academics are subjected to unconscious bias?
Last year, the University and College Union (UCU), a British higher education trade union, published a staggering report on the magnitude of the race pay gap and representation of black and ethnic minority people in senior academic positions at UK universities. The stats showed that black women constitute just 0.1% of active professors in the UK compared to 68% white males. A black academic has just a one in 33 chance of becoming a full professor compared to one in nine for their white colleagues. The full report titled “Black academic staff face double whammy in promotion and pay stakes” can be found here. As of February 2020, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures show that out of 2145 academic staff at the professorial level, only 0.65% (140) identified as black. The full report suggests that in terms of numbers alone, there is a vast underrepresentation of black people at the highest levels in academia with some universities recording zero. At face value, some would argue that the differences can be accounted for by the ethnic demographics in the population structure: more white people translate to more white academics. Others could counter that the differences indicate a strong handicap for black academics. The simpler explanation that if there are overall less blacks to begin with, then of course there will be less promotion, and less representation at the top seems plausible until you ask why. Could implicit bias play a role? The degree to which the power of implicit racial bias contributes to this disparity is a more complex problem that has to be properly interrogated for one to completely understand the deep-rooted and underlying causes of the problem. Social psychologists would recommend taking an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to decode the role unconscious attitudes and how they shape decision making in promotions (for example) in academic settings. Many UK universities are already conducting surveys as part of the Race Equality Charter applications and it will be interesting to see the data. While I am convinced that black academics are handicapped, whether you are for or against implicit bias as a contributing factor, consider this statistic that makes the problem even more outrageous: take a closer look at the graduating attainment gap between white and minority students from UK universities, popularly referred to as the BAME attainment gap. Current statistics show that in 2017/2018 there was a 13.2 percentage point difference between white and black students receiving a first- or upper-second class degree. The reason for this difference cannot be explained by entry qualifications alone, suggesting that any handicap experienced by blacks in particular or minorities in general is only likely to be exacerbated in the future if nothing is done.

7. Do you think that people could do more to match actions to words?
It literally took the murder of George Floyd and a sequence of global protests to get formal words (statements) out of most academic institutions worldwide. I guess the question is: will actions ensue to match the words decrying racial inequality and injustice? Only time will tell.  Could people do more?  Like everything that plagues our society we could always do more. The question is what can we do and how? To act one must first accept that the problem exists. Many people in academia believe (rightfully so) that academic achievement is a merit-based system where a “survival of the fittest” mentality must prevail. If it doesn’t affect them, then no action is required. In fairness, I myself used to subscribe to this belief. I struggled with questions on race and the challenges black people and ethnic minorities face. I believed that if you worked hard enough, you had an equal shot at the available opportunities. In my limited perspective, being born and raised in Cameroon, arriving in the UK for graduate school, going to the US for postdoctoral research, and then eventually becoming a Principal Investigator (PI) meant that every black kid could do the same if they just worked harder. After all, I wasn’t born here. The truth is that I was ignorant. I failed to recognise that I had been fortunate. That my guidance and support system was rare for a black kid in Britain or the US. That my experience was different and unusual. Since becoming a PI, I was surprised at the number of requests to speak, write, or talk about my “black experience” in academia. I turned down most of them because I found them patronising, something which I now regret. More recently, I started reading and learning about the experience of minority students in the UK university system. The more I listened to them, the more I realised that that could be me 20 years ago. Some of the challenges they face include the lack of role models i.e. visible BAME ambassadors in academia which leaves them wondering what chances they have at success. It leaves them wondering where they fit. If they are interested in becoming an academic professor, what are the odds that they would make it to the top? A survey by InsideHigherEd in 2014 found that university professors were far more likely to respond to emails (requests for guidance) from white male students. Could people do more? Yes. If you take Women in STEMM, LGQBT rights, these issues are at the forefront of discussions and a lot more action is visible in society today. Writing on racial inequality, in his essay titled A Strike for Black Lives, the American Astrophysicist Brian Nord asked two important reflective questions – isn’t our humanity enough? And how long should we wait? With everything in life, we can all do more, and the burden of meaningful action should not necessarily have to fall on BAME individuals.

8. What do you think European academics could learn from their American colleagues on this topic?
Because I have not encountered overt racism in any academic setting, be it in the UK or US, I may not be in the best position to make recommendations on what each side could learn from the other. Generally speaking, what constitutes racism in academic settings is not an exact science. When confronted with a racial slur or an action/decision that is deemed racist, unless it is overt or witnessed by a third party, the interpretations can be quite complex, and the burden of proof almost always rests on the accuser. The consequences for the accuser can also sometimes be dire. In most settings, it could result in alienation of the accuser by their peers. It could render the accuser forever vulnerable to retaliation. And in extreme cases, the career of the accuser at that institution could literally be over. Most often the consequences for speaking up against racism might outweigh the benefits, despite the existence of laws prohibiting discriminatory practices at the workplace. Consider this hypothetical scenario: if a black lecturer failed their promotion assessment and they thought race played a role in the decision, it will probably go unreported. There’s always an apprehension of bringing attention to what may be categorised as racial bias in the mind of every minority because the likelihood of change in outcome is minimal. The reason is because both the promotion committees and any subsequent review panel are both likely to be skewed towards the white race. In my limited experience, I think there are stark differences in the way Europeans (UK especially) vs Americans will deal with such a scenario. First, Americans will be more likely to report the issue. More often than not they will be more likely to get support from the community. This is simply because Americans feel more comfortable discussing racial inequality issues by virtue of their historical past, the number of minorities, and the awareness that has been generated over many years through civil rights movements. I think one thing Europeans could learn from Americans is that racial inequality is not a taboo subject, they should not feel uncomfortable talking about it. Discussions on racial equality can only be beneficial and in long run too help mitigate any adverse effects. It’s a win-win.

9. What positive actions do you think academics could take to make a difference?
I think the first step for academics is to recognise that racial inequality is a reality for many of their peers. While it may not affect everyone to the same degree, it can have a significant impact on welfare. Everyone should view any discriminatory practice as their problem, be it racial inequality, LGBQT rights, or gender equality.  If you see something, say something. Don’t be silent. Don’t ignore surveys that seek to collect data on racial inequality. Respond with honesty, most of such surveys are confidential anyway. Proactively participate in programmes that encourage people from ethnic minority backgrounds to get into higher education. Respond to guidance requests from all students (irrespective of racial identity) with the same enthusiasm. Recognise that there may be circumstances specific to ethnic minorities that may require special attention. Don’t look down on support staff just because of the job they do or because they are a minority person doing that job. Offer to mentor junior faculty of minority background so that they too have a shot at rising to the top. Treat minority folks with the same respect you give your majority peers. Hire more people from minority backgrounds. Make staff performance assessment committees more diverse. Educate yourself on cross-cultural differences. Travel out of your comfort zone and learn from the experience of others.  If still in doubt about what positive actions you can take as an academic, then I would highly recommend this 10-step programme written by Jasmine Roberts from Ohio State University.

We intend this posting to be the first in a series, led by Calvin, exploring the issue of race in science and academia – stay tuned for more!

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