Black Lives Matter – an interview with Professor Derek Applewhite


Derek Applewhite is an Associate Professor in the Biology Department at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (USA), and a longstanding advocate for Black/Indigenous/People of Colour (BIPOC) in academia. He joined TIR writer Brooke Morriswood and our first interviewee and discussion leader, Calvin Tiengwe, to continue the conversation about the BLM protests, racism in academia, and positive contributions that individual scientists can make.

1.Can you provide a quick biographical sketch?
I did my undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and then my PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University, graduating in 2007. After a seven-year postdoc at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill I took an Assistant Professor position at Reed College, and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2018. My research focuses on the cytoskeleton, particularly the regulation of the actomyosin system, using Drosophila as a model system. I have a strong commitment to addressing inequalities in academia, and the vast majority of the students I have mentored are non-binary, gender minorities, or are minoritized individuals. I am currently Co-Chair of the LGBTQ+ Task Force of the American Society for Cell Biology, and am an active advocate for BIPOC scientists more generally.

2. What have the BLM protests meant to you as a person, and as an academic?
I think the words that primarily came to mind during the demonstrations after George Floyd’s death were “tired” and “sad”. Here we are again – we have been here before – and we will be here again, and things still have not changed. It is frustrating, scary, sad, exhausting, and discouraging. However, it is clear that his death did lead to a cultural shift. Finally, people are seeing what the Black community has been screaming about for nearly a century if not more. Maybe we will be heard this time. I am more optimistic than I have been in the past, but I am very cautious about this optimism. As an academic, my response was to think about ways to make the lives of other Black people in academia easier. Amplify voices. Work through the organizations I am involved in to take advantage of the moment and try to form policies that attempt to address the systematic racism that is pervasive in science.

3. Can you remind us what some of the organisations you work with are?
I work with the American Society for Cell Biology LGBTQ+ taskforce. On top of that I work on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of the Genetics Society of America – those are the two organizations I’ve worked with the most outside Reed. Within Reed, I formally and informally mentor a lot of minoritized individuals. We’re a more diverse community than the wider Portland and Oregon area, so we’re making ground. I haven’t yet been involved with any BLM organisations at all: I want to make the community in which I live and work – i.e. the scientific community – better. That’s where I can probably do the most good.

4. Do you think that there is a risk of BLM already fading in terms of volume and awareness?
Some of us have been screaming about this for years, and right now I’m just really happy that it’s caught on in mainstream culture. We can scream and yell and shout, which has been happening this whole time, but we can’t shout away bullets. Right now, I have a little bit of hope…I’ve recently seen more substantial change in people’s mindsets compared to any other killing (and there’s been a lot of killings in the last ten years). The new wave of protests have also empowered a lot of people, including myself, to speak up and speak out. I have hope that there’s a shift but there’s this systemic racism that does not treat our bodies as our own. To the police, that guy’s body wasn’t his. It’s hard to hear stories like that in the media. Black people are gaslighted their entire lives and have just learned to be quiet. There’s a lot of reasons why people are less vocal about this. It’s not like this is new.

5. Do you think it is harder for black people to succeed in academia?
Yes, I do think it is harder for minoritized individuals in academia to succeed. Sadly, academia is not a meritocracy, and even if it were, there would still be issues with equity. Academia is a part of the systemic racism that plagues the United States and this can be seen from a number of different measures. Who gets funded, who gets faculty positions, where you get published, who gets into graduate school and where you get into graduate school. All of these factors determine your success in academia, and all of these factors are influenced by systematic racism.

5a. When you say that academia is not meritocratic, do you mean that literally, or in terms of its treatment of BIPOC scientists?
I mean both. Science has always been about who you know, who you’ve worked for, and for BIPOC scientists that’s even more of a double-edged sword. People will always be biased, so for as long as science is a human endeavour, that bias will be there. There’s a hill to climb for BIPOC students that other students don’t have to…the opportunities simply aren’t there. I was very, very, lucky in the institutions I attended, but not everybody was. That’s another sticking point – if you don’t have access to those elite institutions, you can’t break that door down.

6. Do you think that the lack of widespread BIPOC role models places greater strain on black academics?
Absolutely. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Simple as that.

6a. Do you think this affects student/postdoc progression in academia?
You know, I never had a black professor or an out gay professor. I still vividly remember walking into Northwestern University. It’s a beautiful campus…looks like a cathedral, just beautiful. I remember walking into a building there and seeing white face after white face after white face. If I don’t see people that look like me, how can I pursue what my dreams are? You sometimes need to see someone that looks like you to make you believe you can do it. There were dark times in both my postdoc and grad school when it was difficult to carry on. If there had been someone I could look to that would have made that walk along the hall that much easier.

7. What would you advise people who don’t have available role models to do?
I would advise people to look around in a different institution, find someone you can have a relationship with outside your institution if there isn’t one there.

8. Have you ever personally experienced racism in an academic context?
Yes, I have. I have experienced the more insidious covert type of racism. Microaggressions, that make you even question whether it even happened. That makes you constantly question your own abilities and makes you doubt yourself.

8a. Could you possibly elaborate a bit on the kind of racism you encountered?
At the beginning of my career I was a head-down-and-trying-not-to-pay-attention-to-things kind of person, but that can only take you so far. As a person you can only take so much of that. When I started to look up and realise what was happening, there were cases. I had someone once call me “boy” in an elevator. Just in case any readers are unaware of the history, this is not a term of endearment. Calling a grown man “boy” harkens back to the Jim Crow South, and is an extremely loaded term.

But that’s easier to deal with than the unconscious bias and the covert racism that’s around. I remember one of my first weeks in Portland I was wearing a Reed shirt and was getting a beer in a bar really close to campus. Some guy from the community started a conversation and I told him I worked at Reed. I intentionally don’t tell people what I do at Reed, sometimes I want to see where this is going to go, and I shouldn’t have to wear my resume on my sleeve. So I didn’t say I was an assistant professor…and then he asked if I was the football coach. It’s just those little assumptions, as if I couldn’t actually be a professor there. It’s still malicious. It tells you that I see you and all I see is that category of person. The way I look to you, you can only assume that I must be some kind of sports coach. It’s subtle, it seems like a passing comment, but those little barbs do tear at you…it’s death by a thousand cuts. Maybe I asked for it because I didn’t explain, but maybe I shouldn’t have to explain.

Another instance. I am gay, and my partner is an anaesthesiologist. As a partner you are forced into situations where you’ve having to converse with people from your partner’s work. I have been compelled to wear my resume on my sleeve to have entry into such conversations. Having to wear my resume on my sleeve and announce to everyone “Hey, I’m an academic, I’m smart, this is what I do” is…I shouldn’t have to go around telling everyone I have a PhD in order to be respected, but this is a situation I have been in a thousand times.

9. Do you think racism in academia is a taboo subject? If so, what could be done to change that?
I think in the past it has been a taboo subject. I think we are past that now, and if we are going to address it, we need to be direct and confront it head on. It is not enough to be race neutral. If we are going to improve the climate in academia, we have to be anti-racist. We have to look at the very structure that academia is built on and begin to dismantle it. BIPOC scientists need to be funded, published, and hired. There should not be a single editorial board, department, symposium, or grant funding panel without multiple BIPOC scientists involved. Our voices should be elevated and amplified. These are lofty goals, but we can start by just giving BIPOC scientists the opportunities that have been given to our counterparts for years.

10. Do you think there is a generational difference in academia in terms of attitude to race?
Yes, but I also think people who are open can learn. I have an older colleague who has been fighting the good fight and I have been surprised by how passionate he is. We are scientists. Our job is to read, learn, and test. Racism is like any other problem we encounter as scientists. If we read, learn, listen, and test we can change course as we would with new evidence and data.

11. Do you think people acquire more bias as they move up the career ladder?
I think there were many, many people who just felt…this old fallacy about science being a meritocracy, and the cream (laughter) rises to the top. Academia is liberal in general, but some of these fallacies are very troubling. This idea that we can remove our identities from our science…as if science is some kind of holy process. It’s not so much that the older generation is biased, it’s rather that there are some troubling fallacies that they have subscribed to, and the way they play out causes bias and discrimination and racism. I’ve interacted with a few older scientists and I have been pleasantly surprised by many of them shouting their opinions and actively learning and reading. As long as people treat the issues of equality as a problem to be solved, like any other scientific problem that we solve, that gives me hope.

11a. Do you find it easy to bring up these issues at work?
I think it’s becoming more and more something I can talk about. For the longest time I sat on my hands and kept my mouth shut because I just wanted a job and I was prepared to endure. But more and more I’m emboldened by younger people….I’ve never had the space to feel that I…I’m more comfortable saying this is what I’ve seen and this is what I’ve experienced. Being quiet is being complicit, and I guess I was allowing things to happen by not speaking up as I should. It’s a catch-22 because I was afraid that I would not get tenure, get the job, and so what’s more important?

11b. Sometimes if you raise an issue it’s a choice between leaving, or staying under suffrage. But now with BLM, do you think you are more free to talk?
A real problem with equity and race is that someone can’t be the only voice in the room, there need to be a number of minority voices in the room. There’s a diversity of people of color, and no one person can represent a group. It’s also not enough to have people in the room, you have to have a network of support, you have to create an environment in which that person can succeed. Otherwise people will just say, “Oh look we hired him, but he couldn’t do it so he wasn’t good enough.”

12. What positive actions could academics take to make a difference?
Listen to BIPOC scientists. Fund BIPOC scientists. Publish and cite BIPOC scientists. Hire BIPOC scientists.

13. What do you think early career researchers (PhDs, postdocs, young group leaders) could do?
I would say the most important thing is to be yourself and be who you are. I think again it’s really important to have representation and for students to see that. Being a person of color and being honest and true about it is something really powerful to see.

14. What positive actions could institutions take to make a difference?
Hire BIPOC scientists, and not just one token individual. Support them once they get into the department, mentor them, and help them to succeed. Change the environment, which starts at the top, and have zero tolerance for destructive behavior.

15. Do you think some kind of Truth and Reconciliation meeting, similar to that run by South Africa after the end of Apartheid, is something that could be productive? An in-house symposium that gave BIPOC scientists a platform to discuss their experiences with their current colleagues?
The difference between South Africa and the USA is that they had a moment where they acknowledged the issue. I love the idea of science having that moment but I don’t think the USA is there yet as a country. The Confederacy lasted four years…Obama was in office for twice as long as the Confederacy existed! Yet we only just got rid of the last Confederate emblem on an official USA state flag in 2020 over in Mississippi. Obviously it’s not just about the Confederacy…the Confederacy is racism. People cling to it. It became a symbol of racism. We would not have those statues erected if they were not symbols of hatred and suppression.
16. What can be done to keep this issue at the forefront of the discussion in academia?
Keep talking about BLM. Don’t let this fade from the forefront of our minds. Commit to changing the culture and following through with concrete, tangible plans. Change hiring practices and bring more diverse people to the table, see who’s on review boards for grants and who’s giving talks. Being conscious of increasing diversity and equity at all levels will automatically keep those issues at the forefront.

16a. Do you know any unis that are doing this actively?
Yes, there’s a lot. The University of California is using lots of methods to increase diversity in their students and faculty. One way was that they prioritised people’s diversity statements in hiring decision – so they looked at those first. Just by shifting that emphasis, they increased their diversity by far. That’s a great example of how placing a greater emphasis on people interested in diversity had the effect of actually increasing diversity. Here at Reed, our office of Institutional Diversity has increased its presence on campus and has worked through a number of avenues to be more supportive to the students and faculty alike. The single most important thing it has done has been increasing the diversity of faculty and staff. I can imagine people elsewhere are taking a look at their department pictures and realising they haven’t done a good job. Students are doing a good job too – they are increasingly picking more diverse faculties and choosing things that have more value to them than previous generations.

17. In the UK they have the race charter which essentially ranks universities based on race. Is there anything similar in the USA?
The Chronicle of Higher Education had a report card and went through all the higher education institutions and gave them grades. This kind of thing does exist and you can find the information. Most of the elite schools are failing and that’s not surprising at all. It’s not as prominent as it should be.

Because that can help students find schools where they want to go?

A big thanks to Derek for taking the time to discuss these issues with us. Do please leave a comment if there is anything you would like to add to the discussion.

4 thoughts on “Black Lives Matter – an interview with Professor Derek Applewhite

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