Racism in academia – an interview with Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe

In the latest instalment of our series on racism in academia, we spoke to Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe.

Izzy is a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK), working on super-resolution microscopy with a particular focus on how it can be applied to cardiovascular biology. Originally from Sri Lanka, Izzy did both undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University Of Auckland (NZ), postdoctoral work at the University of Queensland (Australia) and University of Exeter (UK), before taking a lecturer position at the University of Leeds (UK). She joined the University of Sheffield in 2020. 

1. You spoke in our MySciMoment posting about what got you interested in science, but what was the moment when you realised this was something you could turn into a career? Did you ever question that you could turn your interest into a career?

Around the start of my university (undergraduate) education, I had a distant hope that I would have at least a passing opportunity to contribute to an original piece of research. However, I always had doubts that I would be good enough for a more sustainable career in science. So, every step I took from undergraduate studies to a postdoc was on the sensible advice of mentors and more senior colleagues. I always expected that I would eventually stumble and be forced into retraining in a ‘safer’ career path. It was during my second postdoctoral stint where I started to think further ahead and develop a desire to establish my own independent research interests. I secured my first academic position in Leeds six years ago. While that felt like a big step forward, I have continued to have doubts about how sustainable this career path is. Pressure to secure funding, high workloads, poor work/life balance and mixed experiences in ‘fitting in’ have made me frequently think about leaving this industry.

2. Moving from Sri Lanka to New Zealand must have been an enormous change for you. Was it difficult? Of the various moves you’ve done, what was the hardest relocation, and why?

I moved from Sri Lanka to New Zealand with my family. It was a shared journey, so it was nice to experience that culture shock together. At the same time, I was not very close with my parents then. They knew that I was transgender from my early childhood and had attempted in various ways to ‘correct’ me. So, for a while, I did not appreciate the idea of going on a long journey together with them. At the same time, New Zealand was a very liberal, diverse, and inclusive society. Moving there set me free in so many ways.

The hardest relocation was moving from Australia to the UK. Australia has a reputation as a society riddled with racism, but it was so striking to experience racial abuse at a much higher intensity and frequency in England. Since this was my third relocation, the flying, the border security, and the administrative burden had become rather predictable. It was the passive-aggressive hostility (and sometimes direct threats of violence) that were truly exhausting. For the first 2-3 years that we lived here, my only friends were colleagues that I worked closely with. Until we made friends who shared similar values and were willing to socialise with us, the UK was a lonely place to be.

Professionally, moving to the UK has been a truly uplifting experience. Being in a real hub for cutting-edge science, particularly in interdisciplinary research areas, has really accelerated my research, and connecting with like-minded researchers has become much easier. Ultimately, this is what I hoped to achieve for myself by travelling to the UK, so these gains have helped me stay positive and overcome hostile situations.

3. You’ve worked in a number of different academic institutions in a number of different countries. Based on that experience, what kind of things are universities getting right when it comes to the issue of racism?

My alma mater, the University of Auckland, has been leaps and bounds ahead on positive action to promote racial diversity, compared to so many other universities that I have either worked in or observed. For example, they ring-fenced a minimum number of enrolment positions in certain undergraduate programmes for Māori and Pacific islander students who have low attainment rates in higher education. They have been running a programme called the Whakapiki Ake Project which took direct action to engage and encourage Māori students in secondary school to apply and enter university programmes mapped against healthcare careers such as medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and other health professions. Not only has this helped broaden diversity within the student population, it has also empowered Māori and Pacific islander communities to take leadership in a health sector that has historically marginalised them. 

Auckland has also had a good access programme which prioritised minoritised ethnic groups who experience financial hardships. In 2003, when I enrolled in my BSc degree, both my parents were unemployed. While access to interest-free student loans is excellent in New Zealand, there were other costs (e.g. commuting, textbooks, and a laptop PC) that I could not afford. A $1000/year Access award that I was granted helped me offset some of those costs, particularly at the beginning of the academic year.

In the 8 years that I spent in the University of Auckland, I never felt conscious or uncomfortable about my race or heritage. It was quite the opposite; there were so many opportunities to exchange our cultural experiences. My department generally had great racial diversity; and that diversity was always viewed as a strength and a matter of pride.

4. And where could they do better? Is there any policy or approach that you’ve seen in one institution that you wish would be more widely adopted?

Most universities that I have worked in have done poorly on the issue of racism and have been ill-equipped to take any action. I think it is critical that there is an organisational effort to educate every employee and student on what racism is, how to tackle it, and adopt a policy of zero tolerance. There are many institutions adopting unconscious bias training as an alternative; however, anti-racism training needs to be a separate and a more targeted effort. 

Secondly, university (or departmental) leaderships must champion the effort to stamp out racism from the workplace. Time and time again, I have seen silencing or confidentiality being used as a strategy to remove or suppress any perception of racism. Leaders need to realise that the correct way to deal with racism (whether they are racist incidents, racist practices, or a workplace culture embedded in racism) is through speaking openly and by collective reconciliation. These approaches are the only path to lasting harmony. 

Finally, I do endorse the idea of a minimum representation quota in student enrolments (similar to that of the University of Auckland above) and scholarships. It may be unpopular at first, but Auckland has demonstrated how such a system can be the starting point to building much greater diversity and true equality.

5. Have you experienced overt racism or prejudice in the workplace?

In one university that I worked in, I reported racial abuse that I experienced from a postgraduate student who wanted to advise me on eugenic theories linking race and intelligence. It was clear that the senior members of the department had no understanding of what they could do in that situation other than instruct me to keep it to myself. In another institution, I was once summoned by a senior officer to his office and was forced to listen to a series of threats, which included references to my skin colour and appearance, for refusing to volunteer a lecture to a PhD student cohort that he managed.

Less overt (but similarly scarring) examples include being repeatedly overlooked in promotion applications despite meeting all the criteria and being tasked with large administrative roles that other (predominantly white) colleagues of the faculty did not want to undertake. My line-manager in my previous workplace resented my level of productivity in my research. She rarely acknowledged my research contributions and was determined to take away my research time. Eventually, when I secured a large research grant which bought out my time for more focused research, she refused to relieve me of my teaching and administrative duties. When I spoke to the union, it appeared that she had a track record of bullying colleagues from ethnic minorities into taking on high teaching or administrative workloads. To me, this was symptomatic of institutional racism that, at its core, works to deny career progression opportunities to people of colour.

6. What kind of microaggressions, even unconscious ones, have you commonly encountered at the various places you’ve worked? What kind of things can we all encourage our colleagues to stop doing? (Or start doing?)

Being transgender and a woman with dark skin means that I experience microaggressions of virtually every conceivable shape and form. Being misgendered, dead-named, scoffed at, spoken-over and belittled have all been a part of it. Microaggressions with clearer racial undertones have typically ranged from backhanded compliments on my language skills to small talk such as, “Where are you really from?” or dismissing my experiences as, “Oh, it’s not that bad” or “Are you sure this was about you?”. These are types of comments (better known as microaggressions) which I find really irritating and, depending on the situation, quite hurtful.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet against microaggression or unconscious bias. I have suffered micro- (and even macro-) aggressions at the hands of colleagues who otherwise have been advocates of equality, diversity, and inclusion. It is really difficult to predict, and therefore educate, the aggressors in a consistent manner. The only strategy that I found helpful is having allies and/or bystanders who could observe, identify and actively intervene in such situations. In that sense any organisational efforts that promote allyship, active-bystander trainings and stamp out bullying, harassment and intimidation would be really useful.

7. The BLM movement pushed the issue of racism to the forefront of the political debate, and a lot of pledges were made by academic institutions in 2020. To what extent do you think those pledges are being kept?

My impression is that nearly 100% of the academic institutions in the UK that pledged support to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have fallen short. There has definitely been more progress compared to previous years however, including active and open discussions on institutional racism with regards to funding, employment and promotions. We have also seen some marginal improvements in the exposure given to the voices of people of colour in this industry, as well as institutional or departmental conversations around de-colonising the curriculum. 

However, the past 1 ½ years have also been detrimental to Black and other minority races. Shortly after the UKRI, the UK’s primary funding agency, pledged support to the BLM movement, they ran a special funding round for research connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, and no Black researchers were funded through it. More systematic research shows that women, and especially Black women, struggled (and are still struggling) to meet expectations on publishing and funding applications during the pandemic. Many universities have also chosen to either impose hiring freezes and/or not renew the fixed-term contracts of many junior or teaching staff members – a larger proportion of whom were people of colour. In the UK, there has also been a government-led backlash against universities that refuse a platform for hate speech or report harassment. There will soon be a penalty system (including legal ramifications under the pretence of protecting ‘free speech’) for universities who look to curb racist speech on campus.

I find this disappointing because BLM has been an urgent call for positive change; yet both the pace of change has been slow, at best. Others who may be less idealistic may say that some progress is better than no progress, however my disappointment remains.

8. Do you believe academia is a meritocracy? 

Of course not. Academia is a framework which defines merit or ‘excellence’ in a narrow way and then rewards anybody who scores well within those criteria. There may be a correlation between the skills, the achievements and the potential of researchers and these criteria (a phenomenon described as the “Matthew effect”), however it is so often unkind to those who deviate from the traditional types of achievements. These criteria can also, quite consistently, exclude certain demographics (women, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities) from even being considered. My own experience is that it is marginalised identities or individuals (including people of colour) who get overlooked this way. As a new principal investigator, it took me nine failed attempts before I secured my first research fellowship. The diminishing success rates in research funding for ethnic minorities (evidenced in the data released by the UKRI over the past two years) were entirely unsurprising to me.

9. How does academia exclude people of colour? What could be done to address this?

There are numerous ways in which academia excludes people of colour. Access to undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and funding in many universities still appear to be disproportionately lower for students of ethnic minorities (despite schemes like ‘Widening Participation’ which are meant to boost the chances of marginalised people, but are often seen as a bane by university administrators). Poor access to PhD scholarships (and often active exclusion of international students who tend to be PoC), poor recruitment rates and poor success at interviews, being overlooked for research funding and from promotions are all mechanisms of exclusion.

In brief, all of these systems require some degree of reform. Redefining academic success or ‘excellence’, implementing minimum quotas and retraining or revamping leadership structures in order to implement anti-racist strategies would catalyse some meaningful change. It is also important that such change is monitored and assessed by an independent entity. Institutional racism is ingrained into the fabric of the higher education and research sector, so any process that lacks independent oversight will revert back to either ineffective half-measures or opaque and exclusionary governing policies in universities.

10. Our last interviewee in this series, Crystal Rogers, pointed out that the last administration in the USA brought out a lot of ugliness that was previously hidden under the surface. In the UK, do you think racism has become more visible post-Brexit?

Brexit has indeed very much boosted anti-European racism but I believe it is the BLM movement and the volatile nature of the pandemic period that have boosted racism against people of colour. Racism has become more visible because BLM has sparked more open conversations about it and, in the UK, it has ignited a very significant anti-BLM backlash. This is also not helped by a gradual but definite lurch in the media outlets towards right-wing politics and their increasing willingness to normalise racist rhetoric. Media outlets such as the BBC and the Guardian that have classically been academically inclined (or at least evidence-based) in their journalism have now opted for sensationalism. So, the media is at least partly responsible for the greater visibility and greater normalisation of racist language in the UK. 

11. During the European Championships, members of the British government refused to condemn people for booing the England football team taking a knee before their games. Yet they were quick to denounce racism in the aftermath of the penalty shootout loss. What were your feelings about this?

It was entirely unsurprising to me because we live in an era where populism trumps the truth (no pun intended). This means that if there is popularity to be gained or attention to be grabbed, people or organisations which perpetuate racism can briefly appear sympathetic to the victims. I am a great believer that institutions like governments or universities should be judged both on their individual actions as well as long-term conduct. So, it is really important that we constantly think critically and reflect deeply whenever we see inconsistent language or statements around topics such as racism.

Of course, I am distressed to see this from the highest institutions of the country, but I also feel determined to keep challenging such behaviours (a) by speaking out, and (b) by continuing to exist.

12. For all their flaws, academic institutions are generally recognised as being more tolerant and inclusive than a lot of other societal structures. What do you think all academics could do to promote a more racially tolerant society?

It is true that academic institutions can be safe havens for marginalised minorities – perhaps one of the reasons that I have remained in academia. At this point in time, academics have a responsibility (and a real opportunity) to model the harmonious and inclusive society that we want to see in the future. This means taking a firm stand on core values embedded in principles of equality, fairness, and inclusivity. Academics should also demonstrate how balanced debates can still (and must) be had whilst uniformly condemning bigotry – which includes racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. We can model how a community can be educated and unified without descending into conflict and violence. In the same way, we must exemplify how zero-tolerance of bigotry, bullying, and harassment could be achieved. 

13. Ben Barres spoke movingly about how his experience as a trans man had given him a rare perspective on sexism. As a trans person of colour, have you noticed any difference in the way that people have treated you in a racial context pre- and post-transition?

Yes, pre-transition (on occasions when I was male-presenting) I received threats of physical violence due to my skin colour, or for not engaging in unsolicited conversations. One of my pastimes has been walks and hikes with my partner (who is white Australian-British). Even in earlier days we used to get stared or frowned at for being a mixed-race couple. Post-transition, I observed many of the same reactions but also some changes: some for being a trans woman and some related to being a woman of colour. It is not unusual for men, or even white, cis women to speak over me. I was recently invited to a panel on International Women’s Day and when my turn came to explain my lived experiences, a more senior white female academic continued to interrupt and speak over me. 

Being out as trans however is a slightly more complicated experience, perhaps because society still believes it is a controversial subject. So much so, I often fear for my life when out in public spaces. I used to be a keen outdoor runner. These days, I would only feel comfortable about exercising outdoors in the early hours on weekends.

At work, I found that I had to educate many of my colleagues and friends about what being trans actually meant. Many of them simply had no idea on how to adapt and how to engage with me; the vast majority have been willing to listen and learn, however. Being absolutely clear about my expectations of them, my boundaries, and being open to questions (although I no longer offer such free education) perhaps helped them support me. 

Of course, outside of my academic bubble, life in the UK as an out trans woman is tough because of the endemic transphobia and the culturally-ingrained hate speech. Sadly, some of that transphobia comes from other women, or people of colour, who themselves are disenfranchised. So, being attacked, trolled, and abused for my transness either on social media or in day-to-day life (e.g. on public transport) is part of the ongoing struggle that I have simply had to accept.

14. Do you think it’s becoming easier to discuss the topic of race in academia? How would you encourage people to engage with this issue in their departments?

I think it has become both easier and harder to talk about race. In countries like the UK, the (white) mainstream are highly sensitised to allegations of racism, to an extent that any reference to racism can be taken as an accusation or, more commonly, a personal insult. Over the past few months, we have seen extraordinary levels of anger being ignited around even the mention of the words “race” or “racism”. On the other hand, movements like BLM and the concerted efforts to remove colonial symbols from universities (e.g. the Cecil Rhodes statues) have given us pause to have honest and unfiltered conversations about the lived experiences of marginalised races.

At the department level, there are numerous ways to engage with race equality and inclusion. Firstly, adopting anti-racist policies and a zero-tolerance approach to racism as part of the working culture are important. Reading groups that discuss modern literature about racism and its roots in academia are a great way to engage colleagues. Allied to this, focus groups and panels where colleagues and students can share unfiltered versions of their experiences and the leadership teams can listen and learn can be valuable. Implementing trainings on anti-racism and active-bystander guidance and adopting anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies will also help improve the safety for racial minorities in the work environment.

15. What would you recommend people do if they want to find out more about the topics we’ve discussed here? What can young scientists do to be effective allies?

Everybody should read more about the history of racism and colonialism. Authors like Reni Eddo-Lodge and Angela Saini are brilliant on this. It is also important to read about the fallacies around meritocracies. Robert H. Frank’s book, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” is very informative on this topic. 

We need to collectively and individually recognise that we are at an inflection point on the subject of race and therefore educate themselves on concepts such as privilege, marginalisation, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. There are so many online discussion events, conversations, blogs and articles written by academic colleagues who are championing racial equality. Young or old, everybody should set aside time to update their understanding and play their role in this positive change. 

Other postings in this series:

An interview with Professor Crystal Rogers

MySciMoment – BAME scientists share their inspirations

An interview with Professor Derek Applewhite

An interview with Dr. Calvin Tiengwe

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