Reddit AMA Gives Peek Into the Challenges of Racial Bias in the STEM Field

October 3rd 2016

Aron Macarow

Most people are familiar with the phrase "driving while black." 

The hashtag refers to the specific fears of police harassment harassment felt by black people while behind the wheel. 

But what about "doing science while black"? 

That's exactly the conversation around bias within science, technology, engineering, and math fields — collectively known as STEM — that Dr. Ed Smith, a native of Sierra Leone who now teaches in the U.S., attempted to raise in an essay published in Science Magazine this week. 

He explains, "[T]he differences between my experiences on the two continents also serve as a depressing reminder that a U.S. Ph.D. and passport do not shield me from the realities of being a black scientist in a white world, where I rely on one-liners such as 'doing science while black' or 'leading while black' to communicate the complexities of my circumstances."

Describing multiple incidents in which racial bias has informed his experience as a scientist, it's easy to see what Smith means. In one case, he was greeted with what he describes as uncomfortable silence on entering a room as the only black scientist at an industry-related social event. In another instance, Smith relates how he was assumed to be a delivery person, rather than a fellow colleague: 

"The next year, as I was starting a sabbatical in a lab at another institution, I asked one of the researchers in the group whether the principal investigator was in. 'Are you delivering a package?' he asked. 'I can pass it on to him.' These and other encounters imply that, no matter how productive my research is or how professionally I present myself, I and other black scientists do not belong in academia's hallowed halls."

But Smith is not alone in his experiences.

Redditors continued the conversation though a candid Reddit #AskMeAnything (AMA) session. Four leading black scientists and researchers participated, answering questions about "how implicit bias is manifest in the sciences (for example, in peer review, in accepting articles for publication, in promoting people to leadership positions), how individuals can identify and overcome bias, and how institutions can put smart policies in place to minimize the impact of implicit bias." 

In one particular exchange, one of the scientists explained how higher education institutions must go beyond admissions policies in ensuring that minority students succeed in STEM fields. 

Reddit AMA screenshot

The initial question echoed a sentiment voiced by deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who argued that Affirmative Action in college admissions was in some way harmful to minority students, because it granted them admission to universities where they would struggle to keep up with their peers. 

Scalia said: 

“There are – there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to ­­ to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­-advanced school, a less – a slower-track school where they do well.
“One of – one of the briefs pointed out that – that most of the – most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re – that they’re being pushed ahead in – in classes that are too ­­ too fast for them.”

The scientist's response in the AMA explains that, while minority students who come from poorly funded public high schools may struggle in undergrad compared to more privileged peers, that doesn't necessarily mean they will not benefit from the access to prestigious universities provided by affirmative action. As he noted, "Since I received by PhD, no one has asked about my undergrad GPA."

Read the full thread here

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