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We Need to Talk

I have tried to write an introduction to this blog post a hundred different ways, but none of them quite convey what I need it to, so I’m just going to jump right in. In today’s post I am going to talk about racism. Racism in the lab, in academia, and in healthcare. I am writing this post from my perspective as a white person in solidarity with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) who have been oppressed for so long. I write this thoughtfully and genuinely, not to tick a box or to advertise our project in a positive light. I write this blog because it needs to be written, and read, and shared.


I first want to discuss racism in academia. Systemic racism affects many areas of academia including research publication, hiring, funding, committees, and overall representation. I have heard from BIPOC in our lab about the microaggressions they experience in their day to day lives as students and researchers. BIPOC have to work twice as hard, or arguably even more, to be heard and to be taken seriously in academic spaces (McCoy, 2020).


The most popular academic literature is written by white authors, and most publishers are white-owned (Ufheil, 2020). BIPOC also have a harder time receiving funding as most funding is awarded to white researchers (Weston, 2019). Across the board, BIPOC are underrepresented. When we look at white institutions, there is a shortage of BIPOC who work as faculty or staff, which makes the burden of “cultural taxation” weigh heavy on the few BIPOC that work in these institutions (Grollman, 2015). BIPOC who work as professors or in other academic positions often feel pressured to work harder to support and serve as role models for minority students, leading to exhaustion their white colleagues simply do not experience.

For many of us, myself included, this disproportionate representation is only now being realized. During one of our most recent lab meetings I listened as some of my co-workers shared what it is like to be stereotyped and discriminated against for having a name that does not sound white. My colleagues shared that they do not add certain languages they speak to their resumes, that they feel their non-white names bias employers, and that microagressions such as having someone touch their hair, without permission, has come to be expected. What’s more, these experiences are supported by research. Eaton et al. (2020) had professors read 8 CVs (curriculum vitae) which were identical except for the names which were changed to manipulate race and gender. The study found that the Black and Latinx CVs were rated as less competent, and less hirable.


The more I learn, the more I look at my bookshelf and recall the authors of landmark studies I know well, and notice a clear trend. This makes me think that I can start to intentionally read more books and articles written by BIPOC. Making that conscious effort to consume literature by more diverse authors is something small everyone can do, but I think it will make a big difference. This is our first step: to listen to the perspectives and stories of BIPOC, and then be intentional with our actions to change things for the better.


Next, I would like to discuss racism in healthcare, which is extremely relevant to the Tele-Rehab 2.0 project. One of the early thoughts I had when I started on the project is what virtual health could mean for Indigenous communities, who have been historically underserved by our healthcare system, and who continue to struggle today to access the same healthcare so many of us take for granted. BIPOC face disparities in healthcare at every level and suffer more than their white counterparts. Take the COVID-19 pandemic for example. BIPOC have the highest mortality rates despite being minorities (APM Research Lab, 2020). Even when BIPOC can access healthcare, it often takes twice as long, or more, for their concerns to be taken seriously. I’ve read that it takes BIPOC an average of three visits to their general practitioner before they are given a hospital referral for a suspected cancer diagnosis (Lyratzopoulos et al., 2012).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The healthcare system works against BIPOC in just about any way you can think of. An eye-opening example is that despite Black women having a lower to average rate of breast cancer compared to white women, they have a much higher death rate from this cancer (Richardson et al., 2016). Black women are also up to 5 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women (BBC, 2019). I could go on. There are many more statistics like these, and none of them are coincidental. They are the result of centuries of systemic racism. For these statistics to change, we need large-scale systemic change. Our research and learning is only the beginning.


I am grateful to work in the Rehab Robotics Lab. It is such an inclusive and diverse space, and I am lucky to have co-workers who are actively working towards anti-racism, both in the workplace and in their personal lives. As the Black Lives Matter movement has gained more traction, our lab and project team have been spending more time thinking about what systematic racism means, how it affects us and our work, and what we can do about it. In the last few weeks the lab has been sharing resources and having many productive conversations on the topic. Talking and educating ourselves is only the first step in the fight against racism. I’m writing this blog to keep the conversation going, spark new discussions, and help us move towards a better future.


I hope that this blog has been useful to you. I hope you have read it and reflected on what I have written. I hope you will talk about what I've said to your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and grocery store cashiers. I hope this piece was able to start a conversation for you, or to keep one going. For me, and for our lab, we plan to continue these conversations while we make a plan of action, and I ask the same of you. Continue to learn and grow, and then take some time to decide how you will make a difference. So far in our lab we have discussed a new awareness around the hiring process, reading literature from more diverse authors, and thinking about how our work can best help support BIPOC. I know that as we continue along, these changes will serve us well, and that they are just the beginning. Thank you for sharing in this part of our journey.


Until next time,

Emily


References


APM Research Lab. (2020, June 10). The color of coronavirus: COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity in the U.S.. https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race


BBC. (2019, September 7). Black women ‘five times more likely to die in childbirth’. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/stories-49607727/black-women-five-times-more-likely-to-die-in-childbirth


Eaton, A. A., Saunders, J. F., Jacobson, R. K., & West, K. (2020). How gender and race stereotypes impact the advancement of scholars in STEM: Professors’ biased evaluations of physics and biology post-doctoral candidates. Sex Roles, 82, 127-141. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01052-w


Grollman, E. A. (2015, December 15). Invisible Labor. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/12/15/column-about-exploitation-minority-scholars-academe


Lyratzopoulos, G., Neal, R. D., Barbiere, J. M., Rubin, G. P., & Abel, G. A. (2012). Variation in number of general practitioner consultations before hospital referral for cancer: findings from the 2010 National Cancer Patient Experience Survey in England. Lancet Oncology, 13, 353-65. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1470-2045(12)70041-4


McCoy, H. (2020, June 12). The life of a Black academic: Tired and terrorized. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/12/terror-many-black-academics-are-experiencing-has-left-them-absolutely-exhausted


Richardson, L. C., Henley, S. J., Miller, J. W., Massetti, G., & Thomas, C. C. (2016). Patterns and trends in age-specific Black-white differences in breast cancer incidence and mortality – United States, 1999–2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) 2016, 65, 1093-1098. http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6540a1


Ufheil, A. (2020, June 9). Most of your books were written by white people. 5280. https://www.5280.com/2020/06/most-of-your-books-were-written-by-white-people/


Weston, P. ( 2019, November 12). Ethnic minority academics less likely to get funding than white researchers. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/university-academics-ethnic-minorities-funding-grants-research-a9200316.html


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