Why privilege should be part of our conversations as natural scientists?
Updated: May 9, 2020
During my years as an undergraduate student I noticed that different sciences have been moving forward to do more interdisciplinary work and because of this movement, I had the opportunity to work with amazing scientists that redirect the traditional scientific perspective and integrate it with other disciplines. I think this is amazing! My perspective on science is that science aims to understand the different components about life, but life does not only work in one direction. Because of this reason, we, as scientists, have been collaborating and developing new questions with different perspectives. As a result, we have been able to expand our knowledge on how to improve the way we address research questions.
While adopting an interdisciplinary method, which includes collaboration and a necessity to include other people from different backgrounds, we still need to address diversity from a standpoint of equity. One way to approach diversity through the lens of equity is to promote inclusivity by providing resources and safe spaces (spaces that are open and flexible to address everyone’s uniqueness and necessities by promoting values such as respect and justice) for minorities (people outside of assumed and socially acceptable normativity of a particular group).
Science is conducted by humans that live multiple realities and the interactions of these is different for everybody. These realities include for instance, having to take care of your family, leaving your country of birth, learning new economic background, dealing with different education styles, speaking a different language, managing the cultural impact, etc. All of which constitute the human being. While academic institutions or government agencies like to focus on bringing more diversity, a lot of these organizations do not provide the tools for minorities to navigate new realities. Without these tools, the entity that once was trying to be more diverse, now is more exclusive. This exclusivity can lead to some communities having more advantages and privileges (things, events, and/or opportunities that allow some communities (1) to be where they are at today and which are not the same or accessible for everybody) than others, an issue that affects the dynamics and accessibility of resources for everybody. The situation becomes more problematic when it is noticed that this is not only happening in institutions, but in disciplines too. So why, in natural sciences, are we lacking to talk about social issues like privilege, even if it is directly affecting us too?
Based on my experience as a Latina Ph.D. student that works in natural sciences, I have experienced how conversations about these social issues do not come “naturally” in the field and when they are mentioned, people get really uncomfortable. But why do people feel this discomfort and avoid talking about these issues?The scientific movement that targets collaboration as one of the goals is not only about different natural sciences disciplines working together and exchanging ideas, but we need to reach other kind of disciplines (such as art, psychology, social sciences, communication and politics) as well as incorporate other realities too. The integration of these fields and realities does not only provide different understandings, but also provides opportunities to find or create a bridge for understanding. While a lot of scientist have been working on addressing and recognizing the discrepancy of resources, there is a necessity to reinforce it and, moreover, there is a bigger necessity to talk about the issues that come with the impact of the interactions of these realities.
Why is it important to talk about privilege? Why does it matter?
As institutions keep providing spaces for minorities, we need to talk about privileges. This type of advantages is present in every field and area, like politics, economics and natural sciences. In natural sciences, when we talk about privilege, we acknowledge that our realities are different and by recognizing these differences we can start addressing the problem and do something about it. In this article, what I propose is a starting point on talking about these issues by recognizing that minorities need not only space, but also tools that eliminate injustice and impartiality. Conversations about privilege can provide opportunities to reflect and recognize oppression. For example, in my experience, some of the big common oppressions that I currently face are a Caucasian man dominating the conversation, how privileged groups create the standard norms without even evaluating other cultures and their norms, the separation of science and community, language and more. At the end, the conversation and reflection on these privileges can provide insights to understand these other realities.
The power and knowledge that comes from acknowledging privileges can provide a multitude of perspectives that were previously not considerated, providing other explanations and understanding. Talking about privileges make us better researchers because it fulfills gaps of misconceptions and provide us with a better mindset of life. As an example, it is important to acknowledge that just having a lighter skin color or identifying with a heteronormative gender makes a person less probable to be killed while you walk to your home from your lab. This is a reality that we as minorities live.
How does privilege/oppression impact the natural sciences?
Until 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) showed that US underrepresented minorities in natural sciences occupy around 21.6% in bachelors, 13.2% in masters and 8.8% in doctorate positions (2). NSF defines underrepresented minorities as woman and/or man with racial and ethnic groups. I ask myself where the non-heteronormative communities in these percentages are? …
How did I notice that I am oppressed?
At the time that I was starting my undergrad, the society let me know right away that I was oppressed when I filled all the minority boxes that I taught that existed:
Let’s think about this for a second.
While I was developing myself as I scientist, I never taught that the social margins that I live with were going to be a problem. Why? Because I was living in the intersection: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a Latin American nation, with Spanish as the official language and a shared history of Spanish colonization with other Latin American countries. Moreover, Puerto Rico is also the oldest colony of the world, being technically part of the USA as their territory, but not fully because we are not a state and we cannot vote for the presidential campaign. Although, we have the “American” citizenship. Puerto Rico is defined as a commonwealth, but we need USA permission for most of the actions done in the island. Everything that happens in the USA fully affects us, but we do not have a say in decision-making situations.
Like any other nation, in Puerto Rico racism is very real. I have never, consciously, encountered any situation that put my safety at risk, but I do remember one member of my family telling me that I was not allowed to date black men. “Why?” I asked this person constantly and the answer was “it is just not pretty”. Moreover, I remember as a child the comments of external people said about the variety of skin tones that my sisters and I have, telling that I was the adopted one (since I am “the brown” one). I always took these as a joke and never reflected on it as racism, but these types of jokes are integrated to our consciousness and limit our options.
For example, in my early twenties, I was being discriminated for my type of hair. I remember one time I was trying to be accepted in an association and they rejected me from the beginning. As persistent as I am, I left my resume in their desk and once they read it, they wanted me in. After a few years, they told me that they said “no” to me at the beginning because I did not look “professional”. “What do you mean?” -I asked. “Your hair is very messy”. That situation was very sad, because if I did not know that I was very competent, I would had never left my resume and would have never gotten the opportunity. Let me clarify, my hair type does not follow neither straight Caucasian standard, nor the black curvy hair that is most common in African descendent communities, so I carry a privilege in this aspect, and I have to recognize it.
This type of situation raises the question about the concept of professionalism and why this was associated with my physical attributes or social class. Why is my type of hair being evaluated as part of my professionalism? Is there a type of hair that suggests more professionalism? Are the assertions of professionalism are based on privilege? Based on my experience, I could say yes!
When I left the island to pursue my current Ph.D. degree, another interaction with my unprivileged/oppressed side was with my language. This is one of the things that I still struggle the most. Right now, to be “normally” successful in science, you need to speak English. Let me repeat that! To be able to participate in a lot of scientific opportunities or just be able to access some resources (like reading most of the scientific articles, apply for most PhDs/scholarships/internships and talk to other scientists) you need to know English. Now… how hard is to learn a new language and have to translate everything in your head, everyday? We can ask that to all the people that took 2 years of Spanish and did not learn it. I don’t blame them, languages are a really hard thing to learn. But imagine that one of the steps that you have to do to get a little bit more access to your dreams is learning a whole new language. A lot of people do it, but…it should not be a requirement for scientific success.
Even though Puerto Rico’s second language is English, the access and resources for having a good English class are still not equal to all the people in different parts of the island. Most of boricuas around the island are not fluent English speakers, while the majority of the ones that do are close to the cities. I could keep talking about all the other intersections that I live through every day and that step me back, not because my culture, ethnicity, gender or skin color are wrong, but because society and the system are not really design to be truly inclusive.
How did I notice that I am privileged?
As a person that lives in the margins of a lot of oppressions, I also have to recognize that I have more privileges than others. Being honest, if you are in the academia, you have privilege, even if it is a small one. Since little, I remember having resources that helped me to succeed. This does not mean that my family was rich, but I have to recognize that I always had food, I always had somebody to pick me up from school and I always had parents that did everything that they could to provide me with a good education. No matter what, I did not worry in my entire life about surviving, because my basic needs were always covered and not a lot of people actually have that. With that said, I also did not only have resources, but I had the support of my family and they never doubted my potential. Believe it! This is also a huge privilege! Not only my family was very supportive, my mentors were as well. Most of the time, I had mentors that gave the extra mile so I could get a scholarship, an internship, or into grad school. Having so much support is a privilege. Why is this a privilege? Simple, it can make a great difference in terms on getting the opportunity that you want.
Another privilege that I have to mention is having an “American” citizenship. The historical relationships between the USA and Puerto Rico have not been the greatest and this does not mean that Puerto Ricans do not suffer from racism and xenophobia in the USA, but it is a relief that I can protest and manifest myself talking about science in this country (USA) without fearing that I can get deported. This is a privilege!
There are other privileges that I have, like being cis-heteronormative or the education that allows me to be here. Overall, my goal with this section is to communicate that even as I am brown Latina woman in natural sciences, I have to recognize that I do have some privileges that lead me where I am right now.
What can I do with my privileges? What do we do with this information?
As a person that has some privileges, one of the best things that we can do as allies is to recognize that we do have privileges. Acknowledging our privileges does not neglect the struggles that we encounter in life since “everyone experiences privileges and oppression simultaneously”. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that our struggles are not the same.
As a privileged person, when I am with somebody that suffers with a different type of oppression that I have not lived, the first thing that I do is truly listen. Truly listening means to actually listen, without developing an argument while this person is talking, but internalizing what they are saying. With that in mind, I never try to be the hero of the situation. I cannot fix a problem that I have not had a full understanding of it, because I have not lived it. As an ally, you can ask: What can I do to help you? Yet, if you do not get a concrete answer, that is okay. You can look information about the situation; educate yourself about how people with certain privileges have become allies. As my own personal advice, one of the best things that you can do as an ally is to talk about these issues in your own community.
How can I apply this to the natural sciences?
As I hope, while we have been reading this article, we have been also asking ourselves what type of privileges we have and, therefore, what we can do to make our workspace more inclusive and equal. As we reflect about these, some of the things that we can do are:
In a discussion and/or conversation, let everybody be heard and truly listen to everyone.
Learn that you do not have to speak for others if you do not really understand the situation or you have not lived it.
Learn that you do not have to be right all the times. Let your ego aside when somebody is explaining to you why your perspective is ignoring other realities.
Do not let oppressed communities do all the work for you. Look for reliable resources, educate yourself and contribute, respectfully, to the conversation about privileges.
Do not assume.
If you see and/or live an unfair situation regarding to privileges (like racism, xenophobia, misogyny and more), speak up if it is safe!
Do not try to be the hero.
Do your research. Why these kinds of privileges still happening?
This workload is shared
Privileged communities cannot expect that us, minorities, tell you every time what to do. Why? Minorities are in positions of oppression and a lot of times, talking about these issues is our burden, because we do not have safe spaces to do it. If we do talk about these problems, this is a risk that we take. Take as example, an undocumented person talking about the immigration laws in a forum. The risk that this person has as identifying as undocumented is that they can get deported instantly.
Learning about our privileges and what to do with them is a work that everybody should be on board. As exhausting as it is to be constantly reflecting and being wrong, true learning is not static and comes also from experiences, not only facts. Natural sciences are a tool that we use to communicate knowledge. Why not use it to be better humans too?
Communities= group of people that have similarities.