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Seismology

What’s it like to be black in academia?

What’s it like to be black in academia?

Maria, a member of our ECS team, recently interviewed Professor Christopher Jackson from Imperial College, London, UK.

The idea of this interview arose after protests swept across the US, triggered by the murder of George Floyd. Resurfacing the recurring and unsolved issue of racial biases, these protests highlighted that fact that racial inequality is not only present in everyday life, but that it can also affect academia.

Chris is one of only two Black Professors in Earth Sciences in the UK. He regularly gives interviews and takes part in podcasts, conducts outreach in primary and secondary schools, and tweets (@seis_matters) about racial bias and discrimination in academia. He became a full Professor at 37 years, an incredible achievement in the UK academic system. After being in academia for over 16 years, he has achieved much but has unfortunately also experienced racism and discrimination.

In this interview, we wanted to know more about the Black community in academia, and specifically about the challenges that this community faces in accessing and thriving in education, and of the barriers to career progression and development.

 

Chris, tell me a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Derby, a small city in the industrial East Midlands of England. My parents, originally from the Caribbean (Jamaica and St Vincent), met in the UK in the late-60s, where they were both training to be nurses. I grew up in a very white city, in a very white neighbourhood, and went to a very white school. Growing up, I had an ease with being different in terms of skin colour, because I never really felt I was treated that differently or negatively. Looking back, there were a few incidents that were likely racially motivated. When I speak to my parents about racism, they tell me that it was standard in the late 60’s and 70’s. My Mum finds the current situation perplexing, asking why people are complaining about racism when for her, for much of her life, it happened so much that you became immune to it.

My Mum finds the current situation perplexing, asking why people are complaining about racism when for her, for much of her life, it happened so much that you became immune to it.

In your career, did you ever feel discriminated, e.g. overlooked for a promotion?
I became a full professor at the age of like 37. In the UK system, this is quite young. Objectively, it is hard to look at my career and say anything bad happened to me. I am in many, many ways very fortunate. I have had lots of good things happen to me. I can point those out, and count those up. I’d like to think that the bad things, some of which have or suspect have been motivated by racism, have not held me back in terms of the career progression. However, a friend of mine suggested to me that I could become a professor even earlier if I was white. This made me think. What opportunities have I missed out and what has been said about me, behind my back, because I am Black? On the other hand, there are things which are said to me that easily constitute racial microaggressions. When people say insulting things to me, I do not know if they are saying this because I actually did or said something wrong or because of racial biases.

 

Do you think that academia and Earth Sciences, in particular, manage this problem well?
No [Laughing]. I mean Earth Sciences, if you think about it, has a very deep and problematic colonial past, which it’s struggling to recognise and accept. Resources extraction has historically occurred in countries subject to colonial rule. Also, think about the way the academic system is set-up in terms of progression and recognition; in many countries, it requires you to publish in certain journals and achieve a set of poorly, poorly-conceived and handled metrics, many of which are implicitly biased against Black academics (many of whom work outside of the better-off Global North). Academia often encourages behaviour that does not really benefit from the sort of global view that should raise-up Black academics. Why would you get collaborators in Africa, unless you want to get something out of it to benefit you? I am not saying we are bad people. I am just saying the very structure of the academic system can encourage behaviours that are, to put it mildly, not great.

 

How can the Earth Science community help to improve the situation you just described?
I think we need to shift the focus from the individual to the collective. I think we need to redefine what is important in academia. Indeed, the behaviours needed to raise money to keep our institutions open and to keep our jobs might not be entirely consistent with addressing racial inequality or tackling racism. Do we really value making scientific breakthroughs and enriching human knowledge by sharing findings? Do we really want everyone involved in the scientific process? Or do we simply want more publications than our peers? Of course, we need to raise money, and we need a job to do science, but nobody is an island. We need to work with good people to do good science. It is expected of every Earth Scientist to write papers, proposals, do research, teach, publish more, and manage a group and a private life all, at the same time. We are supposed to be able to do all of these things, and we often do not have any training in any of them! Quite frankly, we often make things up as we go along. It is no wonder academia in general (and Earth Sciences in particular) looks demographically biased towards white, cis men, it is very male.

The behaviours needed to raise money to keep our institutions open and to keep our jobs might not be entirely consistent with addressing racial inequality or tackling racism.

 

How many black colleagues in STEM do you know and particularly in Earth Science? 3% of the population in the UK is black. Is this represented in your university and among your colleagues?
We have 27 black female professors in the UK in all of the universities and I think there are 170 black male professors. I am one of them. I think there are ~20.000 white male professors.¹ It is really bad.

 

Do you think that there have been any changes in closing the racial gap in the Earth science community since you started your career?
Honestly? No change at all, and I have been in academia for 16 years.

 

Given the number of black researchers in Earth Sciences, do you think that they are underrepresented in our community awards, such as EGU and AGU awards?
Yes! [laughing]. There are not many of us to make awards to in the first place! I did some rough analysis of awards for EAGE and AAPG (@seis_matters), and the representation of various racial groups is really bad. For example, since 1946 only 7% of award recipients for the AAPG have been women. Again, using a rather broad-brush method drawing on names and websites only, it appears there were only two Black recipients out of c. 700. There were no black women recipients. I suspect many other professional and learned societies are similar. They need to do something about this.

 

What about promoting STEM as a career path in the Black community? Do you think we should engage more in outreach activities in high schools or universities?
The universities are trying to do things, but they are still a million miles away from where they need to be. I think the whole universities-can-fix-the-Black-problem thing is part of a much broader, more challenging discussion about socioeconomics and politics. For example, do governments value education? Are they aware of and willing to solve issues related to childhood poverty and hunger, both of which can impede academic engagement, progress, and attainment?. If universities try to fix this problem by running a few outreach events for A-Level kids, they will fail. The problem starts earlier than that. This is not to give universities a free pass on their failure to dismantle racist frameworks that discriminate against potential and extant students; they should absolutely do that, given that positive representation and the existence of Black role models could be beneficial in attracting Black students to STEM disciplines It’s just to say that the lack of Blacks in STEM is part of a much bigger issue.

In the last 16 years or so, I have seen progress and that has been encouraging to see more of that conversation going on.

 

Do you think we are on the right track in terms of closing the racial gaps in education and career opportunities? If not, what are the best courses of action, in your opinion?
I should be more positive in this interview, as I am a pretty positive person! I am an optimist, despite what I have said before. I honestly think there’s more awareness and there are more conversations going around the topic of inequality. For example, let’s take EGU. 15 or even 10 years ago would there have been ECSs writing blog posts about race inequality, gender discrimination or career burnout? No. They would have been writing about old white guys and about stuff they published in Nature. That has thankfully changed. We now have space for people to talk about other, more important things. The recent manifestation of the Black Lives Matter ‘movement’, although arising from numerous tragic incidents, will hopefully act as a springboard for further conversations. There are institutions and societies thinking harder than ever as to how they can try and tackle these issues through funding, awards and actively encouraging people to nominate people from minority backgrounds. In the last 16 years or so, I have seen progress and that has been encouraging to see more of that conversation going on.

 

If you were to name a person who inspired you during your career, who would (s)he be and why?
My PhD supervisor Rob Gorthorpe. He is this working-class guy from Leeds in Yorkshire. He is down to earth, very clever, and enjoys working with open and transparent with people. He would always share his ideas, data, and he was never insular, never inward-looking. He gave me opportunities to make mistakes and a lot of responsibility at the same time. I found him very inspiring, and even now, I am very close friends with him. He is this very white old guy from the North of England, he had no business helping or inspiring me, but he did. This in itself, I find it very inspiring.

Middle Career Researchers are going to be at least partly responsible for the next five, ten, to twenty years of the academic landscape. How good will academia and science be, who will be doing it, and where are they going to do it?

 

Is there something you want to add?
It is really important that one thinks about what science is. Is it just the technicalities of what you are doing for your science career, or is it the environment in which science is done, and the very people doing the science? I feel really passionate about this question at the moment because we Middle Career Researchers are going to be at least partly responsible for the next five, ten, to twenty years of the academic landscape. How good will academia and science be, who will be doing it, and where are they going to do it? I ask people not enough to be ignorant of these questions. I ask them to be passionate about forming a healthy and inclusive environment. I ask them to consider the people around them.

 


¹ Check out these links for more information on the statistics of Blacks in academia:

From HESA:
https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he
https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/23-01-2020/sb256-higher-education-staff-statistics

Selected articles:
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03688-w
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/feb/27/fewer-than-1-of-uk-university-professors-are-black-figures-show 


Christopher Jackson (short biography)
● Co-founder of EarthArxiv (2016)
● Equinor Professor of Basin Analysis, Imperial College (2015-present)
● Reader in Basin Analysis, Imperial College (2012-2015)
● Lecturer in Basin Analysis, Imperial College (2004-2012)
● Postdoc in the Department of Geophysics, Bergen (2002-2004)
● PhD about Evolution of Rift Basins, University of Manchester (2002)

Awards (short list):
● Imperial College, President’s Award for Excellence in Societal Engagement (2020)
● Geological Society of America Thompson Distinguished Lecturer Award (2016)
● Geological Society of London, Bigsby Medal (2013)
● American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Distinguished Lecturer (2012-2013)
● British Sedimentological Research Group, Roland Goldring Award (2011)


This blog post was put together by ECS representatives Maria Tsekhmistrenko and Walid Ben Mansour
Maria Tsekhmistrenko
Maria is a seismologist and currently, she is working as a Researcher at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. She received her Doctoral degree in 2020 from the University of Oxford. Maria is passionate about coding, data visualisations, climate change, books and coffee. She is the Editor of the EGU Seismology blog since 2020. If you have any questions, you can reach her at mariat[at]cp.dias.ie.


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