Dear Fellow Scientists: Being “Objective” IS NOT ANTI-RACIST! – #BLM Guest Post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Art is also welcome. Due to overwhelming response new submissions will go up in Aug-Sept. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

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This writer, ODE, chooses to share only their initials. They are a PHD student in Earth and Environmental Sciences. 2nd generation Black Feminist geographer.  They study critical theory, migration, racialization, labor, political ecology, and Black Geographies of the Global South

The author wrote me to propose a piece that called out “objective truths/attitudes that harbor an epistemological divide in a department that includes both physical scientists and social scientists – and yet still evade constructive arguments around empathy, concern and public scholarship which should include or at least contribute to anti racist and decarceral work as rigorous and worthwhile knowledge.” Knowing this all too well from my years in Anthro departments, I said: YES PLEASE.

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Last week, at the height of the George Floyd uprisings, I decided to check the Facebook of white folks that I grew up with in suburban Texas. With no surprise, many of my hometown former classmates were adamant about the “destructive chaos” that Black Lives Matter uprisings caused to their communities. As I scrolled through the pleas to protect the current administration, cries about burned private property, one of my elementary school friends decided to be a renegade and critique 45ths response to this crisis. He proclaimed, as a self-proclaimed white conservative upper middle class male with ‘advanced education’ he could see ‘both’ sides.  A call from him to admonish the current administration is a call to simply just a call to maintain a society with respected conservative values.

Similarly, I too have ‘advanced education’ and felt the call to continue my education to nuance and complicate how we think about our world and our role as part of it.

Fortunately, my program has given space for me to do this. However, through the struggle of formulating a solidarity letter, I have come to realize this is not the prerogative of some of my fellow colleagues. 

My department includes both physical and social scientists- and some that champion both titles. I assume my department is not unique in that it struggles to keep all scholars abreast and interested in each other’s work.  What I can say, though, is that as an Environmental Science program, we all stand firmly in our desire to fight against global warming.  Climate change, and largely, environmental degradation as a political and social concern, works as a common language between us as a community.

Yet, when addressing additional pressing societal issues, especially ones that have caught the public’s interest- there at times seems to be less scholarly or social interest from physical scientists compared to the social scientists.

So, as you can imagine, similar to academic departments all of the country, the mission of signing a solidarity statement for Black Lives Matter and the call to decarceration was contentious. However, instead of a conversation that revolved around the actual physical AND social science contributions that could or should highlight the societal polemic that supports a world with militaristic policing, or colorblind racial liberalism, the debate became a space of semantics obscuring the age-old epistemological debate that enforces binaries within the field.

To the credit of our bold and brave faculty, we all have learned from our foundational courses that science is political, and there is, indeed, racist science. This stance deconstructs the idea of an ‘objective truth’ western trained scientists are encouraged to advance to validate their research as rigorous.  Epistemologically, the procedure of scientific method originates in colonial western enlightenment ideals and it prides itself on replication. From the little I remember from AP Environmental Science, experiments were valid if they could be replicated- but even then I questioned the accessibility of tools and ability to make assigned experiments replicable and relevant for those who had fewer resources than us. Scholars like Dorothy Roberts, Ruha Benjamin, Sylvia Wynter, and countless others have related experiences like mine toward larger critiques around anti-blackness and social stratification as at minimum relational to western science production. It is important to note that the intellectual trajectory we understand to be Earth and Environmental Sciences would not exist without the environmentalism of 1960’s. This particular social movement opened a pathway for prolific research that required the use of various cross discipline methods and skillsets to understand world around us, as formed and into formation.

Nevertheless, it appears that lived situated experience as a technology for rich knowledge production is somewhat still ignored. I contemplate if lack of diversity is a factor. 

According to an article published by National GeoScience, “Race and Racism in the Geosciences”, 90 percent of PHD holders in Earth Sciences are White, and less than 5 percent of tenured professors in the field are people of color. The article explains that by acknowledging that there are attitudes from white colleagues that advance oblivious bias- i.e. conditioning bias around a lack of general interest or an absolute “apolitical” agenda of Earth Sciences is an explanation for the lack of diversity in the field. 

Unfortunately, outside of the work in Critical Physical Geography (and outliers who are committed to critical scholarship), this bias affects the accessibility and applicability of their work in a world that is in dire need of knowledge to be the catalyst to social change we need. 

So, a way to address state oppression, experienced by any member of your (institutional) community, could be answered with –“How can we measure the impact of state sanctioned racial violence and carceral logic with our wide range of tools?”  in the name of collectively producing the best knowledge we can.

But instead, for many of my colleagues, the response is sheer unenergetic indifference because of perceived ‘subjective politics’.  

To be frank, a lot of what I have mentioned is ambitious to tackle in a solidarity letter. Even if these ideas are acknowledged without concrete action- is it useful? To direct some of these difficult conversations, I suggest for folks to encourage their department to create the conditions that can produce someone like Zelma Jackson-Maine, an Afro-Indigenous hydrogeologist and a lifelong anti-nuclear activist. For her, scientific inquiry began with the teaching of her grandmother’s traditional ecological knowledge, which as a midwife, supported their Gullah Geechee community. 

I know that experience motivates many who embark on careers in our field, yet for some, structural racism and campus indifference create barriers for those who want to center their experience as the “why” for their research. Maybe one strategy toward dismantling some of these barriers I mentioned is a centering of diverse experiences as justification for further scientific inquiry.

Otherwise, a demand that they retain BIPOC faculty and offer full time positions for BIPOC adjuncts might suffice. Although this will result in additional labor for our BIPOC community, at least there will be designated attempt to foster safe space for scientific inquiry that benefits everyone in the classroom.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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