A Response to the George Floyd Demonstrations

Biology professor writes about pride, race, identity, and science.

By Prof. Derek Applewhite | June 6, 2020

Every June for Pride we celebrate a riot: Stonewall was a key event that gave birth to the queer rights movement and was started by two trans women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The LGBTQA+ community is inherently tied to the lives and actions of Black and Latinx people in the 1960s, the frequent targets of police brutality who had had enough and fought back. While the queer rights movement has made visible progress in the time since Stonewall, we must acknowledge that as long as systemic racism still exists, progress is only for a privileged few.

Similarly, while some areas of progress have been made in the time since Martin Luther King Jr., in many ways the lives of ordinary Black Americans have changed little in the last half-century. In the same week that we lost George Floyd, police also shot and killed a black transgender man, Tony McDade, in Tallahassee, FL. This continued violence against the Black community in the United States is a symptom of a racist society. We, as the LGBTQA+ community, stand in solidarity with the Black community. Their plight is our plight. Their fight is our fight. Black people are not free, therefore we cannot be free.

We, as the LGBTQA+ community, stand in solidarity with the Black community. Their plight is our plight. Their fight is our fight. Black people are not free, therefore we cannot be free.

Why can’t we just stick to science? In principle, science is free from emotion and judgment. It is facts grounded in evidence and should be apolitical and neutral. But science is done by people and so, unfortunately, science is a product of our society—a society built on long-standing inequalities, a society that has actively suppressed the voices of minoritized individuals. If society is racist, so is science.

How do we battle the systematic racism that is inherent to our profession? It seems like an impossible task given the enormity of the situation. There has been a huge push for diversity and inclusion in higher education and the scientific community throughout the nation, but is this working? What is the point of increasing diversity, if those voices are not given equal weight once they get a seat at the table? We cannot reverse inequalities with inclusion alone. Minoritized voices cannot just be heard; they must be amplified. This diversity, inclusion, and amplification cannot come from those who are discriminated against, it must come from those who traditionally do the discriminating. It must be woven into the very structure of our profession.

We as scientists are drawn to big problems and we are personally enriched by offering up solutions. Every grant review panel, editorial board, symposium, selection committee, leadership circle, governing body, or department should include multiple minoritized individuals. We believe that minoritized voices should be heard and represented on every level within our scientific community and society.

We, the ASCB LGBTQ+ task force, therefore stand in solidarity with the demonstrators in the United States and across the world, and further recognize that to be part of the LGBTQA+ community intersects synergistically with systemic racism to exclude or suppress the creative efforts of many talented LGBTQA+ scientists and trainees. Diversity in scientists promotes diversity in Science, which makes for better Science.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of resources to help familiarize yourself with some of the issues currently plaguing the Black and LGBTQA+ community. Cultural competency is also critical to the systematic changes needed to reverse the inequality in science.

What issues do LGBTQA+ African Americans face?
Being African American & LGBTQ: An Introduction

What is the experience of Black LGBTQA+ Youth in the U.S.?
Erasure and Resilience: The Experiences of LGBTQ Students of Color
Research Brief: Black LGBTQ Youth Mental Health

Learn our history. How have Black individuals positively shaped LGBTQA+ history?
16 queer black pioneers who made history

What kind of discrimination do Black transgender and gender non-conforming individuals face?
Injustice at Every Turn: A look at Black respondents in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey

Why do Black Scientists experience a funding gap in NIH awards?
Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-American/black scientists

We cannot and should not disentangle our identities from our science. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths but we are far from utilizing it. We must recognize our contributions to the disenfranchisement Black and minoritized scientist experience and take serious, concrete measures to reverse the inequities that are built into the system.  Black lives do matter and we cannot just show up for them, we must take action.

Prof. Applewhite is Assistant Professor of Biology at Reed College. He is an expert in cell biology and the cytoskeleton. This post was written on behalf of the American Society for Cell Biology’s LBGTQA+ Task Force and was first posted at ascb.org

Tags: Diversity/Equity/Inclusion