By Diana Kenney
Close to 300 people gathered in Woods Hole on June 10 to march in support of #ShutDownAcademia #ShutDownSTEM, a call to “to hit pause, to give Black academics a break and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities.”
The movement was combined with Strike for Black Lives, organized by a group of physicists. The MBL canceled meetings and events for the day in support of the initiatives.
André Fenton, a MBL Whitman Center Fellow and Professor of Neural Science at New York University, joined in the Woods Hole march around Eel Pond. Below are some of the thoughts he shared in conversation while marching.
What has been your experience as a Black man in STEM academia?
André Fenton: I think my experience is very common. One way to say it is: One’s skin color is never neutral. Sometimes that can be positive; very often it’s negative. It’s very hard to be an individual scientist, which is what your focus is.
And STEM academia is not designed, and we’re not trained, to discuss things like this. What is particularly challenging is the STEM academic culture is focused very much on things that are said to be objective and empirical. And it’s very difficult to cite the evidence of lived experience, to actually have these discussions in a STEM academic setting. Whereas it’s very common, for example, in a sociology department, where the types of things taken as evidence are very different.
So there are lots of microaggressions and bias that’s implicit everywhere – and it’s very hard to demonstrate. It’s something people like to believe is not relevant in the objective sciences. [But] humans are involved in the objective sciences so these are pervasive things that we have to manage. They’re difficult conversations. No one wishes to engage in this, but very clearly we have to. That’s why we’re all here [at this march]. All of us.
Women in STEM cite a similar experience. It’s the microaggressions; it’s not getting the invitation that everyone else gets. It’s the quiet exclusions that add up and hold you back.
André Fenton: When you’re pursuing things in excellence, and the margin between success and non-success is very, very thin, a very small unconscious bias adds up and accumulates. A very small exclusion from a network exaggerates over time and these things accrue. It’s like the economy: A tiny change in the interest rate has a massive effect over time when multiplied by many agents. The same thing happens in STEM academia. It’s a systemic problem that requires everybody engaging to at least acknowledge the problem, and then put in place ways and practices to resolve it. We’re doing a much better job with inclusiveness as part of the conversation, but it’s not changed how we do business yet. Not very much.
I am the only Black person in my department at NYU. I have a fantastic department, however. We talk about it, we try as best we can meet the challenge. In one sense, the number of people of color in the department is not so important as its attitude. Our department is not defensive. I don’t think anyone would get up and say, “We do everything right. We don’t have a problem.” And it starts with that. During our [hiring] searches, we’re actively looking for minority and underrepresented people of all types. But it’s very hard to make the change, even with the best intentions.
Part of the job is the retention problem. I was at a medical school as a graduate student and there was a MD-PhD student, the top MD student in his grade, who happened to be Black. We both went to the Society of Neuroscience meeting for the first time. And he hated it. I was thinking, “This is amazing. There’s so much neuroscience.” He felt extremely uncomfortable because there were no Black people. And within a year he left the MD-PhD program, in which medical school was free for him. He decided he’d rather take on the $200,000 debt to pay for medical school and not go through the academic part of his degree. He’s a fantastic physician and in a very successful position today. But he didn’t feel welcome [in academia]. And that’s a giant challenge. He’s got to feel welcome.
Fenton co-directed the MBL Neural Systems & Behavior course (2012-2018) and has served on the faculty of the SPINES course.
Media coverage of the Woods Hole strike and march: