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I recently attended a public meeting where well-known researchers presented the results of an HIV intervention they developed and tested with African Americans who were living with HIV. The intervention had at its core explicit acknowledgment of antiblack racism, black conspiracy concerns and black people’s frequent distrust of the health-care system. The lead investigators were both white, and they shared the presentation with two black members of their study team.

During the Q&A period, a member of the advisory group took several minutes to criticize the fact that the research was not led by black investigators and questioned whether white investigators could understand the racism and other social determinants of health that were the focus of the study. This is a common criticism in the still rare settings in which black people are able to speak truth to power regarding systemic racism in higher education and biomedical science. Nevertheless, it is one that, as a black scientist, I never feel completely comfortable with.

I fervently agree that we need more black researchers, more people who study to address health disparities with a lived understanding of the black experience and sustained investment in nurturing and supporting the education, mentorship and science of black scholars. Nevertheless, the basic premise of the commenter’s statement is problematic because:

It elevates race as the only social categorization relevant to understanding the lived experience of the populations studied. While race was particularly relevant in this context, as racism was the primary focus, I have seen similar arguments raised when the research focus was HIV stigma, homophobia, addiction or poverty because the study population was predominantly black. Focusing solely on race presumes that the lived experience of those other stigmatized identities has no relevance to the ability of researchers to understand their subjects.

It presumes that all researchers should limit their areas of inquiry to those of their own race. This is a dangerous argument, for both majority and nonmajority scientists. As a black epidemiologist, my primary interest is in the health and well-being of black people. Nevertheless, it does not benefit me or any other underrepresented researchers to argue that our work should be limited in this way. My training, experience and commitment make it possible for me to conduct valuable research on white males, Asian women, Latino children and other groups with different identities, histories, statuses and experiences than my own. That does not mean that I would not have to do my homework about those groups and engage various community and research collaborators from those groups to carry out my work with rigor and relevance. But the need for such diligence does not disappear when researching groups more proximal to my own.

It assumes that when studying their own racial group, investigators are invariably able to jump in and conduct their work with a full understanding of those studied. That can be far from the case. For example, some black people grew up and lived or live in predominantly white (or other race) settings or other countries, so their exposure to African American communities has been limited; there are also regional differences in the social and historical dynamics of African American life. Some black professionals unconsciously look down on underresourced black communities, having forgotten about all of the people and things that supported them in their journey to success. Some black people lack a critical race consciousness, having been trained to see behavioral and social phenomena through a Western -- and largely white -- lens and having not yet done the work to look beyond those dominant paradigms.

Addressing the Core Issue

After the meeting, I spoke to the investigators -- longtime colleagues, who carry out their work with more critical consciousness than do many middle-class white and Asian American researchers who study underrepresented and marginalized groups without deep attention to the power differentials and potential blind spots involved. Our discussion led to what they and other white researchers and educators could do to address the core issue: underrepresentation of black researchers in biomedical and public health research despite overrepresentation of black populations in most of the disease outcomes studied. How could they become, in fact, allies of such marginalized scholars?

Here are my recommendations:

  • Do your homework. Understand the processes that have led to a narrow and leaky pipeline of potential black researchers in this area. Develop a nuanced understanding of the competing demands, interests, conscious and unconscious biases, and barriers that many black scholars experience on this path.
  • Move your own biases from the unconscious to the conscious realm. Implicit bias affects all of us. There is ample evidence that it plays out in classrooms, research labs and selection processes in educational settings. Harvard University provides tools to assess for personal race biases. Assess yourself and then work to counter, rather than to deny, any biases identified.
  • Recognize how racism and biases operate. As you learn the science around institutionalized racism and implicit bias, you will be able to see how they operate within your own settings -- whether it is in admissions and selection committees, study sections, grading, class dynamics, course curricula, or faculty meetings. Look for it; recognize the damage it does in your own institutions. Find productive ways of shifting the dialogue and subverting such biased processes.
  • Adopt a critical approach to your science. The racial (gendered, heterosexist) biases within scientific discourse are so commonplace that we are often blind to them. The vast majority of us, regardless of race or gender, were raised and trained in them and unconsciously replicate them in our own work. As we observe the work from a critical stance, we can engage underrepresented students in a manner that is empowering and motivating. A noncritical approach too often leads to disengagement of those very students, not to mention the reification of racist discourse, hypotheses, approaches and conclusions.
  • Mentor underrepresented scholars. Now that you have done your homework, you are in an excellent position to support a more diverse workforce. Actively seek out opportunities to mentor underrepresented minority students, fellows and junior faculty. Learn from them along the way.
  • Speak up. You have been there: in a faculty meeting, scientific conference or collegial discussion in which a colleague, scientist or leader says something subtly or blatantly racist. Maybe they imply that increasing the admission of more students of color will “decrease the quality of the student body.” Maybe they use their own or others’ research to conclude that black people must be less intelligent, motivated or caring of their own children’s health. Maybe they question the qualifications of a faculty candidate because his referees are all people or color or because she attended a historically black university. Don’t wait for someone else to speak up; don't assume that the one black person in the room should or will do so (and that if they don’t, it must be OK). Don’t worry so much about your own standing that while you stay silent, the black colleagues and students present get the message -- once again -- that they don’t belong in the academy. Speak up.
  • Name it. When discussing research on institutional, social, economic and structural forces that systematically undermine the well-being and economic viability of black people and black communities, do not shy away from calling it racist if that is what it is. It is infuriating when these dynamics are discussed but their source is not named. We need white scholars to understand these forces rather than turn a blind eye to them under the banner of “objectivity” or plain ignorance of history.
  • Use your power. Use your role to elevate the careers, aspirations and scholarship of students, scientists and faculty of color. As a leader within your college or university and as a member of search committees, admissions committees, conference committees, study sections and other decision-making bodies, you have the power to push for justice, inclusivity and diversity within these institutions. Do it.

This is a partial list, and no doubt, following it could come at a cost. It might anger your colleagues and your leaders; it might cost you friends, position and status. Allying yourself with marginalized groups can bring you closer to them in several ways, not all of them pleasant.

But if you are not willing to take this risk, you are not allies. You are not serving the communities you study, and you deserve the criticism of the commentator I spoke of earlier. Well-intentioned or not, you are complicit.

It will not always be easy, but it will be easier for you than for those few black colleagues to whom this work generally falls. It will not be easy, but this hard work is urgently needed to create the type of biomedical and public health workforce that will not just document but improve the devastating health inequities that black people still experience in America.

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