BlackLivesMatter - BlackMindsMatter
by Mental Health Collective of the MPS
Evelyn Medawar, Olga Vvedenskaya, Julian D. Rolfes & Barbara Safaric
If you are neutral in moments of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
- Desmond Tutu
[Black Lives Matter protest, Munich, Sat 6 June]
We were casually strolling around New York. Excited, giddy PhDs set free after a conference. We entered a random shop in West Village. The guy at the register sized me up from head to toe, smiled, and said – “Black is my happy color too.”
Sheepishly returning the smile, I wished the ground would open and swallow me up. I felt incredibly embarrassed. Not because I said something stupid or fell straight on my face. I was ashamed. Of myself. I was wearing a T-shirt with the print “Black is my happy color”. The thought of “black” being connected to anyone’s race and identity did not cross my white privileged mind. How could I be so oblivious? And I like to think I try. That I put an effort into checking in with myself and recognizing how incredibly privileged I am. I should have known better. I have to do better. We all have to do better.
Germany is a racially, ethnically and culturally quite a diverse country. However, for all their appraisal and celebration of diversity, many institutions lack People of Colour. It is a wide problem that not even the MPS is exempt from. How many People of Color are in your lives? In your lab? At your institute?
Are we suffering from the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome?
We might. But that does not make our ignorance acceptable.
As a part of society, each and every one of us has a responsibility. A responsibility to do good. To do no harm. To help when we can. We all have a part to play.
[Black Lives Matter protest, Leipzig, Sun 7 June]
There is so much to be said, there is so much that needs to be done – what can we do as scientists?
Looking at statistics and numbers (and as scientists, we love data), we rapidly find overwhelming support for the structural nature of racism: not only do algorithms structurally discriminate against people of color, e.g. when allocating health services1 or recognizing faces2, but also receiving funding3 for research is heavily biased towards white people.
As the research community claims to be generally international, open-minded and diverse, it should stand up and acknowledge existing structural imbalances and the lack of ethnic diversity.
Based on the 2018 Max Planck Society (MPS) annual report4, more than 30% of all employees of the MPS were foreign nationals (not German). This number increases to above 50% when looking at scientific employees. Moreover, 37% of institute directors are also non-Germans (112 out of 302). There are no more detailed numbers on ethnicity, but the picture is clear - the MPS community is, in fact, diverse. Have you ever felt discriminated against? How will your next scientific home be like? How do you want it to be like?
As structural problems require structural changes, the first sensible step, we all can and should do, is to acknowledge and become aware of our biases. You might now think “Well, I am not the one with the biases” - please check for yourselves which prejudices you have when it comes to race, religion or gender at Project Implicit. Further, you can join an online Q&A hosted by Warwick ChemSoc @warwickchemsoc with @AngelaDSaini on How racism pervades science, medicine and academia on Friday 12th June at 11 am CET (more info via Twitter)!
Acknowledging the status quo, and that we all most likely have some of those implicit or unconscious biases is a good start. Sure, it might be uncomfortable to confront our own biases, but we need to openly discuss these topics and raise awareness, in particular within our research organizations, where everyone should feel welcome, independent of their gender, disability, age, sexual orientation and identity, internationality and ethnicity, and religion. If you are thinking now - “That’s all great, but I’m just a doctoral researcher. What impact do I have?”- don’t sell yourselves short, doctoral researchers are more than just another cog in the academic wheel. Change is possible!
But words don’t mean anything unless they are put into action. That’s where we come into play. Disintegration of systemic racism starts from within ourselves, within our own institutions.
Numerous public scientific institutions and publishing houses have issued their statements addressing racism in the scientific community, including Nature Systemic racism: science must listen, learn and change, Cell: Science has a racism problem and eLife Racism in Science: We need to act now. On 10th of June, there was a global #ShutDownSTEM day - a call for action to fight racism inside of academia. Thousands of scientists joined world-wide, pointing out the importance of equity.
White privilege is real, there is no point denying it. Have a look at this eye-opening TEDx talk by Dr. Peggy McIntosh, who was the first to write 4 about white privilege in the late 80’s: How to recognize your white privilege — and use it to fight inequality.
If you still don’t think science has a racism problem, please check out #BlackintheIvory on Twitter and read the countless stories of your fellow scientists describing their experiences with racism they face world-wide. If you are in the mood for some reading (which we heartily recommend), here are a few suggestions to start with: Superior: the Return of Race Science by Angela Saini, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Me and white supremacy by Layla Saad (more inspiration you can find here, here and here).
Mental Health Support
Recent events can easily be overwhelming. Black Lives Matter movement has mobilised millions of people all over the planet in the last weeks, with tens of thousands of people joining the protests in Germany as well. Constantly being exposed to reports of incomprehensible violence and injustice the Black community is exposed to, will take a toll on you. Even more so if you are a member of the targeted community.
It is important to take care of yourselves, prioritize your mental health and set boundaries to protect your well-being. We are here to support you in any way we can, from simply talking to you or helping you find a therapist. Please, don’t forget about the Employee and Manager Assistance Program (EMAP). If you feel more comfortable contacting us, please don’t hesitate and do so. Some of you might have met us by now during Collective TeaTime*, so you know the faces behind these words.
Therapy has many benefits and there are many factors that will determine how successful it will be. The crucial factor is the relationship that develops between you and the therapists. You need to feel comfortable, relaxed and you need to be able to trust your therapists. Usually you are only asked if you have a preference for female or male therapists. If you are part of the Black community, or any other ethnical minority, it might be easier to open up to a therapist that can understand your cultural background, termed Culturally Sensitive Therapy5, 6. The Black Minds Matter initiative in the UK raises specific concern for a state of emergency for Black people’s well-being by providing culturally trained therapists, support groups and mentorship. Unfortunately, we have failed to find a similar organization in Germany. Official databases of licensed therapists do not include any details beyond the language(s) in which therapy is provided. However, we contacted the Fürstenberg Institute, which is the institution behind EMAP, and started to work on changing this. Hopefully, we can update you soon with the resources specifically tailored to the People of Color. In the meantime, #ShutDownSTEM compiled an extensive list of resources for Black people who are in the need of healing and self care.
The bottom line - please, check your privilege. Use your privilege to make a change. Educate yourself. Speak up when someone is being harmed. Call out discrimination. Be a decent human being. Be kind. And never forget: it's not about guilt, it's about responsibility.
If you want to share your support publicly, please sign this General statement by scientists in support of people protesting police brutality against Black communities.
There is also a petition Justice for George Floyd which collected 18 million signatures so far.
*The Collective TeaTime
Mental Health Collective of the MPS
Contact details of EO workgroup of the PhDnet:
Contact details of Steering group of the PostdocNet:
5Asnaani A, Hofmann SG. Collaboration in multicultural therapy: establishing a strong therapeutic alliance across cultural lines. J Clin Psychol. 2012;68(2):187‐197. doi:10.1002/jclp.21829
6Pakes, K. and Roy‐Chowdhury, S. (2007), Culturally sensitive therapy? Examining the practice of cross‐cultural family therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 29: 267-283. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6427.2007.00386.x