Rising above discrimination in science

Being part of the inaugural cohort at Ocean Womxn brought me closer to other black women and women of colour in my field of research. It additionally opened up a new world of opportunities for me in a range of fields within ocean sciences and externally. My brand became larger than life! Of course, as a black person, especially a black woman, the amount of discrimination and the manners in which it happens are numerous. The system is designed to barely accommodate us. However, against all the obstacles we break barriers, infiltrate and become the brightest stars. The discrimination and racial profiling never diminish nonetheless. Discrimination follows us even in the heights of our careers. This is no different in science.

At Ocean Womxn I was invited to write a blog post about this discrimination in connection to my own experience. This blogpost was originally shared by the Ocean Womxn Fellowship at the University of Cape Town. I thought that it would be pleasant to reshare it on my own personal blog for my audience. When I was writing the blog I had feelings of disbelief, anger, sensitivity and pride because I dealt with the sistuation in the best way I could. I was judged by many in how I dealt with it. But how others took the manner in which I stood up to bullying does not bother me. Many black people, people of colour and women have similar stories that they carry with them to their graves. I chose to share my story.

My first sea-going adventure was onboard the South African research vessel, the Agulhas II. We were headed to the Subantarctic Prince Edward Islands as part of a sampling expedition. I was one of the researchers on board from the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was a big deal to me because historically not many black researchers, especially black women, had the opportunity to be part of these expeditions. In my opinion, we still lack representation in the South African teams that are sent to sea by the different universities even today.

At the time, I had just enrolled for my PhD in marine biogeochemistry at UCT’s Department of Oceanography. I was on board to explore biogeochemical cycling and the island effect within the Southern Ocean, particularly in the region of the Prince Edward Islands. I was excited and looked forward to a new world, new experiences, new skillsets and networking.

Upon boarding the research vessel, I met researchers from other South African institutions and quickly identified and gravitated towards one other black woman. She would become an ally throughout the expedition and in my career in ocean science.

I was informally introduced to the ship and briefed on what happens on board, the science schedules and what was to be expected. I had heard rumours of racial and gender-based discrimination but didn’t think much of it at the time. I didn’t expect anything to happen on our sampling cruise.

Once the ship was out to sea the environment shifted and as a black person it was notable and felt racially charged. It also felt similar to the experiences I had heard other black people and POC recount based on their time at sea.

With a history of apartheid, South African scientific research has been dominated by white male and white women scientists. Even before that, very few black people were granted the opportunities that white people had, and this has affected ocean science in general. Specifically by impacting who is doing the science, who goes on  science expeditions and who gets to one day become chief scientist on the research cruises.

My negative experience got me thinking. If this is how black people and POC in ocean science are treated when they go into the field, what is their future in the discipline? From my angle, the future isn’t very bright. And I am sure many other scientists from other races feel the same way, but few ever say anything.

I feel so fortunate and honoured that I have been given an opportunity to speak about my experience as part of Ocean Womxn. I’d welcome the opportunity to use the initiative to start a dialogue about how we can make a change, and include senior researchers, early career researchers (ECRs), primary investigators (PIs) and other black scientists, especially black women, who in the future will take part in these expeditions.

Senior researchers and PIs have a responsibility to make sure that their students and younger researchers are protected. Start a dialogue before students and early career researchers go into the field and discuss appropriate behaviours and responsible allyship.

Racial profiling and gender discrimination are real, and unfortunately, it is done by people we think are our favourite colleagues and/or friends. While I don’t think anyone can ever be prepared for racism or gender discrimination, we can change how we react when it happens.

My advice is to speak up, share your experiences, and greet allies with words of encouragement and reassurance. Because as black women in science, we are the magic we think we are, and we can get to the levels we aspire to together, through determination and working smart.

This blog post is sponsored by the University of Cape Town’s Oceanography Department.

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