Zenobia Lewis: On being a token

As the British Ecological Society (BES) journals celebrated and shared the experiences of Black ecologists during Black History Month UK, we want to also acknowledge that all Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities are part of the wider discussion about race and share some similar experiences.

Professor Zenobia Lewis from the University of Liverpool sits on the BES Equality and Diversity Working Group and has published several works on inclusivity in science. Here, she shares her experiences as a BAME ecologist and discusses what it means to be a BAME person in ecology.

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What an extraordinary year it has been, and 2020 is not even over yet.  The global pandemic, the ongoing Brexit debacle in the UK, the fight for the White House in the US. A major theme underpinning all these events has been related discussions about equality of opportunity, identity, and race. And that’s before we even consider the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests following the brutal murder of George Floyd in May. It is then, perhaps, no surprise that Black History Month received even more attention than usual this year.

The broader, louder discussions regarding race and inclusivity of recent months have forced me to reflect on my own identity and experiences. I am not Black, and cannot speak to the Black experience. But I think all of us who are BAME (POC in the States) share commonalities in what we have experienced throughout our lives.

Frequently I am the only non-White person in the room. At school I was one of only a handful of BAME pupils out of more than a thousand. At university I *think* (it was a long time ago!) I was the only BAME student on my programme. And even now, in the workplace, I am often the only BAME academic in meetings. I don’t think I can adequately express the effect of decades of feeling ‘other’, of always feeling like the token – the BAME female token, shock horror!

It worries me that we are not talking enough about race in UK ecology. Our community is overwhelmingly White, which means that we, as a discipline, are probably not as accessible as we should be. Friends and colleagues have commented to me that ecology is at risk of returning to being/is still ‘a gentleman’s hobby’, to which I usually respond a WHITE gentleman’s hobby.

The lack of non-White faces is bad enough in itself, but it also leads to something of a vicious circle. The importance of role models and mentors to career progression in STEM has been documented repeatedly. Yet underrepresented groups are less likely to have role models and access to mentorship, and more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome. These challenges are in turn likely impact negatively on career progression and satisfaction.

In a recent study examining career progression for minorities in eco-evo STEM, we showed that while respondents felt comfortable discussing their experiences with respect to gender and gender identity, they were less likely to talk about race. Yet in quantitative measures of career progression, it was ethnicity, not gender, that was more likely to impact negatively. It seems that initiatives such as Athena SWAN have opened the dialogue with respect to gender in STEM, but we need to feel comfortable talking openly and honestly about race too, if we are ever going to do anything about it.

Following the initial BLM protests, twitter hashtags such as #BlackBotanistsWeek and #BlackBirdersWeek helped raise the profile of BAME researchers, but we need far greater visibility for our ethnic minority students and colleagues, and more opportunities for them to network and support each other. In that regard I am super pleased that the British Ecological Society, in collaboration with the brilliant Reuben Fakoya-Brooks, has set up the BAME Ecologist Network.

I had hoped that BLM would help to kickstart a frank dialogue about race in academia. Indeed, in the months since the protests started, institutions and professional bodies have released statements professing their solidarity with the BAME community, and promises to tackle structural barriers in their own communities. I wait with bated breath to see if any of it will make a meaningful difference.

Yet as I write, Twitter is justifiably in a fury at the announcement of the grant recipients in the latest round of national ecology-focused fellowships. 100% were male, and 100% were White. We have a long way to go.

Discover more blog posts like this on our Black History Month page on the British Ecological Society website.

If you have any queries or points you wish to raise about diversity and the BES, please visit the Diversity and the BES page, or click here to join our BAME network.

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