For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. This post is from Dr. Festus Asaaga an Environmental Social Scientist based at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The subject of racism has been a long-standing issue. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, on May 25 2020, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 has, however, returned to the spotlight the longstanding and vexing issue of racism across all spheres of society. One such domain where this critical discourse come to the forefront is within the academe, where the impetus to ensure equitable and accountable knowledge production and scholarship is paramount. This is underpinned by the pressing concern of how the higher education sector can purge itself of the systemic racism that has long engulfed it. Whilst this is undoubtedly a topical issue and a wide-ranging effort to achieve this all-important end is necessary, in this article, I reflect on my position as a ‘Person of Colour’ and my own experience navigating the academe as an early career researcher. Adding to the plethora of voices, my experiences are not unique and in some respects could be reflective of the lived reality and experiences of Black scholars on how institutional culture works/ed against them.

Navigating in the competitive academic landscape

To put my experiences in context, it will suffice to say that as an African, the subject of discrimination (perceived and actual) in its broad form is not entirely new to me. Indeed, my own experiences (I believe largely echoing those of other ethnic minorities in the UK) have shaped my understanding that people’s worldview, and often deep-seated perceptions, inform how they relate to and see others. Since moving to the UK to pursue my Masters and PhD degrees at one of the leading universities in the world, Oxford, I have been able to understand to some extent (on a much broader scale), through personal experiences and those of friends, how people’s worldview and positionality tend to shape their thinking, and how to negotiate relationships even in the academe. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a postgraduate student at Oxford, I believe it is important to articulate the existence of ‘racial barriers’ and negative experiences as contributing to the broader discourse on transforming the institutional culture to more equitable spaces. That said, two of the key issues and concerns were to do with the lack of diversity in the student and staff populations and the overly ‘Eurocentric’ focus in the curriculum delivery. I will expand a bit on the latter point. The overly ethnocentric curriculum which favours Western scholarship but undervalues contributions and scholarship of Black scholars really surprised me, particularly, when it had to do with understanding environmental challenges in the African context.  Engaging with the few Black students and academics around at the time, I sought to understand whether this observation was just peculiar to my course, or symptomatic of other postgraduate courses. Questions like ‘Where is the African voice in this rich scholarship?’, ‘Why is the scholarship Western-dominated?’, and ‘Why are very few Black academics represented?’, all too often featured in our conversations. Rather unsurprisingly, we also felt bewildered and the conversations ended inconclusively, leaving me more confused than before. I recall a conversation with one Black academic was particularly revealing and gave me a reality check of the structural inequality within the academe. The professor remarked, “the academe is skewed against us [Black scholars], and you’d be lucky to secure one of those big grants for impactful research even for someone at my level”. Honestly, I initially dismissed the remark as defeatist and perhaps a misreading of the system, but upon a deeper reflection, the statement made a lot of sense and was pregnant with several meanings. The professor’s statement helped put things in proper context for me and reinforced my conviction that as a ‘Person of Colour’ I have to work twice as much if I am to successfully navigate the competitive academic landscape. I have to this day held this conviction as a ‘professional creed’ which serves as a constant reminder any time the going gets tough to keep working hard in order to survive in the competitive academic space.

Transitioning from student to lecturer, I soon realized that there are few opportunities for progression, particularly for Black academics. It is common knowledge that most Black academics have to start off at the lowest pay scale and work their way upwards amidst often hostile environments. The few fortunate ones who make it to the top (as full professors) are often advertised by their respective institutions as the ‘poster boys or girls’ of institutional endorsement of diversity. From being mistaken as a cleaner to being regarded as a beneficiary of affirmative action on multiple occasions, these negative encounters have sometimes made me doubt (if only for a little while) if I really secured my position on merit. Being a Black academic, it is commonplace to grapple with overt racism from Caucasian colleagues and to accept other ancillary duties not out of excitement but a necessity to ward off the underlying skepticism of being qualified to occupy the space. At one UK college, where I was on a part-time lectureship, I was given a room (in the visiting lecturers quarters) to keep few personal belongings to avoid having to commute twice every other week for my classes. Arriving at the reception one evening, I was informed by the receptionist that they have had to assign me a different room in a nearby student hostel as the previously allocated one has been reassigned. I picked up the keys to the new room, without uttering a word, but deep down I questioned why I had to be reassigned a room in the students’ hostel whilst other visiting Caucasian tutors were housed at the staff quarters. Reflecting on my prior experiences, I could only conclude that it was yet another unpleasant encounter with a racial undertone.

In hindsight, I feel it was naïve on my part to think that the academe is somewhat an exclusive space and perhaps ‘insulated’ from otherwise such backward ethnocentric thinking. By the day, I am increasingly convinced that the academe is no different from the wider society within which it is embedded. Indeed, we all bring to the fore in the academe our inherent worldviews and belief systems which shape how we engage and navigate the competitive spaces. It may not be out of place, for one to ask why you didn’t speak up if you felt these experiences contravened established institutional policies. A simple answer would be that it is easy to be overly dismissive of things we can only imagine but never have to experience firsthand. Often, the risk of speaking up far outweighs the immediacy of the comfort hoped for. Needless to say, like many others, my default coping strategy is always to coil in and only share bits of such negative experiences in the safe spaces of family and close friends, a situation which ought not to be so, particularly in the academe. I’ve often felt it is pointless to speak up if that goes to reinforce a misplaced blanket view that “Black people are either overly emotional, always angry and/ or difficult to work with”. But it’s never too late and as the saying goes, there is no harm in looking back to see forward. 

Looking ahead – rethinking the culture of inclusiveness

Admittedly, whilst there has been quite some progress in addressing racial inequities, it is irking that the academe still lags behind in racial equality. Far from advocating a ‘free pass’ on the basis of ethnic affiliation, I strongly believe parity and fairness should indeed be entrenched as the ‘rules of the game”. Whilst this may be true on paper, the reality is sometimes a myth. Over time, I have come to the understanding that worldview and belief system matters as we are an embodiment of our experiences. Whilst I am acutely aware that the system will not change overnight, I am cautiously optimistic that concerted actions can better support early career Black scholars to navigate competitive academic spaces. As a way forward, it may be important to facilitate the creation of more safe spaces to allow the exchange of ideas in neutral and ‘non-judgmental’ spaces. The lack of Black equality, diversity and counselling officers often implies that Black students feel their interests will not be best served as career advisers/ counsellors may not fully appreciate or may trivialize issues of importance to them. Given that publications are the currency of research, navigating the often hostile environment without the requisite institutional support and ‘safe spaces’ undoubtedly affects our scholarship. Perhaps established academics can offer help through mentorship in grant writing, project leadership and providing letters of support and recommendations etc. Such efforts can go a long way in helping particularly first generation Black scholars like myself make sense of the many unwritten rules of the academe which necessarily shape outcomes. Without the instrumental role and support of my past and current supervisors who have demonstrated great interest in my professional development, I doubt I would have survived in the academe. But can the same be said of other early career Black scientists in the academe? The time to act is now!

Dr Festus Asaaga is an Environmental Social Scientist based at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Broadly, his research focusses on advancing better understanding of the interdependence and synergies between human health, animal health and the environment with a view of improving policy outcomes for safeguarding livelihoods, health and well-being. Through this interdisciplinary engagement, Festus’ research revolves around three key inter-linked foci: health, agriculture and environment with climate change as an underlying crosscutting theme in developing contexts. Festus is currently working on two interdisciplinary projects exploring the socio-ecological drivers of (re)emerging zoonotic disease vulnerability in the Western Ghats region of India.