Late last year, the Wellcome Genome Campus celebrated Black History Month with a series of talks by inspirational speakers. Black History Month began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. It is now celebrated in the US, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK.
For the Equality in Science group and the Race Equity Network at the Wellcome Genome Campus, Black History Month marked an opportunity to hear from Ore Orgunbiyi, Chelsea Kwakye, Dr Yemisi Bokinni, Professor Agnes Binagwaho, and Bisi Alimi.
Catherine Gater, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the Wellcome Genome Campus, summarises their talks and reflections on racism, diversity and inclusion in science.
Ore Ogunbiyi and Chelsea Kwakye
Ore Ogunbiyi is a Nigerian-British Politics and International Relations graduate from Jesus College, Cambridge. Whilst at Cambridge, she pioneered the Benin Bronze Repatriation campaign, the #BlackMenofCambridgeUniversity campaign and was President of the African-Caribbean Society.
Chelsea Kwakye is a British-Ghanaian History graduate from Homerton College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, she was the only black woman in her year group of around 200 people studying History. During her time at university, she was Homerton’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Officer and Vice President of the African-Caribbean Society. She is currently a trainee solicitor at a city law firm. Together, Ore and Chelsea published the book, Taking Up Space.
Taking Up Space highlights a common shared experience of racism, balanced with studies and statistics. Ore spoke about experiencing imposter syndrome, an internal sense of intellectual phoniness despite clear evidence of her high achievement. For her, Cambridge offered constant reminders of how she stood out and was different, from the portraits on the wall to the downplaying of Africa in the curriculum. As a black woman in a mainly white space, she felt she carried an extra burden.
Chelsea discussed how she has now moved into the corporate space and hears conversations among black employees about microaggressions every day. A workplace network gives a wider platform to talk about these areas, to support black employees and involve everyone in anti-racism, so all employees can be part of the solution and play their part. People are the most important part of any organisation and as a starting point organisations should at least know how many black employees they have.
How to be a better ally
Listening to people’s experiences is only half of the job - it is also important to believe what you hear. Active allyship requires going a step further and to consider what you are saying in rooms that your black colleagues do not have access to. Are you leaving the doors open or are you gatekeeping because you benefit from their exclusion? Do you push back against those who push back? Do you challenge older relatives in personal discussions? Among your peer groups, you can have a significant effect by having those difficult conversations and recommending books and resources to your colleagues, friends and family.
Ore said that she seemed to spend her whole life having these conversations so others coming up behind her do not have the same challenges. “You can’t be defensive. Use your privilege. If you are taller in a room, then let us stand on your shoulders. Make your privilege productive not performative.”
She added, “It’s not up to you to define what is covert racism or whether microaggressions have long lasting effects on our psyches. We can’t just work harder or be smarter and the racism will suddenly disappear. Covert racism hides in plain sight. Our book is there to remind us how damaging these results of covert racism are.”
What does the future hold?
Chelsea reports that black people are asked, ‘What more do you want when there are black people at the highest levels of the music industry and sport? What is the end goal?’ It is important to consider what represents tangible progression, not just pay lip service to inclusion.
For Chelsea, we need to get to a point in society where everyone is comfortable. At the moment, we are not coming from the same point. Some countries have laws, others guidelines and policies on racial profiling. “In reality, all black people are not the same. We are all completely different. To expect a single end goal from a very disparate community is racist in itself,” confirmed Chelsea.
Their goals are to address the following:
- Severity -Address the severity of racism as currently it is not trivial. This is not purely about instances at work but also the gaping holes in the system where people are let down.
- Urgency - Be actionable about change. We should not accept that progress will take years. Educate yourself and learn about experiences because there is no time to waste.
- Embrace - There is so much more to black people than the struggle. Celebrate the nuances of culture and treat everyone as a whole person regardless of race or ethnicity.
Yemisi Bokinni is a medical doctor, researcher and documentary film maker. She has recently investigated the dynamics of living with hereditary conditions for a documentary film and explored how healthcare should be more inclusive for under-represented groups.
Yemisi reports that people with African or Asian ancestry make up 75 per cent of the global population. However, 84 per cent of participants in genome wide association studies globally are of European descent. For Yemisi, research should be more representative, which would also make it more complete.
Historically, under-represented groups have been exploited in research, which has led to a vacuum of trust. One high profile example of this is the origin of the HeLa cells, used in research world-wide, taken without informed consent from Henrietta Lacks. People have been taken advantage of or submitted into experiments without their consent, such as during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
Today, involving ethnic or African communities in studies can still be seen as a 'means to an end' rather than a normal part of arriving at a solution. In reality, we need the best knowledge, therapeutics and research - which means including everyone.
It is important to be transparent about what being involved in research entails, including what will happen to your data and how to withdraw from the study. Advocacy groups can help with engagement. There are people from under-represented communities who are willing to engage, but they need to be sure that this is for their benefit, not just to harvest their data. Yemisi pointed out that it does not help that the demographics of researchers are often not very representative of the groups they are trying to recruit. This may make it harder to build relationships and trust, further building the case for greater inclusion in Science Technology Engineering and Medicine (STEM).
Agnes Binagwaho is a Rwandan paediatrician and currently the Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity.
What is the impact today of Black History Month?
For Agnes Binagwaho, Black History Month is necessary but it is only useful if it becomes part of our day-to-day life. Growing up, she did not hear about black role models and their contributions to STEM were often ignored.
“Brilliant black people don’t matter if black lives still don’t matter,” reminded Agnes. “What has the world lost by ignoring black brilliance, for example in Africa?”
For Agnes, it is important to think about solutions and re-evaluate both formal and informal approaches to education. We learn implicitly that black is the colour of negativity and we need to consciously challenge these negative narratives. Collectively, we can use positions of power to advocate for diversity, changes to laws and promotion to leadership on merit. Agnes outlined some her personal calls to action.
Calls to action
- Black History Month activities should aim to improve the health and wellness of all black people
- Review references of scientific publications for diversity
- Review children’s text books to improve representation
- Reflect on the meaning and use of colour in our day-to-day communications
- It is important to collect data and carry out diversity audits in the same way as you do for gender
Bisi Alimi is the founder and Executive Director of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, an organisation set to accelerate social acceptance of LGBT people in Nigeria. He has over 15 years’ experience in International development, starting as an LGBT/HIV activist in Nigeria before moving to the UK, calling himself an ‘angelic troublemaker’. Bisi spoke to us as part of LGBT in STEM Day in November 2020.
“I was never black until I came to the UK,” said Bisi. “I had the same colour skin but did not have the same experience of blackness, being stopped by the police, unequal healthcare or bias at work. Black is not a colour but an experience.”
For Bisi, there are nine truths of anti-racism:
- Freedom is earned not given
- Not all silence is golden - silence in the face of oppression is part of the oppression
- Social justice is not a buzzword
- It is okay to get it wrong, but speak up with honesty
- Standing against oppression has a cost
- Knowledge of injustice must lead to action for justice
- Bigotry is ugly
- Love is powerful
- Impactful change can happen at many different scales
- There is never the right time to stand up for change, there is only now
There are many ways to step up as an anti-racism ally. Use your privilege to step aside for people of colour, stand up to oppression at your own personal cost and acknowledge the existence of structural racism.
“Go out there and be the change that you want to see in the world!” urged Bisi. “There is nothing to be ashamed of in having privilege. It is something to acknowledge, because you can't do anything about it. But you do have a choice to use your unearned privilege for change. Think of it as similar to those who have money using it as a force for good,” explained Bisi. “This is the journey I want people to go on.”
“No one is free unless everyone is free.”