Ebony in an Ivory Tower

When I started writing this article, I thought of the words of former South African president Thabo Mbeki,  “I am an African, I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever changing seasons that define the face of our native land.” That is what I am, before I am a scientist, I am an African.  And I have fallen in love with a science that has never loved people like me.

Science has been used as a weapon in the past to further the agenda of oppressive powers, one of which has directly impacted me, my family and my opinions. On 27 April 1994, the world watched South Africa take their first tentative, but joyous steps into democracy after over 40 years under the Apartheid regime, and an even longer history marred by slavery, genocide and abuse of the black and Khoi communities.

Pseudoscience was weaponised, the world took up arms against black skin, we were told we were a separate inferior sub-species of human, characterised by small brains, high sex drives and aggression among other derogatory “characteristics”. Our people were stripped from the land of their birth and taken to foreign countries to be paraded as anatomical anomalies. We remember the women like Sara Baartman and the others whose names have been lost to history.

We remember the Tuskegee experiment, we remember the black bodies that scientists poked and prodded, infected and killed under the pretense of scientific curiosity and advancement. This war claimed the lives of our people, we were hunted like animals, shot, killed, and our bodies sent to prestigious institutions for research purposes, without our knowledge or consent. We remember the people whose identities we may never know, whose bones lay in wait for a burial that might never come.

I can’t recall how many times my pain has been trivialised to statements like “those were different times” and “we know better now”, or my personal favourite as a South African “Apartheid is over”. As if I don’t see the wounds of systemic oppression and racism in the eyes of my loved ones and the communities that raised me. Racism in science is not dead. I repeat, racism in science is not dead. This mentality has filtered down into the 21st century with papers published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals, filled with racist undertones. Not only has this racism been perpetuated in scientific communities but also in main stream documentaries where pseudoscience would sooner believe an extra-terrestrial capable of building the pyramids than a person with black skin. Not only is the research still touched by racism but academic institutions have come under fire, for a lack of transformation, a lack of representation of people of colour.

Being a woman of colour in my field, in any field, of science is challenging. The marginalisation of women in science is by no means a new topic and not unique to any one continent.  Women remain the minority in science, technology, engineering and mathematics commonly known as STEM, it is estimated that globally women account for only 30% of scientific positions, although accounting for almost 60% of the university population. Of that 30%, less than 5% are black. Focusing on South Africa, in 2015, 83% of South African academic staff/professors were white, meaning that 17% were Black, Indian and Coloured but represent the vast majority of our population. In 2014, the Mail & Guardian reported that out of 4000 professors in South Africa, only 4% are black and fewer still are black women. Understanding the paucity of black South African academics in a post-Apartheid nation is crucial to understanding the long lasting effects of systemic oppression, and how even the generations that came after Apartheid was abolished are still trying to free themselves from the shackles it has left behind. But you cannot transform what you do not understand and you cannot understand what you do not listen to.

Representation of women of colour in academia is a global problem and in order to address it, we need people to talk. Race is seen as taboo, but no longer will we allow the conversation to continue without our input, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Uncomfortable conversations are the womb that fosters the growth of important questions, ideas and ultimately solutions, and we are tired (so tired) of sacrificing our mental and physical well-being for the comfort of others.  We need people to come forward with their stories. We need to facilitate conversations, and I mean REAL conversations, where women of colour are LISTENED to, not spoken over, not disregarded and not told we are dramatic or that our pain is a thing of the past.

Diversifying the academic and research body serves to better science, bringing to the forefront new ideas, different perspectives and ensures accountability. Diversify is a verb, a word used to describe an action, and that’s what we need, ACTION. We need to increase accessibility for students of colour into career paths that were previously unavailable to them and to support them on this journey. We simply need to do more and, more importantly, do better.

We need our voices to bellow through the ivory tower, until the vibrations of our collective pain, anguish, and ultimately hope, rattle the foundations and bring it to the ground. Because we love a science that never loved us and instead of hiding in the shadows of this unhealthy power dynamic, we stand in the sun and demand a day when science acknowledges who we are.

*Footnote* The featured image of this article is one of the iconic images in South African history. On 9 August 1956 over 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings to protest against the Apartheid pass laws. We now celebrate our national Women’s Day on 9 August to commemorate the bravery of these women. They are a testimony to the power of our collective. In the words of the freedom song of the women who bravely marched so that I may one day be free in the country of my birth, “Wathint’ abafazi wathint’ imbokodo” (When you strike the women, you strike a rock).