Since Alice and Sciencewoman and DrugMonkey and Razib are discussing it (and because Zuska has discussed it before, including in real life), I wanted to say something about my reaction to the observation that science blogosphere in general, and ScienceBlogs in particular, seems pretty white:
I’d noticed that, too! And I’d like it a lot if there were more racial diversity among the science bloggers and the blogging scientists.
There would be some clear benefits to achieving more diversity — but there might also be costs, and looking at who would bear those costs seems pretty important.
To me, the science blogosphere is a way to have conversations about science. One sort of conversation that has really taken off involves what it’s like to be in science — to be a working scientist, or someone training to be a working scientist, or someone who has been a working scientist but isn’t any longer. These discussions grapple with the various patterns of professional life that scientists encounter, and how they bump into personal life.
This is a window into scientists’ lives that really didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate. It’s a peek into what it might be like to pursue a scientific career. Blogospheric conversations reveal scientists as actual human beings being passionate about what they’re studying, figuring out how to make their experiments work, navigating workplace politics, and carving out the odd bit of leisure time to do other things. More than that, I think blogospheric conversations sometimes create virtual communities that can provide insight and encouragement — especially useful for scientists who find themselves without anything that feels like a real-life community in their workplace or school. I think a number of the women blogging about science — especially those blogging early in their careers and/or under a pseudonym — have encountered this feeling of community. I suspect it’s even made a real-life difference to some of them to encounter the sympathetic ears and practical advice of their blogospheric peers.
I’ve blogged about this before (here and here), noting that for women in male-dominated scientific fields, blogs written by other women who are facing down some of the same experiences might help alleviate some of the isolation that comes from not having many colleagues who are women. Those male colleagues can’t really understand what it’s like to get through the pipeline as a woman; they got to experience it as men.
One of the things Zuska and I have talked about is why, given the parallel set of challenges experienced by scientists who are “underrepresented minorities” in their scientific fields, there isn’t a visible mushrooming of science blogs with more racial diversity. We had a few hunches:
- The numbers of such scientists may still be small enough that blogging about working in field X and being of race Y is enough to uniquely identify a blogger — or to narrow down the possible candidates to a really small set. Even using a pseudonym, the blogger would be exposed enough to make certain kinds of venting and soul-searching really risky. If you’re trying to survive in a professional community, taking these risks can seem like a bad call.
- Scientists who are underrepresented minorities in their fields may have less time for or interest in blogging because of extra demands on their time — being tapped for extra committee work (to help achieve racial diversity within the committees), devoting extra time to mentoring students or doing outreach to prospective students, etc.
- There may be more racial diversity in the science blogosphere than is readily apparent (i.e., because pseudonymous bloggers are not all white).
- There may be more racial diversity in the science blogosphere than is readily apparent, but this diversity is less visible because of patterns of traffic and linking (e.g., because the “big blogs” are linking more white bloggers and/or don’t know about the blogs of the non-white bloggers).
As well, if blogging about race and science is anything like blogging about gender and science, one would have to be ready for hoards of trolls (of various degrees) showing up to deny that one could have experienced what one reports experiencing, or to deny that a particular experience could possibly be attributable to racism, or to break out all the Bell Curve-style arguments that we shouldn’t view lack of racial diversity of science as a problem.
I’m guessing that would get old pretty fast.
The large number of women scientists who blog about being women scientists makes it harder — at least for those who read these blogs — for people to assume that the experiences of male scientists can be universalized to stand in for the experiences of scientists more generally. Women in science are using tools like blogs to name their own experiences and to make them visible to others. Soon, it will be hard for men in science to profess ignorance that that their colleagues who are women may have encountered a different landscape (in terms of educational expectations, mentoring, marginalization, even harassment) than they did.
But the experiences of a white woman in science are no more universalizable than those of a white man. To the extent that white scientists have the luxury of being unaware of their own race, and seeing themselves as “just scientists,” they can be utterly blind to the way that race shapes the experiences of non-white scientists.
This blindness doesn’t help to address the factors that might be responsible for creating scientific communities with quite different demographics than the society in which they’re embedded. It doesn’t help the scientists who experience this blindness to be better colleagues or teachers or mentors.
For myself, teaching a lot of scientists-in-training at a university that is pretty racially diverse (but whose faculty skews whiter), I’d be a lot happier if I could point my students to scientists who look like them, describing their experiences in their own words. Better still would be to have a range of scientists speaking from particular racial identities, educational experiences, career paths, and so forth, so that no single individual is burdened with being the representative of a particular group in science.
Extrapolation from my experiences doesn’t do the job. My experiences have undoubtedly been shaped by white privilege. The only way to understand how it is for scientists traveling without white privilege is to listen to them.
The blogosphere can put us in touch with a lot of voices — many more than any particular geographical location or workplace usually affords us. But despite the blogosphere’s much-touted low barrier to entry, writing a blog is a time consuming (and sometimes emotionally exhausting) endeavor. Blogs can put other people’s experiences right in our face, but only if the bloggers are willing to go to the trouble of articulating their experiences and exposing them to the scrutiny of the interwebs in the first place.
Scientists from underrepresented minorities shouldn’t be saddled with the additional obligation of blogging. Just keeping one’s head down and being a good scientist seems like more than enough work for any human being most days. Arguably, the scientists who have been the beneficiaries of privilege are the ones who ought to bear the costs of remedying their own ignorance.
In the meantime, though, how best to build a bridge for our student cohorts who don’t look like the scientific community as it is now but like the scientific community as it could be?