5 Things to Know about Race even if Race is not the Point of your Research

After posting the SRA Black Lives Matter Syllabus, Part 1, we’ve engaged in several formal and informal conversations with colleagues about what racial justice means for us as scientists. We’ve heard one question in particular weaving throughout these discussions:

            What do I need to know about racism, if I’m not specifically studying race?

Acutely aware that this is an utterly non-exhaustive list - let’s get started.

You must know where you came from in order to know where you are going.

-       African Proverb

1. Know the legacy of slavery that continues to shape our science today.
To know how our research now relates to racial justice, we need to know the context in which the institution of U.S. research started. 
The success of America was largely due to the creation of a racial caste system that involved the enslavement of African people who were put to work harvesting stolen indigenous lands for capitalist profit. Racist beliefs about the inferiority of Black lives were institutionalized through laws that maintained slavery. These practice created institutional racial superordination that benefited White landowning men. Anti-Black laws informed and continue to inform practices within U.S. systems, including systems such as science, education, and academia. For more information on the origins of institutionalized superordination see Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995  and Harris, 1993.
2. Know how racial power gets produced and reproduced within our field.
Racial Superordination is produced through practices and beliefs that privilege Western and White paradigms, intellect, knowledge, and cultural practices as the universal standard and norm. 

Superordination is about who and what is (not) present. Who are (not) the gatekeepers to access? Who (does not) control(s) which research projects are funded?  Who has the power to shape narratives about children, youth, and families in research and in classrooms?

According to two American Psychological Association’s 2015 reports, White psychologists comprise 83.6% of the active psychology workforce. Black psychologist account for 5.0% of the 16.4% of psychologist of Color who actively participate in the psychology workforce.

3. Know how science works with other social systems to produce inequity.
Racism is not just interpersonal - it is institutional. Our society’s institutions work together to create an inequitable distribution of material resources (e.g., access to quality education, health care, equitable housing, access to quality food, legal resources, social capital, etc).

During the SRA #BlackLivesMatter pre-conference held last spring, our panel of community activists highlighted historical and present day role of Johns Hopkins University research on the disenfranchisement of the surrounding low-income Black East Baltimore community.

The institution of research evolved within our racially structured society AND has helped to shape our racially stratified society. Even when a given research project is not specifically about race, the questions of who gets to be the “researcher,” who is being “researched,” and how the research is conducted, are all racialized. Knowing where we come from can help us recognize practices that will shape whether our research is ultimately complicit with or disruptive to racial superordination and marginalization.

4. Know your colleagues of Color.
This point primarily addresses White scholars, who continue to hold superordinate power within society and within the systems of scientific research. Be proactive. The history of racism in science and academia remains part of our legacy today. As developmental scientists, we know that this history and culture impacts everyone among us. Work to create space for Black students and scholars, and other students and scholars of Color, to share their paradigms and pedagogies, and to be gatekeepers. Shift where resources are being invested. Shift where you are investing resources.

5. Know the Vision for Black Lives
We’ve talked about knowing the history. We’ve talked about knowing what’s going on right now in the field and in the institutions around you. We also need to know where we’re going. A Vision for Black Lives is a set of policy demands for black power, freedom, and justice. This vision can provide adolescent researchers a map for centering the needs of Black youth in our research and within academe.

We offer Critical Race, Psychology, and Social Policy: Refusing Damage, Cataloging Oppression, and Document Desire (Fine & Cross, 2016) as an entry point for discussing the questions posed above and for thinking about superordination and the role psychology has had in informing U.S. law and social policies to further entrench racial stratification.

Promoting racial justice is hard work. It feels uncomfortable because it requires us to become aware of the ways we each knowingly and unknowingly participate in the maintenance of racial superordination within the academe and across institutions. The good news is that our discomfort with discussing institutional racism is the very thing we must interrogate. That’s the sweet spot. That’s where the work begins.

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