I am not Black. I am not American. I do not understand the many nuances of American and African-American culture. I do not understand the extra struggle African-American people have to go through each day. But there are some things that are easy to understand. It is easy to understand that the killing of yet another unarmed Black man is due to structural racism. It is easy to understand that the involved police officers did not view George Floyd as a man that was their equal. And it is easy to understand why people are incensed about this.
A lot needs fixing here, and it’s going to take a while for that to happen. But as I write this in Los Angeles with the sound of sirens going by my apartment every few minutes, it is hard not to think of the 1992 L.A. riots. It is hard not to think about what happened in the wake of the acquittal of the officers involved in the brutal beating of Rodney King. When looking at police violence against the Black community, it is easy to feel like very little has changed since then.
This time calls for some reflection about how all of us, in the institutions where we work or participate, can enact some change.
A few months ago, the physics and astronomy department at my new institution, UCLA, invited Sherard Robbins to come and speak about the demographics and minority representation in our department. He asked us to take a look around the room and to see if the representation in the room reflected that of the general population in Los Angeles. This was an embarrassing and shameful exercise. It is shameful because we do not have a single Black faculty member. It is also shameful because women are hugely underrepresented.
Representation matters. It particularly matters in positions of power. It matters because when you see people that look like you and are culturally similar to you in a position you thought was unattainable, you start to believe you can do it. It also matters because people tell stories, and stories are mediators of humanization. When you hear about your culturally different colleague’s weekend with their family at the beach, you see them as a parent, spouse, and human.
I am currently in a position of power. I have been an assistant professor now for almost a year, and because it is so new and fresh, it contrasts strongly with my previous position as a postdoc. I went from having almost no power and social responsibility to being thrust into a position where my words and actions do have an affect on undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and other faculty members. I know that many of you who read this blog are or will be in similar positions in the future. So when you are afforded the privilege of such a position, it is your responsibility (just as it is now mine) to make sure that conduct in your department changes. It is your responsibility to make sure that the make-up of the department starts to reflect that of the greater population. It is your responsibility to ensure that traditionally underrepresented groups make it into positions of power. And it is your responsibility because if you don’t do it, no one else will.
The activists in the streets deserve tremendous credit for making their voices and anger heard. And it’s important that those in positions of power take actions that say “we hear you”.
Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.