“I can’t breathe.” Video footage of George Floyd’s killing on 25 May in Minneapolis in the US caused international outcry and ignited protests across the US and around the world in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement.

Protests across Australia’s major capital cities drew tens of thousands of people. I was one of the protesters who attended the Melbourne rally on 6 June, despite warnings from government health officials about the risks of spreading COVID-19, and threats of hefty fines to protest organisations and demonstrators.

As a public health researcher and health professional, I understood the concerns about large crowds gathering, and the increased risk of infection from attending the protest. However, I felt strongly that the threat of racism to public health and safety was equally critical and urgent.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the depth of racism in our community, with reports of people of "Chinese appearance", such as healthcare workers, being targets of racial abuse, and accused of spreading the "Chinese virus". There's also emerging evidence that people of colour, health workers, and patients are experiencing disproportionately negative impacts from COVID-19.

Black lives matter in Australia, too

Unfortunately, George Floyd’s death was no isolated nor rare incident. His death is a reminder that racism regularly extinguishes the lives of people of colour, devastating individuals, families and communities.

Nor is it an experience solely confined to a country more than 15,000 kilometres away. Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, there have been more than 432 deaths in police custody, with no one held to account – or “432 victims and no perpetrators”. Australia must confront and reckon with its own history, and the persistent and growing problem of disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Racism is an organised system of oppression and power that advantages certain individuals and groups in society, and disadvantages others. The legacies of colonialism, violence and intergenerational trauma are embedded within our institutions, including universities, and continue to drive inequities across all aspects of society.

Racism in research

These recent events have prompted people within the academy to reflect on the role that the research community and academic institutions play in perpetrating and maintaining institutional and systemic racism. The persistence of racist ideology in research throughout history and up to the present day serves to reinforce racial hierarchies in academia and broader society.

The concept of "race" has been central to the ways in which human similarity and difference is viewed within the practices, hierarchies and power structures of research. Over time, this developed into a shared understanding that race-based differences were "innate" or "biological", which removed responsibility towards addressing the structural factors that create and maintain inequities in health and across society.

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Scholarship in science and anthropology, for example, has had key roles to play in colonial missions that justified slavery, invasion, and genocide by European settlers. Medical doctors pathologised and dehumanised people of colour to defend the violent oppression and enslavement of black slaves, for example, calling the desire of slaves to run away a mental illness called "drapetomania" – the cure for which, according to Dr Samuel Cartwright in 1851, was “whipping the devil out of them”.

The use of racial categories in scientific research and clinical studies has resulted in the devaluation and exploitations of black lives, resulting in unequal treatment in medical care, and ultimately premature death. Race science continues to influence contemporary research and scholarship – for example, in genetics research, despite being disproven and discredited as a legitimate field of scientific endeavour. In a landmark paper published in 1972, geneticist Richard Lewontin established that there's greater variation within so-called "races" than between them, thus providing evidence that race was a "social construct" rather than a biological reality.

Research is embedded in a global system of imperialism and power where Indigenous communities have often been the subjects of study by non-Indigenous researchers. Indigenous peoples are the most researched group in history, but arguably have received little direct benefit in return.

#ShutDownAcademia

In solidarity with the BLM movement, academics in the US called for a shutdown on 10 June, urging the wider academic community to reflect on its own contribution to, and complicity in, institutional and systemic racism, and take more direct action to eradicate it.

Concurrently, black academics in the US and Indigenous academics in Australia shared their experiences of racism within the academy on social media via #BlackInTheIvory. Students and university staff described instances of racism, both interpersonal and institutional, of regular racial micro-aggressions, being silenced and ignored, and having their place in the academy questioned (in relation to affirmative action policies).

Despite universities putting out statements promoting "diversity and inclusion", some described the often unpaid and unsupported work they were expected to undertake in various diversity committees, in addition to their normal tasks and responsibilities.

This further adds to the mental and physical toll on students, researchers and staff who are often already struggling to juggle teaching and research duties in addition to the expectation that one must form academic networks and find mentors where the majority of senior academics are white.

For some, the academy “functions as a frontier of racist violence” where black thought and knowledge is policed and diminished. Research topics of black scientists are less likely to be funded by research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health. In 2019, none of the five Indigenous-focused projects that obtained funding under the Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship scheme went to an Indigenous researcher.

Black and Indigenous academics are not alone

A 2017 study of experiences of Asian academics in Australian universities found that a majority (54.3%) of Asian-Australian academics felt their ethnic and cultural background was a disadvantage in their workplace, and 42% reported experiencing racism, ethnic stereotyping, and/or marginalisation.

Platitudes of "diversity and inclusion", and condemnations about racism in the community, are hollow in the face of a persistently unequal playing field.

Anti-racism in the academic community

Business as usual is no longer acceptable. Our words, our actions and our research matter. As researchers and educators, we all have a critical role to play in dismantling racism in academia. Preserving the status quo means complicity and further perpetuation of institutional systemic racism that continues to cause harm within the academic community, and outside of it.

Anti-racism and allyship in the academy should include:

  • Centring of the voices, experiences, and needs of staff and students who are Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of colour
  • Critical reflection and courage to deeply examine the ongoing legacies of colonialism, racism and white privilege that impact academic institutions
  • Implementing anti-racism training and race-conscious curriculum
  • Eliminating racial bias in the research process
  • Engaging in the decolonisation of research methodologies
  • Ensuring universities are safe spaces for teaching and learning

Racism has deep roots across all sections of society, including academic institutions. Any form of solidarity with the BLM movement must begin with a genuine interrogation of the institutional norms, practices and policies that continually disadvantage people of colour.

Leadership and long-term commitment from universities is critical. It's time to come together and dismantle the system of racism once and for all.

Dr Mandy Truong, Research Fellow, Monash University

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