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Bustos ’16, Murphy GS: On race, the environment and confronting bias

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Listening to other students of color discuss their experiences with subtle and overt forms of racism during the past week reminds us that our own feelings of alienation are more broadly shared than we often recognize. As people of color attending a historically white institution, we have experienced more than our fair share of uncomfortable moments. Emotionally unnerving, these instances have hit us hardest in the intellectual setting we are encouraged to call home on campus: the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Even though we are accustomed to standing alone or amongst only a small number of people of color in academic and activist environmental settings, it is still jarring when our very existence in these spaces is questioned by our white peers.

One day, I (Camila) forgot my ID at home and could not get into the new Building for Environmental Research and Teaching, where we have office space as a part of the Climate and Development Lab.

As a (white) woman approached the building, I said hello with relief, explaining that I had forgotten my ID and was not able to enter BERT. Looking me up and down, scrutinizing my clothes, the woman asked, “Uhmm … You work here?” Only slightly annoyed, I responded that I did but had forgotten my ID. Before I could question this uncomfortable interaction, the woman stopped me and asked, “Could you remind me who you work with again?” expressing deep disbelief that I, in fact, worked at BERT. I asked some of my white peers if this had happened to them. Not a single one responded yes.

Situations like these are far too common within university settings. Despite shallow rhetoric about the importance of creating diverse and inclusive communities, the vast majority of higher education institutions are failing underrepresented and historically marginalized students, as the protests erupting on campuses from California to Connecticut demonstrate.

At Brown, we have pushed the leadership of IBES to do more than simply talk about the importance of diversity. None of the 13 “teaching” or “institute fellows” are underrepresented minorities, and out of the 27 affiliated faculty members, zero come from black or Latino backgrounds. The institute is currently working on implementing its diversity plan to increase diversity in postdoctoral and faculty hires and support summer research for low-income students. While the institute has taken some important first steps, we find the plan’s implementation too slow and worry this effort has become just one of the many items on a much longer administrative to-do list.

A year ago, a group of over 180 students, faculty members and alums signed a letter asking the institute’s leadership to address the issue of diversity. The letter included a list of recommendations, none of which have been directly addressed. Last semester, students organized a forum to discuss the ongoing problem with students, faculty members and administrators. To our knowledge, nothing concrete has come of this meeting either.

As an institute, IBES does not hire its own faculty. Instead, hiring is done in partnership with affiliated departments, such as ecology and evolutionary biology, sociology and history. Thus, both IBES and affiliated departments share the burden of addressing the glaring lack of diversity in environmental research and teaching at Brown. This undoubtedly calls for cross-departmental efforts to increase diversity, in accordance with the University’s Diversity Action Plan, which will be released as a working draft Friday.

This year IBES is co-hiring over 10 new faculty members. So far, all five candidates for the conservation biology position are white, and four of them are male.

To be clear, we recognize the challenge of hiring people of color for faculty positions, when the proportion of white to nonwhite people with doctoral degrees remains so unbalanced. But when it comes to the environment, the lack of diversity is not accidental, but rather the result of the historical and systematic exclusion of people of color from environmentalist discourse. As the critical geographer Carolyn Finney argues, environmental discourse in the United States is “informed by a legacy of Eurocentrism and the linkage of wilderness to whiteness, wherein both become naturalized and universalized. … These narratives, which contribute to the American environmental imaginary, are grounded in the values, beliefs and attitudes of the individuals who construct them.” Thus, it is not a surprise that our understandings of environmentalism, environmental studies and environmentalists are closely associated with whiteness.

We have seen the consequences of this white environmental imaginary firsthand in the lack of faculty of color affiliated with IBES, as well as through the absence of the critical aspects of environmental research and training that interrogate race, class, gender, sexuality and nationality as categories of difference that shape human connections to the broader ecosystem. It is truly a shame that you can spend four years studying conservation biology, for example, without ever having to consider how social configurations of power are implicated in such topics or the racist history of the discipline. What forms of nature are worthy of conservation and for whom, and who gets to make these decisions? Thus, the lack of diversity in the faculty not only affects the experiences of students of color within the department but also reinforces a largely uncritical education for all students.

We do not think the lack of faculty of color is the only problem, but it is unlikely that the situation will change without this key issue being addressed. If IBES truly values diversity and inclusion, its administration will have to find ways to make the culture of the institute much more open. It will have to work toward creating a space in which faculty and students of color feel more comfortable, no matter what their scholarly and political interests might be. We recognize this is not an easy thing to do. It will actively require time and energy from all stakeholders. But rethinking current efforts and asking difficult questions are imperative if we truly wish to challenge the status quo.

Camila Bustos ’16 and Michael W. Murphy GS can be reached at maria_bustos@brown.edu and michael_w_murphy@brown.edu, respectively. They both would like to express their gratitude for the support they have received from their mentors throughout their time at Brown.

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