Talking about Race and Inequity in Science - Guide for Faculty

The guide below was created specifically to help faculty to talk about race and inequities in science with their research team. The guide is meant to offer concrete ideas for engaging in dialogue about race, while also acknowledging that these conversations cannot be approached monolithically, or without considering context and power dynamics.  Faculty should initiate these conversations, not their team members; however, that does not always happen. (Get more context on power dynamics below.)

To empower students and postdocs to talk to their PIs about engaging in dialogue about race and inequity in science, the Graduate Division Dean's office has created a Graduate Student/Postdoctoral Scholar Guide, to which we encourage faculty to direct trainees.; Faculty should also consider reviewing the student/postdoc guide to better understand how their team members might approach such conversations.

Check out the Student/Postdoc Guide

We want to stress how important it is to have these conversations. If you've never brought up these topics before with trainees, this might feel uncomfortable. But your trainees notice the lack of sensitivity to racial and cultural matters, particularly when events have been part of the world news. 

You may find it helpful to do some self-directed education on certain topics before engaging in dialogue. Check out the Graduate Division DEI Primer to have a better understanding of how you can be an active participant in the diversity work within the Graduate Division.


Intersecting Structures of Power

It is important to recognize the role power plays in these conversations. We live in a society with multiple intersecting structures of power – race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, dis/ability, immigration status, religion, class/socioeconomic status, among others - which create more opportunities for some and fewer opportunities for others. These structures of power produce inequities and systems of oppression – racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, xenophobia, classism, elitism, and other forms of systemic discrimination. Anti-Black racism is particularly pervasive in the United States. These structures tend to be less visible to those with more power but are nonetheless there. These structures in turn adversely affect those with less power.


Power Dynamics Pervasive in Academia

This power dynamic is particularly pervasive in academia, where those in leading positions, such as faculty, often occupy one or more identities that hold power within these structures – for example white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, and/or from a family or community with higher education and/or wealth. In addition to structural power, there is a power differential between faculty/PIs and their lab members or research team. It is important to recognize where you are positioned in these structures of power and oppression, because your positionality informs your perspective and can produce significant biases that shape how you talk about race and inequity.


Science Shapes and is Shaped by Society

It is crucial that we as scientists acknowledge and examine the ways in which these structures of power produce inequities, especially within our own communities. Science both shapes and is shaped by the intersecting societal structures of power. We must not think of science as agnostic to these important issues. To do so would be an injustice to science, the people who do the science, and the people who are impacted by our science. As leaders in the scientific community, it is time to step up to talk about and address racism in science, which starts in the lab and among research teams.



Part 1: Setting the Stage

Foundational Principles for Solidarity When Engaging in Dialogue

Part 2: Having the Conversation

Tips and Guidance for the Conversation

Managing the Space

If there is a situation where something is said that causes harm, offends, or is problematic to someone, it is important to acknowledge the impact. It does not have to be resolved then and there, but it has to be addressed at least. If needed, you can follow-up with everyone involved after you have time to consult other people. If you can manage doing so during the moment, it is always good to ask clarifying questions that will help people understand intentions and impacts (on both sides).

Part 3: Keeping the Conversation Going


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D’Anne Duncan, PhD  |   Assistant Dean for Diversity and Learner Success
Nicole Foti  |  Sociology PhD student
Isaac JT Strong, PhD  |  Director, Graduate Faculty Development