Talking About Race and Inequity in Science –
Guide for Students and Postdocs

This guide was created to help graduate students and postdoctoral scholars talk to their PIs about race and inequities in science and within their lab or 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.

The Graduate Division Dean's Office has created a Faculty Guide for having these important conversations, and we encourage students and postdocs to direct faculty to this. We also recognize faculty should initiate these conversations, not their team members. However, that does not always happen, and we want to empower students and postdocs to talk to their PIs about engaging in dialogue about race and inequity in science. 

See the Faculty Guide


Understand the Power Dynamics

It is important to recognize the role power plays in these conversations. There is a power difference between faculty/PIs and their lab members or research team. We also 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 less 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 and adversely effect those with less power.


Reflect on Identities to Uncover Potential Biases

The hidden nature of power and privilege is particularly pervasive in academia where those in leading positions, such as faculty, often occupy one or more identities that hold power in these structures – for example white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, and/or from a family or community with higher education and/or wealth. It is important to recognize where you are positioned in these structures of power and oppression, because this informs your perspective and can produce significant biases that will shape how you talk about race and inequity. 


Four Potential Scenarios

There are at least four scenarios that may be helpful to think about when considering a conversation with your PI and among your research team. Part 3 of this guide offers tips for students from non-historically marginalized racial backgrounds to show up and contribute to these conversations in solidarity.  

Scenario 1

You (student or postdoc) do not talk to your PI and they bring up the conversation about race and inequity in science on their own. This is the most ideal scenario. Part 3 (below) may be helpful to better show up in the space and contribute to the conversation.

Scenario 2

You initiate a dialogue with your PI and the discussion goes well, leading your PI to schedule a more in-depth conversation with your lab or research team. See Parts 1 and 3 for tips and guidance on initiating the dialogue and contributing to the subsequent conversation.

Scenario 3

You initiate a dialogue and the discussion does not go well. This may result in the PI deciding not to engage your lab in a conversation about race and inequities, or they may reluctantly raise the topic in an unsatisfactory way (such as by sending a brief email but not engaging in further dialogue). See Parts 1 and 2 for initiating and repairing the conversation.

Scenario 4

You do not talk to your PI and they do not bring up the conversation on their own. This is the least ideal scenario. If you don’t feel comfortable initiating a dialogue with your PI yourself but still want them to prompt a conversation in the lab, then consider asking another trusted student. You may also contact D’Anne Duncan at [email protected] for resources in the Graduate Division and student groups who have been holding these discussions.

Part 1: Tips and Guidance for Initiating a Dialogue with Your PI

Students or postdocs may decide they wish to talk to their PI one-on-one, or you may consider pairing up or designating a trusted person in the lab or research team to talk to the PI.

  • Open the discussion by providing context for why you think this discussion is important and what you want everyone to get out of it. This is your opportunity to set the tone for the discussion, to ensure that people are aware that these conversations can be tough and uncomfortable, but they are important to have. It is okay to admit your own limits here and make it clear that you are still committed to engaging in conversation in order to better understand these topics and to make progress in the lab or with your research team. 
  • State your goal(s) in initiating this dialogue, as well as identify the potential outcomes of the conversation. Goal(s) should encompass talking about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and taking action to address issues of race and equity in the lab. “Inclusion refers to the intentional, ongoing effort to ensure that diverse people with different identities are able to fully participate in all aspects of the work of an organization, including leadership positions and decision-making processes” (Tan 2019).
  • Consider specific issues or goals you would like them to discuss with the lab or research team. You do not need to have all the answers or ideas for moving forward, but one or two concrete steps would be helpful.
    • Direct them to the Faculty Guide and ask them to prompt a meeting with the lab or research team to have this conversation. It may be helpful to review the Guide yourself first.
    • Lower the stakes for them by acknowledging that these conversations are often difficult, and that nobody expects them to be perfect. Express to them that what matters is that issues are addressed together as a team, but that the conversation should be initiated by them.
    • You can remind your PI that the Faculty Guide has resources listed for them as well as people they can reach out to for more directed consultation.
  • Thank them for being willing to prioritize this culture of inclusivity and for being brave enough to start this work.
  • Re-visit the initial dialogue: You may find that the initial conversation goes well and your PI appears invested in prioritizing a culture of inclusivity, but as time goes on their investment fades. You may wish to re-visit the dialogue and ongoing conversation they initially agreed to. For support in this scenario:
    • Consider referring your PI to the graduate programs integration plan (currently being developed by faculty, students and the Graduate Division to address race and inequity in graduate programs).
    • Reach out to D'Anne Duncan (graduate students) or Gabi Monsalve (postdocs) for additional support.

Do you need additional help navigating the conversation?

If you want to brainstorm more strategies for your specific situation, need more help in understanding this process, or want to practice your approach, feel free to contact Assistant Dean D'Anne Duncan (diversity and learner success for students). We're here to help!

Leave us feedback on this guide

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