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“Getting Woke”: One Scientist’s Experience of Confronting His Own Implicit Biases

Category: Uncategorized

By Raj Pandya


I try to do the right thing on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, and I recently had an experience that reminded me how even those of us who are trying to do the right thing make mistakes. I want to share that experience so that others can learn from it. For me, as painful as the experience was, there is something hopeful about the opportunity to do better.

Here’s the backstory: in the title of an excerpt from an AGU-StoryCorps interview I did with Warren Washington, I described him as someone who “literally wrote the book on climate science, “ even though he made the point in the interview that he wrote the book with a co-author.  Thankfully, his co-author, Claire Parkinson, reached out and pointed out my error. In a gracious email, she posed a powerful question: “Would I have done the same thing if Warren’s co-author had been a male?”

That question launched a lot of thoughts.

  • Her question is the right one to ask. And, it is probably true that I would have been less likely to leave out a male co-author. We are all raised in a society that still sends implicit messages about gender, and I likely internalized some of those messages in ways I wasn’t fully aware of. In fact, this might be a textbook illustration of implicit bias.
  • As a white(ish) straight guy, and a person who is accustomed to the privileges associated with that, it was really tempting to think this one slip wasn’t a big deal. But it is a big deal, and it actually wasn’t just one slip-up: it was one in a litany of remarks like this. By the time I said what I had said, Claire had had to listen to that kind of remark many other times—and each time it probably got a little more troubling. I’ve heard this called “death by a thousand paper cuts” and it is thought to be one of the factors that contributes to women leaving academia at higher rates than men.
  • This is hard to talk about, but it is important to talk about. Claire was worried that I might dismiss the note she sent, by either not replying or by telling her she was overreacting. It takes courage to call out these kinds of microaggressions, and her courage is an important part of this story.
  • Forgiveness is also important. In the middle of this, one of my friends and colleagues said, “We all make mistakes…I believe you will soon look back and openly share this episode with others as a teachable moment.” This alleviated some of my anxiety and gave me space to learn—as well as the courage to be open about my mistakes, even when it may seem risky or painful.
  • Claire went out of her way to be gracious, but she didn’t have to. I appreciate her civility, and it probably made it easier for me to hear her, but I don’t think it is right to expect it. A student said to me, “It’s like it’s not enough to help them get woke, we’ve got to make sure they feel good about it, then listen to them brag about how woke they are.” Ouch, but right.

Before I move from reflections to suggestions, I’d like to urge you to check out the interview with Warren. One of the amazing things about this interview, and one of the things that made this experience so illuminating for me, is it reveals a lot about Warren’s own deep commitment to the connection between good science and treating all people with respect. The edited interview is good (and correctly titled), and we are working to find ways to share the full 45 minute conversation so you can hear about Warren’s history of activism, his experience as one of two African Americans in college who weren’t on the football team, the early days of climate modeling, and what he sings to his grandchildren.

Back to the issue at hand. Assuming you are, like me, imperfect but willing to grow, here are some suggestions for what you, and I, can do.

  • Recognize the probability of bias and check your assumptions. I’ve realized that science is the ultimate team sport, and the fact that I thought in terms of the “lone genius” probably betrays some fairly loaded, and probably gendered, assumptions. Asking about the team will be my new norm.
  • Pick who you work with. I am lucky to have worked professionally with influential, accomplished, and strong women and thinking about those women—what they would do or would advise me to do—helped me decide what to do next. This is backed up by research: one of the best ways to overcome implicit bias is to have positive, everyday experiences with a diversity of people. I will continue my effort to seek out and work with people who think and act in different ways, who have different experiences and perspectives. And I will ask for their help.
  • When you make the inevitable mistake: accept, apologize and ask.
    • Accept that your intention is less relevant than the impact and focus on the impact. This seems relevant to owners of a certain Washington, DC football team. (Just sayin’.)
    • Simple, sincere, and not some measly half-ass apology that includes the word “if”—as in, “I am sorry if I offended you…”
    • Ask the person what they would like to see happen next. This is especially important because, in my careless remark, I made Claire feel, even if only momentarily, less powerful. Asking her what she wanted to happen next was a step toward restoring a little of what I undermined. When I asked, there was no request for her name to be included, only a request that the wording “Literally wrote the book …” be changed to “Literally co-wrote the book.”
  • Share the responsibility to call out bad behavior. Eric Jolley, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, tells a story about being in a meeting where a colleague said, “We’ve got to circle the wagons, because the administration is on the warpath and they’ll scalp us all, starting with the low man on the totem pole.” As Eric walked out of the room, his friend said “Eric, did you hear that, I couldn’t believe it, why didn’t you say something?” Eric’s answer: “I was tired. Why didn’t you say something?”
  • Pay it forward: My friend and colleague gave me the idea for this blog when he suggested sharing the experience as a teachable moment.

What teachable moments can you share?

mgoodwin editor

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