Some thoughts about being a BME academic
I often hear this term Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) in the university. Why is that important? What does it mean?
Well, the bottom line is that our success as individuals is partly determined by systemic support, the social networks, and brand names we are associated with. Talent, knowledge, training, attitudes, diplomacy, and confidence help us to make progress, but a lack of certain connections and social backing can set glass ceilings above us. Therefore, not all brilliant people get a fair opportunity to contribute to the success of organizations. It is this reason that makes BME a worthy topic if an organisation cares about harnessing the full potential of its human resource.
This note is not about what an organisation can do. It is more about sharing my thoughts with BME academics who may want to think about breaking the glass ceiling.
To mention a little bit about my background, I was born in Sri Lanka and currently live in London. At present I am the director of the Morph-lab, and a Reader (Associate Professor) in Design Engineering and Robotics at Imperial College London. In the Morph-lab, we take a soft robotics approach to understand how the body and the brain work together to solve dynamic computational problems such as keeping balance, manipulating objects, and moving around in natural environments. I am also the speaker of the Imperial Robotics Forum that consists of 44 principal investigators in robotics research with current funding of £50 million, 64 patents out of which 15 are commercially exploited, and with more than 2400 robotics research publications. In addition, I also serve as one of the 3 executive committee members of the UK RAS Strategic Task Group for Soft Robotics to formulate an industry engagement strategy for the next 10 years. I have academic experience in Sri Lanka (University of Moratuwa), Japan (Saga University), USA (Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and MIT), and UK (King’s College London and Imperial College London).
Few suggestions for BME academics:
Overcome the stigma of branding: It is important to note that many BME academics still have to bear with the social traces of colonial era propaganda that branded communities from different parts of the World. This short clip shows how Disney has contributed to inculcate racial bias in children. Once a child grows up with narratives such as the White Queen is the good queen and the colored queen is the bad queen, what can you expect when they grow up? There is a scene in the TV drama series Poldark where a self-styled biologist preaches to a group of aristocratic White women that Africans are less intellectually evolved. Poverty and lack of funding for education in Africa may have fitted this narrative those days, but this kind of unfounded lies were soon proven wrong when people with African origin became great intellectuals the moment they got access to good education. We cannot be sure that all academics have had a chance to rise above lies told in the name of science and childhood media conditioning. Therefore, it is natural to expect some bias to resonate in some academics when they grow up to review a grant proposal or a paper you write. I am a bit lucky in Engineering because a well-articulated research question and an analytical or experimental proof usually penetrate the barriers of brands. However, I am not sure about other fields that have more room for egoistic and subjective interpretation behind "authority to possess" objective observation.
My advice to BME academics in such cases is to think about the positive side of the society where you can always find fellow academics who have taken the effort to break free from social stigma on BME academics. Collaborate with them and build your network. Over time, the productivity of this network will help you to break the glass ceiling. It may seem comfortable to only hang around with colleagues of your own ethnic background but try to write research grants and publish with colleagues whom you think are the best people to solve grand academic problems irrespective of ethnic backgrounds. This helps to learn from different cultures and ways of thinking. It also helps to break the entry barrier.
Reconciliation: My Pulitzer Prize winner colleague Viet Thanh Nguyen whom I met when I was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University said “every battle is fought twice – once in the battlefield, and then in the alleys of memory”. He related to his writings about Vietnam war and how complicated involvement of a number of Western powers including the French, led to brutality in Vietnam. His writings and open discussions have helped to trigger a reconciliation process just by giving the space to look at all aspects of the alleys of memory. BME academics have to take our own unique approaches to reconcile.
I am a Buddhist. In Buddhism, there is a clear guidance for reconciliation called “Patisaraniya Kamma”, where we engage in a honest discussion with the aim of re-establishing trust, which goes beyond forgiveness. For instance, rival companies can settle for a financial deal and "forgive" each other for the patents they infringed from each other to avoid costly litigation, but it does not mean they re-establish trust. In Buddhism, honesty of the process of discussion is shown to be the best way to reach the end goal of re-establishing trust. An honest process of Patisaraniya Kamma tries to look internally to see "my role" in the problem while respecting others for seeing their role. Therefore, it is a process of creating an atmosphere to be honest by being honest. I follow this when I want to talk about any settlement including the topic of British colonial history. Taking a secular stance, one doesn’t have to be a Buddhist to follow the principle. I think this critical discussion of the colonial history, slavery, and exploitation many BME colleagues share in the alleys of memory is yet to be fully addressed in the modern society. As a result, irritants of this sad past keep haunting us. In this sense, I am happy to see many leading universities now have space for dicussion such as the Black History Month. Me being a South Asian, these events have opened my eyes to the fact that colonial past has taken a very different shape in Africa than in South Asia.
Be conscious about our own biases: A big part of my Buddhist meditation practice is to notice how many conditioned labels I use to create an identity and how it blocks us from seeing through people. For instance, I claim myself to be Sinhalese as an ethnic group. But if I look closely, I cannot compare myself with a Sinhalese who lived just 100 years ago in terms of behaviors, language, and views. Yet, we hang on to the same “Sinhalese” label. While it is important to be proud of our ethnic backgrounds and cultural history, it is important to notice that identity can also hold us back from progress and healthy relationships with people from different backgrounds. The attempt should be directed to understand that I am also a part of the grand problem of viewing the World through identities. I can only change it by offering myself as a person who makes an honest attempt to see people as they truly are with talents, ideas, and creativity. It naturally leads us to the realisation that education and training as conditioning processes are much more powerful factors determining who we are than how people look like from outside.
I have been a mentor to BME academics in several academic institutes. Throughout my academic career, I have had PhD students from 13 countries so far (USA, UK, Russia, Italy, China, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Iran, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, Spain, Finland), and I have collaborated with academics from many more countries. I personally value science than who does science. Over time, I have seen that good science stands out in the long run, and collaboration among critical minds is much more powerful than collaboration among homogeneous groups. What I wrote here are my honest personal views, and they may not represent the views of Imperial College London. However, I am very happy to discuss this topic with any colleagues within the realms of academic freedom of expression.