The recent police murder of a cherished member of Houston’s black community, George Floyd, as well as the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery, have yielded greater visibility to the more than 400 years of brutal, systemic racism that has been killing black people in America.
Black students at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences are all too familiar with surviving in oppressive structures, including in elite academic institutions that uphold racism. In response to this, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) recently hosted a virtual town hall titled, “A conversation on race, hope, and healing.”
For scientists of color, racial injustice is not an isolated incident or a news cycle. It is a constant reality that shapes their lives and is embedded in academia. Often, students of color are asked to lead academic diversity initiatives, recruitment, mentorship programs, and town halls. They are asked to explicitly detail the impact institutional racism has had on their well-being. This involves repeated recounting of traumatic events. Black students, especially, are expected to carry the majority of the burden of educating non-black individuals in academia on racism in America. Despite decades of such black labor in academia, systemic racism is still alive, with little progress having been made. It is important to remember that reliving the trauma of racism in these spaces is only worth it if it leads to transformative change. However, there is value in community healing and safe spaces, which was the aim of the GSA’s town hall. The GSA’s powerful and compelling town hall amplified the struggles of black graduate students. In a true showing of resilience and strength, the student panelists shared their personal, painful, and vivid accounts of the toll that systemic racism has taken on their lives, hoping to spark a discussion on allyship and sustainable change that the graduate school can implement to be actively anti-racist and to support graduate students of color.
The town hall, which had nearly 160 attendees, began with a moment of silence and meditation, led by Cherilynn R. Shadding, PhD, the associate dean of Diversity, Career Development, and Alumni Affairs, followed by a panel of students and postdoctoral fellows moderated by Malcolm Moses, the GSA president, and Rhiannon Morrissey, the incoming GSA treasurer. Moses noted to the audience that most of the student body “don’t know what to do, what to say, or how to go forward,” assuring them that they are not alone. Then, Moses reminded his fellow students that science is not exempt from racism, saying, “The problems of the world do apply here.” He initiated the student panel by sharing his own story. He told the audience how his family friend, Atatiana Jefferson, was slain by police inside her own home shortly before his PhD candidacy exam. He relayed how this tragedy, combined with microaggressions on campus, affected his own ability to fulfill his duties as a student. As he stepped aside for the rest of the panel to voice their own experiences and frustrations, he reminded the town hall that the GSA asserts the diversity of the student body to be its strength and, therefore, the diverse voice of the student body must be heard in order for the student body to arise from this moment stronger than before.
Ayesha Khan, PhD, a recent GSBS graduate and the president of the Association of Minority Biomedical Researchers (AMBR), expressed frustration at the failure of non-black communities in fighting for and protecting black lives. “As a Muslim-Indian immigrant woman, despite my own adversity, I have no idea what it is like to be black.” Khan informed herself by learning from black scholars. She realized how systems like the school-to-prison pipeline, the prison industrial complex, and police brutality decimated black communities. “It is not enough for us to learn. We cannot police black people’s rage. We have no right to tell another community how to fight their centuries-long, brutal oppression. We have to use our privilege to amplify black leaders’ demands like defunding the police and donating to black grassroots organizations.” Khan mentioned how resistance of the oppressed is often labeled as “violent” when it is the racism they fight that is truly violent. “I witnessed protesters being brutalized by police with military-grade weapons at protests. I was attacked, beaten with batons, and tear gassed till I couldn’t breathe. We were surrounded, cornered, and attacked from behind as we tried to run. If they had no regard for my life, can you imagine how they assault Black people? We need to mobilize our communities. We need to hold racist institutions accountable.”
Next, Erin Atkinson, a PhD student, spoke about the fraught relationship the LGBTQ community has historically had with the police. “June is usually Pride month for the LGBTQ community, but it doesn’t feel like it this year,” she said. “Queer people of color experience discrimination for both being LGBTQ and for their race.” Atkinson, who is white, also shared the experiences of those close to her. “I have friends who are afraid to go to public bathrooms because they are gender nonconforming and afraid of being harassed or having security called. But for my friend who is black, she is also afraid of being a victim of police brutality for being a black woman or for being mistaken as a Black man in a women’s bathroom.” Atkinson went on to describe the high rates of violence—from police and the public—against LGBTQ people of color, especially trans people of color. Like some of the other panelists, Atkinson ended with a call to action, this one directed at white allies. “We [white people] have to challenge white supremacy, not only at its most obvious and ugly, but also when it shows up in the small daily ways that are harder to see, particularly when we reap the benefits from them.”
Another PhD student, Mary Fuentes, recalled her own experiences as a first-generation, Mexican-American in El Paso. Fuentes spoke about the anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism she encounters for things such as speaking her native language. Additionally, Fuentes discussed the effect of growing up with law enforcement in the borderland, where increased policing by Customs and Border Patrol or ICE occurs alongside the local police department. “The conversation that you have regarding these entities is rooted in fear, to avoid any situation where you encounter an officer.” She mentioned that racism and the abuse of power from these entities is still observed in Hispanic communities where “community leaders and citizens are arrested for voicing our struggles” and “families are treated unjustly and separated for not having a document that defines a line across the border.” Moving forward, Fuentes strongly believes that there is strength in numbers and that minority groups need to collectively stand together to support each other’s movements. “I am proud of seeing the Hispanic community amplify and support the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I am also aware that my community is not perfect and we still have a lot of internal work to do.” Fuentes stressed the need for minority groups to look within themselves and their communities and to work on dismantling racist and oppressive systems that “keep us divided within each other.”
The panelists’ stories were followed by a 40-minute Q&A session that spanned a wide array of topics, including strategies for outreach, police reform, allyship, and much more. At the end of the town hall, students asked how to help in the short and long term. Moses advised all students that want to help create a safer environment for students of color to get involved. He suggested that students gather anti-racist resources in order to learn how to help those across the nation who are putting in the work right now on everyone’s behalf. In the week following the town hall, students gathered in solidarity for a vigil. “We see each other and we value each other,” Moses said.
Moses’s parting words to all who attended the town hall were that “the discussions cannot end here. Our curiosity should not end at science. We find answers when nobody can. We can beat cancers, and we can fight injustice.”
If you have been the victim of a crime/hate crime, contact UT Police at Houston:
- Emergencies - 911
- Non-emergencies - 713-792-2890
If you need to talk to someone confidentially about managing stress, anxiety and or feel you are in crisis, please reach out
- UTHealth Student Counseling services:
- 24-hour hotline for crisis assistance: 713-500-4688
- Telecounseling and telepsychiatry resources here
- UTHealth EAP:
- Call 713-500-3327 to speak with an EAP representative. These services are accessible to all GSBS students. (Use your UTHealth credentials to access the links above.)
If you want to share your experience or offer suggestions for programming in diversity, equity, and inclusion, please contact Associate Dean, Cherilynn R. Shadding, PhD.
Resources for self/group reflection and assessment:
- Moving from Bystander to Upstander - Presentation sponsored by the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE)
- Implicit Association Test - an assessment that measures thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control (unconscious bias) by Project Implicit