Monday, September 26, 2016

On Not Understanding Racism: Experiences from the lab bench

It really seems in recent times, that you cannot look at any form of media without bearing witness to an 'opinion' that places judgement on groups of people, and suggests it is perfectly acceptable to exclude them. And it extends beyond the Facebook peanut gallery; in fact, it is a rhetoric echoed by the powers that are charged with governing and leading.  Whether it be Trump screaming that in order to make America great again a wall must be built to 'keep the Mexicans out', or the recent comments regarding Muslim immigration in Australia there seems to be a racist campaign of sorts, built on some sort of threat that is based on little more than where people in the world come from.

I don't get it.

Now based on the title of this post, you probably think my conclusions regarding the pointlessness and danger of racism come from scientific research or philosophy or somewhere else. And while yes, in part it does, and there is much academic work out there that supports a position that 'race' isn't a biological definition, that socially it's detrimental, that psychologically it is traumatic for those that experience it, this article is actually about my own experiences. The greatest lesson I have been taught about the detriment of racism in an unusual place - the lab bench. 

I really should've developed a racist attitude. The odds were stacked against me. I was prime fodder for the bigoted and racist demographic. I grew up in a small country town, and from our classes were 99% Caucasian. Small country towns are stereotyped for their narrow minded folk, and while this is a generalisation, there is a reason this stereotype exists.   Small towns run on cliques and stories about other people. So if you a different, you are prime target for intrigue and gossip. Small town folk are notoriously protective as well so again, if you are different, you can be seen as a threat.  Thankfully there are exceptions to this. Being the daughter of immigrants, I got to experience the 'small town mentality' first hand regarding "those with accents" and how it perpetuates trough the generations. Maybe this is what stopped those attitudes developing, I could never abandon who I was to 'fit' in. 

It wasn't until I moved to the city to go to university that I really encountered the true diversity of humanity: there were communities of Asians, Indians, Muslims, Africans etc.. It was at this time, I realised the typical small town views of immigrants thankfully, really seemed to have failed to  ingrain into my psyche. What I was taught in my childhood stuck - that it's not the colour of someone's skin but their words and deeds that make them worthy.

A few years later, I took my first job in a research lab, and it was here that I gained full appreciation for the dichotomy of humanity - we are so diverse yet all the same. Research is a truly global endeavour, and it's not unusual to have a lab group where every member is from a different country! Because of this type of globalisation, it just never factors in that someone is lesser because of where they are from, science is judged on the merits of the data not the race of the person who produced it. So for me, working with everyone from everywhere is the normal, but many people would be just in places just like my hometown, and thus would develop be easily able irrational fear of someone who is different to them. (Let me pause to say to those people: your fears are irrational and dangerous. People from other countries are just like you. They are humans. They have the same emotions, they deserve the same basic compassion and yes their skin might be a different colour, or they may dress differently, but they are just as kind or cruel as you). 

The people I worked with had left their homes and moved half way around the world just for the opportunity to work on a scientific problem. Many of these people left behind loved ones, their language, their culture in the name of discovery. Doing that is not easy. But I got to see something magical - regardless of where these people had come from, regardless of the colour of their skin, we all were working together to understand something fundamental about the world.
                                             An unlikely place that can enlighten about racism.(Image: Wikimedia commons

Since then, I've met many people at the lab bench. And they've all imparted something on me beyond the science - whether it be an appreciation for the place I live or work, a recipe, or even how to saw "hello" in Chinese, all of these experiences and sharing of ideas and cultures wouldn't have been possible with an attitude of hate. I think I'd be a far lesser person. A little patience and compassion has gone a long way. Science is exhausting and relentless and so, knowing you've got someone who accepts you, and who will help you, has been instrumental to getting me through the dark moments. I cannot fathom how someone who is struggling not only with the rigors of a life in research but also with being in a foreign place must feel.  But it is so much more than my own experiences - science is a truly global endeavour.  If you pick up a science paper today you'll see names that reflect this diversity - there will be researchers from all over the world. Racism and judgement threaten this very pursuit. 

Recently, I saw a clipping of a survey circa 1939, that questioned Americans regarding Jewish refuges from WWII being allowed to resettle in the USA. And the majority had voted against allowing Jewish immigration. Closer to home, we've been here before too, multiple times in fact (  Imagine if that 'majority' rule had influenced the immigration policy - the discoveries that would have been lost, the brilliant people who would have never been afforded the chance to reach their potential, but worst of all, the humanity that would have suffered simply due to fear mongering.  Back to the current day, we are facing the same thing. Polls echo the same sentiment - that we should lock certain groups out, that immigration is going to be the undoing of society. Have we not learnt from history? I fear, that rather than standing ground, those who lead will bow down to these calls for bans and lockdowns. And then I wonder, is the next person who will make big breakthrough currently sitting in detention, sleeping in a tent in a refugee camp, or walking through the desert? And what as humanity are we losing by turning our backs on fellow humans, simply because of where they come from? Based on my single experience, I would say what we stand to lose is immeasurable.

Inspiration often comes from the most unexpected places, and the lab bench probably isn't the first place you would think one would learn about compassion, tolerance and acceptance. But after nearly 10 years working science, I've seen the result of what happens when we replace racism, bigotry, xenophobia and hatred with patience, compassion and understanding. We make discoveries, we learn and gain knowledge, and we can work together to change the world around us. We achieve great things. And during that time I've bore witness to the same terrorism, crime and death as those who stand up and say that we should marginalise and lock other humans up. So I don't get it. And I probably never will. Singling people out, denying them opportunity, judging them, damages the collective that is humanity, it stifles us right through to how we make discoveries and innovate. I cannot understand why any reasonable person would support that.

So when faced with bigoted, racist opinions, I just do not understand why someone feels so threatened by an individual based on their skin colour, country of origin, their outfit or any other feature. I do not understand how people can judge someone on their appearance without having uttered a word to them. I do not understand racism, because if you have a racist attitude you are denying yourself opportunity. Do racist people not realise that the computers they use, the medicines that heal and the many products of science only exist because we broke those down those hateful barriers?

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