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Social Justice in Science

Social justice concepts and examples in Science/STEM disciplines

Intermediate Social Justice Concepts with Examples

"This part builds upon the previous foundational concepts and provides scaffolding to discuss increasingly complex and nuanced terms in upcoming columns. The concepts that appear here begin to delve deeper into specific aspects of social justice and express social justice’s range. Many of the concepts in this part have multiple possible definitions and, while we are not able to cover all of them, we aim to provide a representative sample. If you want to delve deeper into any of these concepts, there exist many additional resources, academic and otherwise, which you can access through your local academic or public library. 

For most of the definitions and examples, we are building off of our own lived experiences, education, and observations. However, we realize that our perspectives are limited, and we acknowledge and welcome different voices. For example, with Model Minority, because none of us have Asian American or Asian heritage, we consulted with six Asian/Asian American colleagues about our draft definition and examples. Their names are listed in our acknowledgements. Based on their feedback, we modified it to more closely align with their lived experiences.

This work will likely push some readers outside of their comfort zone, but the work is intended to spur conversation and not to alienate. Thus, the authors encourage readers to use the discussion questions at the end for self-reflection and/or to help start a conversation in their organization." (Adapted from Bussmann, Altamirano, Hansen, Johnson, & Keer, 2020)

Accessibility

Definition: How well something is designed to allow for as many people as possible, with as many different embodied experiences as possible, to engage with or use it without needing to request modifications. The quality of access or the ability to reach a resource or tool; in education, accessibility can refer to the ability to access materials and resources that enable everyone’s ability to learn, specifically targeted to combat ableism and assist those who are disabled. In the library and information science context, access and accessibility are sometimes conflated to refer to public access to publications and data. This is a different use of the term.

Science Example: In an environmental science class, which is a requirement for graduation, the professor is teaching remotely/online. The professor assigns team members. The first assignment involves going to a park and taking water and soil samples. The professor notices that the Team B report has no input from a student, Guy. When the professor contacts the student, Guy asks her if the samples could be mailed to his home, where he can analyze them. He informs the professor he has limnophobia and hylophobia (Stevens, 2019). Realizing her class is not fully accessible, the professor contacts the Mental Health Department in order to ask for advice about how to alter the assignment in order to make sure Guy and future students have options for how and where they collect and analyze samples.

[Accessibility]

Ageism

Definition: Discrimination, attitudes, actions, or policies that limit the participation of persons based on their age rather than their skill or talent. There are some legal protections for those 40 years or older against hiring discrimination, but functionally ageism affects people of all ages (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.).

Science Example: An opportunity comes to the biology department for a new sponsored lab. An experienced researcher, potentially 5 years shy of retirement, submits a proposal for use of the lab. The proposal review board considers her too old to learn how to use the new equipment that will be installed in the lab space and immediately removes her application from the review pile.

[Ageism]

Antiracist

Definition: People, organizations, or philosophies that actively reject and intentionally work to dismantle racism and systemic injustices in workplaces, homes, and everyday lives. Being antiracist looks different depending on your identity and positionality (National Museum of African American History of Culture, n.d.). It is important to acknowledge that to not be racist is not the same as being antiracist.

Science Example 1: The tenure and promotion committee in the astronomy department was having heated conversation about the appropriateness of a large podcast audience as an impactful measure of scholarship for promoting a BIPOC faculty member. The chair of the committee stopped the conversation and reminded everyone that, “We don’t agree on podcasts but we can agree on the importance of authentic storytelling and oral traditions in some communities and cultures.”

Science Example 2: Rushton and Templer (2012) published an article that claimed the results from psychological studies combined with animal studies evidence strongly indicated that people with darker skin color were prone to more aggression and sexual activity. The journal, Personality and Individual Differences, retracted the article after other scholars expressed their outrage, identified the article as racist, and provided evidence to negate the conclusions of Rushton and Templer (Sapunar, 2020).

[Antiracist]

BIPOC

Definition: BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color with an emphasis placed on the unique experiences of Black and Indigenous peoples in the structures and systems of North America and beyond; notably Indigenous is an umbrella term and does not specify tribe membership or legal category. BIPOC attempts to counter issues inherent to the approach of combining all non-white groups together, such as implying they all have the same experiences or suffer from the same injustices, while providing a way to discuss the larger non-white community without centering white people.

Science Example: At a student chapter meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists, one of the members brought forward that their physics department’s website, literature, and advertising materials used the phrase “People of Color” or the initialization “POC.” The NSBP student chapter then requested the department instead use the phrase “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color” and the initialization “BIPOC” in order to bring to the forefront the lived experience of their Black and Indigenous faculty members, students, and applicants, and to indicate they understood non-white people were not a monolith and did not deserve to be treated as one.

[BIPOC]

Cisgender

Definition: A person who identifies with the sex and presumed gender assigned to them at birth.

Science Example: In order to determine the impact of gender on the development of scientific identity, the Principal Investigator recruits both cisgender and transgender participants for a collaborative research project between the biology and psychology departments.

[Cisgender]

Colorblind

Definition: Often used to describe people who profess to “not see” skin color or ethnic origin. This reflects an ideology that proposes to treat everyone equally regardless of race or ethnicity and an assumption that all lived experiences are the same for everyone. Color blindness completely bypasses any existing marginalization or systemic injustices that exist by minimizing the lived experiences of people from non-dominant groups.

(Outside of a social justice context, color-blind can refer to a person who is unable to differentiate between certain colors, such as red and green, or can only perceive a limited range of coloration.)

Science Example 1: A researcher at a science conference was presenting on the 2018 American Public Health Association policy statement declaring racialized police violence a public health issue (American Public Health Association, 2018). A scientist in the audience objected to this perspective and stated that public health should not be racialized because “all lives matter.”

Science Example 2: In the U.S., the participants involved in clinical trials related to heart failure are predominantly white men. These trials then heavily influence treatment regimes for all populations, not just white men. This has resulted in ACE Inhibitor regimes being one of the most commonly used treatments for all patients with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, despite the fact that a recent study has shown they to lead to poorer outcomes for Black patients (Ogedegbe et al., 2015).

Heteronormative and Cisnormative

Definition: Interrelated worldviews that assume heterosexual and cisgender normative cultures, behaviors, and identities as the default. These worldviews automatically position all non-heterosexual and non-cis cultures, behaviors, and identities as abnormal or exceptional, effectively erasing and marginalizing them.

Science Example: When the blueprint of the new computer science building was released to the public, a petition was filed to protest the cisnormativity and heteronormativity of binary restrooms and baby-changing areas only in the women’s restrooms. The blueprint excluded the interest of those who defied their presumptions of a gender binary.

[Heteronormative and Cisnormative]

Imposter Syndrome

Definition: A person’s overwhelming sense of self-doubt and a fear that they will be discovered to be a fake or that they will be discredited, regardless of their accomplishments and expertise in their field.

Science Example: A student from a non-dominant group received a special invitation to present on their astrophysics summer research project but backed out at the last minute. The student later reported to their faculty member that they felt inadequate to make the presentation to the faculty and their fellow students.

[Imposter Syndrome]

Microaggressions

Definition: Frequently occurring indignities based on race, gender, cultural background, sexuality, or other marginalized identity. Their impact is felt in the cumulative effect of constant slights, misunderstandings, and messages that the targeted person is different, less respected, and less important. While some microaggressions are due to obliviousness rather than malice, they are often subtle or covert enough to fit within the spectrum of social norms and can be passed off as well-meaning mistakes in the case of intentional ill-will by the aggressor.

Microaggressions are often broken into three subcategories (Sue et al., 2007):

  • Microinsults are behaviors and language which convey a belief in denigrating stereotypes and demean the identity of non-dominant groups.
  • Microinvalidations invalidate, negate, and diminish the lived experience, thoughts, feelings, and reality of non-dominant groups.
  • Microassaults are explicit actions, biased language, and discriminatory behavior against non-dominant groups. These are not micro in content, but micro in situation or time; they usually happen in more private situations which allow the perpetrator some amount of anonymity to say or do what they would not do in public.

Science Example: An African American first year PhD student in mathematics approached her advisor and told him that she was feeling excluded from activities in the otherwise all white department. Instead of recognizing that her lived experience could be different than his, the white professor responded with, “Don’t worry, it isn’t a race thing you see. It is just that you are new and the department is a very meritocratic group. Once you show yourself worthy, people will let you in.”

[Microaggressions]

Model Minority

Definition: A myth and a stereotype that a minoritized group is highly successful in some way, professionally, academically, socioeconomically, etc., particularly when compared to other minoritized groups. In the U.S., there is a Model Minority myth often associated with those of Asian heritage that suggests they are exhibiting the prototypic behavior that the dominant culture expects from minoritized people, e.g., docile, hard-working, affluent, non-confrontational, extremely smart, eager to please with no aspirations or capacity for leadership. This myth/stereotype can lead to an unreasonable expectation of specific kinds of success, e.g., academic, for members of the group, which can lead to a number of negative impacts. Furthermore, it flattens the range of different lived experiences of sub-groups and individuals within the group considered the Model Minority into a single narrative. In the U.S., this means the experiences of people of South Asian and East Asian heritage are considered interchangeable. It also means the experiences of people of Southeast Asian heritage are often erased as they face more significant systemic barriers and therefore do not fit the narrative of success. The idea of the Model Minority can be wielded as a racial wedge by the dominant culture holding up the Model Minority with their perceived success and expected behaviors and questioning why other minoritized groups have not achieved and do not act the same (Chow, 2017). Finally, this concept can also be used as an excuse to not address racism and oppression against groups seen as Model Minorities and to exclude them from anti-discrimination programs because they are seen as having already succeeded (Linshi, 2014).

Science Example 1: The graduate students in the nanotechnology lab participated in a week-long retreat. The purpose was to get to know each other better and to have a chance to reflect on career plans after completing their graduate degrees. One of the visualization exercises was to draw yourself in ten years. Peter, a second-generation Chinese American, drew himself as CEO of a wearable nanotech company and explained his goals. The other participants snickered; the team leader asked for an explanation. The team members who had no Asian heritage only considered Peter a great tech geek and didn’t see him as a leader. Peter was furious to be judged by racial assumptions and excluded from having aspirations.

Science Example 2: In a study of Asian American students at a high school in California, it was found that the students were well aware of the academic model minority stereotype about Asian American students being intrinsically talented in math and science. While people may judge this as a positive stereotype, many of the students “expressed anger at being judged by racial assumptions.” Not only that, almost all of the students had experienced difficulties that were made invisible by the stereotype that Asian American students “are the model students, they do not experience failure, and their success comes easy to them.” (Wing, 2007)

[Model Minority]

Neutrality

Definition: The stance that it is not only possible, but incumbent on individuals, organizations, or disciplines to remain impartial or unbiased in activities, thoughts, behaviors, situations, disagreements, etc., with respect to the events in the world or the values, power structures, and systems they are embedded within. Neutrality provides a way to stay silent and observe injustices instead of commenting or acting and making that silence seem to be a moral triumph instead of a moral failing.

Science Example: A BIPOC chemistry student comes to their faculty advisor to ask for support in a research study examining the impact of chemical runoff in waterways that serve low-income urban areas, based on their experience growing up in Flint, MI. However, the professor refuses to give permission for the study and admonishes that they must maintain neutrality in order to do good science.

[Neutrality]

Positionality v. Objectivity

DefinitionPositionality is the idea that every person’s race, gender, ability, class, and other social alignments deeply influences their ideas, values, and understanding of the world around them. Objectivity, on the other hand, argues that a person can, and must, remain uninfluenced by their personal thoughts and beliefs while creating knowledge.

Positionality stands in opposition to objectivity’s idea that the influence of human subjectivity can be excised from knowledge creation. In the academic context, this recognizes that every part of the research process, from what questions are posed to how participants are chosen and how data is analyzed, is affected by the position of the researcher. This is as true in the sciences as any other research areas.

Science Example 1: In the midst of Black Lives Matter uprisings in protest of state sanctioned violence against Black people, science organizations and publishers that originally saw themselves and their members as objective and apolitical realized in light of widespread racism that objectivity is a myth. In response, they publicly acknowledged the positionality of journal editors, scientists, and researchers and participated in #ShutdownSTEM (Parikh, 2020arXiv.org, 2020).

Science Example 2: When applying for a grant on infectious diseases, the grant writer and principal investigator wrote in the proposal that study populations would include Black, Indigenous, and Asian subjects living in three zip codes. She included a positionality statement that acknowledged the influences of the authors’ lived experiences in choosing the populations to study. One of the reviewers questioned the lack of objectivity implied by including a positionality statement.

[Positionality v. Objectivity]

Personal Pronouns

Definition: Third person pronouns used to refer to a person present in conversation or in their absence that are chosen by the individual and may or may not align with visible identity or birth records. The pronouns she/her/hers and he/him/his are commonly used by people who have a binary gender identity (usually “woman” or “man”). Nonbinary people may use binary-aligned pronouns, or they may use nonbinary pronouns such as they/them/theirs, zie/zim/zir, ey/em/eir, or other pronouns. Incorrect use of personal pronouns can become a point of contention between cis (non-transgender) and transgender and nonbinary people when used incorrectly.

Science Example: Before recruiting participants for a research study on hypertension, the research group created an intake survey with a drop-down question about pronouns that only offered “he” and “she” as choices. One of the members of the research group challenged this by stating gender was not a variable in their study and they were only asking for pronouns in order to address participants by their pronouns. In order to make the question more inclusive of non-binary genders, they changed their intake survey to create an open-ended question type for participants to share their pronouns.

[Personal Pronouns]

Unconscious Bias and Implicit Bias

Definition: (These two phrases are used interchangeably to represent the same concept.)

A set of internalized and unexamined expectations held by an individual about people of different positionalities, reflected in associations and attitudes that lie below the level of conscious thought. They impact actions and attitudes without a person’s knowledge or control. These biases, positive and negative, start to build during childhood through lived experiences and exposure to messages from family, friends, news, media, and society. There are many different types of unconscious/implicit bias (Reiners 2019).

Science Example: A 2012 study showed that science faculty were less likely to hire a student as a laboratory research manager if the applicant had a name stereotypically thought of as a woman’s than if the applicant's name was stereotypically thought of as a man’s (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012). This was illuminated by using applications that were identical and randomly assigned the names John or Jennifer. This study relies on the idea of binary gender and the use of traditional Anglo names.

[Unconscious Bias and Implicit Bias]

Underrepresented and Underserved

Definition: Underrepresented refers to low numerical/statistical representation within a particular location and population, whereas underserved refers to a lower resource allocation compared to the sum of resources available.

Underrepresented Minorities (URM) is often used as an institutional label in higher education to describe students from marginalized communities, especially in the sciences.

In the US, there are higher education institutions that aim to serve particular populations. The US Department of Education defines seven specifically (U.S. Department of Education n.d.). Additionally, it is worth noting that words using ‘under-’ to describe particular student groups, such as URM, are being criticized and critiqued as being white-centered, deficit thinking, and removing distinct attributes of students (Williams 2020).

Science Example: Engineering departments have long made efforts to boost the representation of women and racial minorities in the field. Some departments have seen this as a numbers game: just trying to drive their numbers of minoritized students up without asking themselves “how do we support these students?” Meeting the needs of the underrepresented students has led to creation of special outreach and retention efforts, while departments who try to meet the needs of underserved students have developed mentorship programs, identity-based learning communities, and need-based and presence-based scholarships and fellowships.

[Underrepresented and Underserved]