Why I believe that white faculty need to practice self-reflection


The responsibility for creating an inclusive environment lies with those who teach, mentor, manage, recruit and hire the scientific workforce, and learning the skills of inclusivity demands opportunities to make emotional connections.
—David Asai1

…[B]eing an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regularself-examination.
—Ibrim X. Kendi2

I help run workshops on inclusion and equity for faculty and staff in STEM fields. I see these workshops as a way to help faculty and staff make the “emotional connections” that David Asai highlighted in a 2019 essay in Nature1 and that underlie a more inclusive STEM community. My co-facilitators and I specifically focus on race, perceptions of race, and how individual lived experiences affect the ways in which faculty and staff interact with a student body whose racial demographics are changing quickly. We are not the first scientists to see a need for these workshops; we are not the first scientists to run workshops for scientists. We are certainly not the first facilitators to address the four main themes of our sessions: self-reflection and identity, experiences of others, bystander training, and action planning. However, we are, in our own, local way, taking responsibility for creating a more inclusive environment in science.

This column could discuss a range of topics: the toll that the responsibility for creating a more inclusive environment in science takes on people of color on our campus; the impacts of our workshops on participants and our institution; the fight against a culture of “checking a box” by taking a workshop to consider oneself “fixed” or “not racist.” Instead, I choose to focus this column on what—for me—is the most difficult portion of our workshops, and my continued journey toward anti-racism in science and beyond: self-reflection.

Our first workshop culminates in our asking a mostly white, very well-meaning group of faculty and staff from STEM departments to write a statement of their own identity. Of course, mine changes depending on the circumstances, but 10 years ago I would have started my own identity statement with “I am a cell biologist” or “I am a mother/sister/wife.” Now, I lead with what I believe to be the source of most of my privilege, although I can go days or weeks without having people around me notice it: I am white.

Here is a current self-reflection on my own identity:

I am a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman, and I move through my city, my campus, my classroom, and my laboratory with the privilege and the power that comes from being a member of the majority. I care deeply about my students, and I work hard to be intentionally inclusive with my words and my examples when I teach and mentor. I use student-centered practices in my courses and workshops to put the power of learning into my students’ hands. I want my students to be inspired and to be the next generation of scientists. I am a white woman, and I launched my successful career from a family background and educational experience that positioned me high in the hierarchy of academia. While my life seems typical to me, my identity and my experiences are not typical for my students.

I reflect on my own identity and experience because I know it is so different from those of many of my students. My co-facilitator, Regina Barber DeGraaff, a physicist and a woman of color, points out, “We can’t begin to describe the motion of another object if we can’t describe our own motion. We can’t begin to engage with others’ identities if we can’t describe our own.” To engage with my students as they enter my classrooms and laboratory, I need to be able to reflect on the differences and the similarities that brought us together. If I am unable to reflect on who I am and how I got to my position of power, how can I possibly ask students to trust me with their education, to trust me with the discomfort and the elation of learning?

I began facilitating workshops for STEM faculty and staff because of the Privilege Walk, which asks participants to take steps forward or backwards from a starting line, depending on their privileging experiences or identities.3 After I saw Peggy McIntosh speak as part of my postdoctoral training, I focused on “unpacking” my knapsack of privilege.4 However, the physical act of walking forced a new, and powerful, self-reflection. I ended the walk at the farthest-forward end of the field, and noted that I would have been at the very front if I had been, or been identified by society as, a man. Acknowledging my identity made me feel uncomfortable and at a loss. It made the invisible experiences of other scientists in my community inescapably visible. Through conversations afterward, I learned that it did the same for those who ended the walk at the back, but for very different reasons.5

I discussed my discomfort with my other current co-facilitator, Robin Kodner, another white woman biologist; she reminded me to use my power, my position afforded by my privilege, to make change. My upbringing (child of professors, upper-[middle]-class income, freedom to excel and fail) is not typical for many of my students. My acknowledgment that their experiences do not resemble my own builds the trust they depend on when they come to my office for help. In our workshops, we use a more anonymous exercise than the Privilege Walk (for example, the Identity Circle6). However, the effect can be the same: Recognizing the diversity of experiences in a room is eye-opening, can shift perspective, and often encourages self-reflection in both participants and ourselves.

I approach facilitation as a series of debriefing sessions after activities that probe biases, assumptions, and lived experiences. Our workshops are geared toward scientists who may be approaching inclusion and equity from very different levels of comfort and understanding, so we take time to discuss feelings. To help participants engage in these conversations, we regularly refer to Anika Nailah and Robin DiAngelo’s Silence Breakers for Whites in Cross-Racial Discussions.7 We ask people to practice using the phrases out loud as a way to practice using language in uncomfortable situations that we, as scientists, as white people, might often seek to avoid. Asking someone “How do you feel about that? How would that make you feel?” may not be common in a laboratory or a science classroom. But it is central to self-reflection and to opening up a willingness to accept others’ identities in the scientific community.8

White scientists have something to lose by taking a deep look at our identities and realizing our individuality is layered on top of our privilege. We might lose our comfortable ignorance of institutional and personal bias, our perception of scientific meritocracy, and our understanding of our power and where it comes from. None of those are easy to acknowledge or relinquish. But by thoughtfully reflecting on ourselves, and openly acknowledging our identities, we will open our classrooms and laboratories as spaces that foster trust so that learning can flourish.

Are you a white scientist who is looking for some ways to start thinking about your own identity? These are some great resources that I’ve found useful:

1Asai D (2019). To learn inclusion skills, make it personal. Nature 565, 537–537.

2Kendi IX (2019). How to be an Anti-Racist. One World.

3The Privilege Walk [complete]. https://bit.ly/37fSDvr (accessed September 4, 2019).

4McIntosh P (1988, 2010). White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies. Wellesley Centers for Women. https://bit.ly/2QtghOj.

5Bolger M (February 16, 2018). Why I don’t facilitate privilege walks anymore and what I do instead. Medium. https://bit.ly/2SwaSsh. (accessed September 14, 2019).

6Identity Circle. https://bit.ly/39et53v (accessed September 5, 2019).

7DiAngelo R. Silence Breakers for Whites. https://bit.ly/2QC5zoT (accessed September 4, 2019).

8Dewsbury BM (2017). On faculty development of STEM inclusive teaching practices. FEMS Microbiol Lett 364, fnx179.

About the Author:

Lina Dahlberg is an associate professor of Biology at Western Washington University, where she works with Regina Barber DeGraaff and Robin Kodner to facilitate Inclusion and Social Mindfulness for STEM (ISM) workshops for faculty and staff.