I am making an explicit effort to talk much more openly about race and racism, particularly in academia.


My story

Hi. I am "mixed". What does that mean? I'm not sure.

I am the son of immigrants -- my mother from the Philippines and my father from France. I've got brown-ish skin and a last name that most people, especially after looking at me, pronounce "CHA-vez" (it's "shuh-VAHS"). When I get pulled over, the "Hispanic" box is checked. I have hair that I've often been told is "what makes me something other than white".

My hair comes from my mom, who has always said that she's the only Asian in the world with curly hair. It's dark and straight and non-descript when short and then gets wavy and textured as it grows until it eventually becomes a curly afro -- which means that people often think I'm part Black. In high school friends would drip water on my head because it was so odd that my hair wouldn't absorb it. The beads of water felt funny as they rolled down my head.

The slight squint in my eyes actually comes from my French side (I'm not sure I've ever actually seen my uncle's eyeballs). Filipinos generally have rounder eyes anyways. Even within the group "Asian", Filipinos themselves don't really fit in. We're jungle Asian, not fancy Asian (Ali Wong is hilarious).

None of me makes any sense. At least for the purpose of defining one's race visually.

I've settled on embracing the term "ethnically ambiguous". I'm some sort of "mixed" (not a word I really use in practice), except that the mix I am is almost always different from the mix that other people think I am. I'm still not sure which one matters most.

It's meant that my race has often been a curiosity to other people. But I didn't become truly aware of it from strangers until my hair accidentally grew long enough to become a small afro in my senior year of high school and my friends told me to keep it, and I did off and on for a few years. During a college course on Race and Ethnicity in America, half a class period was spent in open discussion about what everyone thought I am and why.

Quickly race became a curiosity to me too. When people would ask me "so, what... are you?", I started asking them what they thought first. I found out I could be almost anything -- Black, Hispanic, Asian, South America, Middle Eastern (purposefully mixing race/ethnicity/geography here since the boundaries of race, like nations, are totally arbitrary). It was strange.

It was also, in retrospect, a constant conversation starter about race.

I have not knowingly been the subject of any egregious acts of racism in my life (not that I haven't gotten hundreds of comments/jokes about my race or skin color). This is very different from what most people of color go through. I wonder if, because I do not look like any one specific race, I actually avoid getting stereotyped -- because you need to identify someone's race first to pretend you know something about them. I also grew up in a mostly-white community and attended mostly-white schools. I wonder then if it's really that I grew up thinking I was white (one of my best friends was fully-Asian, so I avoided all the Asian jokes), and it was only when people started telling me otherwise that I became distinctly aware of my race at all.

As a result, my personal experience with race has been odd -- as a curiosity. A bonus. I don't mind being asked about it (many "mixed" people hate it). It's my choice whether "half-white" gets rounded up to "white" (the opposite is true for many people of color). I've had the luxury to not take it seriously and to let it enrich my life. I've experienced race while largely avoiding racism. Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm even allowed to have feelings about race the way others do. (Here is an NPR segment about "growing up mixed"; I talk at the 8:20 mark)

This all has meant that I've gotten to think and talk about race a lot, though while protected as a sort of experiential observer. I lie somewhere in between white people who largely do not experience it at all and people of color who have to live with its consequences every day.

This is my privilege.

In the end, what's clear is how stupid it is to judge anyone based on race. In my case, judging me based on race is ridiculous since I'm probably getting judged on a race that I am not. If race is something that someone else decides, then I don't really know what race I am... but fortunately for me, nobody else seems to either. This renders race mostly impotent; its consequences are benign. For many people of color, though, this judgment is real and totally unavoidable. This makes it very, very powerful; its consequences can grow with time, like a cancer.

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Let's talk about race

We need to be able to talk about race with each other, even though none of us actually want to. If you choose not to see race, then you choose not to see racism either. If you cannot identify racism, then you cannot identify opportunities to oppose racism -- antiracism.

Race in academia

This is equally true in academia, and especially within my field. 90% of new PhDs in the geosciences are white (90%!?!). (I personally know only one other Filipino/a in my field.) I get the feeling that most people like to dance around race yet prefer not to say the word out loud -- academia is, ironically, largely racially illiterate. It's something most people are well-intentioned to change in theory but lack the necessary tools in practice.

The end result is exactly what you'd expect: racial inequity begets racial inequity. Representation matters.

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Antiracism

This section follows from (and often directly quotes) "How to be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi's book defines and deconstructs racism in all of its forms in order to define and construct antiracism. It is tremendous. I use "X" for shorthand reference throughout. (note: for a quicker introduction to Kendi's book, check out this interview with Kendi)

Defining terms

What does it mean to be "antiracist"? We first need lucid definitions related to racism and, in turn, antiracism. (X p9) The terms are ordered to gradually build a coherent and useful vocabulary of antiracism.
  • Policy: Written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. (X p18)
  • Power: Policies and the policymakers that make them (X p19). More generally, the ability to influence the outcomes of other people's lives.
  • Race: A power construct of collected or merged difference that lives socially (X p35). A symbolic (i.e. non-biological) category based on phenotype (e.g. skin tone) and ancestry, as defined by people with power ("Tell me who you are" p. 10).
  • Racial equity: When two or more racial groups are standing on approximately equal footing. (X p18)
  • Racial inequity: When two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing. (X p18)
  • Racist policy: Any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. a.k.a. institutional/structural/systemic racism. (X p18)
  • Antiracist policy: Any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. (X p18)
  • Racial discrimination: Treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against an individual based on that person's race. (X p19)
  • Racist idea: Any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society. (X p20)
  • Antiracist idea: Any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences -- that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities in society. (X p20)
  • Racism: A powerful collection of racist policies, substantiated by racist ideas, that lead to racial inequity. (X p20)
  • Antiracism: A powerful collection of antiracist policies, substantiated by antiracist ideas, that lead to racial equity. (X p20)
  • Racist: One who is either 1) supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction, or 2) expressing a racist idea. (X p13)
  • Racist power: Racist policy and racist policymakers. (X p19)
  • Antiracist: One who is either 1) supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or inaction, or 2) expressing an antiracist idea. (X p13)

Why be so clinical about these terms? Because this removes the deeply emotional connotation of the term "racist" to mean "bad" -- a connotation created by those in power to suppress discussion of racism in the first place. This lets us focus on the true meaning of the word: "racist" as a pure descriptor without value judgment. An idea or policy is racist if it promotes racial inequity, regardless of whether you think it is "right" or "wrong" or "fair" or "unfair".

How is this language different from how we currently talk about racism? There is no such thing as a nonracist policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either inequity or equity between racial groups. (X p18)

For example, if a system is already creating inequity, then a "race-neutral" policy is actually racist (rather than nonracist as it is often perceived to be) because it perpetuates this inequity.

Meanwhile, the term "racial discrimination" has been commandeered by people in power to mean "racist". However, racial discrimination can be racist (if it promotes racial inequity) or antiracist (if it promotes racial equity). The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." (Pres Lyndon B. Johnson 1965). (X p19-20)

The source of racist ideas is not ignorance or hate, but self-interest. The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. (X p230)

How does this framework help us better think about our role in racism? Every one of us holds racist and antiracist ideas at the same time. Every one of us is racist. Every one of us can be antiracist. Every one of us can choose to seek out antiracist ideas and to identify and eliminate racist ideas. Every one of us can choose to create or support antiracist policies and to identify and eliminate racist policies. This is how every one of us can use antiracism to dismantle racism.

Defining a few more useful terms. There are a few additional terms that are helpful to define when considering putting antiracism into practice. These are commonly used in modern discussions of racism.

  • Privilege: An advantage or a set of advantages that you have that others do not, that are not due 100 percent to your efforts (Oluo, p. 59). This may be based directly on race, but also many other things such as gender, physical ability, support network, financial upbringing, etc. (some of which may be the indirect result of race).
  • White Privilege: Institutional and cultural preferential treatment and exemption from racial and national oppression (i.e. the sum of privileges) granted to people deemed to be white (Racial equity tools). This starts with skin color but also hair, language, dialect, accent, mannerism, dress, music, etc.
  • Microagression: Small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that group. Just like one random bee sting might not be a big deal, a few random bee stings every day of your life will have a definite impact on the quality of your life, and your overall relationship with bees. (Oluo p169)
  • Tokenism: the symbolic effort to be inclusive of minority groups, simply for the appearance of being non-racist ("Tell me who you are" p. 256). Giving minorities a seat at the table but without any real power.
  • Racial literacy: A collection of skills that probe the existence of racism and examine the effects of race and institutionalized systems on their experiences and representation in US society (Grayson 2019)

Why antiracism? Why not "non-racist"? Anti-racism is about actively opposing racism. Simply being "non-racist" is not enough. Not everyone experiences race or racism, but anyone can be antiracist.

What's wrong with being "non-racist"? The effects of racism are greatly amplified when committed by people with power. The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right's unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American's drive for a "race-neutral" one (X p20). The white supremacist may have had the misfortune of being born into a community of white supremacists; you have the privilege of being given the tools and power to promote antiracist ideas and policies. If you have power — to make choices that maintain or oppose racial inequity — you are the one who matters. (Oluo p28, p66)

Why antiracism in academia?

As noted above, racial inequities are very large in STEM fields in academia and especially within my field: 90% of new PhDs in the geosciences are white (90%!?!). If we want to promote equity, we need to create and/or promote antiracist policies.

Academia is education: we train the future leaders of our world, well beyond just within academia itself. We cannot produce equity in real-world jobs / leadership without the individuals trained for those jobs.

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Be antiracist

Kendi's framework is incredibly useful for cutting right to the essence of racism/antiracism without the jargon. How can we put this into practice? (Kendi has a new podcast called "Be Antiracist".) There are three clear directions:

  1. Listen: Educate yourself about the history and vocabulary of racism (a necessary baseline)
  2. Eliminate racist ideas in favor or antiracist ideas
  3. Promote antiracist policies and opposing racist policies
Both individuals and institutions can pursue actions in each of these directions.


1) Listen

Start by listening. Listen to, and read about, as many actual people's experiences as possible. Think about ways in which racism arises in yourself and/or others around you and what you can do or change to oppose it.

A great short reading list: (I accidentally followed this order and found it to be incredibly useful in retrospect. These works fundamentally changed how I think about this topic and my relation to it.)

  1. Experience the many forms of racism: "Tell me who you are: Sharing our stories of race, culture, and identity". A wide range of quick-to-read stories about experiences with race and racism from real people, which is much more than just black or brown or white. Great especially if you did not grow up with a lot of diversity around you... and even if you think you did. (One story is from a meteorologist in Hawaii who notes that he feels like only person of color in his field.)
  2. Acknowledge racism around you: "So you want to talk about race". Straightforward, personal answers to common questions related to race and racism.
  3. Actively oppose and dismantle racism: "How to be an antiracist". Why being “non-racist” is not an option. Kendi's book defines and deconstructs racism in all of its forms in order to define and construct antiracism. This is a serious academic book with a ton to digest. It is the most important book, but may be a lot to jump directly into.

Some other resources I like:


2) Eliminate racist ideas


Do not racialize behavior. A core foundation of racist ideas is the racialization of behavior (X p??). Race does not cause behavior. Instead, individual behavior is the product of how they have been treated by policies and people around them throughout their life. Racist policies and racist treatment can result in certain behaviors becoming more commonly associated with a particular race. Racializing those behaviors creates racist ideas (e.g. "[race] people do not work hard") that can be used to continue to support those racist policies (e.g. "[race] people should not be helped because it is their fault they do not work hard"). There is nothing wrong with saying "This person does not work hard" and everything wrong with saying "This person does not work hard because people who are [race] do not work hard" (i.e. stereotyping). There is nothing wrong with any of the racial groups and everything wrong with individuals who think there is something wrong with any of the racial groups (X p227). To blame a particular behavior on race is to blame a baby for the skin it is born into.

Engage race. Racial prejudice is emotional, not rational. Facts and data are much less helpful than individual experience to change one's prejudice. If you are afraid of snakes (a prejudice), being told "snakes are actually friendly" will not help you overcome your fear of snakes. Similarly, being told "here is why racism is bad" will not help you overcome racial prejudice. The only way to overcome a fear of snakes is to go interact with actual snakes. It requires active engagement way outside your comfort zone.

Recognize advantage. When many people hold the same negative prejudice against a particular group of people, that group of people is likely to suffer (e.g. less likely to be hired for a particular job). Privilege grants you preferred access to opportunities, such as jobs and resources. Those benefits accumulate over time. Recognizing this privilege is to acknowledge that you may have benefited greatly from the things around you in your life that others have not. In this way, racism becomes "systemic".

3) Promote antiracist policies, oppose racist policies.

You likely have much more power than you realize. Do you make any decisions regarding hiring, promotions, recommendations, projects, leadership roles, or anything else that affects the happiness of another human being? If yes, then use your power to open doors and be an advocate for people of color. Do you spend money? Spend it at businesses owned by people of color. It's that simple.

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Be antiracist in academia

We can use Kendi's anti-racism framework to clearly define how to be anti-racist as a Geoscience faculty member -- below is a one-page framework of our own for what that might look like: (PDF version)

Antiracist Actions Framework for Geoscience Faculty

The above framework helps understand how a given action can help promote racial equity in the Geosciences. Now you can ask: What anti-racist actions can I take today? In my field? In my department? In my lab? In my every day life? Put your power to work.

Short list of resources:

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