COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement: Managing Academic Realities

July 8, 2020

The year 2020 has brought on new realities for many of us in ways that we were never prepared to handle. The cascading series of catastrophic events in the past few months has landed especially heavily on our Black and other under-represented people of color (POC) students and colleagues — more than most of us realize.

First, COVID-19 upended our lives mid-spring semester and significantly impacted Black, American Indian and Hispanic communities with significantly higher infection and morbidity rates. COVID-19 exposed the huge disparities in health care access that were always part of their reality, but not always noticed by many of us.

Next, the Black Lives Matter uprising began and has gripped the nation this summer. The movement gained momentum following recent incidents of unlawfully murdering Black people who were simply going about their lives—shopping, jogging or sleeping in their own beds—and of White people continuing to harass POC and using police presence for their own safety.

If you have a Black student in your lab or a Black colleague, now is the time to recognize that their lives and experiences are being shaped by a much harsher reality than anything the rest of us ever experienced. The Black student who missed several classes or lab meetings might have lost several family members to COVID-19. The Black student who appears distracted or unwilling to turn on the camera in your Zoom class may be struggling with limited internet access or having to juggle multiple jobs to keep themselves and their families fed. Some of your students have likely become homeless due to the elimination of jobs and subsequent inability to pay rent.

None of your Black students and colleagues have been able to sleep much, or focus on anything work-related, ever since Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while jogging, Breonna Taylor was shot 8 times and killed in her bed by policemen barging into her home on a no-knock warrant and George Floyd had his breath choked out of his dying body as a policeman knelt on his neck while staring into a camera. The viral video shows that George Floyd expressed his inability to breathe multiple times during the 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and that he eventually called out to his dead mother for help as a last resort. This was the video that sparked an uproar from people and brought everyone out to protest in the streets with an energy unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. Protests occurred all over the globe as the viral video reached people near and far. Even though COVID-19 is the present health scare, billions of people found it more important to express their disgust and disappointment with the treatment of POC. To this day, they march, speak and demand change. The names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are part of a too-long list of names we must not forget.

Black colleagues and students are living in a very different reality while trying to maintain a semblance of “normalcy” at work in these highly abnormal times. If your biggest worries as an academic right now are the limited access to your lab, restrictions to maintain social distancing, extending grants and funding, teaching online or reviews of your manuscripts taking longer than usual, you are living in a privileged reality that has never been accessible to Black and POC colleagues. We must recognize that our Black (and minority POC) students and colleagues are living in a reality very different from that experienced by the predominant groups in academia.

If you have any Black students or colleagues in your lab, you must pause to consider their reality and reassess how you address your lab’s priorities in the context of the very real threats they face every day. So, what is a White (or other privileged) professor to do to support Black students and help make life easier for them? Speaking as a Brown immigrant scientist with experience mentoring Black, Brown, Native and LGBTQ+ students, I can suggest some things you can do right now and in the longterm:

  • Do your best to be aware of what is happening in Black students’ lives — check in on them, but offer them space by letting them know it’s not mandatory to reply. Always be aware of the power dynamic between advisor and advisee. This will work best if you have already established trust and tried to build an inclusive lab where students feel safe to share things from their lives outside of the lab.
  • While you may know them as excellent students and researchers, being Black is their core identity, and it is that which makes them most vulnerable to everything that is disrupting academia right now. Knowing and respecting someone’s core identity — rather than asking them to suppress it (by, e.g., straightening their hair, not wearing BLM shirts, not celebrating cultural events significant to them) — is the key to empowering them to function fully as scholars and flourish in your lab.
  • Listen to them. Really listen. And be prepared to be uncomfortable and sit with that discomfort for a while. Go to the #BlackInTheIvory Twitter hashtag and read as many tweets as you can stomach. There is real pain, anguish and anger expressed by too many Black scholars who have faced too many racist hurdles and insults while simply trying to survive in academia. Don’t get defensive and/or invalidate their experiences. Just read, share and reflect.
  • Allow Black students the time and space to process the multiple griefs and traumas they may be dealing with from COVID-19 and the police. Check on them and provide the support they may need.
  • Grant them leave with pay as much as possible, without questions. Black students and colleagues may need a break to regain their mental equilibrium in order to function as students and researchers.
  • Normalize mental health breaks in your labs and classes by allowing students to take time off without feeling guilty or facing penalties.
  • Do not make Black students work after-hours on campus in your lab, especially if there is heightened police presence due to BLM protests or campus closures. Please remember that school/work status does not protect Black students from wrongful profiling.
  • Likewise, do not make Black students go out for fieldwork in potentially dangerous areas, such as upscale White suburbs or rural areas, without taking extra measures to ensure their safety (like sending a White colleague/companion with them).
  • If a curfew is in place, do not have Black students go onto campus — having a campus ID or documentation from your lab is unlikely to help a Black student who is pulled over by a cop for breaking curfew. Take whatever productivity hit necessary to keep your students safe.
  • Make time to celebrate the successes of Black students. Encourage, promote and celebrate their own initiatives to change the conversation about Black lives. We need positive stories and role models of success that break the traditional academic mold.
  • Maintain open communication with everyone in your lab and classes to the best of your ability. Without being too intrusive, follow up with minority students who may be showing signs of undue stress or behavior that seems abnormal. When deemed appropriate, refer students to campus health and mental health resources.
  • Start re-examining the practices in your lab and across your campus that may have contributed to making academia inhospitable, if not downright toxic, for Black and other minority students. Engage your White colleagues in readings and dialog to help them understand the issues faced by minority students living a reality very different from what they might consider the norm.
  • Don't overburden POC students with requests to help improve diversity efforts in your institution. If you do so, compensate them for their time, and make sure it doesn’t take their energies away from their core scholarship. Also realize that not every Black student is an expert on diversity and inclusion. Recognize Black students for their contributions to their respective fields and not just for diversity. At all times, try your best to prevent tokenizing your Black students.
  • Work to change lab and campus practices to ensure the safety, security and physical and mental health of Black and other minority students by applying your scientific skills to understanding the circumstances faced by them in their daily lives. Find solutions to ease their emotional and cognitive burdens so they can focus on research just as much as you might be able to.
  • Most importantly, be kind, be considerate and treat people with respect as human beings, just as you presumably want them to treat you.

You may stumble, and you may fail at being a good ally in a time of need. Don’t let that discourage you. Listen to the feedback. Put in the work to learn and grow. Commit to learning more about and truly engaging in creating a just, equitable and inclusive space in academia where people who have experienced all kinds of realities can not only be productive scholars, but also help each other grow as human beings.

Author: Madhusudan Katti, Ph.D.

Madhusudan Katti, Ph.D.
Madhusudan Katti, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University.