Where are you ‘originally’ from?

Sexism has become a big deal in STEM, and rightly so. But when it comes to racism and xenophobia, it’s all very taboo. No one will ever admit it’s a problem, because it means admitting a colleague is racist. And that is just not cool.

But it’s there.

A lot of people think that racism is about the blatant stuff, like someone exclaiming “You are very dark, are you from Kerala?” or my grandmother’s friend asking if I am her cleaner because I have some Indian blood. But actually, racial discrimination is much more subtle. Often, well-intentioned behaviours reinforce racial stereotypes, meaning we are not treated equally.

Casual racism comes as compliments.

Someone will meet you and ask whether you are a visiting student and then look terribly impressed when you say you are in fact a postdoc. And go on to ask whether your officemate is your boss. No, he is a postdoc too, we are colleagues. And then ask where you are ‘originally’ from.

I’ve had permutations of this conversation three times in the last month.

And it’s depressing to realise that because of my skin tone, people assume (i) that I am not from this country*, (ii) that I am less qualified than I actually am, and (iii) that my white male friend must be my boss. It’s worrying these assumptions are made based on my ethnicity and gender.

Because “where are you originally from” is a subtle way of saying “you do not belong here”.

Because it impacts how seriously I am taken at my job.

From Angry Little Girls by Lela Lee

At project meetings, for instance, my suggestions are sometimes immediately dismissed. Yet, somehow, a week later, a male colleague will make the exact same point and everyone will think it is an excellent suggestion.

These are of course all very subtle group dynamics, and likely, I should be more assertive with my ideas and justify them more. But I  can’t help but feel that I would probably not have to prove myself to the same extent if I was a white man. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that no one would start a conversation with me at a conference by asking me whether I was a good cook .

These are obviously annoying on a personal level, but in the grand scheme of things , what does it matter?


When does casual racism start impacting research success?

An Australian student approached me after my last conference presentation to tell me how he was amazed that there were Indian and Thai people in the UK who could speak perfect English.

Please let that sink in.

I was complimented for my ability to speak my mother tongue.

One of my colleagues sent his toughest review for us to discuss at a lab meeting. One of the reviewers openly critiqued Chinese ornithology and said the “Chinese authors” had followed the “wrong advice” and “template science”. Referring to the “Chinese authors” was blatantly racist, yet the editor let it pass.

Peer-review is tough enough as it is, without thinking about potential biases. Note how the cartoonist unconsciously drew caucasian scientists?

I have a paper where none of us have “English names” per se, but where we are all either native English speakers and/or well-published researchers. One reviewer though the English grammar needed correcting. The other thought the manuscript was very well written. I wonder which one was biased by our names?

I know researchers who have complained about receiving too many job applications from Middle Eastern or African applicants and not enough Swiss applicants.

I know white Africans whose job applications were rejected until they attached a photo to their CV.


It is tough out there sometimes.

As a young researcher, whatever your background, you are expected to move around and build your CV to have a competitive edge. Yet no one considers the fact that if you are non-caucasian and from a developing country, moving is not so easy. Getting a visa is like running a marathon across a crocodile-infested river with a big chunk of meat on your back. And even then, it’s not the end. I had a housemate from Cameroun entering Switzerland who got detained in Paris for 2 days by immigration for no apparent reason, other than he was from Cameroun.

And then, once you finally get there, you still have to deal with being the only person of colour in project meetings. You still have to deal with people joking that you are the diversity hire. You still have to deal with being “exotic”. You still have to walk down streets covered in racist propaganda like this:



The effects of racial bias on research

These biases don’t only affect individuals, their self-esteem and their ability to progress with their careers, but also science itself. A lot of good science is being overlooked because of who did it and where they came from. Journals are publishing more research from Europe and America, than Africa and South America.

This is in part the fault of reviewers who immediately (and often unconsciously) assume a paper is going to be less robust based on the author’s name and origin. But especially the fault of journals for letting this happen.

Global journals accept papers describing US issues. But if a paper is submitted describing Kiribati issues, the journal would dismiss it immediately as not being of global relevance.Yet the Exclusive Economic Zone of Kiribati covers a large chunk of the Pacific Ocean making it a global player in fisheries.

Top 40 countries by number of research papers


The issue is that some countries are considered more important than others. These biases result in western countries feeling the need to go help other countries develop their research, without acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, research might already be happening there, and that it might even be good.

There is quite a strong tendency for this nowadays. Research grants need to be bigger and better. More international and collaborative. And in many respects this is great. It’s great that people from opposite sides of the world are working together to try to solve some of the most pressing scientific issues.

However, what doesn’t work is when researchers from a developed country rock up to a developing country, expecting everyone to have already done the legwork, organized some workshop for them with the local community, where they then go to present what they think  the issues are with suggested solutions, without listening to what the issues actually are for the locals, write a report and then never come back.

This is a bit of an exaggeration. But at the same time, it’s not that over-exaggerated. Not only is this approach neo-colonialist, but also counter-productive. Certain western researchers need to rethink collaboration as an exchange, not as charity. Only then, will we be able to move forwards.


Dealing with gender and ethnic bias feels a little like rolling a pile of steaming dung uphill, but we can get there. I hope.



Where to from here?

So in the meantime, let’s all do an AIT test (it takes 15 minutes) to see what unconscious biases we have, so that we can be mindful of these while reviewing papers and grants, and especially while setting up international collaborations. Let’s call colleagues out when they ask where others are originally from. Let’s not assume someone is lowly ranked because of their ethnicity. Let’s admit that there are some biases out there, but that we can also easily do something about them by changing the way we interact with others.


*In fact, my grandfather, great grandparents and great great grandparents were all born 15 miles from where I work, making me more genetically local than most people in my workplace.


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