Today, after more than two weeks of protests and cries for justice, George Floyd was laid to rest. His life was cut tragically and unjustly short with the heartbreaking words that both haunt us and unite us: “I can’t breathe.” His plea for life, for justice, and for humanity have become a rallying cry for the anguished world he has left behind. His death makes plain to all of us – whether at the hands of the police or of the society that has enabled them—racism is pervasive.
I remain horrified at the senseless act of violence that took George Floyd’s life. My heart breaks for his family, for his mother, for their loss. And I offer my compassion and solidarity to the many in society who feel threatened, marginalized, and unseen from this and so many other acts of racism.
As the global protests have grown, I have been grappling with what I can do personally, and as the Director of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. Race has such a storied and fraught history in science, in medicine, and bioethics. It undergirds much of the complex intersection between science and society. And it is a complex part of my own life and identity.
I grew up in the Carolinas, where my parents emigrated to in their early twenties from Iran. I was born in a small town in South Carolina where my father took his first stand in the United States against racism. As late as the 1970s, the waiting rooms in physicians’ offices there were segregated by a median. When establishing his medical practice, my father tore down the median because he believed it was immoral to separate blacks from whites. “They are all my patients,” he explained, “and are equally in need of medical care.” This was the first lens through which I understood health inequity and discrimination, and the first time I saw that action and not rhetoric must guide our way.
But I also attended a small private school in North Carolina where from kindergarten to twelfth grade I did not have a single black classmate. To give you a clearer picture — I was diversity day at my school. And it wasn’t until college that I realized what an anemic notion of diversity that was. My undergraduate and graduate institutions did not fare much better on inclusiveness and representation, nor have my workplaces since.
These polarities frame my own lifelong work of identifying and eliminating my own implicit biases. While the work is often revealing and sometimes painful, I fully realize I must actively listen, learn, and act to root out racism in myself, just as we must do so in our institutions, communities and our society.
Which brings me back to what Science & Society must do to become part of the global movement to achieve a more just and equitable world. We must listen, learn, and most importantly act at this critical moment in history.
We have to listen to the anguish and many narratives that make up our current and past reality of racism. We have to learn about ourselves, our own implicit biases, and the ways we insulate ourselves from the work that we each must do. And we must engage in intentional and deliberate action rather than rhetoric or performative acts.
We have a lot of work ahead of us but as the Director of Duke Science & Society, I fully commit our Initiative to listening, learning, and acting to more fully integrate race, diversity, and inclusion in all that we do.
As a team, we are working together to be intentional about this work, and to identify both immediate actions we can undertake as well as enduring commitments that we can make that will ensure race, diversity, and inclusion are fully integrated into our organization and our programs.
As a starting place, tomorrow, June 10, I invite you to join Science & Society and the national movement to #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownStem to pause research and engage in introspection, dialogue and thoughts on ways to eliminate systemic racism at our University and in our communities. The Particles of Justice website has suggested actions we can take to better educate ourselves and become advocates for change.
My colleagues and I at Science & Society ask you to join us, to guide us, and to partner with us in our collective efforts.
Director, Duke Initiative for Science & Society