White women during the past week have, arguably, failed at intersectionality even more than usual. Prominent white women, in STEM and in our culture at large, have criticized the discussion of Elizabeth Warren’s “likability” without acknowledging the harm that she has caused to the Native community with her DNA test. Meanwhile, discussion of the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary series—on Twitter and in longer format articles and blog posts—seems to come entirely from the Black community.
I have not seen a single white person discuss the role of white individuals in enabling R. Kelly. There has been much discussion of Kendrick Lamar’s threat to pull his music from Spotify if Kelly’s music was also removed from the streaming service. My personal opinion is that Lamar deserves all the criticism he’s gotten, and then some, for supporting a child rapist. But the individual who ultimately has the most power over R. Kelly’s presence on Spotify is the streaming service’s CEO and co-founder, a Swedish billionaire named Daniel Ek. I have not seen a single white person criticize Ek or even acknowledge that he has any power in this situation. The same goes for Spotify’s other co-founder (who remains a director at Spotify), Sven Hans Martin Lorentzon.
Jive president Barry Weiss, who has supported Kelly through accusations of sexual misconduct for over fifteen years now, has far more name recognition than Ek or Lorentzon. Again, I haven’t seen a single white person criticize Weiss.
White people appear to be treating this entire situation as the Black community’s problem. Yes, a Black man victimized Black girls and women. But Kelly has been enabled by white people, in large and small ways, for decades—in many cases, he’s been enabled by white people who are already so absurdly wealthy and privileged and comfortable (Swedish billionaire-style) that the “sacrifice” of addressing Kelly’s behavior would have no impact on their lifestyle whatsoever. White people who claim to be “woke” may argue that they are “staying in their lane” by not commenting on Kelly’s behavior or on our society’s refusal to acknowledge the humanity of Black women and girls. But you can easily manage to “stay in your lane” by amplifying victims’ voices and by criticizing millionaires, billionaires, and other scumbags who belong to your own demographic.
You can “stay in your lane” by amplifying victims’ voices and by criticizing millionaires, billionaires, and other scumbags who belong to your own demographic.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, there are many parallels to this situation in STEM: the disregard for women of color and the refusal to hold enablers accountable. During the past year I have witnessed the fates of white women and women of color who have gone public about the sexual misconduct that they experienced while conducting their research. Neither group has had it easy, to be sure, but white women have seen their voices amplified far more. And despite the many instances of sexual misconduct in STEM that have become public knowledge during the past year, the scientific community’s ostensibly heightened awareness of this issue has not led to an increased willingness to interrogate the power structures through which sexual misconduct is enabled.
… the scientific community’s ostensibly heightened awareness of this issue has not led to an increased willingness to interrogate the power structures through which sexual misconduct is enabled.
So, if you are white, ask yourself the following questions. When you first heard about Kendrick Lamar’s support of R. Kelly, did you look into the white people who played similar roles in keeping Kelly within the mainstream music community? If you were glad to see John Legend’s willingness to speak out in support of Kelly’s victims, did you ask why there isn’t a single equally famous white person who has taken as public and forceful of a stand? Did you ask why no white billionaires have spoken out against Ek and Lorentzon, and why no white record executives have spoken out against Weiss? Have you asked how many rich and powerful white people have become even more rich and powerful through their silence about Kelly’s behavior? Have you asked how many rich and powerful white people have remained silent about Kelly even though they have nothing to lose by speaking up?
And if you are a white person in STEM, please ask yourself: When you find out that a person of color has been victimized by a member of the scientific community, do you “stay in your lane” as an excuse to avoid dealing with your discomfort? Do you find yourself disproportionately acting on your principles when doing so means that you’ll support another member of your own demographic group? When you read an article about sexual misconduct in STEM that includes the names of a sexual predator and an enabler, do you remember the name of the enabler? When you read an article about sexual misconduct in STEM that doesn’t acknowledge the prevalence and the role of enabling, do you notice that the article is incomplete?
Do you “stay in your lane” as an excuse to avoid dealing with your discomfort?
In 2019, we’ll undoubtedly see more articles about individual bad actors who commit sexual misconduct in STEM. We need to read those articles and support this type of journalism, both to provide closure to victims and to prevent those individuals from victimizing even more scientists. And we need to raise our voices to let editors know that we not only want to see these articles more frequently, but that we also want more in-depth pieces use an intersectional lens to interrogate the power structures that have allowed so many bad actors to get away with so much for so long. “Surviving R. Kelly” should be a wake-up call to us all—and especially to white people who view themselves as allies. As citizens and as scientists, we need to listen more carefully, especially when we’re provided with answers to the questions we were too afraid to ask.
(Image by Oleg Magni from Pexels)