About fifteen years ago, I was overwhelmed with several health problems that were making my life miserable. I tried many things to improve my situation. Nothing seemed to work. The strongest cough drops and syrups didn’t reduce my persistent cough. A house full of humidifiers and air filters didn’t alleviate my wheezing. Antacids and a limited diet didn’t ease my constant heartburn and stomach pain. I visited multiple general medical practitioners and specialists over a six-year period without success. Instead, my situation progressively worsened.
It was only when a gastroenterologist helped me to conceptualize my health problems as symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) that I was able to improve my situation. I was finally able to name the problem accurately. As a result, I have since been able to identify both overt (e.g. heartburn) and more subtle (e.g. wheezing) symptoms of GERD, and how they interconnect.
Learning to conceptualize seemingly unrelated problems as symptoms of a larger more serious condition positioned me to shift from confusion to understanding about my experiences, ultimately restoring my ability to experience health and joy. This skill has proven to be tremendously useful in many areas of my life. For example, it has helped me to recognize gatekeeping practices in STEM as symptoms of a much more harmful practice that too often goes unnoticed and unchallenged: epistemicide.
Epistemicide is “the killing, silencing, annihilation, or devaluing” of epistemologies, or systems of knowledge. Sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos coined the term to describe “the murder of knowledge” that occurs when one culture dominates another culture—destroying both the knowledge of that culture and the social groups that possessed that knowledge. European expansion relied on epistemicide as “one of the conditions of genocide,” according to de Sousa Santos.
Modern descendants of European colonizers perpetually attempt to disassociate their own behavior from the actions of their ancestors. And yet the erasure of people—and the knowledge and ways of knowing of those people—are the foundation upon which most modern institutions were built and still operate. A critical examination reveals that these practices are the modus operandi of academia—including in STEM.
Information scientists Beth Patin and colleagues suggest that epistemicide happens when a person experiences one or more epistemic injustices, which cumulatively interfere with a person’s capacity to equitably participate in building their own knowledge and in having that knowledge certified (e.g. through institutional backing) as worth sharing with the larger public. There are four types of epistemic injustice: testimonial, hermeneutical, participatory, and curricular. Each injustice is a form of gatekeeping.
We have found that violence, sabotage, and retaliation by academic faculty and administrators against minoritized people is both rampant and routinely denied as a rule in academia.
The refusal of faculty and administrators at The CUNY Graduate Center to acknowledge my multiple documented experiences of violent racism over many years forced me to transfer doctoral programs close to graduation. I am currently repeating most of my doctoral training unfunded. This is testimonial injustice, or the refusal to believe a person’s stories about their experiences. In 2015 I founded Refuge Workgroup, a movement dedicated to bringing safety, accountability, and healing to academic and professional spaces. We have found that violence, sabotage, and retaliation by academic faculty and administrators against minoritized people is both rampant and routinely denied as a rule in academia. Also, the loss of funding, of publication opportunities, and of due credit for intellectual and other contributions; the loss of relationships; damage to physical and emotional health; and even the homelessness that I experienced (among other horrors) are shockingly common sequelae for minoritized people experiencing violence in academia.
Philosopher Miranda Fricker highlights the removal of some identities (e.g. Black people; disabled people) from the social imagination as valid sources of knowledge as testimonial injustice. The untenable culture of sanctioned violence in academic spaces continues to make academia toxic to minoritized people in STEM and other disciplines, leading many times to the actual erasure of their existence in these spaces. These are human rights travesties, which Refuge Workgroup is currently working with collaborators at Psychin’Out and Disabled In Higher Ed to address.
Hermeneutical injustice occurs when there is a gap in “collective interpretive resources” that allow people to make sense of their lived experiences and/or things they observe in their communities. The publication of multiple ludicrous opinion pieces in prestigious journals by a prominent white male researcher questioning the scientific basis of racial microaggressions— along with the credibility of researchers conducting microaggressions research—is one example of contemporary hermeneutical injustice that is common and even celebrated in academia. Masquerading as scientific rigor, this behavior is no different than the attempts of extremist right-wing lawmakers to ban the discussion of anything deemed “critical race theory.” The global network of over 80 organizations in the #BlackInX movement is one bulwark against such injustices—with the unequivocal message: ‘“we are here, and we are here to stay.’”
Expensive and laborious application processes and attendance costs, refusal to provide accommodations for disabled people, retaliation against whistleblowers by using/withholding letters of recommendation, convoluted IRB approval processes, blind peer review, and homogeneous funding study sections are all examples of participatory injustice, or deciding who belongs and who does not belong, which is standard practice in academia. The participatory injustice of deliberately miscategorizing Indigenous STEM practices like storytelling, and science by “the public” as “non-empirical,” is being disrupted by Hot Science Summer, an amazing initiative by #VanguardSTEM meant to “re-imagine what science research looks like and redefine what it means to be a scientist.” This abolitionist epistemology of all people having a rightful presence in STEM engenders a sense of belonging and citizenship in STEM for all.
Forbidding Black students from conducting “Black studies” research projects, as practiced currently at universities across the world, is an example of curricular injustice, or the suppression/elimination of the creation of rival, alternative ways of knowing, like cross-cultural research sampling practices and methodology. These racist policies not only harm individual students, they harm the greater public who deserves such knowledge. As institutionalized practices, these types of policies also cause exponential harm by depriving future generations of such knowledge, along with the ability for future scholars to participate in their own epistemological development. Patin and colleagues situate this harm specifically within the academy, as academia “has disproportionate power to legitimize—and often physically protect/preserve—knowledge.”
These gatekeeping practices are routinely dismissed in academia as isolated incidents performed by a few “bad apples.” By more accurately conceptualizing these gatekeeping practices in STEM (and beyond) as epistemic injustices, we are empowered to recognize them as part of a larger more serious problem: epistemicide. And we are called to interrupt academic epistemicide both individually and as interconnected communities.
We are fortunate to live among visionaries in STEM, minoritized people who refuse to be silenced and devalued by colonized STEM…
We are fortunate to live among visionaries in STEM, minoritized people who refuse to be silenced and devalued by colonized STEM culture and its gatekeeping practices of epistemicide. These efforts allow us to cultivate “radical hope in revolting times,” and lead us towards radical healing. As a disabled, queer, Black-Indigenous-Latinx person in STEM, the existence of these efforts have restored my ability to experience health and joy.
This series on gatekeeping in STEM was funded by a grant from the National Association of Science Writers. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement of or recommendation by the National Association of Science Writers, and any views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Science Writers.
Editing contributed by Rebecca Dzombak. Illustration by Jenna Jablonski.