Folmsbee: The ugly and invisible bigotry in science


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

I am an Asian-American. My mother is a Japanese immigrant, and my father is white. But since I superficially appear white, I get to participate in all the societal and cultural privileges white males enjoy. However, this also grants me another gift not afforded most other Asian Americans: I get casual Asian bigotry spoken directly to my face. I’ve heard my mother called “Oriental.” I’ve heard her be asked about what Chinese restaurant she works for, even though she is an attorney. Although this kind of prejudice is ubiquitous, I have noticed something particularly troubling since I began graduate school. This bigotry has penetrated these supposedly learned halls of scientific academia. There is an invisible, yet powerful, marginalization of Asians in science.

Any Asian scientist can give you examples of this. Just a few days ago, when talking about a scientific presentation by a Chinese student, another researcher told me “Japanese researchers don’t give good talks.” This horrible statement perfectly encapsulates that racism that Asians in science face: belittling, dehumanizing and dismissive.

How can this casual bigotry persist? Perhaps Asians in science are burdened by success — or, more specifically, the illusion of success — from being a so-called “model minority.” We live in a time where it is not unusual to have Asians make up a large proportion of graduate students studying physics, chemistry and biology. Ten years ago, the most common college degree by Asians was computer science, according to a 2013 report from the National Science Foundation. But now, the fastest rising degrees, and now the most frequently obtained, are in the biological sciences, surpassing both mathematics and engineering. Asian men and women make up about 18 percent of the scientific and engineering workforce.

However, from the same report, Asians are struggling where it counts. The unemployment rate for Asian scientists and engineers is much greater than their white counterparts. And when you break down the data into the cause of unemployment, Asians are more likely to not have a job due to family reasons, jobs not being available and layoffs. The only category for unemployment that is more common in whites? Retirement.

However, it is unfair to simply group all Asians together because Asian women have it much harder than Asian men in science. Asian women have about twice the unemployment of white men, and the difference in median salary between Asian women and Asian men is vastly greater than that between whites, some $20,000. Most importantly, Asian women still face a large gap in achieving full-time faculty positions.

But this data cannot address the most glaring problem of casual Asian discrimination: using the term “Asian.” Asia isn’t a country. Asia isn’t an ethnicity. The illusion that its culture is any more homogeneous than that of Western Europe is simply the first step in marginalizing its diversity. Asia is made up of a myriad of countries, including the oft-forgotten nations within Central and South Asia. Assuming Asian scientists are just “Japanese” or “Chinese” is just the laziest form of prejudice.

Scientific research, especially, has become a lightning rod for this kind of bigotry. Just last month, the science publisher BioMed Central retracted 43 publications after it was discovered they were published under fraudulent peer review. For some, the fact that most of these authors were based in China may be enough to reinforce such negative stereotypes. Furthermore, last year, a high-impact paper from a Japanese research group claimed to be able to generate stem cells from exposing cells to acid. This potentially groundbreaking publication was retracted after it was found to have falsified data. In the scientific community, these controversies paint a story of the “problem” of Asians in science. Unfortunately, this has just made it easier for all Asian researchers to be lumped together as inferior scientists who now face an uphill battle in regaining credibility.

Asian discrimination in science isn’t overt, so it won’t be easy to fix. It will have to come from small, personal changes from all scientists, whether they are graduate students, technicians or professors. We need to remember that it is not acceptable to dislike a professor’s lectures for being “too Asian,” to distrust a research article because it’s “from China” or to avoid working in a lab because you don’t trust Japanese coworkers. More importantly, you should work to rethink your own prejudices. If you don’t, then perhaps in your future scientific career, you may find yourself joking about Asians with your white boss. Except he might not be white. He might be a half-Japanese guy who won’t hesitate to fire you for your racist drivel.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].