Who deserves to tell our stories? Reflections of a budding and optimistic Black female anti-racism researcher

31st January 2023

Founder, Anna Jieman, reflects on who should lead anti-racism research based on her experiences as a PhD candidate. She wrote this blog towards the end of her first year, inspiring the birth of Behind the Academic Veil.

I am about 11 months into my PhD, reflecting on my journey so far before I transition into my second year. To date, my journey has been unexpected. I expected to be challenged intellectually, but it seemed the easiest part. In most cases, that can be resolved by reading more and practising the practical work.

The most challenging aspects and growth seem to be associated with my somewhat new identity, “anti-racism researcher”. I thought the more I learned and understood racism, the less racism would affect me. I was wrong.  Instead, it hits me harder. The people I thought were leaders in anti-racism work are sometimes the most racist and have lost the ability to reflect on their anti-Blackness.

At times, it feels as though they are more concerned about holding onto their anti-racism brand than they are with the work. A part of me understands why they want to hold onto their reputation. That’s how they stay relevant. However, my reflections are less about specific individuals and more about what I have learned, how my thinking is changing, and my developing vision of the “ideal” anti-racism researcher.

My journey to date

While I love working on Black women’s experiences of depression and gendered racism, sometimes I want to disconnect and not think about it for a while. Working on research so close to my heart is sometimes emotionally draining. However, I also never want to lose that part of me, which makes me feel so much because that part of me led me to this research.

It’s the part of me that makes me different from the “typical” social scientist. As scientists, we are encouraged to disconnect from this part of ourselves. As budding researchers, we are told that “it’s not about you; it’s about the science”. We are supposed to be objective, but what if I am part of the participant? How do I disconnect from that? I, too, am a Black woman who researches other Black women. Should I be disconnecting from that part of myself? Doesn’t my connection with my participants make my research unique? That being said, there is also a downside.

I guess Black women who participate in the research may assume that I know some of their experiences, which may prevent them from sharing their entire experience. Another limitation is that I might think I know the experiences of Black women who participate and may not value unfamiliar experiences. Perhaps that’s why it’s imperative to have an element of co-production (shout out to the advisory group guiding the BWID study!).

Who should be leading this research?

I think it’s less about who “should” be doing this work and more about who “deserves” to conduct anti-racism research – whoever leads this work is gaining an insight into Black people’s painful experiences. Black people are making themselves vulnerable by sharing their stories and trusting that we share their narratives as they experience them. It’s a privilege to gain that trust. So,

I don’t believe that only Black people should be doing this work. Instead, I think it should be guided by anyone who values Black people’s stories. Researchers who will ensure that Black people’s experiences are heard.

Researchers who genuinely care about fighting for equality and justice. Researchers who want to serve the community and are not just trying to get on the “race narrative” to advance their careers. So, it’s more than the researcher’s identity. It’s about their intentions.

However, academia is a competitive place where the most fight to have the most impactful publications. Currently, issues around race are “trending”, and any publications or grants related to race or ethnic inequalities could advance an individual’s career. So perhaps there is always an element of wanting to advance one’s career. I don’t have an issue with that as long as the research is done right, serves the community somehow, and the researcher is honest about their intention.

I believe that people who do this work have the right intentions of wanting to evoke change in the community. It could be a way of protecting myself.

If I believe that people want to do this work to advance their careers, I am forced to face how cutthroat academia is and how people will do anything to get ahead, including false allyship or friendship.

I then have to consider whether I want to be part of such a callous place. Right now, I am taking it one step at a time.

What about the risk of white researchers re-enacting racism when they lead anti-racism research? 

This is a tough one for me to reflect on. I have been thinking about impact versus intention a lot. I value intention and understand people will make mistakes when conducting anti-racism work.

This work is challenging; I have made mistakes, and I am Black. We are trying to dismantle decades of a “way of life”.

I would have to think I would make some allowances but call out researchers on their racism/anti-Blackness. How researchers react to that determines whether or not I believe they are suited for this work. Yes, calling it out is exhausting, so I understand why others may not support this approach. I certainly do not have the energy to call it out all the time, but I have accepted that it’s an occupational hazard or the hazard of being Black.

I am still figuring out why I am willing to make allowances and my limitations. Part of me thinks it’s because I believe in compassion and treating others how I would like to be treated. I hope others will forgive me when I make mistakes. They allow me to reflect on my actions, learn from them and grow. On the other hand, maybe it’s not that deep, and I am just a product of my environment. I am a budding social scientist, taught to look at “both sides of the story”, and now I am applying it to my life. If that’s the case, I should consider distancing myself from my work!

Another part of me also thinks that it comes from fear of being stereotyped as the “angry Black woman”, the angry Black girl who’s quick to “drop the race card” and is constantly mad at the world. But then again, part of me doesn’t care when people call me an “angry Black woman” because it means they are ignorant towards the root of that anger (that’s a reflection for another time).

Perhaps that’s all I have to say about who should/deserves to be conducting anti-racism research. But I am always open to other perspectives, so I look forward to exploring them through podcast episodes and blogs on Behind the Academic Veil – stay tuned. 

Anna Jieman

Anna-Theresa Jieman, an ESRC LISS DTP and NIHR ARC North Thames PhD candidate in Psychology at the Queen Mary University of London, founded the project. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Research Methods.