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Posted on June 10, 2020 at 12:14 PM

This essay is part of a 2-part series on the burdens placed on black faculty in academic bioethics. The first part, by Craig Klugman, Ph.D. can be read by clicking here.


by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Since the killing of George Floyd and the protests that ensued, the amount of free labor requested of me has been seemingly endless; everyday a new request comes in. I consistently have to balance my normal duties to my university, my students, the bioethics profession, and my research, along with new requests to perform free labor for the general public. On one hand I feel an obligation to respond to journalists’ requests for interviews, webinar requests, write articles and blogs, participate in education programs for students, faculty, and the general public because there are not a lot of bioethicists with expertise in black health who can meet the new demand for our expertise. There are also very few bioethicists who have both the lived experience of being black as well as scholarly expertise in black health, which seems to be the type of bioethicist most in demand at the moment. So if I deny a request for my free labor that means more work for my black bioethicist colleagues who are already overworked. There are just simply not enough black bioethicists to share the workload that comes with more interest in race.

Secondly, I feel an obligation to fulfill requests for my free labor because I want to take advantage of the increased interest in the lived experience of being black and the time and effort we have put into studying black health. In some ways the interest from the general public, most notably white individuals, is what black bioethicists who work on race have been wanting for some time now. We wanted people to pay attention to the issues that threaten the health and safety of black people. And now that we have their attention I don’t want to waste the moment by not participating in the increased desire for education. In this same vein, I have to consider whether now is the time to “strike while the fire is hot” and contribute to the general public’s education or not participate and let my work and the work that other black bioethicists have already produced speak for itself. Many black (and non-black) bioethicists write on race every day of the year, not just when there are protests. Perhaps it should be enough to direct people to this work and let them educate themselves.

But still the requests for free labor keep coming and my internal struggle continues. What I suppose I’m most angered by is that the recent requests for my free labor were the most numerous the day of and the day after George Floyd died. As I’m logging onto Facebook and seeing another black person killed by a cop, I get a request from a journalist on my reactions to George Floyd’s death. I was outraged by the insensitivity of the request’s timing.

Black people, myself included, are grieving the loss of another black person’s death because of police brutality. And because of social media and television we cannot escape the images. Every time we see the image of Floyd laying on the ground with a white officer’s knee on his neck we are reminded of all the black men and women who have died because of police brutality. The ones we know and the ones we don’t. We are reminded of our own family and friends’ encounters with the police who like Floyd ended with their death. When we see the protests we are moved by the protesters anger and tears because their anger and tears are our own. We are consoling our family and friends when they call us crying because they are tired of abuse. Our family is tired of explaining police brutality to their children and telling their children how to survive an encounter with police, which includes accepting humiliation, fear, and abuse if it means staying alive. As so many protesters have said, we’re tired. And when black bioethicists’ work on race intertwines with our personal identity as well as social and cultural unrest  it is even more tiring. So to ask black faculty to put aside our trauma and work for free is extra burdensome and in many ways disrespectful to our feelings and experiences as black people.

Additionally, to meet requests for free labor means that I am not working on my own projects, which I must complete if I want tenure, publications, a raise in salary, and the other goods of the profession. These aspects of academia already have a contentious relationship with black faculty. And one reason why is that we often do a lot of free labor and put our own research projects on the back burner, even those projects that when completed would be great sources for education about race. So any free work we do beyond the work owed to our students, our universities (within reason), and our own research projects is out of our desire to contribute to public intellectualism. But we are by no means obligated to do this free labor and potentially harm our careers and it is not beyond reason to expect to get paid for some of this labor.

As a firm believer in the power of public scholarship, however, I understand that the need for black bioethicists’ labor is necessary for the advancement of bioethics as a profession, medicine, public health, and overall social progress. And in many ways I appreciate journalists, journal editors, university faculty, and others who seek out black bioethicists in an attempt to give them a platform to display their expertise. Before making these requests for free labor, however, here are just some general questions we can ask ourselves. These questions are especially relevant during times of high-profiled cases of racism, race-based killings, police brutality, and racially motivated protests:

  • Do I have the funding to pay this black faculty member for their work and if not, is this the kind of request that one would expect to get paid for?
  • Is the timing of the request insensitive to the emotional needs of the black faculty member?
  • Am I asking the black faculty member to do something that benefits me and my organization but does not benefit them or their career?
  • Have I made it difficult for this black faculty member to fulfill my requests, i.e. poor technology, unrealistic due deadlines or timeframe?

I’m sure there are other questions that I have not thought of but the point is that I challenge us to think about the nature of our requests for free labor from black bioethicists, especially during times of racial unrest. Free labor is not always unjustified, though in some instances it can be inappropriate. When possible, payment for black bioethicists labor should be considered, but payment should not be substituted for compassion, integrity, and sensitivity given that black bioethicists’ frequently live and work at the cross-section of racial injustice, their work on race, and their personal identity as a black person.

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