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Posted on November 22, 2021 at 2:14 PM

by Keisha Ray, PhD and Faith E. Fletcher, PhD, MA 

Recently Leah Pierson wrote the essay “Becoming a Bioethicist is Expensive. That’s a Problem.” This essay rightly pointed out the hefty financial costs associated with becoming a bioethicist. Although Pierson’s remarks were spot on, they noted that the commentary was not unique to bioethics. For example, Pierson, pointed out the enormous costs of tuition. Outrageous tuition bills, however, can be an obstacle to anyone who is not wealthy or who does not receive full scholarships. Still, as Black bioethicists, when we read the essay, we felt disconnected from it. Not all essays about bioethics must speak to every demographic group, but as Black bioethicists, we did not see ourselves in this one. While financial costs may certainly represent a barrier for Black bioethicists, it is just one type of cost for us. Once we pay the tuition costs and other associated financial costs necessary to acquire the credentials to rightfully call ourselves bioethicists, we still face costs, only these costs are social costs and emotional costs. 

Here we give examples of some of the social and emotional costs Black bioethicists must continuously pay to be bioethicists. These costs are based on our experiences as Black bioethicists and they should not be seen as representative of all Black bioethicists’ experiences: 

1. Like other professionals from marginalized populations, we, too are faced with constantly self-policing ourselves in professional settings. We often take measures to make sure that we aren’t perceived as “too Black” when interacting with people who associate Blackness with anti-social characteristics. This may mean making ourselves small so that we aren’t seen as “too much.” For Black women, it may mean not being too loud or vocal with our dissenting opinions so that we aren’t seen as the “angry Black woman.” For Black men, it may mean modifying behaviors so they aren’t seen as intimidating or hostile. We are careful with our tone of voice so we are not characterized as aggressive or unfriendly by our majority White colleagues. For Black bioethicists, getting this wrong can lead to “academic cancel culture”: not receiving invites to participate in those opportunities that establish careers, like keynote lectures, panels, conferences, co-authored journal articles, book chapters, and book contacts. Many of the currencies of our profession require Black bioethicists to fit in and not challenge the status quo, even when the status quo could be causing us emotional turmoil. 

2. Being a Black bioethicist can also cost us our voice. If we experience racial injustice or witness racial injustice at our institutions or at professional gatherings we have to weigh the emotional costs of keeping quiet vs the potential professional costs of speaking up and damaging our careers. We know this cost/benefit analysis all too well because we have learned from more senior Black bioethicists that there can be dire consequences for speaking against anti-Black practices and policies. In fact, we have witnessed Black bioethicists denied tenure or promotion after speaking out against racial injustice at their universities.  Although bioethicists generally offer professional input and advocacy on life and death matters, Black bioethicists are not always able to freely voice our opinions on popular cases of racial injustice or racism. For instance, in regard to recent police killings of Black people, we have to choose our words wisely when speaking in public or on our personal social media accounts, even when we are not representing our institutions. Nationally, Black scholars face unfair ridicule and consequences for speaking against anti-Blackness via social media. We have seen people screenshot Black scholars’ social media pages and send them to their institution’s administration hoping that the Black scholar is fired or punished in some other way. As such, Black scholars who want to remain employed in a profession that perpetuates anti-Blackness in its practices, norms, and policies, are forced to decide when and how to use their voice to call attention to racial injustice within and outside of our profession. 

3. Inadequate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the field of bioethics unduly burden Black bioethicists who are often expected to take on additional responsibilities, particularly, DEI-related work. As described by colleagues, “the overspent time on DEI initiatives comes at a cost for minority faculty—a toll known as the minority tax.” Because diverse voices and perspectives are critical to advancing institutional agendas, Black bioethicists are frequently asked and often expected to engage in DEI work—labor that is generally not compensated or credited in tenure and promotion decisions. Disproportionately heavy workloads germane to  Black faculty can lead to unfair perceptions, biases, stereotyping and ultimately labeling Black scholars as overextended, overwhelmed, not focused, spread too thin, unreliable with deadlines and incompetent. Without adequate institutional support structures, DEI work can cause mental and emotional trauma, fatigue and burn-out. To mitigate these costs, institutions and organizations should compensate Black bioethicists for DEI-related work and strategically work to change institutional policies and practices by prioritizing DEI work in promotion and tenure decisions.

4. As Black bioethicists, not seeing ourselves in bioethics scholarship is thematic and burdensome. We don’t all engage in race and racism scholarship, but we do recognize the importance of amplifying racial justice work to advance the field of bioethics. When bioethics scholarship doesn’t reflect our collective values and struggles, we feel obligated to speak up and highlight blind spots that our colleagues failed to acknowledge. However, always being the “one” to speak up and speak out about issues of racial justice can result in “academic typecasting” for Black bioethicists— associating us with one voice, one perspective, or one area of scholarship, and ultimately prevent us from demonstrating our full versatility as scholars. To mitigate this cost, the field of bioethics must interrogate the embedded and existing structures and systems that exclude racial justice scholarship and Black bioethicists from mainstream bioethics.  

We hope this encourages other Black bioethicists to think about the social costs of being a bioethicist that they paid and continue to pay to be a part of this profession. We also hope bioethicists from other racial groups will gain a little insight into what may be their Black colleagues’ experiences in bioethics. 

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