Let’s be clear: Public health research is a predominantly white, female environment. I am the only Black person in a department of 50 people, and that’s one of the things that really attracted me to this role. I understood that there aren’t many Black people in research, and I wanted to at least begin to change the narrative — to say, especially to college students, “Hey! There are other Black people in research” — because the whole thing about impostor syndrome is so real. We grow up thinking that we don’t belong, and so I want to do this work to open the door for all the people behind me to understand that there are opportunities here for Black people.
Our white counterparts always conduct research on us, but we’re never present in the lab room when the analysis takes place. Things are always done on us or to us, and we’re not there to coach our colleagues on the ethics of what’s appropriate and what’s not. We all need to be at that table. That’s why I’ve tried to be very involved in the research community.
I started thinking a lot more about those inequities when George Floyd died. To see another Black man dead due to police brutality, it was traumatizing. The next few days, my peers of color and I were chatting, and they were all expressing their frustration about how they felt like no one was talking about it within their departments. I encouraged them to talk about it, and they all insisted, “No, I can’t, because I’m the only Black person, I feel uncomfortable talking about it, and I don’t want to get in trouble.” We have to change this fear.
So if you’re interacting with people of color, just know that they may not be as expressive as I am, but they will be experiencing some form of the anger, sadness, and frustration that I am. It is hard on every single one of us to see individuals who look like us being killed over and over again. Be mindful of that.
As for me, I’ve been empowered. I don’t know what changed in me; maybe it’s the fact that we’ve seen this so many times. If we continue to be silent, things won’t change. If I know people who are in leadership positions, I’m going to reach out to them and tell them how I feel. I’m going to provide them with ideas on how to create a safe space for everyone at work or at school. I’m going to make it personal, so they understand that if you love me — even if you like me — these are things that happen to me and my people.
If I have to live in fear or discomfort because of the color of my skin, you should also feel uncomfortable because you have a privilege so great that you don’t even have to talk about it, you can just look the other way. I’ve started just saying it like this: I could be the next George Floyd. And if you’re OK with him dying, you’re OK with me dying, too.
Willie Borkai, 29, is a public health researcher from Providence. For more in this series go to bostonglobe.com/opinion/black-voices-now.