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Dealing with colleagues who try to throw you under the bus

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s probably safe to say I’m a veteran at this science, outreach and social media game. I’ve been struggling to keep my own science career game right (publish chica, PUBLISH!), keep my head above water (my finances and these student loans grrrr!), as well as navigate my professional trajectory (what’s next after this post doc?).  Challenges are apart of life. I’m not resigning to my or the world’s sand neither should any of you. I’ve been blessed with a platform and I have been beyond fortunate to stay in the game no matter the hits I’ve taken.  And I am humbled and honored that others reach out to me for assistance and advice.

Which brings me to this – the mail bag. I’ve always gotten an occasional query about science, wildlife, and college. Lately, I have gotten more queries from college and graduate students about navigating the academic STEM maze.

Here is a recent letter from a science grad student, a WOC (woman of color) at a large university in the United States.

Have you ever had to deal with fellow minorities in graduate programs/higher education trying to throw you under the bus just to better themselves? I’m experiencing this and it’s REALLY frustrating. Any comments/suggestions on how to deal with this would be greatly appreciated.  – BJ

Hey BJ, sorry you’re catching hell. Fortunately, I haven’t experience this, although I’ve mostly been the only minority in my departments. While I was completing my MS at a large university in the South there were 6 Black graduate students in the two Life Science Departments. (That’s a LOT people.)  We were all very collegial with one another and very supportive.  I realize that that is indeed rare – one to be surrounded by some many peers of similar background AND to be in a mutually supportive environment.

I heard of what’s happening with you experienced by other minority graduate students, most often where the female colleague is the one thrown under by the male colleague.

My best advice:  distance yourself from such persons so that they have no inside information on you to leverage. My take is that they are playing a horrible losing game: Fighting for the perception of model minority. This is where understanding history and social context can really help a student from a minority group, especially an under represented one in his/her field, and this knowledge  could make or break your academic experience and set your path. In Southern States, anti-black racism (can) pit non-black minorities against black minorities, in Western/South Western States Latino and Indigenous minorities catch hell, too.  These reactions to minority students, even by other minority students of other or even the same group can be subtle and insidious or overt and very deliberate.  Either way, if the overall culture of the local environment (lab group, department, university or local town) is one that treats minority scholars as always needing to prove his/her worth to the academic community then it doesn’t matter what the Model Minority person does. At the heart of it (in those environments), the majority culture views all minorities as less than.

Make no mistake, skinfolk ain’t your kinfolk. Whenever someone wants to associate you with that person you need to make it perfectly clear that “we are not the same”. You need not throw them under the bus, but you can throw shade. (Well, at least that’s what I do.)

Also, depending on your status in the lab/department and your relationship to that person you may also consider pulling him/her to the side and let them know you are aware of their behavior, maybe set them straight.  Maybe they aren’t being deliberately janky. I don’t know, but in my experiences, letting someone know that I am aware of their hold card usually causes them to be ‘more aware’ of their behavior when it comes to dealing with me or talking about me to third parties. (Keep my name out of your mouth, Barrio Laboratory Rule #10 ?)

I realize that everyone is a work in progress, myself included. I’m inclined to give folks a chance to revise my opinion of them after a lemon squeeze.  I hope people are as patient with me.  In the end, taking care of you comes first – your scholarship, your research, your relationship with mentors and peers, AND your physical, emotional and psychological health.  Your ability to walk the halls of your department and interact with people, get support when needed and have access to resources is essential to your success. Poisoning the well of perception about you – as an individual or a scholar – is not cool and your irritation with this behavior is legitimate.

But focus on you, not trying to fix or correct that person. Focus on neutralizing the situation. If pulling him/her aside does that and causes you little/no drama, fine. If another tack, saying cocooning him/her off, then that is fine, too.

Best of luck with it.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Bashir 3:30 pm 05/15/2014

    First rule of being a minority academic is that other minority academics are not necessarily your friends or allies. It would be nice if it were so. I have gotten my share of support and advice from others. But, people are people, and some of us are jerks.

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  2. 2. doyougetmesweetheart 4:43 pm 05/15/2014

    A note to the author of this article – it would behoove you to hire a proof-reader to insure that your misspelled words don’t make it to print – I stopped reading your article when I encountered the second one, as an article loses credibility for me when it contains misspelled words. Sure, we all spell words incorrectly from time to time – but when we know that something we write will be published for all the world to see – if we don’t care enough to proof-read it ourselves, we should hire someone else do the task. Particularly when we put ourselves out there to offer “advice.” Please – if you don’t think it is important to produce the written word with them all spelled correctly, then you need to go back to school.

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  3. 3. llirbo 6:22 pm 05/15/2014

    doyougetmesweetheart: You stopped reading something interesting because of spelling mistakes? That’s pretty radical. It is not the first blog where I’ve noticed errors of the same type; yet , I saw no (pedantic) comment from you. I wonder then if this comment is made because the author is a minority woman. Thus said, you have a strange notion of punctuation what6 with all these – where they most certainly do not belong.

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  4. 4. larkalt 2:09 pm 05/20/2014

    A lot of distinguished scientists have bad spelling, in my experience.
    It seems like a good idea to make sure one’s spelling is correct – but nobody should think less of the author as a scientist, because of spelling mistakes (which seem to have been fixed).

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