White Managers in Research Computing, We Need to be Speaking Out About Racism, then Listening and Advocating

Many people in our research computing community — and in the broader research community we serve — are in pain this week. There’s another video of another Black man, George Floyd, begging for his life while being murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Here in Toronto a Black woman, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, died when what should have been a routine call resulted in a mystifying number of police officers showing up. With only police officers present in her apartment, she went over her high-rise balcony to her death, with her last words being, repeatedly, “Mom, help”. This is all taking place during a pandemic which is disproportionately killing and incapacitating Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour because they have less access to jobs that can be worked from home, and are more likely to be living in overcrowded multi-generational homes.

So with news and social media being dominated by the consequences of systemic racism, anti-Black violence in particular, and police violence in reaction to anti-police-brutality protests, a lot of people are feeling despair and anguish.

As managers, we are leaders of communities. Small communities, but nonetheless. We have a responsibility to members of those communities to let them know we support them and are here for them. It doesn’t take much to be small bit of genuine help to someone really struggling. But we have to initiate the conversations. Our community members won’t open up to us about these topics until we’ve demonstrated we can have some kind of adult conversation about racism.

Doing or saying something is scary for many of us in research computing — who are overwhelmingly not Black and mostly white, which is a related conversation we need to have — because we are worried, reasonably, about getting it wrong. And it’s easy to make the excuse that because we don’t have Black team members (which… you know, same) it’s not something we need to address.

Most of us don’t have team members who have gotten sick with COVID-19 either, but we’ve certainly been addressing that. It’s been hard and uncomfortable and we didn’t get it all right the first time around and we did it anyway. You don’t necessarily know who’s hurting in your team and community or why. Not addressing a topic dominating the news and social media now doesn’t project professionalism, it just suggests discomfort or indifference.

I do not have great suggestions about what to say or do. I can offer some articles and collections of resources I’m finding useful:

I can also tell you what I’m doing at work. I’ve raised the issue at our all hands meeting using words much like the above, and let people know they can talk to me about it if they need to. Unhelpfully, I sounded a bit awkward, even after practicing, but the next conversation will be easier. I’ve made a point of checking in a little deeper with people during one-on-ones, and doing a lot of listening, I’m listening for feedback even when it’s uncomfortable, and I’ll keep reading those materials, and others, to see what I can do better and how I can support change.

That’s not the best or even a particularly good way to address what’s going on now and what’s been going on for a very long time. It’s the bare minimum, and started too late. The challenge will come when making changes, then advocating for more change to peers and upwards. But it’s a start.

From issue #27 of the Research Computing Teams newsletter