Micro Musings: Is Paleontology Racist?

Paleontology has a race problem. 

(Cover image modified from: “Dinosaur fossils” by Yoshikazu TAKADA is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

To honor the start of Black History Month, I wanted to write a post about the top African American paleontologists. I quickly ran into a problem when a cursory Google search only returned about 3-4 people.

Why is paleontology so white

A google image search of paleontologist that shows several pictures of white men
A Google Image search for “paleontologist” results in a very monotone image of what a real paleontologist looks like

This is a tough question. It challenges our notions that science is a diverse and liberal pursuit, and even I admit I find the question uncomfortable.

Am I the problem? Are the many friends, colleagues, and mentors I have racists?

While I want to celebrate the many successful black paleontologists, I feel that by ignoring paleontology’s race issues, we inhibit it from becoming truly inclusive. We need to discuss this problem openly and confront it head on.


Only about 10% of PhDs in geoscience are awarded to people who aren’t white1, and only 3.8% of faculty positions in Earth sciences are people of color2. These proportions have not changed much over the past ten years despite diversity initiatives of universities and places of employment3.

Paleontology’s whiteness can be attributed to systemic roadblocks and personal biases.

Power structures in universities and companies prevent people of color from succeeding. We also have a strong cultural bias that suggests paleontology is a white man’s pursuit. Socio-economic roadblocks limit who can attend college and purchase expensive gear or equipment required for the field. 

Our own personal biases also limit diversity in paleontology. These do not make us bad people; often we are unaware of them. However, we can work towards lessening their impact.


To truly create an inclusive culture, dominant groups need to take ownership instead of minorities bearing the burden.

Jimenez et al., 20194

We, as in white geoscientists, must take ownership in dismantling racist norms and biases. We cannot expect systemic issues to change by waiting for oppressed minorities to do something about it. Doing so will require honest and open communication about the issues involved without personal accusations of prejudice.

Racism is not simply a personal issue, and we must work together to overcome it.

So, are we white paleontologists the problem?

I think, for the most part, we all want to see paleontology be more diverse. However, there are systemic issues that benefit white paleontologists at the expense of minorities. These are not necessarily our fault, but if we wait for others to fix the problem, then we are perpetuating the racist system and culture. 

By writing about this, I hope we can begin to have open discussions of race and racism in paleontology. Maybe one day soon, when I do a Google image search of paleontologists, I will see a more diverse cast of characters.

Two long-necked dinosaurs, one white, one black, with their necks interlocked

Drop a comment, or get back to me on Twitter, Facebook (or on my personal LinkedIn page). Next week, I’ll have part two on my series on Mary Anning.

References

  1. Dutt, K. (2020). Race and racism in the geosciences. Nature Geoscience13(1), 2-3.
  2. Bernard, R. E., & Cooperdock, E. H. (2018). No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geoscience11(5), 292-295.
  3. AGI report on Diversity in Geosciences
  4. Jimenez, M. F., Laverty, T. M., Bombaci, S. P., Wilkins, K., Bennett, D. E., & Pejchar, L. (2019). Underrepresented faculty play a disproportionate role in advancing diversity and inclusion. Nature ecology & evolution3(7), 1030-1033.

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