Most students of color know what it feels like to be the only non-white person in a classroom; the isolating responsibility of being the only person of color in these types of settings is too familiar to many of us. At this year’s American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) annual conference, a similar feeling of unease and responsibility set in with me. ASBH holds an annual conference in order to connect individuals across disciplines for the purpose of providing a platform for knowledge sharing in the fields of clinical and academic bioethics, as well as medical and health humanities. Part of the mission of ASBH states that “The Society specifically seeks to foster dialogue, collegial endeavors, and membership with persons from diverse cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.” This special focus on the inclusion of persons from diverse backgrounds is critical to the development of the field of bioethics. I identify as a queer, mixed-race person of color. After learning about ASBH’s diversity and racial equity mission, I was really excited to see all of these identities reflected back from respected academics in bioethics during the conference. I was hoping for a racially and culturally diverse group of presenters and participants at the meeting. My experience of the ASBH meeting, however, was that it seemed to lack adequate diverse racial representation among presenters, especially among presenters with terminal degrees.
I attended ASBH’s 2021 conference through Emory University’s student sponsorship program, which is a partnership program with ASBH, and specifically focuses on including undergraduate students from historically underrepresented backgrounds like myself. In the application for potential student sponsorship recipients, Emory states that it “values student diversity and is working to ensure our bioethics education is accessible to and supportive of students of diverse and historically underrepresented backgrounds.” While the application emphasized the importance of diversity in bioethics education, I expected this emphasis to be somewhat performative due to past experiences with large healthcare-related organizations. When I entered the pre-conference prep call for recipients of the student sponsorship a few days before the start of the conference, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was among a racially diverse group of students. In this way, Emory University succeeded in including a group of majority students of color in their sponsorship program. This gave me hope for the rest of the conference, and I was excited to see academics of color at the forefront of this conference. However, my optimism was short-lived; while my student cohort was highly diverse, I realized that the presenters were far less racially diverse than I had hoped and fell short of ASBH’s conference and organization missions.
After attending the first day of the conference, I noticed that the most racially diverse cohort to attend ASBH’s 2021 meeting was the group of students sponsored by Emory, including myself. Nearly all of the presenters whose talks I attended were white, especially those with terminal degrees, including PhDs and MDs. Although I did not attend all of the sessions, I attended many sessions on the topic of race over the course of the conference and only one of the presenters from all the talks on race I attended self-identified as a person of color. Mostly, those who sat on panels to discuss the role of race and race dynamics in bioethics acknowledged their positions as white scholars speaking about structural racism in predominately white spaces, however, critical lived experience of racism was still missing from these talks.
While ASBH encouraged open discussion in their preparation emails and conference mission statement, I found it extremely difficult to bring issues of race and representation into a professional conversation as the youngest, least educated person in each session. The undergraduate student cohort contributed much diversity in each session, which put us in situations where we were often the only people of color in meetings, special interest groups, and panel discussions. While this lack of diverse representation among speakers was admitted and even addressed in some of the discussions and presentations about race, the disparity in who ASBH conference organizers had granted a seat at the table was glaring. After attending a few panel presentations, my discomfort surrounding my identity in discussions set in. While I felt welcomed by the overall mission of ASBH and its conference, I felt marginalized seeing so little representation of my ethnic and cultural backgrounds among the presenters. Seeing underrepresented undergraduate students occupy a space within the bioethics academic pipeline was really exciting for me, but there are many scholars with higher education degrees in bioethics and related fields with diverse and varied backgrounds who were not included in speaking roles at the ASBH meeting. ASBH heavily influences the field of bioethics; its scope and size allow it to make fungible impacts in bioethics policy and research. In order to make future annual ASBH conferences, and influence bioethics as a profession to be more equitable, ASBH organizers must recognize this influence and work to make its meetings more inclusive and representative spaces for all attendees.
Generally, the annual ASBH meeting is a collaborative tool for idea sharing and a driver in the improvement of the field of bioethics; the ASBH meeting I attended, however, made me feel marginalized and underrepresented as a young student of color. The disparity in representation among presenters, while reflective of the current disparities among bioethics scholars, placed an unreasonable burden on us as students of color to represent lived experiences of non-white people at the conference. While it was encouraging to see the beginning of the academic pipeline fill with students of color, the ASBH conference and organization leaders must dedicate further resources and time to identify and address reasons why there are so few scholars of color with terminal degrees in speaking roles at their conference. By doing so, ASBH leadership will not only create a more welcoming and inclusive space for its participants of color like myself and my fellow students of color who attended this year, but also foster more dynamic and diverse idea sharing at future conferences.
Arisa Marshall is an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, Seattle and an intern with NYU Division of Medical Ethics.