My university experience as black woman in physics.

This is a guest post by Karel Green who set up POCSquared (a site which showcases the achievements of People of Colour in STEM – “Putting People Of Colour back into the equation”), was part of the original Stem Gamechangers program, and is a founder member of the Scientists Are Humans team.

When I was first approached by this site to write about my experience as an undergraduate student in physics, my first thought was “What have I done? I have nothing to write about!”. As a co-founder of Scientists Are Humans you’d think I would have heaps to say, but a lot of my diversity work started less than a year ago, and I’m still learning.

Essentially, my university experience was both totally fine and a complete mess. As someone who apparently functions with the memory of a goldfish it is mostly a huge blur at this point, but I suppose with regards to it being “totally fine” my experiences are similar to most of the other students’. During my first three years in university I made some great friends, the workload was exhausting at times and exams were tough, but I loved what I was learning and I was happy with my degree choice (MSci Astrophysics).

adult business computer dark
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

However, one thing that stood out to me was that I was the only black person on the entire course.

The university I attended (QMUL) is praised for being an exceptionally diverse university when compared to others, and whilst I have my fair share of friends who are people of colour from university, a sense of isolation was always present as I was the only black person. This was not only in relation to the student population. I was still the only black person when I expanded my search to consider the staff and academics. Whilst ethnic diversity is a problem for all people of colour (POC), in my entire four years of study, I did not feel as though I had any representation. Again, this was exclusive to myself as a black woman: there were occasional white female lecturers, occasional Asian scientists in the curriculum but not a single black persona was featured at any stage.

astronomy clouds dusk hands
Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

I always assumed I would continue on to do a PhD, (I still plan to but I will get to that later); however it was in my Masters year when things started to go downhill. A few friends and I really started to question the issues we had at this stage, the first problem being specifically the lack of POC representation in the curriculum. This was incredibly tough considering we were trying to tackle this – without any help – during our examination period, but nevertheless we persisted and eventually found out about the widespread and complex diversity issues in all of STEM.

This also affected me personally, as at the time I was trying to apply for a PhD. Like many people of colour I was restricted to London for financial and personal reasons, and whilst I was a good student, I missed out on a First Class degree classification due to events outside  my control. Additionally, at this stage I had not made the necessary connections with academics to effectively apply for them.

I ended up not getting a place on a PhD in 2018 but this hasn’t deterred me and I am reapplying now (with hopefully better results). That failure stung me, but it also allowed me to find out and develop another passion I have outside of physics: diversity work.

I started a social enterprise called pocsquared (www.poc2.co.uk, @pocsquared on Twitter) that focuses specifically on ethnic diversity (or lack thereof) in STEM. I found that all too often, diversity means “gender”, and ethnic diversity is never taken into account. There are racial hierarchies in every other kind of marginalisation and if effort is not put in to helping people of colour specifically they tend to not be featured or receive the help they so desperately need and deserve.

This is easily illustrated by the Athena SWAN charter that is often praised for “fixing” the gender balance in STEM1 and whilst the number of cishet able-bodied white women progressing in their careers has improved the number of LGBT+ women, disabled women and the women of colour who belong to either (or both) of these groups seems to be as low as it has ever been.

bookcase books classroom college
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Furthermore, I found the “solution” to fixing ethnic diversity in STEM is forced upon the already disadvantaged groups. My university were completely unhelpful in trying to fix these issues, so the burden of broadening and decolonising the curriculum fell on the shoulders of  myself and a friend (in addition to our academic workload).

POCSquared also focuses a lot of its energy on decolonising the STEM curriculum. Currently the physics curriculum is highly whitewashed and it is not free of the prejudices of the scientists who wrote it. There are many unethical practices that were used in order to gain the scientific knowledge we currently have. The horrific global political/social climate in which science has been constructed is not addressed, and this has led to the false narrative that all of the achievements of non-Western physicists are at best primitive pseudoscience, and the only “true science” originated in the West within the last five centuries. It is important to acknowledge that Western science was developed during a period where colonialism and slavery were rampant across the globe.

This leads to the problem that many achievements of POC scientists in history from non-western civilisations have not only been largely overlooked, but have been falsely attributed as being discoveries of Western scientists much further on in history. If you’re interested in finding out a little bit more, check out:

Being black in STEM is probably the hardest thing I have ever done. It’s the only career I’ve ever wanted, as astrophysics has been my passion for most of my life and yet I faced (and continue to face) entrenched systematic barriers every step of the way.

four people showing clap hand gestures
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Racism does not disappear with time but evolves to match the current system. We are no longer blocking people of colour from pursuing an education through denying them the right to go to university, but they still face obstacles which create a lack of career progression. This makes academia a fundamentally unsustainable career path for many.

In my short time working on ethnic diversity I have not experienced racism in the classical sense but I have had to deal with gaslighting at every step of the way. Almost every time I take a step forward I have to answer the question “Why are we politicising science”, as if the unethical practises and whitewashing are personal issues that I am bringing up as topics to be debated as opposed to them being treated as the facts and realities of life that they are. I’ve had white men asking me “have you complained to the school” as if that wasn’t my first idea (I am a human after all) and I’ve even had white women try to convince me that white people can experience racism (this was a huge mess).

When challenging the pale, male and stale nature of the curriculum minorities are accused of playing politics with science. But politics has always been in science – ask the slaves who were used as guinea pigs, the lab assistants whose work was appropriated, and the universities who didn’t admit non-white students until the 1950s. When people accuse minorities of “playing politics”, they are overlooking the fact that their own position is one of political privilege. But it’s hard for people to see that it’s “politics” when you’re in the driving seat; to people who look like the scientists in the textbooks it seems like just the way things are.

As I said before, science is not free of the prejudices of those who created it. The extensive whitewashing of the curriculum and lack of career access/progression for people of colour is not only morally wrong but fundamentally detrimental to the pursuit of science.

flight sky earth space
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My experience as an undergraduate in STEM is sadly not unique. I think of all the people of colour who like myself wanted to pursue a career as a scientist but unlike myself did not have the socioeconomic resources to even finish a degree. The leaky pipeline is full of people forced out of academia as opposed to dropping out, and even with my own personal STEM future being out of my control (PhD applications are hard, guys!) I ask that you focus your efforts on instilling institutional change as it is only by implementing consistent solutions that positive change can be made.

Karel Green (@thisismeonline, @pocsquared).

1 Comment from editor 1: “Whether or not Athena Swan has “fixed” anything is a topic for a whole new article…” back to text

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s