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Invisible Discrimination: Why We Should Turn Our Attention to Racism in STEM

Sophie Anabelle Somé & Christopher Boa

Staff Writer & Science and Environment Editor


Test grades, lab partners, R-scores, university applications: this is the sound of the restless murmur among students in Dawson’s infamous Science programs. Although moderate levels of competitiveness can provide students oriented toward Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) with a healthy challenge, the culture present among them is amplified by something far more sinister. Buried beneath the seemingly harmless banter, the performative inclusivity, and the colourblind attitudes of “progressive” students is a very implicit yet persistent form of racial discrimination.

When asked to complete a survey regarding this issue, 80% of CÉGEP-level science students believe that there is racism in STEM-related fields. Although only 25.8% of BIPOC respondents reported having directly experienced a form of racism in a STEM-related environment, 69.6% claimed to have at least heard about or witnessed a racist experience in this domain. This statistic supports the alarming presence of racism in STEM and the need to act efficiently on this issue. Conceivably, the discrimination against Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC), and all other minority ethnic groups is well hidden behind the curtains of excellence, perseverance, and personal advancement.

However, if we are to address such an elusive form of unconscious prejudice among the STEM-oriented student body, we must first find a way to define it. According to a faculty member at Dawson, who has experienced racism at Dawson and therefore wishes to remain anonymous, racism is not inherently “about colour, [but rather] about power, [specifically] who has power over whom.” In his understanding, those who are in a position of power will inevitably want to hold on to their position. Now, if the society is structured in such a way that people of a certain colour (e.g. White) or a certain linguistic group (French or English) – both of which apply to the Canadian and Quebec situation – hold power, they will not only want to keep it but also use all possible means to make sure that others are of no threat to their position. As such, it is quite conceivable that they develop an unjustified “fear of the other” the moment they feel that their place at the top of the hierarchy is in jeopardy. Moreover, this fear has another function: it is used as a tool to block the “others’” ability to ever acquire a comparable position of power. This clear-cut hierarchy ultimately harms “the other” as it imposes on them prejudicial attitudes toward their level of intelligence and deprives them of opportunities for advancement.

But how did such notions become so deeply embedded within the competitive culture of students in STEM? In North America, at least, a mentality supporting the segregation of education pathways on the basis of a student’s racial identity has existed since long before the Civil Rights Movement. Although systemic policies differentiating between White and Non-White students have long since been abolished, the socioeconomic and academic disparities between these groups persist to this day, thus preventing many students of marginalised backgrounds from accessing the same opportunities that White students generally have. Athavan Vallipuranathan, a student in Pure and Applied Science, says there is an under-representation of BIPOC individuals in STEM that “breeds ignorance and racism within the field,” as people are less likely to understand “the perspectives, cultures, and biases” of marginalised individuals. Vy Bui, another student in the same program, believes that racism “manifests itself differently [in STEM] because [...] it is such a taboo subject in [this field], rather than in other programs such as Social Science.” She adds that implicit racial discrimination often takes “the form of microaggressions, such as the dismissal of ideas, plainly not letting the person speak, [and] taking credit for an idea that is not yours.”

In response to those recurring injustices, social measures promoting racial equity rather than “colourblind” equality are increasingly being put into place. One such measure is the implementation of race quotas as part of the university application process, namely in Montréal. Idealistically, these quotas would be unnecessary if admissions officers were impartial and if BIPOC students had the same lived experiences as the average White person. However, admitting students solely based on merit undermines the systemic disadvantages that BIPOC individuals face from the get-go and throughout their academic careers. Although these general statements do not apply to everyone in the exact same way, marginalised people often must work much harder to obtain the grades, volunteer hours, and other criteria equating to “academic merit” compared to students of White ethnic groups that have been established here for several generations. This by no means implies that students belonging to the majority do not work hard; nevertheless, it is an imbalance that only favours applicants who benefit from these societal privileges.

Despite this known fact, certain White students in STEM at Dawson proudly dominate discussions that question the current necessity for social programs aiming to improve the odds of underprivileged students, including the race quota, without including BIPOC voices and opinions. According to Salim Sansal, a student in Health Science, STEM-related fields tend to be elitist and centred on “assuring the respect of one another in terms of professional title or level of education [rather] than in terms of ethnic identity [or] other forms of personal identity.” There is an extreme seriousness attributed to STEM-related workplaces or academic institutions in terms of academic performance rather than the general appreciation of one’s racial differences. Salim adds that this idea is “noticeable, especially when compared to institutions in [the] social sciences or arts, where people seem a lot more preoccupied with the respect of one another’s identity.” While the fight against racism is not less apparent in those fields, it nonetheless has a presence that is missing in STEM-related fields. This discourages dialogue between students regarding their different lived experiences due to their ethnicity, among other forms of their identity, and devalues this person’s unique and underrepresented voice in STEM-related contexts.

There is hope, however. The majority of White and BIPOC survey respondents seem to agree that the interests of BIPOC students are not well addressed in STEM-related fields. Unfortunately, despite this consensus on both sides, there is an overwhelming passivity toward addressing racism in STEM that permits the proliferation of a malignant and toxic culture of unhealthy conditions for BIPOC individuals. Furthermore, an anonymous student expressed how additional pressure is placed upon Non-White students in STEM with regard to credibility; BIPOC students have to “do more to be as credible as the other, and it feels like this credibility that [they] may have built for [themselves] is very fragile,” thus leaving no room for mistakes. These restrictions aimed against BIPOC students are not acceptable and should be openly discussed. No one should feel the need to prove themselves more because of their racial identity. The discussion about racism in STEM can no longer be swept under the rug. This is an issue that affects the lives and the integrity of many students and their ability to thrive in a non-judgemental environment. Silence and inaction are the driving forces of racism in STEM, and we shall fight against it by enhancing the dialogue between BIPOC and White students.

Unfortunately, racism is not a problem that can be eradicated in an instant; it requires education, tolerance, and open dialogue between White and Non-White students. Action needs to be taken regarding this issue, because being a BIPOC student in STEM should be as valuable as being a White student in STEM. The resulting conversations will be uncomfortable, as nobody likes to admit their unconscious biases or complacency with the status quo, but they are the first step to unlearning this deeply rooted racism and planting the seeds for a better system that accommodates us all.

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