My Experience With STEM’s Unspoken Issue: Discrimination

I’ve always known deep down I wanted to pursue a career in healthcare. To fuel my aspiration, I began immersing myself in biology and mathematics, becoming acquainted with brilliant classmates. Yet I began to notice the racial slurs and offensive stereotypes my classmates proudly projected to the class. The garbage they spouted was insensitive to basically everyone besides themselves. Yes, people deserve chances, they deserve to be given the opportunity to recognize and grow from these types of things. More than anything I wanted to believe they didn’t know any better, I needed that.

The hope I held had been stepped on with little remorse. I remember the few times I cooly explained what had been saying was offensive and was written off as “too sensitive” or “lacking humour”. You may be reading this and saying this is everywhere, not just in STEM. I absolutely agree (my university English class consists of students laughing at one too many insensitive cultural jokes). The point of concern  is that 75% of my graduating high school classmates in STEM are hoping to pursue medicine. They are dreaming of helping people but  they do not see everyone as equal.

Now I could believe that my classmates deserve to burn in a pit of hell, that they are solely to blame for their actions. But would that be entirely true? 

Where were my teachers when my fellow South Asian classmates said “There’s a reason there are no blacks in this class”? Where had my biology teacher been when my biology classmates compared transgender people to straight up demons? All my teachers either opted to stay silent, or added on to my peers thoughts. I remember one of my science teachers saying how relieved they were that we hadn’t been affected by the “sensitive people”. I distinctly remember once we had a substitute teacher, he would come once a semester for three weeks to teach us biology. I had been so excited, ready to shine my knowledge in biology.  From that entire ordeal I remember trying to process my caucasian teacher telling my entirely immigrant class that the majority of us are here because our parents forced us. I felt like I heard wrong, because I didn’t want to be the sensitive child. So with a heavy heart I decided to let it go, later learning these words would be echoed to me by many who  resembled him and did not know me. The last straw  was when he spent the class using derogatory terms against  Indigineous peoples in Canada. As I was considering how to refute him, I realized maybe he did not know any better. We are all humans that naturally make lapses of judgement about each other. I instead decided to be civil- I truly wanted him to understand rather than endure conflict. So I waited until class had ended and the room was empty, quietly notifying the teacher that the terms he had used were derogatory, and that there were a multitude of respectful ways to address Indigenous peoples. He smiled and promised he would definitely do so. As I walked out I felt hopeful for the first time, watching the next set of  students enter his class.

At lunch, I overheard my classmate’s laughter, talking about how our biology teacher told them they had a snowflake in his morning class,that he can’t say anything now without being corrected. As the words spread people came up to me and asked if I was the student he  was talking about. At school, I was labelled as the “social justice sellout”, it was a label I forgot to  consider when speaking up. I felt so overwhelmed and embarrassed that I denied the claim. I pretended to have no idea what they were talking about, I felt like I had to. Why would I want to be the snowflake who upset the teacher? Looking back, I realized a grown adult had put me, a 15-year-old, in a position where I felt ashamed of privately addressing him in what should’ve been a safe space. This happened when I was at the age of 15, when my classmates and I were first learning about how we should approach the world, how to approach conflict. The academic STEM community has strengthened and nurtured these ignorant thoughts. Being educated in such a toxic community begins affecting the way the new generations approach situations,we have effectively become worse as the previous generation before us. 

I don’t think I am the first to point this out, and most certainly not the most affected by the biases these situations create, but I often find students in STEM (especially women of colour) who want to break the rigid walls are met with uncertainty. I remember when I would go to protests, and sometimes plan ones within school, classmates would say someone “like me” wouldn’t fit into what STEM entails. When I would question what they mean by that they’d ask if I am sure of what I had been doing. Trying to put a nail in my coffin by asking me if I was aware that talking about “controversial topics” could hinder my chance at graduate school. Truth be told I had been nervous about these things. I am not awarded the same privilege as some of my peers, I do not have immense loads of wealth or family connections to land me a position in my field. It’s something all people of colour are forced to think about. So how do we progress? Honestly, I am not quite sure. What I do I know is that I hold some privileges, and I exhaust those as best as I can. Ultimately it’s all we can do. For every angry teacher there are thousands of  people that share your beliefs. You may not always be able to win the war, but small battles count. Look out for your classmates. When you see someone suffering, reach out. Let them know they can lean on you. 

I share the experiences I faced today because I want others in STEM to know they aren’t suffering alone. I was there for years, sometimes I still find myself there. One of the best ways to slowly break the rigid wall is by talking about the situations that allowed them to be built. When we acknowledge what happened to us wasn’t right, proper consequences or not, we can educate those around us. The more it’s said the more we normalize speaking up. The first few times nothing will come of it, it’ll hurt. But when they all add up it’ll become undeniable. Future generations in positions of power will hear our stories and use them to change the way they were taught for the better. I have watched STEM tear me down, but I have also let it positively impact my life. I know that it’s a flawed community, but every community needs the right discussion to begin the change. I chose STEM because I know that it needs, or even better yet, has people who do want to change the community for the better.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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