Our Story

Putting people of colour into the equation

POCSquared started off as years of conversations between a group of (mostly) women of colour undergraduates at QMUL, after years of us commenting on issues we had with regards to finding “people like us”.

The lack of “people like us ” in the curriculum (surely, in all of human history, a scientist of colour has done somthing worthy of being taught).

The lack of “people like us” from undergrad to PhD level and above in academia (where are all the BAME PhD students, post docs, researchers, professors? How can we make a living and survive?).

Over time we realised we had to work together to answer these questions, because unlike for our white peers the answer isn’t in front of us.

Whilst finishing our Masters’ degrees in 2018 we set up a meeting with the senior academics of our school and the school’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee to address the “people like us” issues.

Horrific isn’t a strong enough word to describe this meeting.

We’ll spare you the details but know that this is a direct quote from the then head of the EDI team, a white female and a literal professor paid to work at a university:

“We are dealing with women first and race later”

This was a terrible blow. It was said with such dismissiveness, as if we women of colour, we women who are not white are so silly to even think of asking for help through the Athena Swan Chater, a charter built to help women. 

After dealing with our first real face to face instance of racism in acadmia we reached out to other, less institutionally racist, people for help. This lead to what would become a year long journey into deconstructing the issues we were facing which were present across all of STEM. This was both legitimising (we weren’t projecting our feelings! There is something wrong! Hooray!) and terrifying (all we want to do is study physics. How are we supposed to make enough money to survive, and how are we meant to feel represented?).

Concurrently we were able to scrape together an exhibition on scientists of colour in academia, get a lecturer appointed as “race champion” and we were able to slightly address the drinking culture in the school, before we washed our hands of QMUL entirely. Unsuprisingly we did all the work and the university itself  has not worked towards any kind of lasting change after we graduated.

During our degree, we felt as though there was no real space for us to talk about the systematic racism, colonised curriculum or the tokenism expressed so clearly in their paying 40% BAME undergraduate population, while almost all of their their paid employees at any level including the PhD students, are white. Additionally the perception of the mathematical sciences being solely “about the numbers and equations, how could it be anything other than the objective truth?” was something which was constantly told to us, and we were being actively discouraged in talking about about anything related to decolonisation and tackling the issue of racial representation in the curriculum we were being taught, even though this was both morally correct and exclusively benefits the persuit of science.

Despite the racism and finding out how widespread and systematic these problems are across every academic institution, we didn’t want to stop the work we were doing after we graduated, so we decided to continue our efforts. This lead to the development of our social enterprise, POCSquared.

Our name is derived from the Einstein energy-momentum relation, one of the most famous equations in physics: E = mc2

The physics nerds out there will know that the full equation is E2 = m2c4 + p2c2. Our mission is to show how fundamental people of colour are to science. We want to put people of colour into the equation.

E(quality)2 = m2c4 + (poc)2

Goals

We aim to:

  • Tackle the lack of people from marginalised backgrounds progressing into PhD level and above in STEM academia. – This issue is incredibly important as this is when people of colour go from being paying students to being a paid employee of the institution they attend. This occurs due to a multitude of reasons, including the infamous BME attainment gap (which is only observed in higher academic institutions as this is when a person goes from being marked externally to being marked internally, allowing for biases – unconscious or not – to have a large effect on a person’s outcome). This is also extremely exacerbated for black students with them on average 28.3% less likely than their white counterparts to achieve top grades. [1]

We are also extremely aware of the fact that institutions seem to group all BME together when displaying diversity statistics of students entering postgraduate study, due to them taking on a larger proportion of international students from Asian ethnic backgrounds (who pay much more to attend the institution), and using them to bloat the “BME” proportion of students while neglecting to take on particularly UK domiciled POC (especially black) students. [2]

  • Confront and address racial issues within mainstream syllabuses to effectively decolonise STEM curriculums. –  Many of the academics featured in the current curriculum were extremely racist/misogynistic/homophobic/transphobic etc…, and none of this is mentioned or even known by many of the academics who teach their work. As a result most of these white male scientists are put on intellectual pedestals, and the fact that their biases affected their contributions to science, and in many cases actively held back the progress of science, goes completely neglected.

Much of the science we use stems from unethical practices, but in mainstream STEM curriculums students are actively discouraged from addressing these issues or even mentioning them in any capacity, however STEM is not perfectly objective and like everything else made by humans, it is affected by the biases of those who made it. The moral implications of many scientists’ works cannot be ignored and these terrible morals objectively made the science they did worse. It has lead to the widespread issues we see today, one example being how the Hubble telescope is named after Edwin Hubble who was extremely violent and racist.

  • Promote the achievements of scientists from marginalised backgrounds both throughout history and today. – Many scientists from marginalised backgrounds have done excellent work in STEM both now and throughout history, but their work has been systematically erased. Mainstream curriculums feature almost no scientists of colour, however representation of people of colour succeeding in STEM curriculums is extremely important: if students of colour are able to read about the achievements of people from their ethnic background, they feel like their own achievements will be valued and will be encouraged to continue in their work. This also legitimises their work in white students/academics eyes, a huge problem that compounds their erasure. Additionally, due to the historical systematic and outright racism many of the achievements of scientists of colour has been overshadowed and dishonestly attributed to white scientists. We have therefore dedicated a section of this site to writing articles about historical and modern day scientists of colour and their work, not only focussing on scientists of colour who have thrived in the West, but also the development of science in specifically POC nations. Furthermore we focus on how a lot of the science we attribute to modern “Western science” was actually formulated and developed centuries prior and infinitely more morally in countries outside of the West.

Actions

We have developed three programmes (not currently available to the public) where we will work directly with universities to make changes via practical and systematic solutions. We’re also working towards the goal of having institutions themselves lead this work, not underprivileged BME undergraduates. Often the “solution” to the lack of BME in paid positions in academia is: “Do these other expensive extracurricular activities on top of getting perfect grades in the core curriculum and then we’ll consider you”. We are working to FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGE how staff are hired for paid PhD + academic positions as well as call out and remove the NUMEROUS number of unethical practices currently featured in mainstream STEM curriculums. Finally, we highlight the lesser known stories of BME (especially of women of colour) in STEM (via our blog) to encourage others to consider applying for PhDs.

  1. We have a podcast episode and guide which helps those from marginalised backgrounds actually apply for a PhD programme. It states the lesser know realities of the process, many of which are not featured in university open days, as well as the costs that go along with them.
  2. We have a fully written and planned module entitled Diversity in STEM. It focuses on postcolonial theory in STEM and consists of a history of colonialism in STEM including how it facilitated imperialism and how that affects the science we use today.
  3. Finally, we have planned out how to obtain actual accurate statistics of BME in STEM, as many BME in PhD positions consist of paying international students from partnered universities. In addition to this many universities don’t hire their own UK domiciled graduates and have very few BME academics. As accurate statistics on the full extent of these issues are not widely available, our programme aims to encourage universities to produce accurate statistics on the number of BME in all career stages. This includes undergraduate, postgraduate taught, postgraduate research, academic staff and senior academic staff. Additionally, the statistics will be analysed with context being put into the numbers as there are many external socio-economic factors that will affect these numbers.