This article is taken from the latest D/srupt issue 3 (2020-21). Click here to view the full magazine.
If 2020 was a book, it would have plot twist after plot twist after plot twist. Among the backdrop of a global pandemic, one very important societal conversation has come to the forefront … race.
Sparked by the abhorrent death of George Floyd in May, the USA and the UK have seen the long shadows of colonialism and white privilege held to account like never before. As we strive to become more progressive, many have been educating themselves on the issue through books, podcasts and documentaries. On this list of essential reading isSuperior: The Return of Race Science.
When writing Superior, Science Journalist Angela Saini could never have imagined the social climate in which it would be read, but the message of the book has never been so urgent: race is a construct, not based on evidence or fact, but created to elevate a particular segment of society.
In fact, the idea of different biological races wasn’t recorded until the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Prior to this the word ‘race’ referred to a family group or tribe. Angela explains: “this makes more sense because at least there is some genetic commonality between you. They didn’t use the racial categories that we use now, and certainly not this colour- coded way of talking about groups of people – black, white, brown, red – the kind of system that developed in the 18th and 19th century.”
In the majority of modern scientific history, the idea that there are different biological races, and profound differences between those races, was considered mainstream thinking: “It was not controversial at all,” says Angela. These views, despite not being based on scientific fact, have permeated their way into society: “When you have social divisions through society, then they take on a meaning of their own. So race does matter now, because it has political and social meaning, and has defined how people have been treated for hundreds of years; it’s been used as a justification for slavery and colonialism and genocide. It’s deeply rooted in many cultures. You can’t ignore it. To ignore it would be to ignore that racism still exists.”
The most alarming realisation when reading Superior is the fact that not much has changed. Pseudoscience is still being used to back up and support political agendas. Angela explains that: “Scientific racism survived because of politics. There are enough people out there, not just on the margins, but also sometimes in the mainstream, who want to believe that the inequality that’s seen in society isn’t the product of discrimination or historical factors or political factors, but just biology. They want to believe that we’re different deep down and that’s why minorities are under-represented in so many fields. “I think they feel that if they can find some kind of intellectual justification for it, then what they’re feeling is not bigotry. There are so many people who put time and effort into trying to provide and invigorate these old 19th-century, completely outdated and pseudoscience, arguments about racial difference.”
The coronavirus pandemic has been a perfect example of how, as Angela describes it, “lazy, uninformed speculation” can lead to mistakes about race: “I’ve seen quite prominent medical researchers and doctors speaking about racial disparities in coronavirus deaths, in particular early on in the pandemic in theUKandintheUS,as though there might be genetic cause. That’s almost impossible. We’re not talking about genetic groups here, were talking about socially defined groups. That’s a real problem. And that’s not just speculation, of course. Despite the many resources that have been poured into trying to look to genetic differences, we haven’t got any, and this reinforces in the public imagination that there might be something biologically tangible about race.”
Unfortunately, until the concept of race being a social construct is widely recognised, it will be hard for society to progress. As Angela explains: “if you’re still arguing about whether people are different, deep down, then you don’t tackle the root cause of the problem, which is social and political. You don’t tackle structural, institutional racism.”
Since publishing Superior in 2019, Angela has been asked to speak at many events regarding the lingering effects of race science. “It’s frustrating … I find myself repeatedly having to explain that race really is a social construct again and again and again to scholars, universities, magazines, and that just goes to show that it’s not widely accepted. I hope that within my lifetime, we get beyond that, because all the time we’re stuck on this.”
The good news is that with conversations about race coming to the forefront in 2020, Angela has observed a change in attitude at some of the talks she’s held: “I’ve been doing a lot of university talks and what I’m seeing is less people asking me about the biology of race and more people asking how can you change things and make institutions more diverse, so maybe the conversation is moving forward now.”
“I think there’s a huge groundswell of action happening at the grassroots, especially amongst students and people in junior positions, lobbying their institutions for change. For example, the process of renaming lecture theatres and taking down statues, however controversial that might be, encourages debate and helps people understand the content, the history, which is crucial in moving forward.”
During the protests in spring 2020, many institutions released statements describing how they support their community and denounce any form of racism, but Angela believes there are far more effective ways of tackling institutional racism within universities: “There’s two things I’ve been pushing for. One of them is that there should always be a body in place within universities where people can go when they suffer harassment, bullying, racism or sexism at any time and know their complaint will be taken seriously. The other thing that I’m pushing for is history and humanities teaching to be woven into science curriculums from the beginning. When I studied engineering, I was given very little context. The idea is that every time you learn a new scientific concept, you should be taught, not just the concept itself, but also its origin. So, who developed it? Why? And where it came from.”
Education really is the key to achieving change. Angela describes how reading widely around the subject shifted her perspective, “I think every person goes through their own individual process around this but interrogating your own biases first is the best way to start. Because to be raised in a society in which racism exists, which we are, is to be exposed to and internalise those ideas from a young age. So, we all carry certain assumptions and biases and by asking yourself what biases you have, then it becomes a lot easier to understand why society works the way it does and how to tackle the problems.”
We asked Angela if there was one thing she wishes she’d known growing up that she knows now: “Before I started writing Superior, I had internalised certain ideas about racial difference and I wish I’d known many years ago just how little biology backs up this idea. It was only really through writing Superior that I realised just how little it does, and the true history of it. But you only learn these things through slow effort. When I was growing up, people would say, ‘We’re all the same underneath’, ‘It doesn’t matter what your skin colour is’, but it doesn’t mean much until you understand yourself the complex ways in which that’s true. One thing I would love is for young people to read Superior and maybe try and understand that as early as possible.”
Superior: The Return of Race Science delves into the deep history of ‘race’ through historic case studies and interviews with academics, with one, very important take away that Angela describes: “The way we use the word ‘race’ now is arbitrary. It’s not rooted in science so much as politics. We are all one human species, we’re very homogeneous as a species. We can’t be divided into sub-groups, breeds or subspecies as some racists still believe we can.”