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Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - THE FACTS ISSUE - By abaki beck

How racism warps sci­en­tific truths.

My great-grand­mother was a Black­feet botanist. She taught us that ost­sipiis (wil­low bark) is an anal­gesic pain re­liever and that áí­paht­síkaimo (va­le­rian root) helps to calm anx­i­ety and treat in­som­nia. I grew up pick­ing th­ese root and plant medicines with my aunts, grand­moth­ers, and cousins. Mak­ing root medicine is a much more in­volved process than pick­ing up Tylenol at a gro­cery store: You have to know what time of year and time of day to pick; how to clean, dry, and process the plant; and how long it can be used as a tea or rub be­fore its po­tency starts to fade. My fam­ily has used th­ese plants as medicine for thou­sands of years be­cause they work. So why are tra­di­tional Na­tive Amer­i­can ecol­o­gists, botanists, ge­neti­cists, and more cast aside as “mys­tics”?

Sci­ence has been stud­ied by peo­ple around the world for mil­len­nia. When we talk of sci­ence to­day, we of­ten dis­cuss peer-re­viewed re­search con­ducted by univer­sity pro­fes­sors or sci­en­tists at huge na­tional agen­cies. There is an as­sump­tion that sci­en­tific truths are not only strongly sup­ported by ev­i­dence, but also largely un­bi­ased, non­par­ti­san, and univer­sal. As with all as­pects of Western so­ci­ety, how­ever, sci­ence is deeply tainted with the lega­cies of colo­nial­ism and racism. De­spite its con­tri­bu­tions, Western sci­ence has vi­ciously ex­ploited marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties through forced ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and worked to dis­credit non-western sci­en­tific thought. Its truth comes with an as­ter­isk.


So­cial Dar­win­ism, which ap­plies a sci­en­tific the­ory to a non­sci­en­tific realm, was de­vel­oped in the 1850s by Bri­tish sci­en­tist and philoso­pher Herbert Spencer. The idea posits that, sim­i­lar to Darwin’s the­ory on nat­u­ral selec­tion, some cul­tures are in­her­ently weaker than oth­ers, and thus “nat­u­rally” would be a lower so­cial class and even­tu­ally die out, mak­ing way for the “nat­u­rally” stronger and more prom­i­nent cul­tures. Un­sur­pris­ingly, his so­cial the­ory was pre­dom­i­nately used to as­sert the su­pe­ri­or­ity of Western Euro­pean cul­ture and so­ci­ety. For hun­dreds of years, sci­en­tific racism and the the­ory of so­cial Dar­win­ism has jus­ti­fied racism, im­pe­ri­al­ism, and other vi­o­lence to­ward non­white, non-western com­mu­ni­ties.

Eu­geni­cists took this idea a step fur­ther. Eu­gen­ics, which came into vogue in the early 20th cen­tury, was con­sid­ered to be math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ence, tak­ing its cues from bi­ol­o­gists and ge­neti­cists who cross­bred plants to con­trol their height and color, among other char­ac­ter­is­tics. As with so­cial Dar­win­ism, eu­geni­cists ap­plied a the­ory re­lated to the nat­u­ral world to hu­man be­ings: in this case, on selec­tive breed­ing; in the case of so­cial Dar­win­ism, on sur­vival of the fittest. The eu­gen­ics move­ment ad­vo­cated for ge­net­i­cally breed­ing hu­mans to cre­ate per­fect peo­ple, as well as to ex­tri­cate traits they deemed un­de­sir­able. In order to breed out “un­de­sir­able traits,” eu­geni­cists sup­ported forced ster­il­iza­tion in pre­dom­i­nately lower-in­come com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of color. This ex­treme and overt vi­o­lence surged in pop­u­lar­ity in the 1920s and ’30s as xeno­pho­bic and racist fears spread through­out the United States. The move­ment was also sup­ported by the Supreme Court in 1927 with Buck v. Bell, which ruled that state-sanc­tioned, forced ster­il­iza­tion was le­gal. The de­ci­sion has never been over­turned.

While sci­en­tific racism is to­day looked at as a relic of a school of thought that is no longer le­git­i­mate or rea­son­able, it is im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that, for hun­dreds of years, mark­ing whites as in­her­ently bi­o­log­i­cally su­pe­rior was con­sid­ered un­bi­ased truth, and it deeply in­flu­enced pol­icy and so­cial thought. Like the sci­en­tific knowl­edge in com­mu­ni­ties of color—in­clud­ing the tra­di­tional eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge passed down from my great-grand­mother—western sci­ence ex­ists within a cul­tural con­text tainted by white su­prem­a­cist vi­o­lence. But be­cause that cul­tural con­text is viewed as nor­mal, it is seen as ab­so­lute, oth­er­ing and dis­miss­ing any other types of sci­en­tific knowl­edge.


Dur­ing Slav­ery in amer­ica, en­slaved peo­ple were fre­quently used as test sub­jects and train­ing for med­i­cal stu­dents. In ad­di­tion to sell­ing Black bod­ies as la­bor, there was also an econ­omy of trad­ing Black bod­ies, and even spe­cific body parts, to hos­pi­tals and med­i­cal col­leges. En­slaved peo­ple were seen as dis­pos­able and there­fore never asked for their con­sent. And be­cause Black peo­ple were so de­hu­man­ized by the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, this vi­o­lence was nor­mal­ized. In a 2015 ar­ti­cle ti­tled “How black slaves were rou­tinely sold as ‘spec­i­mens’ to am­bi­tious white doc­tors” on The Con­ver­sa­tion,

lec­turer Stephen Kenny notes:

All of the key train­ing, net­works and power bases of south­ern medicine—ap­pren­tice­ships, pri­vate prac­tice, col­leges, hos­pi­tals, jour­nals, and so­ci­eties—op­er­ated through slav­ery’s ruth­less traf­fic and ex­ploita­tion of Black bod­ies. White med­i­cal stu­dents, as a mat­ter of course, ex­pected ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing based on the ob­ser­va­tion, dis­sec­tion and ex­per­i­men­tal treat­ment of Black bod­ies.

The use of Black peo­ple for sci­en­tific study was also of­ten used to help jus­tify white supremacy and racial hi­er­ar­chy. Not only were Black peo­ple’s bod­ies vi­o­lently abused and ex­ploited, but their psy­ches were de­mo­nized as well. In 1851, Dr. Sa­muel A. Cartwright coined the then-ac­cepted word “drapeto­ma­nia” to pathol­o­gize the men­tal state of slaves who es­caped or at­tempted to es­cape slav­ery. Sim­i­larly, Cartwright ar­gued that a slave’s dis­obe­di­ence or re­fusal to work could be ex­plained by a men­tal dis­or­der called “dysaethe­sia aethiopica.” That’s right: slavesʼ re­sis­tance to bondage and white vi­o­lence was seen as a le­git­i­mate, di­ag­nos­able men­tal dis­or­der.

At the time, med­i­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion on Black peo­ple was legally ac­cept­able be­cause slaves were prop­erty and could be sold at the will of their own­ers. But long af­ter slav­ery, the U.S. gov­ern­ment con­tin­ued to use com­mu­ni­ties of color as test­ing grounds for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. In the 1930s, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Tuskegee Univer­sity, the U.S.

gov­ern­ment pur­pose­fully in­fected thou­sands of Black men in Alabama with syphilis and left them un­treated for four decades in order to track the course of the dis­ease and ex­plore pos­si­ble treat­ments. In the 1940s and ’50s, Johns Hopkins Univer­sity pur­pose­fully in­fected or­phans, men­tal-health pa­tients, and in­car­cer­ated peo­ple in Gu­atemala with syphilis and other sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases. Hun­dreds of Gu­atemalans are cur­rently su­ing Johns Hopkins for hav­ing been not only pur­pose­fully in­fected, but also de­nied med­i­cal treat­ment.

Such experiments have also been con­ducted on chil­dren of color. In the 1940s and ’50s, six gov­ern­ment-run board­ing schools in Canada forced their In­dige­nous stu­dents into nu­tri­tion experiments. Some stu­dents were fed a reg­u­lar diet, whereas oth­ers were fed mere vi­ta­min sup­ple­ments or nu­tri­ent-en­hanced flour. The chil­dren were also de­nied den­tal care, even if it had been pre­vi­ously avail­able to them. One of the dis­turb­ing goals of th­ese stud­ies was to ob­serve how the hu­man body re­acts to mal­nu­tri­tion. Like the Gu­atemalans su­ing Johns Hopkins, many of th­ese chil­dren are alive to­day, and they and their fam­i­lies con­tinue to ex­pe­ri­ence the trauma as­so­ci­ated with this abuse.

An­other ex­am­ple of sci­en­tific abuse of com­mu­ni­ties of color is the lack of con­sent in the use of data. The most well-known ex­am­ple of this is the story of Hen­ri­etta Lacks, a Black wo­man whose cancer cells were used—with­out her fam­ily’s knowl­edge—for med­i­cal re­search and com­mer­cial pur­poses for decades af­ter her 1951 death. A sim­i­lar case oc­curred in the Hava­su­pai Tribe in 1989, when the tribe gave Ari­zona State Univer­sity per­mis­sion to con­duct blood tests on tribal mem­bers to study di­a­betes risk. Af­ter the

My fam­ily has used th­ese plants as medicine for thou­sands of years be­cause they work, so why are tra­di­tional Na­tive Amer­i­can ecol­o­gists, botanists, ge­neti­cists, and more cast aside as “mys­tics”?

study, the re­searchers con­tin­ued to use the sam­ples—along with il­le­gally ob­tained med­i­cal records—to study the ge­netic fre­quency of in­breed­ing and schizophre­nia in the tribe with­out the per­mis­sion of the par­tic­i­pants. Beyond the be­trayal of trust and con­fi­den­tial­ity, the study on in­breed­ing in the com­mu­nity caused dis­tress be­cause of the com­plex kin­ship struc­tures and re­la­tional pro­to­col of the Hava­su­pai that have ex­isted for cen­turies. In 2004, the tribe sued the Ari­zona Board of Re­gents (the en­tity that governs the state univer­sity sys­tem), and they reached a set­tle­ment in 2010.

Th­ese acts of vi­o­lence are not anom­alies, but rather part of a cal­cu­lated and ex­plicit legacy of med­i­cal and sci­en­tific ex­ploita­tion of com­mu­ni­ties of color born from colo­nial and white-su­prem­a­cist ideals. We must rec­og­nize that many Western sci­en­tific ad­vance­ments were made be­cause of the ex­ploita­tion of com­mu­ni­ties of color. By cre­at­ing sci­en­tific ar­gu­ments for de­hu­man­iz­ing the minds and bod­ies of peo­ple of color, th­ese experiments not only im­pacted the ex­ploited in­di­vid­u­als them­selves, but also had wide-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for their com­mu­ni­ties.


For as long as white peo­ple in power have harmed peo­ple of color in the name of sci­ence, peo­ple of color have re­sisted. In her ar­ti­cles and re­cent book Fugi­tive Sci­ence: Em­piri­cism and Free­dom in Early African Amer­i­can Cul­ture, Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts at Amherst As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor Britt Rusert ex­am­ines the role sci­ence played in the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment. Black ac­tivists rou­tinely protested the abuse of Black bod­ies for sci­en­tific re­search and rec­og­nized the va­lid­ity of Black and In­dige­nous sci­ence. Fred­er­ick Dou­glass and Hosea Eas­ton, among oth­ers, spoke out against the abuse of Black peo­ple for sci­en­tific re­search, rightly ar­gu­ing that this “sci­ence” was one of ob­vi­ous racial bias. Sarah Mapps Dou­glass, a sci­ence and art teacher, was one of the orig­i­nal lead­ers of the Fe­male Lit­er­ary As­so­ci­a­tion, a so­ci­ety for Black women ed­u­ca­tors that was cre­ated in 1831 for the ex­press pur­pose of em­pow­er­ing their stu­dents. In the 1850s, Dou­glass be­gan teach­ing anatomy, phys­i­ol­ogy, and re­pro­duc­tion to girls at the Philadel­phia In­sti­tute for Col­ored Youth. At a time when few Black Amer­i­cans had ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, Dou­glass cen­tered the ex­pe­ri­ences of Black girls and em­pow­ered them through sci­ence—a deeply racist space whose false claims were used by those in power jus­tify white supremacy. Rusert calls this move­ment “abo­li­tion­ist sci­ence,” as it used “the tools of sci­ence to in­spire new forms of po­lit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion and trans­for­ma­tion.”

Za­p­atis­tas are con­tin­u­ing that legacy by ex­am­in­ing all sci­en­tific knowl­edge, not just Western, as a means of re­sis­tance. The Ejército Za­p­atista de Lib­eración Na­cional (EZLN) hosted 10-day con­fer­ences in De­cem­ber 2016 and Jan­uary 2017 to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of an an­t­i­cap­i­tal­ist, non­colo­nial sci­ence that works with and for marginal­ized peo­ples. The con­fer­ences fea­tured work­shops on top­ics such as the role of tech­nol­ogy in so­cial move­ments, food pro­duc­tion and health, and pa­tri­archy in

Western sci­en­tific knowl­edge is sig­nif­i­cant and pow­er­ful, and has no doubt deeply im­pacted how we view and in­ter­act with the world and the uni­verse. But it is wrought with vi­o­lent, racist his­to­ries as­sumed as truth and pre­sented as for the good of hu­man­ity.

na­ture (one talk was ti­tled “What do fe­males sing in en­vi­ron­ments where males pre­dom­i­nate? The case of frogs and toads”); they also pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties for sci­en­tists and ac­tivists to in­ter­act as peers, sub­vert­ing hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­tures typ­i­cally found at sci­ence con­fer­ences. The EZLN worked to ed­u­cate com­mu­nity mem­bers and fa­cil­i­tate the cre­ation of com­mu­nity-based sci­en­tific re­search. They strove to imag­ine In­dige­nous re­search ef­forts that cen­ter sci­ence as a tool of jus­tice sep­a­rate from his­tor­i­cally elit­ist and colo­nial in­sti­tu­tions.

Na­tive Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties and sci­en­tists sim­i­larly rec­og­nize the power of re­claim­ing sci­ence and em­brac­ing tra­di­tional knowl­edge. One of the rea­sons that In­dige­nous knowl­edge is dele­git­imized is that it is of­ten passed down orally, in­stead of recorded in the same ways as Western sci­en­tific data. In a 2002 ar­ti­cle ti­tled “Weav­ing Tra­di­tional Eco­log­i­cal Knowl­edge into Bi­o­log­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion: A Call to Ac­tion,” Potawatomi tribal mem­ber and pro­fes­sor Robin Wall Kim­merer notes that pre­cise hawk moth feed­ing be­hav­iors were recorded and passed down through an O’odham tribal song—the same be­hav­iors that Western sci­en­tists would ob­serve and track cen­turies later. The knowl­edge already ex­isted, but not in a for­mat that Western sci­en­tists con­sid­ered to be le­git­i­mate or trust­wor­thy.

Un­like Western sci­en­tific knowl­edge, tra­di­tional eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge does not claim to be un­bi­ased, and it is deeply en­twined with cul­tural and spir­i­tual knowl­edge of tribes. Kim­merer ad­vo­cates for the in­clu­sion of such knowl­edge in bi­ol­ogy ed­u­ca­tion be­cause it of­fers unique in­sights and po­ten­tial mod­els for eco­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tion. She also pushes back against the no­tion that tra­di­tional knowl­edge is less rig­or­ous than Western sci­ence, ar­gu­ing that both de­rive from “sys­tem­atic ob­ser­va­tions of na­ture” and that:

The scope of tra­di­tional eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge in­cludes de­tailed em­pir­i­cal knowl­edge of pop­u­la­tion bi­ol­ogy, re­source as­sess­ment and mon­i­tor­ing, suc­ces­sional dy­nam­ics, pat­terns of fluc­tu­a­tion in cli­mate and re­sources, species in­ter­ac­tions, eth­no­tax­on­omy, sus­tain­able har­vest­ing, and adap­tive man­age­ment and ma­nip­u­la­tion of dis­tur­bance regimes.

Through­out the nation, Na­tive Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties are us­ing their tribal knowl­edge to mit­i­gate cli­mate change, ame­lio­rate com­mu­nity health through re­vi­tal­iz­ing tra­di­tional foods, and ad­dress pub­lic men­tal-health is­sues such as youth sui­cide. Slowly, gov­ern­ment agen­cies and uni­ver­si­ties—in­clud­ing the SUNY Col­lege of En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence and Forestry, where Kim­merer is a dis­tin­guished teach­ing pro­fes­sor—have, through part­ner­ing with tribes, be­gun to rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of tra­di­tional knowl­edge, par­tic­u­larly in the fields of con­ser­va­tion and medicine/phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. As In­dige­nous sci­en­tists re­cently wrote in a let­ter en­dors­ing Aprilʼs March for Sci­ence (signed by more than 1,800 In­dige­nous peo­ple and al­lies):

Our tribal com­mu­ni­ties need more cul­tur­ally em­bed­ded sci­en­tists and at the same time, in­sti­tu­tions of Western sci­ence need more In­dige­nous per­spec­tives. The next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists needs to be well-po­si­tioned for grow­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with In­dige­nous sci­ence.

Thus we call for en­hanced sup­port for in­clu­sion of In­dige­nous sci­ence in main­stream ed­u­ca­tion, for the ben­e­fit of all.

Western sci­en­tific knowl­edge is sig­nif­i­cant and pow­er­ful, and has no doubt deeply im­pacted how we view and in­ter­act with the world and the uni­verse. But it is wrought with vi­o­lent, racist his­to­ries as­sumed as truth and pre­sented as for the good of hu­man­ity. As Rusert ar­gues, “sci­ence is not in­her­ently ‘good’ or ‘real’ .... It is of­ten the hand­maiden of vi­o­lence and dis­pos­ses­sion.”

For more than 90 years, my great-grand­mother helped oth­ers use the anti-in­flam­ma­tory áík­sikkooki (yucca) to re­lieve arthri­tis, oto­htok­siin (rasp­berry) tea to reg­u­late men­strual cy­cles, and hun­dreds of other plants to heal. Her medic­i­nal and eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge helped keep our tribe strong for gen­er­a­tions, de­spite the gov­ern­ment’s at­tempts to sup­press this knowl­edge and rob us of our con­nec­tion to the land. Yet even within pro­gres­sive cir­cles, non­west­ern knowl­edge is of­ten not seen as equal. Valu­ing Western sci­ence over the knowl­edge of In­dige­nous or other com­mu­ni­ties of color main­tains the colo­nial and white-su­prem­a­cist per­spec­tive that, for cen­turies, deemed peo­ple of color bi­o­log­i­cally in­fe­rior and sup­ported us­ing their bod­ies and com­mu­ni­ties as lit­eral test sub­jects. We must em­brace al­ter­na­tive par­a­digms and sci­en­tific philoso­phies so as not to di­min­ish the pos­si­bil­i­ties we have to fully con­front global is­sues with lo­cal im­pli­ca­tions, such as cli­mate change, re­source man­age­ment, hunger, or dis­ease prop­a­ga­tion. In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of color have deep sci­en­tific knowl­edge that is too pow­er­ful to con­tinue to ig­nore.

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