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The Return of Race Science

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

An Interview with Angela Saini by Adam Dorey

Angela Saini

Angela Saini, a British science journalist, has been concerned about racism for much of her life; when she was an engineering student at Oxford she took part in anti-racism demonstrations. Years and two books later, she has written a new book entitled ‘Superior: The Return of Race Science,’ exploring the rocky and problematic relationship between the supposedly objective world of science and the subjective realm of racial stereotypes. As part of the University of Birmingham’s ‘Book to the Future’ festival, your correspondent had a chance to attend her talk about the findings that led her to write this book, and to interview Saini about her experiences and thoughts on racism in science.

Why did you want to write ‘Superior’?

“I’ve been turning these issues around for a long time and I think I wanted to write ‘Superior’ first and foremost to get some clarity. We’re told so much about what it means to have an identity, or belong to [a] space, or be one race or another – and we have so many stereotypes about what that means, but we don’t really have clarity on what it actually means in our bodies. We use these biological categories – what we imagine to be biological categories – all the time, and yet we don’t really understand the biology behind it. For my own sake, as well as for the reader, I just wanted to get clarity, and I feel like I finally have that now. That must feel quite good!

“It’s really cathartic – it does feel good to just get things clear in your head. I spoke to experts on all sides of the equation and I also spoke to people who have very different political views to me – some people who deny my equal humanity. I interviewed people who very clearly believe that I belong to an inferior race, but I feel like I had to do that; not just for the reader... but also for me, to get those different perspectives. I think, at the heart of this, it’s about understanding why people believe the things that we do – why we have the ideas that we have. I think the only real way to understand why people believe the things they do is to speak to them.” Where do you think racist ideas come from; what makes people recreate them over and over again?

“They have a social and political power of their own. Our racial categories as we use them now – this idea that humans as a species can be biologically categorised and that there are profound differences between people in those categories, and that we can even be slotted into a hierarchy – that has incredible weight and power politically. And even though it’s completely arbitrary, and even though – biologically – it has barely any basis whatsoever, it has such power that it was an idea that underpinned the ideologies behind slavery, colonialism, imperialism, genocide, ethno-nationalism, [and] ideas around immigration. As long as it has that political power, however shaky the science, it never completely goes away because those who want to wield that political power will keep resurrecting it.” For their own gain?

“In a very self-serving way. I think the idea of race has always been self-serving. Why was it that in the eighteenth century upper-class, white, male thinkers put themselves at the top of the hierarchies again and again and again? In order to prop up this idea that whatever power they had, it was natural. And that it was natural for them to acquire more power, because this was somehow how things would shake out. That somehow the pre-eminence of European civilisation, as it has been for a while – not throughout history but in this particular point in history – is somehow the product of biology. That’s a really powerful thing, because if you can make that claim – and I don’t think they can make that claim – then Europe will always be the centre of power. Then their power can be rooted in whiteness, which means that other people, people like me, can’t ever claim that power because it belongs to them biologically. This way of thinking, I think, perhaps will never go away; whoever has power will always try and frame their power as being natural, rather than being the product of social or historical factors, as it is.” Do you think that power is to do with the reason why we never see white, European thinkers like Darwin as racist?

“I think we have to be careful about using the word racist when we’re talking about historical figures who lived at a time when society itself was racist and to be racist was not an unacceptable thing. Scientists at that time – very many thinkers – didn’t believe that there was anything wrong with believing that humans can be subdivided into separate species and that some groups were better than others. If you’re racist at a time when it’s acceptable and mainstream to hold these views, how fair is it to pick out individuals who live in that society where that view is mainstream? That’s not to say we should let everybody in the past off for whatever they believed, but we have to remember that beliefs – as they’re held by people – belong to a time, place and context. 

I think in some ways, it’s just as valuable to understand the context as it is to understand the person. There are things that we believe now that later generations might think of as completely abhorrent. For example, our use of plastics – they might look back and say, “God, they were monsters for what they did to the environment,” or for eating meat. It’s socially acceptable to eat meat right now, but how do we know if in 200 years it will still be the same way? That’s not to say that it’s impossible to judge figures in the past because people had a multiplicity of views; even in the nineteenth century there were people who rejected the idea of race. The fact that Darwin didn’t says something, and the fact that others did says something else. It’s almost more valuable to understand the context in which ideas sit.” What do you think changed about the context to get us to the better place we’re in now – or is it better?

“I think it is better in that now racism is unacceptable, so that’s pretty good! That’s not to say racism doesn’t exist anymore – it really does and racism is still widespread. One reason is that we learn to understand each other a bit better and as we see each other and we see our common humanity, then people’s views change. One is also the science. The science moved on, and the science showed that we are actually very similar; the huge differences that we imagine exist really don’t. Over the last hundred years, evidence of our eyes, evidence of our cultures, evidence from science has only reinforced the fact that we are one species – and that we are remarkably homogenous as a species. And that these ideas – very old-fashioned ideas that people still have about human difference – don’t really hold up when you look at the facts. And that undermines these ideologies to some extent, but they still have a power of their own.” Do you think scientific ideas come from these same contexts?

“I think science always emerges from society, however much we like to think of it as being perfectly objective and sitting outside of everything else, outside of politics or cultures. Humans are humans at the end of the day, and even though I still feel like science is one of the best ways of understanding events, the people doing science are still people – all with their own sets of ideas about the world. And as long as that’s the case, they’ll bring those sets of assumptions to the work that they do. For example, European Enlightenment science, while it gave us so much, was a quite narrow subset of people who brought assumptions to the table right from the outset. That set up a chain reaction for how science would think about human difference for a long time, so for example, women were just assumed to not have the intellectual capacity of men so they were automatically barred from most universities and scientific European academies, at the beginning. What do you expect those scientific institutions to say about women for 200 years? They aren’t going to say anything except what they were built on, that says women can’t do this, that women don’t have that intellectual power. The same goes with race, the same goes with any kind of difference – class difference as well; this assumption that the upper classes were somehow genetically superior to the lower classes. These ideas take a really long time to filter away and even when we had the evidence of our own eyes, sometimes, we don’t accept it because of things like confirmation bias. I think as long as people do study people, then those studies will be loaded in some way – the best we can hope for is that science is representative enough of people that, at least, you have lots of different perspectives, that you have more than one set of biases, that we can be reflective and humble enough to know what our biases are.”

From Issue 19

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