Building on the discussion of science in the last post, today’s focus is on so-called “scientific” racism – a discredited body of thought that still seeks to use empiricism to demonstrate racial differences and hierarchies. It is important to state from the outset that, despite the misnomer, this is very much a pseudoscientific, racist ideology, with no scientific evidence to support its theories.
Biological racism, as it is sometimes termed, stems from the preoccupation with dividing and categorising that has its origins in the European Enlightenment. These forms of typological classification remain familiar features of some museums, particularly those that study natural history, anthropology and world cultures and medicine. Collections with these focuses have a closer-than-comfortable historic relationship with so-called race “science”, entangled as they are with practices of ranking humans by race and contributing to hierarchical theories and violent practices that were used to colonise, oppress and kill people around the world.
Institutions like University College London have recently publicly apologised for their role in legitimating such pseudoscientific theories that still have a lasting impact on how we think about race today. In the contemporary moment, the linguistic hangovers of race “science” are very much alive. Consider the way in which BaME people are framed as more susceptible to Covid-19. Rather than a focus on the social and environmental factors that elevate risk, the temptation in public discourse is to reduce the risk factor to genetic determinants – a reading of race that lies in outdated perceptions of race as biological, rather than socially constructed.
So-called “scientific” racism, then, puts forward that there are discrete “types” of humans according to race, which proponents see as a biological, rather than social, condition. The problem is that quite apart from being obviously abhorrent, race is not, and never has been a fixed category. At different times, (even according to so-called race “scientists” and their followers!) different people have been seen as belonging to different categories. Furthermore, genetic science has definitively proven that human races have very little distinguishing them from each other. Quite simply, the theories of the race “scientists” are not very scientific after all.
That race “science” is foundational to so many of our modern museums is often glossed over. Whether by championing Marie Stopes’ advances in contraception without mentioning the motive behind her work or selling model phrenological heads in museum gift shops, the refusal to critically engage with so-called race “science” risks not telling the whole story.