Noticing Racism

The course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice,” as stated by Dionne Brand, illustrates the importance of actively engaging with and questioning ideas that society has typically accepted as truths. One prominent example, that is both historical and relevant in contemporary times, is the concept of race. This division of human populations into subcategories by their outward physical characteristics has been a heavily studied subject in anthropological and ostensibly scientific research for centuries. Despite the obsession with race among people in general, and intellectuals in particular, race has no scientific basis and is merely a social construct. It has been created by certain groups, historically Europeans and those of European descent, to justify their enslavement and mistreatment of other humans.

With the development of Social Darwinism, race began to be perceived by whites as being grounded in scientific evidence. Thus, in the field of medicine, American physicians strove to use science to confirm their preconceived notions of African Americans as being physically and intellectually inferior to whites. By employing the authority of medical science to buttress their racism against blacks, white doctors believed they could argue African Americans were deserving of their subordinate position in society and use them as targets of experimentation. Hence, noticing the fictional nature of the idea of race and realizing the necessity of showing others its falsehood is a social responsibility of paramount importance.

As argued by Geraldine Heng in her book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, the concept of race has deep historical roots that stretch back at least as far as the Medieval Era. Race theory’s longevity helps account for its popular acceptance to the present day, yet as Heng explains, “…race has no singular or stable referent: that race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.” The PBS documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion/The Difference Between Us, demonstrates the fictitious nature of race through the use of scientific evidence. An experiment was conducted in which a high school class comprised of various “racial” groups analyzed sequences of mitochondrial DNA samples. Prior to viewing the sequences of nitrogenous bases, the students predicted that they would have more similar DNA to members of their own race than those of other racial categories based on their preexisting notion of race’s scientific foundation. However, to the class’s surprise, there was no difference between the DNA sequences of students from one racial group and students from another. In other words, there was no correlation between race and the genetic codes of the students, and consequently, as Heng suggests, race has no scientific basis, but is simply a social construct.

In Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Harriet Washington examined the role race has historically had, and continues to have, in generating disparity in the study and progress of medicine. The medical field, including therapeutic treatment and research, often evokes a sense of fear in modern-day African Americans. This term, known as iatrophobia, is believed by today’s physicians to be an irrational fear, yet a close inspection of historical medical narratives and data validates African Americans’ suspicions. Historically, blacks were discerned by whites to be in possession of inherent racial characteristics, such as being physically monstrous, intellectually limited, and sexually promiscuous. These false stereotypes were used by whites to defend their subjugation of African Americans, and thus it was essential for them to procure evidence of blacks’ perceived primitiveness and freakish nature. One method of accomplishing this was to display blacks in shows, and even zoos, where white spectators would gaze upon and prod humiliated Africans and African Americans. For instance, in the 1830s, an elderly African American, Joice Heth, was paraded around as a medical anomaly with a fictional backstory of being George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse. As Harriet Washington described, “Confronted with this grotesque sight, even lay spectators indulged in a medical gaze, touching her systematically, feeling the depth of her wrinkles, and taking her pulse.” Thus, by popularizing blacks as being anatomically and physiologically subhuman, whites sought to maintain the racial hierarchy they had constructed.

            The subordination of African Americans in the medical field was not limited to putting them on display to be observed. Rather, blacks were additionally subject to invasive, unneeded surgical techniques as demonstrations for training surgeons, who required clinical experience before being able to practice on their white patients. For example, Washington stated, “One such incident involved a slave whose master sent him to the medical school clinic for treatment of a stubborn leg ulcer. The surgeon decided to amputate the leg, surrounded by students, although no clinical indications existed for this extreme procedure.” Even after death, black bodies were, and continue to be, dissected without consent from the deceased or their family. Some dissections were performed historically in hope of locating distinct black anatomical features. This occurred when fears abounded that African Americans’ skin color could be white, in the case of albinos or people of mixed racial heritage, or gradually become white, as occurs with certain genetic conditions. In one instance, described in Sutton E. Griggs’s novel Imperium in Imperio, a doctor plotted with white residents of his town to lynch an African American simply for the purpose of dissecting him. After securing the African American man on his dissecting table, Grigg wrote, “To have such a robust, well-formed, handsome nigger to dissect and examine he regarded as one of the greatest boons of his medical career.” Hence, blacks were routinely tortured during life and mutilated after death by medical professionals in order to advance their white supremist agenda.   

            Race is a longstanding social construct yet is often believed by people in contemporary times to be founded in biological science. Despite the ease in which the myth of race as a scientific truth can be debunked, as demonstrated by the aforementioned class experiment, the idea of humanity being divided by superficial physical characteristics persists in American society. The destructive legacy of racism is nevertheless very real and has contributed to African American iatrophobia, a fear that is rational given the history of medical abuses directed at blacks. Thus, it is essential that present-day Americans notice racism in history and modern society, as well as assist their friends, family, and fellow citizens in noticing the same.

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