Evidence of “Racial Sensitivity”

Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan, authors of Gather at the Table, on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show

As a historian whose work focuses on how people in the past learned to see and then codify difference (mainly bodily difference), I am often interested in two separate but related issues:

1) the role that science plays in determining difference

2) what evidence is good enough evidence in making that determination

Part of my work is an investigation into some of the earliest moments when empirical science in Europe and its empires intersected directly with Europeans attempting to subjugate enslaved Africans. Empiricism, as practiced today, is only about 400 years old. Its ascendency to stand next to religion as a major authority on how we understand the natural world happened almost simultaneously with European imperial expansion and the move towards enslaving and colonizing peoples with skin color that was different than their own. As the world has grown more secular over the last 250 years, empiricism’s authority has remained. We privilege science to explain the world around us (not all of us all the time, obviously, because there are still museums constructed to celebrate creationism and climate change deniers refuse to budge because they absolutely refuse to believe any scientific evidence).

But part of my fascination with the origins of empiricism and the way in which we talk about science today is how we often elide the problems inherent in empiricism. And I think a lot of those problems come forward in moments where we, as a society, choose what evidence we will accept as credible and what evidence we see as not good enough.

I’ve written about this twice recently.

First, there is a new scientific study that shows that women in science do face discrimination on all levels from all scientists. As I argued in that piece, what is important about this for me is that THIS study counts as good enough evidence. Whereas women scientists saying they are discriminated against is not, in and of itself, proof that women scientists are discriminated against. Now, for women scientists who live this discrimination everyday, these numbers matter because their profession and their society demand the numbers in order to deem the reality of this discrimination a Truth. I just hate that it has to be that way. It should be enough that when a lot of women scientists say they face bias in their work, we believe them. That should be good enough evidence. But it’s not because it falls outside the range of what we consider “empirical evidence.” Funny, that.

Second, in the oral arguments for the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case, Chief Justice John Roberts scoffed at idea that we could base constitutional rulings on a set of surveys given to minority students at UT which indicate that those students feel isolated in the university setting. Which was ironic as the entire court case in which these survey played a role was one based around the perceived slight against a white woman who felt she should have gotten into UT because she was better than students of color who did get in but that affirmative action kept her out. That slight certainly seems to be good enough evidence to base constitutional rulings around. I argued in that post that part of the reason that it is so hard to quantify the lived experience of people of color is that the experiences of people of color will never really be deemed good enough evidence. Never. Their voices will always be suspect. Being already marginal voices is why anyone is trying to determine their experiences in the first place. And the systems in place to evaluate those experiences and make them into data are cultural products, too.

This is all leading me to this Atlantic post that went up last week: “New Evidence That Racism Isn’t ‘Natural’.

Before clicking on that link, I want you to guess what the evidence in that title is going to be.

Unsurprisingly, it’s neuroscience:

In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14.

Racial sensitivity is a product of culture. Science has now proven this.

As a historian of slavery and bodily difference and empire and science, I’ll just say that this conclusion did not surprise me nor did the fact that we have discussions about this when there is evidence in science to allow that cultural space for discussion.

Except now there is the Melissa Harris-Perry Show.

This weekend she did two segments specifically about the relationship between white privilege today and slavery in the US past: part 1 and part 2. Harris-Perry and the people who work on her show are breaking the very rigid constructions we have set up as what counts as a legitimate narrative when discussing race in the media as well as whose voices and experiences we are going to spotlight and count as good evidence in this conversation. She did not have a neuroscientist on to explain the way in which we perceive racial difference. She had on people who study it at the intersection of history and the present and who make us have really uncomfortable but necessary conversations about ourselves. When you come at this issue of racism-as-natural in the way the MHP show did yesterday, you completely side step the question of whether racism and “racial sensitivity” is built into our genetic code. It forces you, no matter what, to take responsibility for your place in this conversation and our society and to view “racial sensitivity” as a product of the past AND a reality of the present (which is something neuroscience cannot do). It takes the center of this out of our brains and repositions it back into our lives.

This is all to say, if you want to know if racism is natural, just ask a historian or sociologist. Or ask a person of color. Or for, the love of everything good in the world, ask a historian or sociologist of color.

Why we ever feel that we need neuroscience to tell us if being aware of racial difference (and its corollary, racism) is or is not natural is incredibly disheartening to me. For one, it reifies the very construction that racists, who want to see “racial sensitivity” as “natural” and therefore something for which we are not responsible, have posited — even if the science proves wrong these people who believe it is biological to group people by race, the fact that you even had to ask the question legitimizes the very question in the first place. Yet, when this is your life and people base decisions about you on bad ideas AND our system of legitimation is based on “hard numbers” and “empirical evidence,” there is no escaping asking the question because you NEED those numbers and that evidence to back up your claims. The cycle is vicious.

There is a danger in always assuming that the only evidence that counts is that which fits into the narrow confines of “empirical evidence” or “science.” This is especially true when it comes to biology. Not only does this particular field of science have a long, problematic history of seeing what it wants in the bodies of whomever it is analyzing (believing is seeing, as Thomas Laqueur would say), it also is a science whose findings are predicated almost exclusively on the white, male, cis body. At the same time, biology just doesn’t know that much about a lot of things. If you want to see the limits of biology as a field, go research childbirth. For example: why do pregnant people get eclampsia?

This danger around evidence is also especially true when it comes to trying to scientifically analyze the lived experience of any group that is considered a minority in our society (the point of those two other posts I mentioned up top).

Therefore, I am especially wary (and weary) whenever I see anything that says it is biological evidence about a minority group (or, in this case, about how people experience the world they share with other people who do not look like them). Unless that conversation is going to be way more nuanced than just, “look at what we saw when we lit up the brain,” I’m probably not gonna care. Because all that means is that you have simply asked the question that lends legitimacy to EVER asking a question about the naturalness of “racial sensitivity.” And as the MHP Show showed us this weekend, you don’t need to ask that question if you just stop and listen to people who have the evidence you seek, just not necessarily in the format you privilege.

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