I write this essay with the poignant words of writer and Sociology Phd student Zoe Samudzi in mind: “Donald Trump is as quintessentially American as they come. In so many ways, Trump is the president that contemporary white America deserves: he is an amalgamation of some of the worst racism, ableism, misogyny, and anti-poor attitudes and rhetoric that collectively comprise ‘American values’. Outside of Republicans’ own involvement in sexual misconduct, the party is ultimately responsible for draconian anti-choice policies over sexual reproduction, horrific discourses around rape, and a perpetual onslaught on the rights of women and gender and sexual minorities.” These words highlight a settler nation’s refusal to see that Donald Trump is and always has been NORMAL. By normal I mean just that, status quo. There is nothing about him nor his track record that deviates from America’s accepted rules about behavior. It is not taboo to be a bigot in the United States, its an accepted and expected behavioral practice and demanded in many cases. These contemporary colonial relations dominate our minds and how we teach our children to treat other human beings. White supremacy is central to how we socialize our youth and regulate adults into model citizens, designed to defend the logics of settlement and profit even at their own expense.
While the American political climate continues to be in disarray, I stand amongst the rage, despair, frustration, & nationalist joy. I stand here observing and wondering where all of the scientists are. I stand here wondering where the ‘professional intellectuals’ have been. The same communities that scientists and scientific industries claim to benevolently do their work for have been here. Fighting, defending their rights and yours. The quest for objectivity and neutrality is fascinatingly one that seeks to cleanse everything about life and present it to us all as pristine, a-historical, and without narrative. Too much of scientific scholarship is stifled, stale, and inhuman. European enlightenment ideals lying within the heart of science perpetuates the imperialistic and settler colonial projects that already exist in society. That means that the work that we do isn’t a-political. Its political at its core and the time for designing technical solutions without the reality of history, socio-political, and economic implications of said work.
I think that W.E.B. Du Bois puts it best, “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, & starved.” Not then, not now, not ever. What many see as apolitical ‘objective’ science is out of context, ahistorical, dangerous, and incorrect. Science as an institution developed alongside the logic and interests of the nation state. The vision of designing better products is never outside of the political program of designing better citizens. You cannot do your work and remain quiet while people are silenced and suffering. We have a responsibility to uplift and amplify the voices of the most vulnerable among us. They are not voiceless, they don’t need us to dominate their narrative, they need us to amplify it. Lift them up and center their humanity and our collective histories when you do speak in whatever institution you work in, whatever discipline you are trained in.
We cannot afford to be calm, cool, and detached scientists while pipelines are destroying the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples & poisoning our water. We cannot afford to be calm, cool, and detached scientists while Indigenous peoples are attacked for defending their land, people, and ways of life. We cannot afford to be calm, cool, and detached scientists while people of African descent are murdered by the police & targeted relentlessly through policies draining our communities of the resources we need. We cannot afford to be calm, cool, and detached scientists while Muslims are being attacked. We cannot afford to be calm, cool, and detached scientists while Latinx people suffer the threats of deportation under the supposed liberal democratic vision under a Black president. We cannot afford to be calm, cool, and detached scientists while immigrants are being attacked and strategically targeted through policy and public disdain and white nationalist fears.
You have been silent for too long. ‘Objective’ silence is how we got to this point. Its time for scholars (STEM and social sciences) to speak up and work to educate and transform the very ivory towers that sat back and left marginalized scholars and students to take the brunt of the costs of their inaction and silent consent to white nationalism in their departments and classrooms. What good are your scientific innovations and brilliance if it is of NO use to those who suffer in society? What is the good of the citizenship you claim while you stay silent? Make a decision. Don’t attempt to transform political problems into technical ones. Acknowledge the politics of your work, of your place within society and how the work you do effects it. Your silence and indifference perpetuates white supremacist logics, it isn’t without a political program. The reality is too few scientists are speaking out, those who are are among the most vulnerable. The norm for the way that scientific knowledge is produced can be changed by us. It requires that we make a conscious decision to not abandon our communities when we do our work. It requires that we organize and support one another, it requires that we advocate for one another, for our students, and stand for something besides avoiding ‘difficult topics’. LIFE IS DIFFICULT. ITS COMPLEX & COMPLICATED. And that is partially why you do the work you do. So that means you still have a responsibility to the public to work with them, for them, and with a communal mission and interest beyond the logic of serving whiteness.
I had to give a lecture to 400 Sociology 100 students on Racism in Science & Medicine yesterday. The day after white folks (settlers) mobilized in historically unprecedented force to elect a more overt flavor of white nationalism. Trump symbolizes the true vision of white supremacy, the old vision, the vision that makes the dead mass in the chest of a KKK member grow mushy and warm. Hilary Clinton while being held up by many as the superior alternative was simply the blueberry flavored version of Trump, her central right liberalism symbolizes the alternative that would have allowed Americans to continue to turn their eye away from the terror that the US reigns on the rest of the world and pursue liberal democratic fantasies of freedoms forged through the fire and blood of un-freedom. I walked into the lecture hall prepared to tell my students the truth. An unapologetic truth, a scientifically accurate truth, a historical truth, an eventful truth, a factual truth. I did not lie to them. I reviewed the history of race as a eugenic math that functions off of eugenic logics that sorts bodies into political order and students listened on. I told them that the ways in which people are taught how to be a model ‘person’ in this society is problematic. I told them that we can change and don’t need to rely on internalized white supremacy to value ourselves & others. I told them that to discuss race is to discuss racism. I told them that they could do historically accurate and structurally competent work not just as ‘scholars’ but as people, community members, family members, and as workers. And as I spoke on the ways that the last 700 years has shaped today and every moment after, they cheered. Students came up to me after lecture to tell me thank you. Little did they know I did that for me, for my family, my community, my vision of a decolonial future.
For years I have spoken up through my work and words in academe. My work in my community speaks for itself. I am in another PhD program because I chose my people and community over white anthropologists trying to force me to do biological deterministic work. I was told that my dissertation proposal wasn’t up to snuff because it didn’t account for the biological differences between Blacks and whites. That was in 2014. You see, I’m not panicking because I know where I live. I know America, I know this settler nation’s history & its not pretty. This is the America I have always known. I know history, and I am watching it repeat itself. I am watching the socio-political relations established hundreds of years ago get reproduced everyday I wake up and as I walk around campus, I see it in my students’ behaviors, and we call this normal. Its quite clear that what has come to be known as normal isn’t working out. The normal and historically incompetent scientist who is unaware that objectivity is a political program and always seeking to claim neutrality is part of how we got to this point. Refusing the political nature of our work and our lives & the lives of others does not undo the fact that we are steeped in politics.
My sense of focus on the importance of organizing marginalized people under a settler colonial state is not optimism. I was never invested in America because it was never invested in me & I am aware that you can’t vote away white supremacy. I was never under the impression that America was ‘better than this’. I didn’t ‘underestimate white supremacy’. And this isn’t optimism, its historical perspective & context, my people have been suffering for over 500 years at the hands of white supremacy on stolen Indigenous land. I have never been afforded the luxury of thinking that what I do is outside of the public. As a scientist and scholar I am also a community member, I’m a human and I have a responsibility to push forward a vision of the world that uses the struggles, tactics, and strategies of history to build better futures and possibilities. I am scholar within a long intellectual tradition of other colonized peoples speaking up and out, of other critical scholars who demand a better world.
The problems that lie before us are structural not individual. Social and political not biological. We can do better, but it takes works. It takes us becoming experts also in who WE are as people, how WE came to occupy Indigenous lands, it requires that we critically question and re-evaluate what has come to define rules about behavior and how we treat other humans and forms of life. We need scholars who understand the political relations socially structured between people and to apply this to their work & make it available to the public. Through political education and collaboration we can begin to transform departments, communities, and build alternatives. Alternative decolonial futures won’t come through the same old liberalism and claims of objectivity and benevolence while people continue to suffer and die. As you do work that you claim is for the betterment of society, make sure you ask yourself “for whom?” What good are your innovations if they never make it to the people who need it because you didn’t consider the political factors that dictate how resources are distributed? What good is your new theory if it doesn’t match the realities and complexities of actual human life? Will you be a publicly engaged scholar & community member or a bystander while politically marginalized groups are described in essentialist/eugenic ways as a plague on society? The responsibility of scientists is the same as the responsibilities that James Baldwin said every artist has:
“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” – James Baldwin
Yes your work has a political program: white supremacy. And in order to work towards one that respects & works with the everyone’s humanity in mind you must work to become a historically competent scientist. Its time for us to examine the values and political relations in our lives and around us and envision better ones that aren’t based on colonial ideas about gender, race, sexuality, age, ability, etc.. Below I have listed some pieces that are great places for us to start in understanding our role in society and the ways in which we can transform our relationships with the public (the people academic professionalism continue to simultaneously study and abandon). I hope you make the decision to truly commit yourself to the work we have ahead of us standing behind communities and producing knowledge in service of decolonial visions.
Feel free to check out my upcoming website Decolonize ALL The Science, launching Spring 2017!
Don’t Despair by Alice Walker
A Primer on Race/ism by Shay-Akil McLean
Intro to Political Education Reading List by Shay-Akil McLean
Tweets for Liberation by Shay-Akil McLean
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Designer & Discarded Genomes by Ruha Benjamin
Left & Right Radicalism in Hard Times by Richard Levins
Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on the Coevolution of Nature and Society by Richard Lewontin & Richard Levins
The Two Faces of Science by Richard Levins