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Anti-racism in science class

By J. Aaron Anthony (he/him), teacher, West Vancouver

Teacher, May/June 2023

It may seem like anti-racism is best left to the humanities, but that is not true. There is an urgent need for anti-racist science teaching. Not only has racism influenced science, but science has been used to install and maintain systemic racism. Because scientific rationality was held up as evidence of European superiority over Indigenous Peoples, there is a strong connection between Western science and violent colonial oppression.

Also known as modern science, or sometimes just science, Western science has been constituted as being opposed to Indigenous ways of understanding nature. The dichotomy between “modern” Europeans and “primitive” Indigenous people is an invention that is meant to rationalize colonialism. Colonial practices have combined presumed objectivity with the absorption of Indigenous knowledge and peoples by right of superiority. The assumption of scientific objectivity and neutrality has provided cover for the subjectification and inferiorization of Indigenous Peoples while benefiting from Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous bodies. An anti-racist and anti-colonial science education must acknowledge that by reinforcing notions of “proper” modern scientific inquiry the local knowledges and practices of colonized peoples are assigned the status of “backward, uncivilized, and premodern.”

There is an urgent need for anti-racist science teaching. Not only has racism influenced science, but science has been used to install and maintain systemic racism.

Historically, biologists, including geneticists, have been complicit with colonial and racist ideology. Charles Darwin himself wrote his impactful works on evolution within a racist environment. He tried very hard to prove an evolutionary cause for racial categories. Darwin had a theory called “constitutions selection.” As the theory goes, variations on skin colour among the races correlated to resistance to diseases endemic to the places where a particular race was predominant. For example, he thought that dark skin may have been related to resistance to tropical diseases, such as yellow fever. Despite resourcefully making use of racial health data provided to him by British Navy doctors, he could not prove his theory.

A century earlier, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish taxonomist, not only took advantage of Indigenous knowledge to invent the classification and naming systems for organisms used by scientists to this day, but he also divided humanity into four racial categories: Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, and Asians. Linnaeus also ascribed personality traits to those racial categories. Unsurprisingly, Europeans were ascribed the most virtuous traits, such as “active” and “inventive,” while the other races were disparaged as being “foolish,” “obstinate,” “melancholy,” and so forth. The same racist ideas were then used to justify colonialism. The thinking was that it was in humanity’s best interest for Indigenous races to give way to superior Europeans.

In science class, examples of how racism has influenced science and vice versa are opportunities to engage with the core competencies. Students can engage in critical thinking when challenging and decentring colonial knowledge hierarchies. They can practise communicating by having courageous conversations and discussions about race. And they work on personal and social development by building their understanding of racial identity. These core competencies are common across all subject areas.

How can we implement these core competencies through anti-racism education in science class? As a settler and the son of immigrants from Fiji, a former British colony, I have to reconcile or rethink my relationship to these Indigenous territories. My people were not invited here by the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, or Qayqayt. Rather, our presence was facilitated and approved by the colonial Canadian government. As a teacher, I am committed to doing my part to “build student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect,” as put forth in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 63rd Call to Action. There is a curricular competency that relates to that. It asks us to “apply First Peoples perspectives and knowledge, other ways of knowing, and local knowledge as sources of information.” It has been challenging for me to give students adequate opportunities to engage with it, but over the past few years, I have made some progress.

A breakthrough insight for me was that “First Peoples perspectives and knowledge” includes the perspectives of First Peoples about how they use science and how they are affected by uses of science. Therefore, I should include Indigenous perspectives on science, as well as traditional know-ledge. According to the Indigenous scientist Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Whpeton Oyate), the various elements of science must start with “the lives, experiences, and interpretations of marginalized subjects.”1 Dr. Tallbear’s particular expertise is in how genetic science is co-constituted with notions of race and indigeneity.

In Science 10, one big idea, and the one that is related to biology, is that “DNA is the basis for the diversity of living things.” You could say that this big idea refers to DNA as the basis of the diversity of different organisms, such as octopuses and sword ferns. However, the word diversity is often colloquially used in reference to racial diversity among humans. Therefore, this is a valuable opportunity for teachers and students to grapple with persistent genetic conceptions of race.

There is actually no genetic basis for socially constructed racial categories. Even though the superficial physical traits associated with the races have genetic causes, human genetic variation as a whole does not fit well into racially defined groups. That is because race and races are socially constructed, meaning that they are products of social thought and relations.

These class conversations can be difficult though. For example, when I highlighted the prevalence of the genetic condition known as sickle cell anemia in Black populations, it may have made students overestimate how much genes have to do with race.

To complicate things, direct-to-consumer genetic tests are often used to determine ancestry. In some cases, genetics could inaccurately determine a person’s belonging to a particular ethnic and/or Indigenous group. These issues, which students may have experienced, are fertile grounds for discussing how science is used to construct race.

According to Cree scientist Jessica Kolopenuk, it is necessary to not only critique race as a social construction, but to critically consider the ways that it orders biorelations between bodies and also within them.

Race is not genetic, but race is biological due to the disparate health experiences of racialized people. Biology provides some of the strongest evidence of racism. In the US, where racial health data is commonly collected, race is more correlated to health than it is to genetic diversity. The spread of tuberculosis among Indigenous populations because of the horrid living conditions brought on by the Indian Act is another example of how race is biological.

These examples of the biology of race versus scientifically dubious genetic conceptions of race provide opportunities for students to have courageous conversations about race (communication) and to build their understanding of racial identities. Exposing students to the perspectives of Indigenous scientists, such as Dr. Tallbear and Kolopenuk, allow students to “apply First Peoples perspectives and knowledge” while learning about DNA and diversity. Critical thinking about the role that science has had in racist ideology and how science can be used to disrupt racism is beneficial to all students because those activities can disrupt misconceptions about racial hierarchy and promote the development of science identities for diverse students.


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