In January, H&M faced accusations of racism after the retailer published an ad featuring a Black boy wearing a hoodie saying, “Coolest monkey in the jungle.”
The ad was no accident, says Cynthia Malone, a University of Toronto PhD student in human geography. She uses this example as a starting point for her op-ed in Motherboard about how white scientists have long depicted Black peoples as monkeys and less-than-human.
Malone traces racist stereotypes of Black people in science to eugenics, a field largely discredited after it was used to support the racial policies of Nazi Germany.
She writes that white natural historians and biologists portrayed Black peoples as being at the bottom of a human hiearchy, “with false claims of our close relationship to non-human primates used to explain this position in evolutionary time and justify discrimination against Black bodies in material space.”
One woman, Sara “Saartjie” Baartman of the Gonaquasub group of the Kohikhoi, was taken from Cape Town, South Africa and exhibited as a freak show in European capitals in the 19th century. Ota Benga, a man from the Mbuti pygmy peoples in the Congo, was kidnapped and exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906 (photo, left, courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division).
“If you had not yet heard of these or the many other examples like them,” Malone writes, “you are not alone. I had not learned about them either, not even during my six years of advanced education in zoology and anthropology.”
Black people resisted racist views using science and art, Malone adds. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass challenged U.S. President Thomas Jefferson's justification of the inferiority of Black and Indigenous Americans.
And Sarah Mapps Douglas, a teacher and abolitionist, “resisted negative tropes of Black women through her illustrations of flora and fauna,” Malone says.
Malone goes on to write about the March for Science in April of 2017, which some have criticized on social media using #marginsci for not going far enough to address racism in science.
She also writes about her own experience as a Black scientist: being told that social justice initiatives don’t belong in science, being asked to do “diversity” work for free and being “tokenized” or dismissed despite years of education.
She ends with a call to action for a radical science that looks at questions like: “What would science look like if everyone learned about the history and current manifestations of scientific racism and the illegitimacy of its theories?
“In striving to respond to that, which seems nearly impossible, we defiantly make room for new futures while honoring the work of our ancestors,” she says.