On reporting scientific and racial history

Rae Wynn-Grant
National Geographic Society, Washington, DC 20002, USA.
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Science  20 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6459, pp. 1256-1257
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2459

In his News Feature “Science's debt to the slave trade” (5 April, p. 16), S. Kean discusses the role of the slave trade in 18th-century European science with an unfortunate lack of sensitivity (1). Scholars quoted in the article use “we” and “us” when talking about people who are surprised by scientists' connection to the slave trade. This in-group construction (2) suggests an underlying assumption that neither the Africans and African-Americans enslaved nor their descendants, who experienced and survived 400+ years of the transatlantic slave trade, were scientists then or are scientists today. Although the author and editors may have intended to raise awareness about white scientists' problematic involvement in the slave trade—a worthy goal—the language used in the article serves as an example of how inclusion is one of the wider science community's biggest challenges.

An opening sentence is typical of the article's flawed perspective: “Petiver eventually amassed the largest natural history collection in the world, and it never would have happened without slavery.” This passage can be read to suggest a worthiness of slavery, diminishing the means from which the collection came about. Dr. Carolyn Roberts, the only person of color interviewed, is given one quote in the piece, introducing non-consensual studies on enslaved Africans. Kean directly follows Dr. Roberts's quote by listing various ways black bodies were manipulated and pulled apart, but he does not offer the reader any guiding judgments. Without bringing the reader back to the role of institutionalized racism and power dynamics, the article does little to support its title—a “debt” that scientists need to repay.

Alarmingly, the suggestion that early Western scientists were wrong does not appear clearly in the piece. Although Kean briefly details the harsh nature of the slave trade, he never describes these men—scientists who are revered in a white-washed version of history—as complicit in the murder, torture, and brutal enslavement of black people. An estimated 12 million Africans were forced across the Atlantic Ocean, with variable rates of survival (3, 4). To suggest, as the article does, that European scientists “had to hitch rides on slave ships,” as if they were without options for their work other than to use (and profit from) this inhumane system, is to exonerate their insidious behavior and corrupt belief system. For them to participate in this institution, they had to believe science was more important than black life. Saying that they did it for “access” is eliminating their responsibility. Slave ships should always be conceptualized as sites of violence, torture, and brutality—without reconsideration—and should not be characterized, as one of the scholars quoted does, as sites of scientific discovery. To do otherwise is an affront to all of the descendants of those enslaved peoples who are today working within a Western scientific philosophy that was built on the backs of our ancestors (5).

The benefits of slavery to white scientists are explained in this story—the author describes scientists as real people with names, internal dialogue, and triumphs. Meanwhile, the destruction of families, communities, empires, identities, and souls goes unmentioned; enslaved people who endured this violence are “slaves” throughout the piece. The discussion in this article is squarely centered around white people, white conquest, white so-called discovery, and white profit, and has little concern for the black experience or for how the legacy of slavery has directly influenced the participation of black people in science today. If Western science has gained anything from the transatlantic slave trade, it has lost much more in terms of human capacity.

Historical facts, patterns, or commonalities that affected the way many people lived and died are plagued with moral and ethical violations that require thoughtful discussion. Although the term “white supremacy” is often equated with direct violence, it also encompasses language use and word choice that reinforce racial hierarchies. By using language and context (even unintentionally) that propagate the idea that white interests trump black liberation, this piece, at the utmost, upholds colonial science and white supremacy. At the minimum, this type of writing is a microaggression that can cause black people to feel unvalued and unwelcome in the scientific community. I implore Science magazine, Sam Kean, scientists, and journalists globally to put the experiences, values, and needs of people from oppressed backgrounds at the center of historical narratives to endow them with truth and transparency (6, 7).

References and Notes

  1. Examples of language that conveyed a white-centered perspective can be found at
  2. T. van Dijk, in Discourse and Society, Volume 4 (Sage, 1993), pp. 249289.
  3. H. L. Gates Jr., “Slavery, by the numbers,” The Root (2014);
  4. N. Hannah-Jones, “Our democracy's founding ideals were false when they were written; Black Americans have fought to make them true,” The New York Times (2019);
  5. E. J. Smith, Science 353, 1586 (2016).
  6. J. E. Harris, Africans and Their History (New American Library, New York, 1972).
  7. S. McDougal III, Research Methods in Africana Studies (Peter Lang Inc., New York, 2014).