/ 28 May 2019

The humanities can cure our colonial, patriarchal hangover

Each year
Each year, somebody on a social media platform is either documenting or having a racist or sexist meltdown. (Kyle Oberholzer/Citizenside)


As a scholar who teaches race, gender and representation, I often tell my students that I am never at a loss for new material. Each year, somebody on a social media platform is either documenting or having a racist or sexist meltdown. Educators thus have no excuse for recycling the same material year after year — the case studies are self-propagating. But, it is not often that academics themselves become the story.

University of Stellenbosch scholars Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise

Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche became the focus of media attention when they published a peer-reviewed article, “Age- and Education-related Effects on Cognitive Functioning in Colored South African Women”, in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition. News of the article spread on social media and, pretty soon, the call for a retraction of the article was led by scholars, such as associate professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town Barbara Boswell, associate professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand Zimitri Erasmus, psychologist and professor at Unisa’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences Kopano Ratele, and UCT master’s student Shanel Johannes.

The validity of the study was called into question because the hypothesis, methodology, ethics and theoretical framework of the work were deeply flawed and because it reinforced racist and sexist stereotypes. The very title of the work itself offers a hint about its flaws. The American spelling of coloured as “Colored” indicates that the authors have not conducted sufficient research on the ways in which race is socially and politically constructed in different historical and geographical contexts to serve particular economic and political interests.

At a recent panel discussion, Re-structuring Science and Research, at Stellenbosch University, educationist Jonathan Jansen said: “I am surprised that you are surprised.” He pointed to the university’s long history of complicity in race science, including that of anthropologists.

The journal article does not point to something exceptional, but reveals colonial continuities. As science journalist Angela Saini argues in The Guardian, scientific racism did not die after World War II, despite the fact that eugenics and biologically essentialist conceptions of race have been discredited by scholars. Saini contends that the tenacity of scientific racism should be read in relation to the rise of white supremacists in Europe and the United States.

The dust had hardly settled on this debacle when another racist journal article came to light. This time, Simplice A Asongu and Oasis Kodila-Tedika argued that “countries which were endowed with higher levels of cognitive ability were more likely to experience lower levels of slave exports from Africa probably due to comparatively better capacities to organise, co-operate, oversee and confront slave traders”. The article, “Intelligence and Slave Exports from Africa”, was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Interdisciplinary Economics.

Once again, the premise from which the scholars operate are flawed. The hypothesis, methodology, considerations of research ethics and review of the relevant literature that relates to the historical and geographical contexts that might help one make sense of the enslavement of Africans fell short in many respects. As is the case with the earlier article, the scholars are complicit in the long tradition of race science to which Jansen refers.

The lead author’s lack of understanding of his own positionality and the context about which he writes is clear when he responds to Mail & Guardian journalist Bongekile Macupe’s questions: “If the scientific quality of research is to be judged in unscientific spheres as you are about to do, then I think we have a serious problem. It appears the scientific article is about to be branded as a ‘racist scholarship’. This is very laughable.”

So science can only be judged by scientists. This assertion speaks to the very need for the critical literacies that are developed by scholars in the humanities. If this scholar is to understand the role of academic research in the colonial project, specifically the ways in which scientists dehumanised black subjects and the ways in which their discursive practices claimed authority over black bodies and intellect, he may very well understand the extent to which his work dehumanises black subjects. More importantly, he may very well understand the danger that his work presents in a political climate influenced by the rising tide of white nationalism and its insistence on claiming legitimacy for race science.

The article reminds us that science does not operate outside of ideology and the matrices of power relations that shape our world. Instead, ideological positions inform the research questions that scholars pose. An uncritical approach to research that is devoid of self-reflexivity can produce deeply unethical and harmful results. A good case in point is a line of questioning by US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a House oversight and reform committee hearing on facial recognition technology. She asked Joy Buolamwini, a computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, which challenges unethical technology such as bias in decision-making software.

Ocasio-Cortez: “Are algorithms most effective on women?”

Buolamwini: “No.”

Ocasio-Cortez: “On POC [people of colour]?”

Buolamwini: “Absolutely not.”

Ocasio-Cortez: “On people of different gender expressions?”

Buolamwini: “No, they exclude them.”

Ocasio-Cortez: “So what demographic is it mostly effective on?”

Buolamwini: “White men.”

Ocasio-Cortez: “Who are the primary engineers of the algorithms?”

Buolamwini: “Definitely white men.”

This exchange reveals that the gendered and racial biases of the scientists who produce facial recognition software are embedded into the software’s functionality and, thereby, present risks to civil society, which is decidedly more diverse than the white male demographic. If scientists are to produce work that is academically rigorous, ethical and in the public interest, they will need to interrogate their own assumptions about race, gender, class and several intersectional factors that may affect their work. To do so effectively, scientists will need conceptual tools created by scholars in the humanities. They will have to develop what are often called “soft skills” (read: feminine and thus not as important as the masculine “hard skills”), although these skills are actually essential to considerations of social justice, conflict resolution and social cohesion. These are skills that no app can deliver, certainly not without critical and creative input from the arts, humanities, social sciences or performing and creative arts.

In an opinion piece for the online publication University World News on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and innovation for the public good, Laura Czerniewicz contends: “The neoliberal shortsightedness that has seen social science and humanities departments being closed down elsewhere in the world must not be repeated in South Africa. If anything, the opposite is needed, so that the principles of more humane agendas can drive research into the 4IR.”

Nowhere is this a more salient a point to make in a context where facial recognition software could fail to see you as human when you are black female pedestrian in the midst of self-driving cars. But this point applies beyond information and communications technology, such as a situation where an economist writes about you as a slavery export who lacks the necessary intelligence to avoid being enslaved, or when an international athletics federation tells a leading black female athlete that she has to suppress her naturally high testosterone levels if she wants to compete with women.

Biologically essentialist understandings of race and gender need to be dismantled. To do this, you need the humanities to unravel oppressive discursive practices, ideologies and the political economies that sustain unequal relations of power. In essence, the humanities can cure our colonial, patriarchal hangover.

Adam Haupt is a professor of media studies at the Centre for Film & Media Studies at the University of Cape Town