How do we move beyond the flawed paradigm of white intellectual superiority?

Former Queen’s football player Ben Arhen comments on Black representation in scientific spaces

Arhen advocates for more emphasis on the discoveries of black scientists.

This article contains mentions of racial trauma and slavery, and may be triggering to readers. The Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-875-6213.

Contemporary western science lacks Black contribution. Improving Black representation in scientific fields requires a conscious effort to reject longstanding paradigms of white intellectual superiority.

The lack of Black voices in western science can be attributed to systems of racial inequality established during slavery and the implications of “scientific racism” pioneered by white scientists during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The institution of slavery began in the early 1600s, when African individuals were unwillingly captured, transported, and sold as property in North America and the West Indies. By and large, the philosophy of enslavement was justified by the belief that white people were at the top of the racial hierarchy and therefore a “superior” race.

This paradigm of Black inferiority was eventually falsely legitimized—and publicized—in  pseudoscientific research  known as “scientific racism,” which used false observations to confirm preconceived racialized ideas.

From Carolus Linnaeus—a Swedish taxonomist—who described the African race as  cunning, phlegmatic, and ruled by impulse, to Samuel G. Morton, an American physician who argued that Black individuals had smaller brain sizes relative to white individuals, scientifically racist ideas implicitly stated the need for Black people to be controlled because of their falsely reported impulsivity, laziness, and inferior intellect.

Scientific racism fundamentally questioned the intellectual capabilities of Black individuals, and the absence of Black contribution in scientific spaces today speaks to the legacy of those previously held beliefs in academia. It’s thus important to recognize Black scientists who’ve influenced the progress of modern-day western science. 

George Washington Carver, (1864-1943) was born into slavery and repeatedly faced racial discrimination throughout his life as a scientist and inventor. Nevertheless, Carver greatly contributed to the agricultural revolution by discovering innovative techniques to prevent soil depletion from excessive cotton growth and is widely considered one of the most influential black scientists of the 20th century.  

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, (1856-1931)  was the first African American to ever receive a medical degree. An advocate for lack civil rights, Williams was also the first doctor to found a hospital with an interracial staff, ultimately providing countless opportunities for Black healthcare workers where few had existed before. 

Lewis Latimer, (1848-1928) was a prominent American draftsman and inventor who worked alongside Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison to design and patent the telephone and the lightbulb. Latimer’s scientific contributions resulted in groundbreaking technological advancements in their time and set an example for aspiring Black inventors.  

Acknowledging the contributions of Carver, Williams, and Latimer along with a growing list of highly successful 20th and 21st century scientists and intellectuals—including 16 Nobel Prize recipients—is an important step toward debunking the myth of white intellectual superiority. 

As Frederick Douglass, a 19th century abolitionist and former slave once said, “The negro is a man […] scientific writers, not less than others, write to please, and even unconsciously themselves, to sacrifice what is true to what is popular […] what is fashionable now in our land is to exaggerate the differences between the negro and the European”.

Still relevant more than 100 years later, this quote serves as a challenge to modern science to overturn the normalcy of white superiority, accept and celebrate Black contributions in science, and push towards an equitable future. 

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