Invisible Violence: A Short History of Racism in Science

by Irene Kaloyannis Science and Policy Exchange (SPE)

TW: Racism, Police Brutality, Colonial Violence

On June 2nd, the University of Toronto streamed its Spring Convocation ceremony. Valedictorian of the medical school, Dr. Chika Oriuwa, spoke at the event. Dr. Chika Oriuwa was the only Black person in her cohort and was only the second Black woman in the history of U of T to earn the title. In her speech, she discussed her experiences with racism, her hopes for greater inclusion and diversity in the medical school, and her words of wisdom for future Black medical students. The day before, her story was also featured in an article from The Star chronicling the experiences of several Black professionals with racism in Canada. As I read every tweet and headline about her that cropped up on my Twitter feed, amidst a slew of others about police brutality and the ongoing protests, I was once again reminded of the fact that no institutions, and no professions, in our society are safe from the wide net of racism, including those of science and medicine.

White people tend to think of hospitals and laboratories, along with the medical professionals and scientists who occupy them, as positive sources of healing and knowledge, where all patients and/or study participants are treated equally. Unfortunately, not only is this not true, but it has never been true and, barring large-scale institutional changes, will likely never be true.

There are countless examples of inhumane treatment in science, against womxn, LGBTQIA2S+ people, and many others, an infamous example being Nazi scientist Josef Mengele’s experiments on Jewish people and Roma during the Holocaust. However, today, I wanted to specifically talk about some examples of injustices committed against BIPOC in the name of science, given the recent surge in the movement against police brutality towards Black people and Indigenous people, both in Canada and abroad.

This post will describe specific events in history that demonstrate that the scientific community has many apologies to make, and reparations to pay. I will begin with an example that has gotten considerable media attention in the last several years: HeLa cells. HeLa cells are an immortal line of cells originating from a 31-year-old African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who passed away of cancer in 1951. The cells have been tremendously helpful in the fields of medicine, genetics, and virology, but possibly their most important contribution to science is the conversation surrounding consent that their culture induced. Henrietta Lacks was not informed that her cells — read: a part of her body — were extracted, and therefore had no consent or say in the matter. Furthermore, despite their abundant use in science and the huge profits these cells made for the companies that distributed them, the family was never compensated, recognized or even informed of their existence until 20 years after they were first cultured. The Lacks family is currently pursuing legal compensation for these gross injustices.

This story has gotten substantial attention in the media, as it’s been made into a best-selling book and film, so it’s possible you may have heard of it. If you have, and you think science’s racism problem started and stopped there, you’d be wrong. From 1931 to 1972, the quiet town of Tuskegee, Alabama hosted a federally-backed clinical study on the natural history of untreated syphilis in African-American men. There are so many human rights violations associated with this study, it is challenging to fit them all in one post, let alone one paragraph. Some of the most atrocious acts include lying to participants about their syphilis diagnosis for up to 40 years and lying about receiving treatment for their diagnosis (participants were told they were receiving free medical care when, in fact, none did). In 1974, a $10-million out-of-court settlement was reached for the victims and their families.

While Black people are the victims of anti-Black racism in both the United States and Canada, Indigenous people are also being targeted and oppressed in many similar ways. Canada was founded on genocidal violence against Indigenous people, who never stopped fighting back and continue to be steadfast in their resolve. Given the use of scalp bounties and smallpox blankets as biological warfare in the so-called “Great North”, it is unsurprising that this lack of concern for, and attempt at decimation of, Indigenous lives showed up in scientific research.

Some Canadian provincial authorities are working to implement more Indigenous history in elementary and high school curricula, including that of residential schools. Residential schools — the overstuffed, underfunded, abusive institutions where many Indigenous youths were sent (often after being kidnapped) to be assimilated or to die — are, in fact, worse than you think. They provided the unknowing participants for several government-funded experiments on the effects of malnutrition and lack of dental care on children, as a 2013 study showed. I encourage you, readers, to research it further if you are interested.

Another example of racism in Canada, this time in medicine, is that of the forced sterilizations of Indigenous women. Instances of coerced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada have been recorded since the 1800s, and as many as 1 200 cases were reported in the 1970s alone. A lawsuit is currently being pursued by 60 of these women who all claim to have undergone this procedure in the last 10–15 years, some of them as recent as 2014.

The domain of science is one of wonder, perhaps even beauty and delight. However, it has a dark past, and a continuing dark present (such as the racist consequences of DNA tests), for BIPOC and other marginalized groups. We cannot neglect that, and we certainly cannot make excuses for it. All we can do is act now to create a better future for everyone in the domain of science, one where people feel safe from systemic racism and colonial practices. This can be done by:

  • educating all scientists in cultural sensitivity, intersectionality, anti-oppressive practice & the importance of obtaining proper consent;
  • recognizing and apologizing for the mistakes of the past;
  • removing any evidence of idolization of the scientists who participated in these hateful crimes (such as statues, plaques, building names, etc.);
  • paying reparations to those who have been affected by racism in science;
  • doing research that serves marginalized groups and addresses their specific needs;
  • creating space for members of marginalized groups in research leadership roles and on ethics review boards & committees;
  • and by implementing holistic approaches such as that of community-based participatory research.

The system of racism is large and much of it exists outside scientific institutions, but by making these changes in our fields, we can truly make a difference.

This blog post was made in support of & in solidarity with the Black community, the Black Lives Matter movement, and all Indigenous people. It was inspired by the recent deaths of Eishia Hudson, Chantel Moore, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, among many others. For information about what you can do for these victims and their loved ones, please consult: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/ and this Indigenous Solidarity google doc.

Edit: On June 5th, CTV News published a list that several Black Montrealers created in order to give allies a list of Montreal-specific anti-racism resources.

A student-run non-profit that works to foster the student voice in science policy and evidence-informed policy-making in Canada. Based in Montreal.