“You got an A because you’re Asian!”
“Women are meant to stay at home. They’re more nurturing.”
These statements and many others, link personality characteristics with our biology. Using physical traits to make broad, false claims is historical and once had a scientific basis. Academically, it’s known as “scientific racism” and, clearly, it still has implications today.
Science is powerful. It dominates the hierarchy of education by being the epitome of fact and objectivity. Science is logical and rational, separate from any political, religious, or social convictions. It helps us to better understand the world and its people. Science is regarded invaluably and this is why it is dangerous.
The power of science and its implications can be traced back to Aristotle and his concept of biological determinism, in which human behavior is linked to our genes. Aristotle’s philosophies tremendously influenced the field of science, further perpetuating arguments that excused and upheld white, upper-class men. Enlightenment thinker Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and a pioneer in biologically defining the human species argued that humans could be divided into 4 different sub-species. He categorized humans into the following:
- The Americanus: red, choleraic, righteous; black, straight, thick hair; stubborn, zealous, free; painting himself with red lines, and regulated by customs
- The Europeanus: white, sanguine, browny; with abundant, long hair; blue eyes; gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and regulated by customs
- The Asiaticus: yellow, melancholic, stiff; black hair, dark eyes; severe, haughty, greedy; covered with loose clothing; and regulated by opinions
- The Afer or Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; black, frizzled hair; silky skin, flat nose, tumid lips; females without shame; mammary glands give milk abundantly; crafty, sly, careless; anoints himself with grease; and regulated by will
In short, the Europeanus or whites were better than the other three categories. They were gentle and inventive while we were greedy, choleraic, and sly. Needless to say Linnaeus’ classification was erroneously generalized and ethnocentric. His observations were not just based on physical features but drew on culture as well. Besides that of Linnaeus there were thinkers like Charles Darwin who became the basis (though arguably misinterpreted) for eugenics or Pieter Camper who used “crainometry” to justify racial categories. While the work of Linnaeus and Dariwn is centuries old, we can still see its influence today.
Numerous people believe science to be the absolute truth due to its presumed factual nature. Societies spread “scientific knowledge” and use it as evidence for their own assumptions and conclusions. However, scientists are people just like you and me and they can be racist, sexist, classist, or any form of prejudice. They grew up in a world of white patriarchy with the same type of institutions we experience. With that experience comes the baggage that has lead to systematic oppression. Scientists and science itself can be biased. A recent example of this is neurosurgeon and Republican candidate Ben Carson.
Biologically based racism is rooted in our culture. The only way to tear down this tree is to stop making broad “scientific” statements ourselves and to call out the people who do. We are more then what we appear to be and are diverse human beings.
I leave you with a statement from my mom that a customer told her:
“Asians are smart because they can grow bigger brains. They have thinner skulls giving them more room. Whites have the next thickest, then blacks.“
So, my fellow Asian Americans, why are we so “smart”? Because we have thinner skulls.
Image Credits: DNA