“They tell us race is an invention, that there is more genetic variation between two black people than there is between a Black person and a White person. Then they tell us black people have a worse kind of breast cancer and get more fibroids. And White folk get cystic fibrosis and osteoporosis. So what’s the deal… Is race an invention or not?”– Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Dorothy Roberts is one of my intellectual heroes. I first came across her my senior year of undergrad when an anthropology class I took on “Race and Power” introduced me to Fatal Intervention. What I’m most struck by, is Roberts’ calm and unwavering confidence and ability to counteract and combat racist and classist arguments time and time again using rational and logic and by drawing upon the history to contextualize a given situation.
I’ve been thinking deeply recently about race & medicine or race & genetics research. And, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between race and ancestry, how these two terms are often conflated, how one (ancestry) is a valid measure in genetics research and the other (race) is a socio-political construct. Yet, there are arguments that race is worthy of consideration in biomedicine (1). How do we disentangle the history that gave rise to race and our understandings of it from efforts to advance the field of precision medicine? Is it even possible?
“Using race is a bad proxy for genetic ancestry” (2). So what is ancestry? And, what is race?
In the beginning, race was used in zoology as a taxonomic category for categorizing the organizational structure of animal species. When it came to be applied to human populations in the 18th century, race was used to biologically and culturally separate human groups. This separation, then, was used to justify slavery, validate imperialism and colonialism, and assert White supremacy.
The history of how “race”as a term was born is important. History is important. Context matters. Science is “a series of nested layers of institutions: economic and political systems…which become an intermediate layer of social and material conditions within which scientists and other intellectuals operate” (3). Scientists carry their own conflicts and perceptions. Science is not socially neutral (4).
With all this muddying of the waters, I use intersectionality theory in my own research to understand how and why history and context matter. It helps increase clarity on why a field like science is not socially neutral. It shows us why certain communities are relegated to the peripheries, cast as threats or lost causes. And, in understanding the layering of oppression and inequality we can begin to understand why “race-based” medicine could doubly harm those already affected by ideologies that tell them and others they are different or inferior.