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Silenced Issues 5| Coming to Terms with the Colorblindness of Contemporary STS

Michael Mascarenhas

15 November, 2017

Marching in the Science March in May of 2017, I was struck by the enthusiasm and conviction of my science comrades. And while I was encouraged by the mood and widespread organizing by the scientific community, I was also uneasy with the fact that it took the threat of having their funding obliterated and disciplinary legitimacy challenged to bring this otherwise reticent scientific community out of their laboratories and onto the streets.

And while I looked over the exclusively white, predominately male, and mostly abled body crowd I was also struck by the controversy that had surrounded the organizing of this event, namely the lack of voice and visible presence of scientists from underrepresented populations. It was lost to anyone from the latter group that the scientific community did not stand up and mobilize until its own economic interests were on the line. Where were these scientists, I wondered, when people marched in Ferguson against police surveillance or when people confronted another governmental agency involved in the poisoning of Flint residents?

The lack of inclusion by scientists of color and other underrepresented populations is the clear delineation of the color-line that epitomizes normal science. The funding of science has been complicit in ensuring that racism has been allowed to persist and germinate in a framework that is far more expansive than the legal framework or health care system. Artificial intelligence experts compete for Department of Defense grants to build better robots, engineers are supported to design better weapons, and NASA supported scientists are rewarded for building better forms of surveillance devices. Many of these products of science and technology end up being used to surveil, discipline, punish, and eliminate black and brown bodies and communities. Moreover, the refusal of many scientists to take seriously the epistemological perspectives of their underrepresented colleagues has all but guaranteed that the status quo of white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy is maintained in everyday science policy and practice.

In their efforts to follow scientists and question scientific institutions as a method to examine the intersection of science and politics, scholars of science and technology studies seem to have also adopted a colorblind approach. In effect, STS has not turned its reflective gaze inwards to examine the politics of its own society, nor had it spent much effort interrogating science’s contribution to social policy or enduring social problems. Sociologist Howard Winant has evocatively termed race and racism the “‘dark matter’ of the modern epoch.” From this perspective race and racism are as central to modern science and technology as they were to the liftoff of capitalism itself. Given its central role in producing, shaping, and affecting technological change, as well as being an institutional force that also marginalizes and discriminates against people of color, the matter of race and racism, with few notable exceptions, has not been given serious consideration. It appears that as the field has championed studies that highlight the importance of context we have ignored one of the most enduring social, cultural, and political contextual elements of modern capitalism—institutional racism. This is our disciplinary elephant in the STS laboratory.

White privilege abounds in STS. We need to look no further than our STS departments and programs. Table 1 illustrates the gender and race composition of some departments in the United States. Some departments have made some gains in terms of gender balance. In some schools like Berkeley, Michigan, and Brown, women outnumber men. Yet this is the exception. Programs and departments at Stanford, RPI, and Drexel are particularly homogeneous. We see significant disparities in faculty of color (FOC) and major gaps in under-represented faculty of color (UFOC)—Hispanic, Latino, and African Americans. In fact, many departments have no UFOC at all. Moreover, while some places like WPI may seem diverse, it is important to recognize that most faculty of color do not hold privileged tenure-track positions. In effect, UFOC are disproportionately located at the contract side of the academy.

White privilege is also institutionalized within our inter-disciplinary society. Figure 2 identifies the gender and race composition of past presidents. During our 40-year history we have elected one president of color—Sheila Jasanoff. Of the 119 past council members, 8 have been faculty of color, 2 have been underrepresented faculty of color (Figure 3). We can also examine Program Highlights from the 2015 4S Conference, which included a Presidential Plenary in which eight scholars reflected (once again) on important issues to STS. The panel included five women and three men but zero underrepresented scholars. These esteemed scholars talked about democracy, design, digital technologies, and even environmental pollution, but not one of them talked about race or racism. In the 269 panels organized that year the word “race” was found in six titles, and “racism” in two. Eight out of 269 panels and 1489 panelists saw it fit to talk and present on issues of race and racism, and science, technology, and society. At a time, when – with Angela Davis – “racism can be discovered at every level in every major institution—including the military, the health care system, and the police."

Lastly, I want to suggest that this white space is not limited to number of faculty, presiders, and presenters at our annual meetings. White supremacy abounds in the journals we publish in, whose topics and editorial boards also constitute white spaces. The same can be said of our national funding agencies whose program officers and review panels remain predictably white. After nearly a decade of attempts to broaden participation only last year did participation by underrepresented groups became a robust funding initiative at NSF.

How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most white scholars claim that race is not relevant to their research, teaching, and scholarship? Why have we adopted a color blind perspective to science, technology, and society when neoliberal racism continues to fuse technologies of conduct and government with racial domination. Science and technology continue to direct the processes by which racial categories are reasoned, created, transformed, and made legitimate. So we need to question the motives that continue to obstruct our collective gaze towards this distinctive racial formation of modern America.

We can start with a plan of action: STS curricula must include race and racism as a core concept; we must actively recruit and support students, staff, and faculty of color, we must have gender and race equity on committees, review panels, and editorial boards. It can no longer be acceptable to have panels of esteemed colleagues expound about future directions without the participation of people of color, and that participation cannot be tokenism. We must guard against white fragility and recognize that something is lost in white society when it does not acknowledge the “black” space. This knowledge will not be cultivated by simply adding more people of color to the mix, white students, white staff, white faculty have an indispensable role to play, as well. At a time when we are urged to settle for fast solutions, make policy via Twitter, look for easy answers, and formulaic resolutions we must find the wherewithal to open the black box of racism with our disciplinary practice and awaken colleagues to the urgency of building antiracist movements. This diversity of people, ideas, and politics are much more likely to expand our “problem choices,” and turn our attention to changing the uncomfortable silences of our field, such as who is participating, who is impacted, and how does science promote or hinder such efforts.

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.