AUGUST 9, 2021
THE FOLLOWING CONVERSATION, adapted from an event at the University of Maryland’s Center for Literary and Comparative Studies, is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series, “Antiracism in the Contemporary University,” edited by Tita Chico. Click here for the full series.
MICHELL CHRESFIELD: I had the good fortune of reading your book, Biofictions: Race, Genetics and the Contemporary Novel, in-between binge-watching Bridgerton. [Laughs.] I have so many questions. I was wondering how you approach race and science in the contemporary moment, when explicit racism seems to be making a return to mainstream American discourse. 
JOSIE GILL: Thank you for that question, Michell. The question is how, as humanities scholars, can we approach race and science today, at a moment when certain biological ideas about race seem to be reappearing. There are white supremacist groups discussing (and misinterpreting) genetic studies on internet forums. The New York Times reported that white supremacists were “chugging” milk because they thought a genetic study was saying that white people were better able to digest milk than others. Trump has often talked about his belief in “good genes” — both his own and those of his followers — as a way of signaling the purported superiority of whiteness. So there are seemingly casual but also very prominent ideas about genetics entering public discourse. In relation to COVID-19, recently the home secretary in the UK, Priti Patel, was trying to explain the different impact [of the disease] on Black and Asian communities in the UK. She implied that they are just somehow more susceptible to COVID-19, that there’s some kind of biological difference. Whether these ideas represent a return, or whether they have been there all along, there is no doubt that we are in a political moment where these discourses are gaining traction and there’s a return to a biological understanding of race.
Approaching this situation as a literary scholar can be quite tricky. There has been an attack on scientific expertise [from the right], and so literary scholars can be under some pressure not to do anything that might undermine science. This is particularly the case for the understanding of race that was confirmed by the Human Genome Project; that race is not biological and has no genetic meaning. That is the established and predominant scientific view. In the main, literary approaches tend to adhere to this view, to support it, and many literary scholars are influenced by critical race scholarship in this regard. Scholars like Kwame Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Paul Gilroy have in different ways brought genetic science into their work to support their own, preexisting understanding of race; that it is not a genetic reality. You might ask, what’s wrong with that? I’m not disputing the finding of the HGP or saying that it is wrong, but what I find interesting in their usage of science, is that it marks a departure from how these scholars talk about science in the past.
When these scholars discuss the historical construction of race in the 18th and 19th centuries, they acknowledge that it was an interdisciplinary idea — a construct created from many discourses including science, philosophy, and literature. In these analyses, science is understood as a product of its time, and the colonial context in particular. There’s an understanding that science was influenced by everything that was going on politically and socially at the time. However, when you turn to literary analyses of 21st-century science, you can see there’s a tendency to revert to a different stance toward science, treating it as an objective, neutral authority on race, and not as complicated or imbricated in culture as it was historically.
I was interested to see how I could approach contemporary science by maintaining a focus on the political, social, and cultural contexts which have made certain ideas about race possible in 21st century. I’m drawing on the work of STS scholar Jenny Reardon, in doing this, and trying to expand her analysis and include the literary and cultural, to think about how that context enables certain ideas about race to emerge narratively. I’m not trying to undo the scientific finding that race isn’t genetic; I’m not saying “that’s not true”; I just want to understand the conditions that enabled this idea to gain traction. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that idea came about at the same time as the rise of post-racial discourse at the beginning of this century. It seems strange to think of it now, post-BLM, but with Obama, there really was a widespread belief in the US and UK that we were entering a post-racial period and that racism was no longer an issue, that people of color had gained a certain level of equality and that we were moving beyond race. The science of race was feeding into that political climate.
You touched on it toward the end of your response, but I’m interested in what scientific studies of race have to learn from literary studies. Your book talks about how the literary contributes to science. Can you speak more on that?
I’m not saying there’s one particular relationship that literature has to science; that simply wouldn’t be possible given that there is so much diversity in scientific perspectives on race in the 21st century. That said, I think there are two main ways in which literature speaks to some of the absences of genetic discourse. First, the novels that I look at in Biofictions all make connections to the history of race and science and try to position the developments happening now within the context of what has happened before. I think that works against what scientific discourse often does, which is to create a very deliberate separation between eugenics, the racial science of the past, and genetic science today.
I think literature can help us to see how older racial ideas seep into the present. Related to this, the other thing literature does is draw attention to ways in which we can’t easily separate science from the imaginary or the fictional. Genetic discourses on race continually try to separate the social and cultural from the scientific; they position race and racism as largely a social problem that no longer has anything to do with science. The novels that I look at in Biofictions demonstrate that it isn’t really possible to do that. They are very alive to the ways in which the fictional, the made-up, comes to be incorporated into science; how the imaginary shapes the development, expression, and transmission of scientific ideas and the public understanding of science. They show how genetic science functions narratively, rather than objectively, within the racialized contexts in which it is embedded. To say these things might be to align oneself with people who want to undermine science, but that’s not what I’m trying to do.
It’s necessary that we do this work because often racial configurations emerge when we appear to move beyond race and when science appears to move us beyond race. I think literature is good at revealing how older racial thinking is always latent in the new. To deny this would be as regressive as the attack on science itself. I can give an example on how that happens in one of the novels I discuss in my book. Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead was published in 2006. It’s the story of an unnamed African American protagonist who works in marketing, and his job is to name products. He becomes famous for naming a range of plasters (band-aids) that are designed to match the skin tone of their wearers — so it’s a kind of multicultural plaster that he calls “Apex.” The protagonist wears one of these plasters after he stubs his toe; it obscures a serious wound, and, in the end, his toe has to be amputated. The novel is about his recovery from this incident and I think it’s really a satire on the ways in which race is often invoked in medicine for commercial ends.
It seems to be referencing a real-life example of this — BiDil, a drug that was approved by the FDA in 2005, exclusively for the treatment of African Americans with congestive heart failure. BiDil was supported on the basis that it would help a population which really needed the help, but there was no genetic basis for it whatsoever. The makers of the drug admitted that they used race as a proxy for an unknown genetic marker and that the drug might have been effective in non–African American populations. Race was a way of marketing the drug and even though it was a commercial failure, it had a big impact on how Americans (including African Americans) understand race; the drug appeared to signal that, contrary to the findings of the Human Genome Project, there is some genetic basis for race and people were being medicated on that basis.
To go back to the novel, I think Whitehead is interested in exposing the superficiality of the ways in which race is sometimes being invoked in medicine, and the novel is something of a warning about the uncritical adoption of racial categories in that context. He creates a subtle historical comparison to make this point. The amputation of the toe is an echo of a “cure” sometimes given to enslaved people who were diagnosed with Drapetomania. This was the “disease” that made enslaved people want to run away, a supposed condition named by Samuel Cartwright, a doctor and major figure in the South in the 19th century. It’s obviously an absurd attempt to pathologize enslaved people, and I think what Whitehead shows is how the fictionalization of race and medicine is still happening today with drugs like BiDil, which seems to make race the problem to be treated — to make race into the disease.
I’d like to ask you some questions now, Michell! You’re working on a period about 100 years before that which I’m looking at, but I wonder: Could say something about how your work connects to contemporary social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, and how it speaks to some of the issues which COVID-19 has brought about?
As you said, I’m working in an earlier part of history, focusing on the Jim Crow era, specifically on communities of Tri-racial identity — for example, those having white, Indigenous, and Black ancestry. I’ve been interested in how these communities use scientific technologies in order to make their own identity claims. For example, disease has been one avenue through which these communities make certain racial claims. We know that Black and Indigenous populations experienced a high incidence of diabetes and so this becomes, for some, a way to make certain racial claims.
However, in terms of thinking about BLM and differential health outcomes, with my family being originally from Alabama, I was struck by how the idea that Black people were possibly immune to COVID-19 received a lot of attention throughout the South during the first weeks of COVID-19. It made clear to me that the ideas linking race and disease are not only part of our history but persist into the present day.
Even as we saw Black communities being decimated by COVID-19, it took so long to highlight the narratives surrounding the systemic issues that lead to these health outcomes, rather than some biological innateness specific to black people. It reminded me of the early 20th century and medical discourses which claimed that African Americans were more susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis. When we highlight that Black populations are being disproportionately impacted by a disease, we must be vigilant to ensure this calling out isn’t misinterpreted as affirming a belief in innate Black difference. BLM is doing important work in terms of combating that narrative.
In that sense, they are doing what genetic science isn’t, which is focusing on racism, rather than on the idea of race itself as being the problem. It is structural inequality and racism which is causing inequalities in the COVID-19 pandemic. This relates to my next question: how do you work through the relationship between race and racism, something that is often elided in genetic science?
That question is so important, and it’s one that I engage students on quite a lot. One of the things I tell them, and this is borrowed from Ta-Nehisi Coates, is to understand, “Race is the child, not the father.” Meaning that race is the child of racism, not the father. And this for me is a productive way to think about the relationship between the two.
We can have good debates about the etymology or genealogy of these terms, but it is important to remember that race and racism are not always engaged in the same ideological and political projects. They can converge and diverge in all sorts of ways. When we focus on race as the cause or equivalent to racism we can miss the ways in which critical engagement with race and its construction allows us to engage biases and prejudices that can help us combat racism.
Also, because I’m an intellectual historian and I study ideas, I’m attached in weird ways to the idea of race, because it matters so much for the communities I study. One community I study has been marginalized because of how they racially classify, and there are dozens of communities like that in the United States. We can say we’re “beyond race,” but race continues to matter, as do the categories that are part of it.
Is there a tension between the more popular uses of genetics — the way certain communities are buying into a biological idea of race — and the way academics think about race and science. How does this play out in your work?
There are tensions, particularly when we think about some of the racial politics of the present. The communities that I study want to be recognized as Native peoples. To that end, they are often very invested in the need for outside recognition of inward feeling of identity. This is how the acknowledgment process has worked for much of the 20th century. It has depended on how outsiders view you rather than on how you see yourselves.
There is also tension because when scholars come to communities and they ask questions about lived experiences and identities, we’re not always cognizant of how these questions will impact the political projects these communities have underway. In my work, I’m trying to be sensitive to not repeating the violence of treating my research interests like they don’t have real-world consequences. I want to be sensitive to the political projects of the communities and individuals involved. The same should hold for scientists and humanists.
Turning back to the academy, do you see potential synergies in the way scientists and humanists approach race and antiracism?
I’m interested in interdisciplinary conversations between the sciences and humanities, whether there can be more dialogue between our disciplines and how that can happen not just at an intellectual level but at a practical level within universities. The most immediate way to tackle the issues of race in science and racism would be to have more face-to-face conversations across our disciplines.
The work I’m doing is as much concerned with how humanities scholars approach race, as it is with how scientists approach the concept. I would like to see a renewed focus on talking about race across both the humanities and sciences. I don’t know the situation in the US but in the UK, many people are afraid to talk about race and it is avoided because people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, or they are afraid of the decolonization debates, seeing them as too radical. When we talk about race and genetics, that can’t be separated from broader discussions of racial issues as they play out in a university, and all the different facets of racism and people’s experiences of it.
These conversations are good. In my own work, I find that scientists are often very earnest about the limitations of their own work, however, the people impacted aren’t always acknowledging those limitations. For those reasons, having conversations with multiple stakeholders is key. As is thinking about the ways that our work translates outside of the scholarly “bubble.”
I work in communities that have been victimized by both the academy and the members of the scientific discipline who have been interested in their lived experience. I want to investigate this process and highlight the injustices that have occurred as a result. However, I’m also very much interested in how communities have combated these efforts. Both sides of this story highlight the fact that race-making doesn’t just happen from the top-down. It happens from bottom-up as well, as individuals and communities push back against notions of scientific expertise. My scholarly position is to highlight that co-production as a way of challenging the hegemony of scientific knowledge and by extension that of the academy.
In the broadest sense, my work is interested in how academic disciplines have marshaled their power and expertise when they have produced studies of racial identity. In terms of my own position, I know that I am within the academy, but it remains an important part of my practice to ensure that this work doesn’t stay here, but that I engage with the communities impacted by it.
How has your position within the university informed your work on race — and specifically the evolution of academic constructions of and attitudes toward race?
I’m a founding member and former director of the Centre for Black Humanities at the University of Bristol. It’s an interdisciplinary research center in the Faculty of Arts that we established four years ago. It came together because there was a group of us working on a wide range of topics relating to Black life in Britain, Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean. So the remit is quite wide, but that’s good because there aren’t many research centers in the UK that explicitly foreground Blackness as a topic of study. There are many reasons for that. Black as a term has a different history in the UK, to the US. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was a term used by and to describe people of color but that’s now changed. It now refers to people of African descent. It was a bold move to establish the Centre because when we were trying to set it up, some people were saying “race isn’t real,” so why are you talking about Blackness and why would you single out Blackness from other ethnicities?
But for us, as a group of researchers, it made a lot of sense because we are situated in Bristol where there is a large, historic Black community, an activist community that has for years been trying to address the legacies of slavery in the city. These legacies were addressed very publicly in June 2020 when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down during a BLM demonstration. Creating the Centre for Black Humanities was one way in which we could expand the involvement of that community with the university, creating a space where Black people and Black staff and students could feel that they have a place to have these discussions. We’ve developed an MA program, and there’s now a bursary for Black teachers wishing to take it. With regard to science, what I have found interesting is that I’ve started to have PhD students from the sciences coming to me wanting to talk about racism and Black Lives Matter. Science faculty are beginning these conversations now, but I think that creating the Centre did a lot of work within the university. It immediately had an institutional visibility that meant we could support students and staff from across the disciplines, even though we are only focused on the arts and the humanities in an intellectual sense. In a broader activist sense, we’re engaging with a much wider constituency of academics and people within Bristol.
We began our conversation today by discussing the return of explicit, biological racism to the public sphere. How might we relate this to the relationship between fact and fiction — and the loaded question of truth and “post-truth” — in contemporary society? In your book, Josie, you’re thinking about the negotiation of fact and fiction in the development of scientific knowledge.
Scientific facts change all the time. One of the things I haven’t mentioned yet is epigenetics, which is a recent development within genetics. It overturns what was previously understood about genetics — which is broadly that you have genes that are inherited and passed on through generations and apart from a few mutations here and there, they remain largely fixed and stable. Epigenetics has come along and now scientists are looking at how genes have these epigenetic marks that are switched on and off depending on the environment in which someone (or a body) is located. It’s still an emerging area, but some studies suggest that those marks, those changes, can also be passed down through generations. This is an interesting example of how we have to be open to the nature of scientific discovery.
To bring fiction into the conversation, for me, the finding of epigenetics that genes can carry a “memory” of past environments and experiences (that is the metaphor which is often used) is really interesting. It speaks to the way that race has already been imagined in fiction. I’m thinking of Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred, which is about a woman, Dana, living in the 1970s who gets pulled back in time to the 19th century to the plantation of her ancestors, who are both white enslavers and enslaved Black people. Dana is in a very dynamic relationship with the past: her body is mutilated through whipping and torture when she’s on the plantation, and she ends up having to live in the (1970s) present without an arm and is disabled by this experience and encounter with history. This is an interesting representation of how bodies come to be raced, of how raced bodies are created through racist environments. I’m interested in the ways in which we can think about fiction and the kinds of fictional models that are already there for thinking about race not as genetically real, but as the result of certain fictional (i.e., racist) beliefs. The idea that some people are inferior to others because of their race is fiction; but this fiction — through racism — has real consequences for the body. There are all kinds of interesting and productive ways to think about fact and fiction. We shouldn’t limit how we think about this relationship just because some people want to question the validity of science and scientific fact. They’re going to do that anyway.
Michell Chresfield is lecturer specializing in the history of science and US racial formation at the University of Birmingham. She is currently working on a book project entitled, What Lies Between: Race, Science, and the Prehistory of Multiracial America.
Josie Gill is senior lecturer in Black British Writing at the University of Bristol. Her book Biofictions: Race, Genetics and the Contemporary Novel was published by Bloomsbury in 2020 and won the British Society for Literature and Science Book Prize for 2020. She is principal investigator of the Wellcome Trust funded project Black Health and the Humanities (2020–2022) located at the Centre for Black Humanities.
 The authors would like to thank Christina Walter for chairing the original conversation, as well as Tita Chico and all at the University of Maryland involved in the “Antiracism” series.