WE THE PEOPLE
Can Deleting the Past Be the Answer to Racism?
by Nancy K. Herther
Today, we are seeing major efforts in literature, science, and technology to recognize and deal with the impacts of published racism. This awakening is overdue and to be applauded; however, for information professionals, there are many complex and troubling issues embedded in these efforts that we must face and work to influence.
RACISM AND RESEARCH PUBLICATIONS
The majority of scientists, and the public, would consider scientific research publications to hold the most unambiguous, most unbiased, and “truest” information available—especially medical journals. In 2002, an editorial titled “Editorial Independence Is Built on Trust and Communication” was published in the Australian Journal of Physiotherapy. It argues that “mutual trust and unambiguous channels of communication are crucial to the quality and effective running of any peer-reviewed journal.” Researchers are learning just how difficult it is to fight for this principle.
A February 2021 tweet from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that was intended to “prompt interest in a podcast on racism” included the phrase, “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in health care?” It was meant to be a provocative promotion for a podcast episode featuring two white doctors: “a deputy journal editor and a physician who runs a New York City health system.”
In reaction to strong and very vocal protest, JAMA deleted the tweet, and the American Medical Association, which owns and publishes JAMA, tweeted that the podcast was “wrong, false and harmful.” In addition, JAMA editor-in-chief Howard Bauchner issued an apology. But that hasn’t calmed the waters within the medical community. Uché Blackstock, founder of Advancing Health Equity, tweeted that “physicians can absolutely be racist [and] complicit in upholding the practices and policies of systemic racism.” She stressed that by deleting the tweet, JAMA missed “(yet, again) another learning opportunity for [the] journal.”
REASSESSING THE RACIAL ASSUMPTIONS IN EDUCATION
School districts are opening up discussions and new opportunities for presenting the past and the “classic” materials that have been used in K–12 education to teach American and global culture and history. “As a child,” notes New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, “I was led to believe that Blackness was inferior. And I was not alone. The Black society into which I was born was riddled with these beliefs.”
In this time of racial reckoning, Blow’s thoughts provide important perspectives on “truth” versus recorded history. “It happened for children in the most inconspicuous of ways: It was relayed through toys and dolls, cartoons and children’s shows, fairy tales and children’s books,” he writes. “At every turn, at every moment, I was being baptized in the narrative that everything white was right, good, noble and beautiful, and everything Black was the opposite.”
LanguageMagazine recently looked at how educators can best work to drive change. “[H]ow do we make sense of the inhumanity? How can we teach lessons about equity and justice for all when the actions of society are in stark contrast to these ideals? How are we best preparing ourselves to model healthy citizenry for future generations?” Ayanna Cooper asks. “There is no single path or step-by-step guide with all of the answers. It will take a multipronged approach. Fundamentally, we must start with ourselves before we can teach and authentically engage others in this necessary work.”
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
Taking down Confederate statues and canceling or even destroying questionable content has become one approach to moving forward. De-emphasizing books with racist content—including some classics of children’s literature—has become another. For example, one of the most affluent school districts in Virginia has deemed that Dr. Seuss titles contain “racial undertones” that are unsuitable for teaching children in a “culturally responsive” way.
A recent piece in WIREDmagazine notes examples of articles that clearly should have faced more scrutiny by reviewers and editors—and have been called out by readers for their bias and assumptions: “One paper from 2012 linked darker skin to aggression and sexuality in humans. Another from that year claimed to show that women with endometriosis are more attractive. … [T]hese articles have recently been retracted after outraged readers took to social media. In the past three months, at least four other articles, too, have been called out for both their content and their lack of scientific rigor, and then either flagged or withdrawn by their science publishers.” In addition, Study 329, “in which SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline) downplayed the potential harms of its mood drug Paxil, remains in the pages of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, almost 20 years later.”
The WIRED article says that critics of retroactive purging are right, in that “[j]ournals do have a double-standard, and it is political. They move briskly to pull unworthy papers tinged by politics while ignoring hundreds, or likely thousands, of credible allegations of fraud or major error. Just ask Elisabeth Bik, who some five years ago carefully documented and reported evidence of image manipulations in around 800 academic papers, often to no avail. In many cases, the publishers of those articles are the same as those that hop to it when social-media-powered petitions make their way to their inboxes.”
Epicurious, a popular cooking website that started in 1995, has recently begun the process of reviewing its past content. In a note from July 2020, digital director David Tamarkin explained that it had already “started the process of removing racist language and ideas from the site.” The goal, he noted, was that as “the work [begins] of repairing Epicurious holistically, we’re paying particular attention to our history.” He promised that “the slate of recipes and stories that will appear on the site in the foreseeable future is inclusive in a way that is long overdue.”
What happens to the original articles and recipes that are no longer considered acceptable? How can we pretend to preserve the cultural record and serve the needs of future researchers if these materials are being destroyed or altered? This isn’t just an issue for information professionals. Colleges, K–12 schools, and all other types of educational institutions and museums are working to examine their current efforts and what needs to change.
A NEW GENERATION CHALLENGES CONVENTION
We are seeing new voices and perspectives that are challenging us not to cover up, hide, or purge these materials, but to change our very understanding and the approaches we take with this content. And today’s key change is the insistence that we no longer treat race as something to be relegated to “ethnic studies,” but to put it front and center as critical to the history and contemporary affairs of not only the U.S., but also countries around the world.
There is an emboldened generation of scholars who are finally giving racism the deep research and study that it has so long needed. Ibram X. Kendi is one of the leading scholars in the study of racism and the founder of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and founding director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research. His third book, How to Be an Antiracist, is a bestseller, praised in a New York Times review as “the most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind.”
As a July 2020 article in the prestigious journal Science notes, “Researchers are pushing to rid science of words and names they see as offensive or glorifying people who held racist views.” In the same article, Kory Evans, a marine biologist at Rice University, says that “dismantling white supremacism in science has taken on a new urgency.” Brandon Ogbunu, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University, says that the names of buildings, journals, prizes, and organisms that are being reconsidered “lionize figures … who specifically took actions to undermine the humanity of people of color … [and] who laid the academic foundation for actual discrimination, sterilization, and genocide.”
Esther A. Odekunle, an antibody engineer at GlaxoSmithKline, wrote a compelling letter to Science in August 2020 in which she asserts, “The intersectionality of racism and modern society has left a legacy of racial disparities in socioeconomic status, education, and health.” She goes on to note that as of 2019, “less than 1% of UK professors were Black.” She provides clear ideas and strategies to change these vital issues so that science and society can move forward.
Lisa White is the assistant director for education and outreach at the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology and the current chairperson of the American Geophysical Union’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. She explains that issues of inclusion and racism can be understood by the numbers alone: Only 4% of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the top 100 geoscience departments in the U.S. are people of color.
Kunle Olulode, who is the director of Voice4Change England, believes that editing objectionable content out of books, articles, movies, and other cultural/educational materials is not the answer. “People are not just now looking at issues of race inequality, but raising questions about the environment, disability and gender issues,” Olulode says. “It’s quite interesting that there’s certainly a vibrant atmosphere around talking about social justice and society in general. We have to, on balance, say that [because] people are talking again about how you can influence and make change, what’s the role of Parliament? How do we actually build civil society? What is it when we talk about democracy, and how do we make democracy work for us? Those are important developments.”
In the article “Airbrushing Racism,” Olulode explains, “There is a growing modern-day presumption that by airbrushing out racist monikers of the past we are, in some way, making improvements to the way equalities will be shaped in the here and now. This view has created a new industry geared to suppress, edit and, in some extreme cases, revise certain books and films that are discordant with modern life. An atmosphere is being created where there are whole historical spaces that have become taboo, no-go areas for broadcasting and film.”
Mary Louise Kelly from NPR talked about words with racist connotations on the show All Things Considered. “Slave and master—historically, we know these words describe the relationship between an enslaved Black person and the white person who owned them,” she says. “These words and their racist connotations also underpin the language of technology, where slave and master might refer to a set of databases or software code, where one is subservient to the other. Now major companies are reckoning with that problematic language. Twitter, JPMorgan Chase, [and] the software development platform GitHub all say they will be replacing the terms.”
Boston University graduate student Santiago Gomez was shocked to see the use of the phrase “master and slave” in a computer engineering textbook. In June 2020, Gomez wrote a letter to the publisher, Pearson, requesting that it “update [its] terminology to prevent further disruption to the learning experience and to take a concrete step towards dismantling systemic racism within engineering.” The letter “prompted Pearson to stop distributing the book until the text can be revised. The company is also promising to review its other publications and replace the term throughout its catalogue of textbook offerings, and to contact publishing standards bodies to stimulate broader changes.”
REAFFIRMING THE FREEDOM TO READ AND ACCESS ALL INFORMATION
So, what happens when people or companies in the fields of literature, politics, or science find themselves called out for their perspectives or content? In the past year, we have seen more and more efforts to deal with unfortunate aspects of our past through the equivalent of book-burning. From research data to children’s books to popular magazines, these efforts have grown dramatically in the past year. Should racist words and stereotypes be edited out of our history? As uncomfortable as they feel, they provide a vital insight into the past. As George Santayana is quoted as saying, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Learning to live with the past without forgetting its lessons for today and the future is a clear challenge.
In 2011, The New York Times reported on the publication of a new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, saying, “Throughout the book[,] 219 times in all[,] the [N-word] is replaced by ‘slave,’ a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama,” which called the book a “radical departure from standard editions” in its description. Comments on The New York Times’ The Learning Network blog generally opposed the change. As one wrote, “I think Huck Finn should remain as is. The remarks about race [talk] about the time [in] which [it] was written. If it was taken away, how will the readers understand what really happened in those time[s]? Twain’s words are powerful. When I read the story, the racial stuff didn’t bother me. I understood exactly what he was saying and it made it so much more incredible.” Removing the N-word does little to change perceptions or reality. At least for Twain, his use of the term reflected his reality and was a major part of his book’s message.
Juan Vidal writes for NPR that “white voices have dominated what has been considered canon for eons. That means non-white readers have had to process stories and historical events through a white author’s lens. The problem goes deeper than that, anyway, considering that even now 76% of publishing professionals—the people you might call the gatekeepers—are white.” Vidal’s suggestion is for white people to “decolonize your bookshelf,” which means “actively resisting and casting aside the colonialist ideas of narrative, storytelling, and literature that have pervaded the American psyche for so long.” He contends, “Reading broadly and with intention is how we counter dehumanization and demand visibility, effectively bridging the gap between what we read and how we might live in a more just and equitable society.”
INFORMATION PROFESSIONALS’ CRITICAL ROLE
For a profession that seeks to provide all sides of all sides to all users, what role should info pros play as society suppresses history? Censorship is hardly new, and librarians have been caught up in situations of determining the “appropriate” professional response to changing social/cultural mores and how the profession should deal with library materials that don’t fit contemporary norms.
One controversy was the rather infamous series of “Berninghausen Debates” (named for author David Berninghausen) in Library Journal in the 1970s. These debates pitted traditional First Amendment philosophy against social activist librarians who were seeking to “out” objectionable literature through cancellations, boycotts, or even using unique cataloging classifications to make clear what some cataloger deemed objectionable in individual works. For librarians who are too young to remember these deep debates and arguments over the basic foundational principles of the profession, the University of Hawai‘i has made some of the key articles from Library Journal available for free, and they are certainly worth a read.
PRESERVING FREEDOM WHILE CREATING BALANCE
Academia isn’t ignoring this challenge. Alicia N. Abney, advising manager for the College of Education at Middle Tennessee State University, writes for The Free Speech Center, “The public university is a place where thoughts and ideas are discussed and questions are asked. The lack of understanding regarding free speech could be solved if students understood the importance of free speech and why speech is not censored.” She also stresses the need for universities to “take responsibility for teaching tolerance, thinking critically, and teaching freedom of expression. Also, the campus community must learn to be thoughtful consumers of information and to question ideals. …”
In an era in which more information than anyone can rationally sort out is available at the touch of a keyboard, movements like QAnon are growing, and other conspiracy theories are held by many, how can we work to show that balance and rationality are available—electronically or in-person—to seekers of information and knowledge? How do we protect the legitimate right of people to believe what they want, while still making sure we are guaranteeing a lack of hatred in our work and collections? These are extremely critical issues at a very critical time for our profession and in our history, and there are no easy answers.