The return of race science: an interview with Angela Saini

Murder. Exploitation. Dehumanisation. Three words that summarise the European colonial endeavour. Accumulation of wealth, hegemony and supremacy are just a summary of the gains made in the process; and behind it all, one invention – a social system that keeps the world in check to this day, determining our lives in this very minute: Race.

Race is a social construct. Originating in the ambition and attempt to find a justification for inflicting harm and pain on others for the benefit of Western economies. We owe to the construct the industrial revolution, the West’s wealth shouldered by the exploitation of people of colour from across the globe. Heck, we owe it to our streets and buildings, progress in science, our universities and museums; it’s everywhere. 

The tragedy: the concept worked! And though active eugenics and justifications for racial difference have faded from public discourse post World War II and the defeat of the Nazis, even centuries after the first colonial endeavour, race science still lurks at us from every corner. It’s like a societal shadow; race is always there. Embedded in global institutional structures, it determines the way we experience the world, decides our salary or how we are impacted by the climate crisis. Angela Saini’s latest book, Superior, examines the history of, and increasing mainstream engagement with “scientific racism” (sometimes sanitised as “race realism”, as Saini noted in a piece for the Guardian). Saini added: “Calling yourself a racist is still unpalatable, even to most racists.”  

Superior was named book of the year by various publications, including the Guardian, the Telegraph, BBC Science Focus, Nature; and on the evening of our interview, it became joint winner of the Transmission Prize 2020; its theme: “Ideas on the Right Side of History”. 

Saini grew up in an Indian-Punjabi family in south-east London. Only a couple of years younger than Stephen Lawrence, his brutal racist murder in 1993 had lasting impacts on her community and generations of Brits of colour. Saini concerned herself with the topic of race for a long time; as a science journalist, she said it was “very hard to miss the kind of abuse of these ideas happening online right now; it’s just so widespread, and it’s become such a concern to so many scientists, journals, journal editors, and journalists ourselves, so it was really unmissable.” 

Though eager to write a book like Superior for many years, the right opportunity only finally presented itself last year – “I think that we are trying to have more mature conversations about racism, structural racism in Britain”, explains Saini, praising the newly emerging scholarship and literature on the topic. “There’s also more receptivity on the part of publishers who publish this kind of work. […] I didn’t feel like there was enough commitment on the part of publishers to do something like this until fairly recently.” Saini offers an explanation for this shift. “With the rise of populism and nationalism, I think it’s become more of a hot topic, so I think that those two things in particular made it possible for me to write it at all.” 

The revitalisation of eugenic narratives in Europe, translates to, among others, members of Downing Street. Just last month, Andrew Sabisky, a Downing Street adviser, resigned following outrage about comments he had made in the (recent) past. Sabisky had argued that forced long-term contraception might help tackle the problem of a “permanent underclass”, and propagated the myth that black people have innately lower average IQs.

“They keep coming back to it because it feels like an easy fix, the easy answer to what is actually a very complex social problem”, explains Saini, referring to people who propagate eugenicist myths. “It’s dangerous now and it always has been; because the science was always rubbish, what they try and do is to imply that there is some substance to it – there was never any substance to it”, Saini says.  

“I’m not hugely surprised that we have people now in government who are sympathetic to eugenic ideas, because to some extent they never completely disappeared”, she continues. Saini observes that in the UK context particularly, the narrative around vilifying the poor, for example, has existed for a long time. Of course, she thinks that it is worrying. “I feel like, whenever we see these ideas reappear, in public spaces or in political spaces, we have to challenge them both morally and politically, as well as scientifically of course; because this is pseudoscience, really, but we’ve known that for a very long time, and the fact that they reappear I think is because they have so much political clout.”

Not only do eugenics and race science drive racist public discourse or policy arguments, taking an active tool on Saini, Twitter shit-storms repeatedly leave the writer no choice but to deactivate her account, when the abuse gets too much. She addresses the fact that women of colour experience overwhelmingly more abuse online: “I do think our work is more heavily scrutinised […] people make it personal, especially the racist trolling […] they have mentioned my family, my son, my husband, my parents, my sisters. Commented on my skin colour, background, trying to find out as much as they can about me personally.”

Saini doesn’t deny that it affects her. “Even though I like to think that I can compartmentalise the abuse that I get, treat it as not personal; just put it to one side in my mind,” she admits, “when you read it, it does stay in your head. And it does affect your ability to do your work. It wastes time, and I just can’t, I could not afford […] those kind of mental challenges”, says the author, whose Twitter is currently deactivated.

Having previously written a book, Inferior, about sexism and science, Saini notices less enthusiasm among some of her audiences in comparison to her previous books. “There have been women that told me that Superior was not as much for them, and that concerns me. As feminists, as women, you know if we want [men] to talk about feminism, then we as women, also have to care about race […] these aren’t just mutually exclusive things, these are different oppressions that are all tied up with each other.” 

Furthermore, Saini notes that she was not invited to any of the UK’s major book festivals after Superior was first published in 2019; a fact the author reconciles with race topics possibly being perceived as not attractive for a typical literary festival audience.

Also grappling with the question of recognition and acknowledgment given to some writers compared to others, Saini says: “I read a lot of feminist literature, and although there are of course women fighting for women’s rights all over the world, certain voices are amplified over others, both in the anti-sexism and anti-racism movements […] First and foremost, we all need to listen – acknowledge, and listen.” 

To tackle eugenics and race science, Saini urges everybody to adopt and find their way back to classic arguments of humanity, equity and equality to achieve positive change – “We have to stick to equality and human rights. We are all the same. We all have the same wish to do best for ourselves and our children, and if we could stick to developing policies and recognise that […] and recognise the beauty and value in diversity of all kinds […] we all contribute in their own way and should learn to value that, so I think this is more of a philosophical question than anything else.”

Image: Paul Jenkins via Flickr

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