Science mustn’t fall, the myth that science belongs to white people must

Laura Shortridge

When I was younger, I studied certain school subjects from American textbooks. They were very good, but they tended to have a problem – they really liked to only focus on and talk about America and Americans, with particular focus on American accomplishments. It’s not that they denied the accomplishments of other nations; they just didn’t bother focusing on them much. If you didn’t look to any other sources for your information, you could be forgiven for believing Americans invented absolutely everything that ever existed, made every scientific discovery that ever mattered, and single-handedly won every war they ever fought in.

At the time, because I was aware of the bias these textbooks carried, and because I resented that bias, (I’m not American, why do I have to only ever learn about Americans?) I made a point of looking to other sources. As a result, I was pretty sure that I had a good, well-rounded view on history and the various roles different nations played.

Until more recently I began to discover another gaping hole in my education: Almost all of my history was focused on the accomplishments of the West, particularly Europe, and particularly focused on the accomplishments of white men.

There’s this idea out there that science is the invention and property of the white, Western man. This is partly because Western education, in its biases, just adores focusing on the white, Western men’s accomplishments. It’s not that it out-right denies the accomplishments of other people, it just doesn’t tend to bother to focus on them much. (At all, really)

And so you have this myth that science is Western, but not African, and you wind up with this video on which a young student seems to claim that decolonising science would mean getting rid of it completely.

The problem is, this idea that science is Western and not African is, in itself, a result of colonised education. It’s a result of constantly and repeatedly only ever being taught about the accomplishments of white Westerners, of discoveries made by white Westerners, and of inventions created by white Westerners, while glossing over African contributions to science over, and over, and over again.

I think of those American textbooks, and how much I hated always hearing about America this and America that. Yet we have a situation where black Africans living in Africa constantly have to hear about the white West this, the white West that, while African accomplishments are downplayed and brushed over, time and time again.

If we’re going to have decolonised education, maybe we should start by challenging the myth that science belongs to white people? Maybe we should make a special effort to focus on lesser known scientists, scientists whose accomplishments have been passed over because of their skin colour?

The student in the video mentioned witchcraft. I’ve always loved the myths surrounding witches and witchcraft, books that show that the white West is just as capable of believing in non-scientific, magic things as anyone else.

It’s not inherently Western to reject attractive stories about magic in favour of more scientific explanations. And it’s not inherently African to reject science. Both of these myths are, however, inherently colonial, and buying into them only reinforces the colonial worldview.

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