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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Judith Mellet 2016-10-14 11:35:21 AM
You say: "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?" Who are these scientists, please?
Gideon Joubert 2016-10-14 11:41:43 AM
Ha! What a joke!
Louis Helberg 2016-10-14 11:50:00 AM
American science should not focus on American achievements but Africa should only focus on Africa achievements??? I think you have a couple of gaping holes to discover.
drsparky 2016-10-14 11:53:42 AM
I read and watched this video in bewildered astonishment. Luckily science is "truth". It is evidence-based and it cannot care less about your politically-correct opinion. It cannot be "decolonised", because it has never been colonised. Either you accept the truth or you're a clown playing in a sandbox of ignorance. Newton didn't "invent" gravity, he merely discovered it. How do you decolonise that?
Peter Storey 2016-10-14 11:57:17 AM
Still awaiting anything out of Africa. The wheel, medicine,roads,vehicles etc., etc.
Jacques Vögeli 2016-10-14 11:58:16 AM
There is a clear misconception here from these students, as well as the author. If a science text book were to be written by an South African author, would it not hold South African references? Furthermore, science and mathematics is empirical. It transcends boundaries of race, language and culture. In fact, it is a globally unifying subject, which brings minds from all parts of the world together. F= m.g has no language. You can measure it today, with tools built by our very own black South African hands. It just so happens that this was discovered by an Englishman in the 17th century, and therefore needs to be forgotten and reinvented? It is inevitable that all established empirical equations and observations will eventually be re-discovered by South Africa, through decolonised techniques. However, why reinvent the wheel? Do you think it is fair that you rob South Africans of their choice, knowing that there is already established knowledge out there? We've already been hampered by our past mistakes, don't make it worse by sending us back to the Bronze-Age.
John Goodman 2016-10-14 12:00:56 PM
Fundamentally I totally agree with your argument. But it would really strengthen your position and help convince others of its merits if you could include some examples of the scientific discoveries and advances that have been overlooked because they weren't made by white men?
Victor van Heerden 2016-10-14 12:01:07 PM
Small fry. The students must get back to class. Decolonise the curriculum is a red herring. Students are being taught nine hundred years of accumulated peer reviewed scientific knowledge from the whole world not just from the West. And if what you want to see added to the curriculum passed the test of time it would already be there. The fact that it is not, means it should not be there – that is if you want a decent world class academic education.
Pierre Rousseau 2016-10-14 12:01:58 PM
If anything the birth place of science is the Arab world, yes this includes part of Africa but not "black Africa" so I would agree there that the west has really made a point of leaving out that history but that is only because of the early historical tensions between the Muslim and Christian worlds. Personally I believe when it comes to science the most relevant and important scientific achivements need to be taught, it just so happens that many of these were achieved by white western men, this is no fault of Africa or anywhere else its just that Europe had the most invested into these discoveries during the enlightenment eras than anywhere else. Sure maybe our educational systems can focus more on African scientists and their achievements but we can not and must not allow that to leave out the important achivments of people like Newton, Einstein, Galilei, Faraday and others.
Jessica van Hoogstraten 2016-10-14 12:03:44 PM
This is dumb. Science is science. You can't change the facts. Everybody all over the world learns the same concepts of science. It shouldn't matter that it's mostly westernized because that's how it came to be. Instead of complaining that it's not African enough just accept the fact that it's science and that you will leaarn something from it. There's no such thing as white science or Asian science or African science. Y'all should just stop this petty stuff yo.