Silent Diversity

When Racial Essentialism Poisons Science

There’s no way to gloss over this mess. Nor should we. The Journal of Internal Medicine made a terrible mess when they published a paper on the role of physiology in African American women with obesity. That mess exposes the how blind people can be to racism. We are perhaps even more blind to the poisonous effects of racial essentialism – the idea that a biological or genetic essence can define all members of a racial group.

The paper in question is by Barbara Gower and Adele Fowler. “Obesity in African-Americans: The Role of Physiology.” Four months later, it’s still generating controversy.

Paired with an Offensive Graphical Abstract

To start, the journal published an offensive graphical abstract alongside this article. The abstract’s most prominent feature was a cartoonish, stereotypical portrayal of an Black woman with obesity. The illustrator added a can of soda, a jar of honey, and a cupcake to convey the prevailing bias about what causes obesity.

A firestorm erupted on Twitter. Within days, the journal withdrew the graphical abstract, acknowledging the “obvious mistake” in a letter to the Obesity Action Coalition. But as far as we know, the journal did not make any sort of public apology.

Digging Deeper

But the graphical abstract might have served the purpose of drawing attention to racial essentialism in the paper itself. As a result of all the outcry, two different groups of researchers wrote the journal to point this out.

Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako and Fatima Cody Stanford wrote to remind the journal’s editors about racial essentialism:

Eugenicists and white supremacists have used such incomplete research to support claims that African Americans are less human due to their supposed inherent difference, and thus inferior to Europeans in order to justify their enslavement and to obfuscate the impact of centuries of oppression on African Americans’ health outcomes.

And then this week, in yet another letter, a group of authors detailed six distinct problems with the manuscript. “There is no African American physiology,” wrote Jennifer Tsai and colleagues.

They took issue first with the implicit assumption of an genetically inherent metabolic phenotype for Black women. The next issue was the mobilization of arguments for genetic racial differences. They questioned the scientific basis for attributing obesity to glycemic response, citing issues with the carbohydrate-insulin model of obesity. Racially inflammatory language – using the “Caucasian” label for White populations – was their fourth issue. Omitting any reference to racism as factor in obesity was yet another problem. And finally, they pointed out that Gower and Fowler neglected to consider the effects of chronic stress that result from racism.

Are We Listening?

It could be that researchers have some more listening to do. Responding to these concerns, Gower and Fowler expressed gratitude and good intentions:

We share the same commitment as Tsai and colleagues to facilitating the creation of a healthier and more just society, and we wholeheartedly support their concerns for more, and more robust, research that overcomes the barriers of genetic determinism.

But good intentions are not enough. Racial identity is a social construct. Thus generalizations about Black physiology are flawed and offensive. In no way does this mean that scientists cannot study how racial identities interact with physiology. The original title of the paper by Gower and Fowler asked if we could blame obesity in African Americans on their physiology. (It changed later.)

Framing the question in that way sets up an argument for racial essentialism. This is a mistake. We must all recognize it.

Click here for the original  article by Gower and Fowler. For the letter by Tiako and Stanford click here and then here for the response. The letter by Tsai et al is here and the response is here.

Silent Diversity, photograph © DryHundredFear / flickr

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August 19, 2020

One Response to “When Racial Essentialism Poisons Science”

  1. August 20, 2020 at 4:19 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Research on inheritance of diseases based on race and ethnicity is important. It helps people Identify higher risks of certain diseases with their particular background, such as Gaucher Ds, Tay-Sachs in Ashkenazi Jews, cystic fibrosis in people of Northern European descent, and higher risk of diabetes in Asians, sensitive to even small increases in adiposity, those not even with a BMI in the Overweight/mild obesity categorization. People can, thus, work with their HCP or, just themselves, to prevent onset or exacerbation of presentation, they can leverage their expectations of treatments and outcomes. So, I would never want to see these types of investigations stop.
    I AM glad that the authors of the paper were called out on generalizations in categorizing race and ethnicity, because that can lead to very incorrect results. Overstating the role of ‘different physiology’ based on flimsy genetics is as bad as not identifying genetic component to disease of obesity.