Specters of Scientific Racism: Lessons from Beloved for Counseling Psychologists

Beloved, by Toni Morrison, is an iconic novel that I cherish deeply. Morrison’s text taught me what it meant to explore loss and grief. It helped me understand that to experience either state is to live with a sense of haunting. This haunting forces me to return to the sources of loss and grief with the hope of finding that which others may have already forgotten.

Just as the characters Seethe and Denver (and I) are haunted by the figure of Beloved, science is haunted by its history of racism. Though science has made tremendous gains over the years, many of those gains have been on the backs of those who were forced to experience insurmountable loss in the process. Unfortunately, those who have experienced such loss have been forgotten by students, scientists, and the scientific community as specters of the past. In the spirit of Beloved, I will revisit them here.

One such forgotten instance of scientific racism is the history of experiments on Black people without their informed consent. J Marion Sims, (often hailed as the “Father of modern gynecology”), performed violent experiments on enslaved Black women where he forcibly operated on their genitalia without consent or anesthesia. A statue commemorating him in Central Park was only recently taken down in 2018.

Likewise, in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Black men were not told that they would be exposed to syphilis and they were also not told that they would not be given proper treatments. The Tuskegee study went on for forty years before a whistleblower finally exposed the unethical and abhorrent conditions of the study. This study is often remembered as the precursor to the 1979 Belmont report and the precursor to the establishment of the Office for Human Research Protections. However, the Tuskegee study seldom gets discussed outside of that context.

Lastly, the Bell Curve is another example of when experiments lose the context of their racist origins. Clearly, this study was eugenicist and racist pseudoscience because it involved an attempt to map certain IQ scores onto minority racial groups and to incorporate those scores in a hierarchy of intelligence. Unfortunately, the Bell Curve may still be used in courses as a way of distributing grades along a normal distribution. This is a problem because such sends the message that using a racist study in a different context is fine if one ignores the study’s racist history.

The harsh reality is that the scientific community often does not remember the violence endured by participants in these studies, and instead only remembers the advances these studies allowed science to make.

Counseling psychologists have an ethical obligation to acknowledge and address the violence these specters of the past point them to. There are several tangible things that counseling psychologists can do while revisiting these specters of scientific racism.

  1. First, it is imperative that counseling psychologists teach future generations of students these unethical experiments alongside APA’s ethical standards within ethics courses. This is necessary in order to remember that informed consent, ethical research practices, and standardized research protocols arose in response to such racist experiments.
  2. Second, counseling psychologists should find more ways to be accountable and transparent while conducting research with marginalized populations. This could be in the form of more accessible language on informed consent documents or using qualitative methodologies such as participatory action research. Such research fosters less of a power differential between researchers and participants from marginalized communities while at the same time including these community members as equal stakeholders within all aspects of the research process to prevent exploitation
  3. Finally, counseling psychologists must pressure lawmakers to close racist and white supremacist organizations such as the Pioneer Fund that funded the Bell Curve study.

Scholars can never undo the violence done to the populations who bore the brunt of loss, pain, and grief from being forced into unethical experiments. However, counseling psychologists can reinforce the importance of never forgetting these histories. They can frequent these sites of loss in order to determine how to adequately address the harm done and to express remorse.

As Morrison wrote, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” May she rest in power and may we never cease to learn from our mistakes.

Satveer Kler, B.A (they/them/theirs), is first-year graduate student in the counseling psychology doctoral program within the School of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. They hold a BA in psychology and a BA in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their research interests center on QTPOC in the areas of resilience, gendered violence, substance abuse, and desirability politics.  

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