John Locke, father of the social contract.
David Hume, great skeptic of the 18th century.
These are the names that appeared in the slideshow in front of me on my first day of “Introduction to African-American Studies.” I saw them, and I flashed back to hours spent with World History II flashcards my sophomore year of high school, methodical memorization of their seemingly enlightened theories that left my head spinning at a beautiful new world of ideas. I relived hours spent poring over debate cases back in my hometown, reciting these names in front of panels of judges, taking these concepts that were so new and exciting and molding them to fit the world that I saw around me.
As my eyes refocused on the projection in front of me, I was jolted back to reality. John Locke, David Hume: racists, eugenicists, conceivers of bigoted ideologies that pervade to this day.
As I struggle like so many other first-years at the College to select a major, I find myself drawn more and more to the social sciences. The unique blend of skills that it requires and the incredible potential to shed light on new solutions to old problems is inarguably appealing to me. Despite this, I find my classes tainted by a history that no one wants to talk about—in fact, one that I heard mentioned only in passing until enrolling in a course specifically dedicated to tracing the path of racism through modern-day society. The reality that we need to face is that many of the disciplines that we consider today to be our most powerful tools in the fight towards equality have roots in hate, fear, and prejudice.
This should not come as a revelation to anyone. Anthropology, the study of people, has long been used as a sophisticated tool to reinforce racial biases. Sociology, as we saw this fall when Charles Murray visited campus, has similarly been used to oppress. And yes, even those whom I first encountered as the gatekeepers to philosophy years ago are so canonically racist that their texts are assigned in Harvard’s introduction to African-American Studies as required reading for understanding where eugenicist ideas started.
And yet, there I sat, shocked by this revelation. I didn’t consider myself an expert on these philosophers by any means, but I assumed that somewhere in one of my high school courses, someone would have mentioned their troublesome past, if only to give us an idea of the broader framework that was informing their ideas. Believe it or not, it is possible to acknowledge someone’s contributions to a field without excusing or erasing their troublesome paths.
My classes have just brushed the surface of this topic in the past few months, and I can’t for the life of me determine why that is. This part of Western history is something that we are generally pretty awful at speaking about—we like to paint ourselves in the best light possible, as one would imagine. Some might protest that if we were to have this conversation about these prominent figures, we would end up having this conversation about all of our prominent figures because—you guessed it—white people have been racist for a long, long time. This is a conversation that we need to have. If we are going to achieve any kind of progress towards the racial tension that obviously still pervades in America and beyond, we must have this conversation, and we must have it early. In my sophomore year of high school, I was old enough to learn what the social contract is. I was certainly also old enough to learn that the man who thought of it also wrote explicit justifications for slavery.
To the teachers and professors out there at all levels designing courses in history, philosophy, economics, or anything else: In addition to reading Locke, let’s read something that, instead of fitting into our worldview, challenges it. Let’s read something that goes into issues of racism, of black and brown struggles and of white flight, a topic that would’ve been very relevant indeed in my suburban public school. I focus on social science because that is arguably the field where this is most intense, but the reality is that we need to expand the diversity of our syllabi in every subject. Let’s read black and brown authors—not a radical idea by any means. Let’s institutionalize them, give them a voice in our canon, rather than pushing them to the margins for students to discover years after they graduate high school, years after they become eligible to vote.
I am not the first person to write this. I will still enter the social sciences, and I will use them to work towards a better world for all of us, no matter what race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, ability, or any other possible basis for discrimination. But I will do so while informed about the social scientists who came before me, racism and all. With this knowledge, I will seek out DuBois, and Frazier, and the many other social scientists who have earned and deserve so much more space in mainstream social science classes than they get. And ultimately, it will make me a better student, a better activist, and a better person.
Natalie J. Gale ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Grays Hall.
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