The Eurocolonial Constructs of Race and Intelligence: an essay with excerpts from "Read This to Get Smarter"

It is necessary, though perhaps uncomfortable, to reckon with the fact that what it means to be “human” is and continues to be constructed around a racist, ableist, sexist, Eurocolonial framework. Feminist writer, speaker, activist, and social worker Michelle B. Taylor notes how even the phrase “people of color” inherently implies there are simply “people,'' or those without color (white people) whose existence need not be qualified or described. Whiteness is a position of power only made possible by the creation of racialized groups like Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. The way racialization impacts white people is by leaving them unnamed as white and unimpacted by the negative consequences of race and racism. Race, racism, and racialization dictate who is and is not human or deserving of humanity.

As African diaspora and gender studies professor Dr. Sabine Broeck explains in When Light Becomes White: Reading Enlightenment Through Jamaica Kincaid’s Writing (2002), “The human right to knowledge, self-possession and mastery” is “given as an exclusive birthright to white western Europeans by the Enlightenment scholars because of the self-declared ‘beauty’ of the Caucasian race.” In short, the individuals who declared what it meant to be an individual did so from a self-benefitting position. Using “philosophy,” “science,” and “reason” in place of solely religious themes they recreated the Great Chain of Being with new terminology for the same old oppressive purpose. Once again at the top—though no longer because of a deity’s favor but because of “science”—stood European men. It is said that history is written by the victors, but it is more accurate to say that self-aggrandizing liars have defined the entire concept of an “accurate and reliable historical record” in accordance with shameless editing, embellishment, and erasure.

Race/ism, as noted by Dr. Shay-Akil McLean, is a relatively recent scheme when we consider all of human history. Human beings have existed for 200,000 years, but “race” has existed for only about 600 years. We still learn from the acclaimed racists that gave the scientific, philosophical, and legal justification for violence, genocide, and enslavement and their works still define our worldview. They include Charles Darwin, David Hume, René Descartes, Thomas Locke, and Immanuel Kant and countless others. These highly regarded philosophical and scientific racists collectively created what we understand today as race and racism. Their works laid the foundations of revered institutions like universities, governments, and corporations and shaped the landscape of politics or, how power should be afforded and how power should be denied. Pursuits of knowledge made by “humble men of science and thought” justified continued Eurocolonialist violence, genocide, enslavement, displacement, and conquest.

In 1758, a Swedish botanist named Carl Linneaus (held in high esteem as the founder of taxonomic classification) declared in Systema Naturae that there were six variations of human being, with descriptions for skin color, body features, hair color, hair texture, eye color, behavior, form of government, and clothing. Even though Linnaeus does not use the term “race,” the descriptions he attaches to the variations he invented are deeply and objectively racist. (Whether you prefer to call Linneaus a variationist or racist is ultimately none of my personal concern, however.) These six variations included wild people (Homo sapiens ferus), red people (Homo sapiens Americanus), white people (Homo sapiens Europaeus), yellow people (Homo sapiens Asiaticus), black people (Homo sapiens Africanus), and monster people (Homo sapiens monstrosus).  Like those who came before and after him, Linneaeus placed his own categorization above and beyond the remaining others. His work as a leading taxonomist is rarely, if ever, contextualized by the fact he also pioneered white supremacy ideology and believed that human beings consisted of biologically distinct “varieties” and that “monster people” and “wild people” existed.

Race is not a biological or genetic fact, or even something that humans discovered and then exploited to oppress others. Race was invented and implemented specifically for the purposes of oppression. In 2019, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists stated, “Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation.” That is to say that while human biological variations or differences like our facial features, hair textures, skin colors, and more do exist, these differences are not what constitute race. Scientific research has conclusively determined that “race” is not genetic or biological, nor is it a naturally occurring phenomenon. Race is a human invention.

As stated by Dr. Dorothy Roberts, acclaimed scholar of race, gender, and the law, “Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.” Politics, in this context means beliefs about power and how power should be distributed or denied.

Race was invented and implemented specifically for the purposes of oppression. Two key elements are required for race as a system to function as described by historian and anthropologist Patrick Wolfe: 1) “difference is not neutral: to vary is to be defective” and 2) race “links physical characteristics to cognitive, cultural, and moral ones.”  

A foundational claim became reinforced within every step of racialization: “Intelligence” is something inherited and fundamentally connected to “race.” This lie was reproduced and expanded by acclaimed racists including Carl Linneaus, Christoph Meiners, Johann Blumenbach, Charles Darwin, and countless lesser known European men of “science” and “principle.” Myths that persist today, like the “sensitivity,” “aptitude,” and “intelligence” of racialized people aren’t used to enslave in the same way they once were but they do form the basis of the school to prison pipeline, maternal health disparities, medical racism, and access to aptly named “Ivory Towers.” Institutions of higher learning are funded by generous endowments from European capitalists who made their fortunes by subjugating, exploiting and enslaving the very people whose descendants are systematically excluded from achieving the prestige that their ancestor’s forced labor created. And while many of us are able to declare with ease that, “race is a construct,” we are not nearly as prepared to say with as much confidence that “intelligence is a construct.” Like race, intelligence is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.

By the dawn of the 20th century the use of the “intelligence quotient” or IQ test coincided with increased interest in eugenics. Eugenics is a violent ideology that proclaims there are “good genes'' and “bad genes“ within the human species that the latter should be eradicated through forced or coerced sterilization but the ultimate goal of preventing vast swaths of humanity from reproducing. Eugenicist ideology is unscientific and white supremacist. As explained by performance studies and national security scholar Akeem Omar Ali, “White supremacy has three core values: white people are genetically superior to other people; white people’s culture is superior to other cultures; and white people deserve to live in an all-white country.” Eugenics is the vehicle to accomplish the three values. During the early 1900s this ideology was used to harm disabled, racialized, LGBTQ+, Jewish, and Roma people along with other marginalized groups.  And while many of us may shudder at the very mention of eugenics, many of the policies are still in place today.Entire premise of my entire body of work is that everyone can get smarter. As someone educated in the United States, this differs greatly from the Eurocolonial indoctrination that taught me how to understand intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to learn and apply information and that is something we all do every day. Intelligence, like race, has been constructed and maintained to exclusively benefit people in power. That power comes from Eurocolonialism and the resulting systems of oppression. The fact is there are countless ways that humans process, apply, and communicate information.

Consider that terminology that is widely understood today to be insulting and stigmatizing like “dumb, insane, and stupid” were used with regularity as scientific diagnoses for a variety of developmental, psychiatric, and cognitive disabilities. Consider that instead of using these terms many institutions still hold on to abstract designations like “learning disability and intellectual disability” are being phased out because they imply that an individual’s intelligence (or ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills) should be defined by the limited ways that society measures cognitive functions. The breadth of human cognition is vast, and yet standardized testing, intelligence quotient testing, and more prize those who are able to contort their cognition into shapes deemed acceptable by exclusionary institutions.

Without this necessary historical context of the construction of race intelligence it is fundamentally impossible to make educational institutions inclusive. Institutions find themselves asking, “how do I invite them to the table?” when a more apt understanding requires the context that, “their ancestors built the table, lived on the land where the table sits, and are still systematically denied access to the benefits of that forced toil.” In less abstract terms, it is centuries old institutions with infinitessimal wealth held in endowments made from genocide and slavery considering themselves to be charitable by allowing “legacy status” to applicants that can prove their ancestors were enslaved by the institution.

As you experience Digital Pedagogy Lab, I invite you to meditate on the following question: How does an institution include those who it has systematically failed, excluded, alienated—and defined for centuries as nonhuman and unintelligent? I believe that it is possible, and perhaps the first step is for these institutions to let go of the fallacy that they are beyond reproach.

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