Racialised Lives and the Life Beyond

I spoke at the 2019 Equality in Science Symposium at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. This is the text of  my contribution, and you can watch the video (jump to 2:20:50). Read in 15mins.

It is truly an honour to be here with you today. How amazing to be in this historic city of Liverpool, and here amongst we who work to the use of Science for Good. Thank you to the organisers for having me - how truly humbling to be part of such an inspirational panel.

Before I begin, having been recently to Ghana and now standing here in Liverpool, I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to those people who once took that same journey. These were people neither welcomed nor respected, but instead despised and enslaved. Their spirits and memory pass through this place. Of course, Liverpool issued its apology for slavery in 1999, and remains today committed to forever remembering the slave trade and its ills. I would like us to give a moment’s silence for this remembrance. [30s silence]

With that silence, we, together, create a House of Memory. For us today, it is in this house, and its many, many doors, that we can find some of the ways in which we can engage with the questions of diversity. You may have a sense at times that this word ‘diversity’ is a code, used for many situations and feelings and things we might sometimes rather not name directly. This House of Memory has a door for them all. Today, I thought we could together open just one of its doors: the door of race. Importantly, this door is marked as a Door of Racialisation.

Racialisation is the process by which we, historically and in the present, have become objects of race; the ways in which we acquired our race. At its very entrance, this door demands that we think differently. It asks us not to think of race as a given or natural state of our being. At the very outset, we must remember that we have all been cast, through a historical and ongoing process, within a racial mould whose shape, at times, seems forever fixed. We as scientists, and our science, is also within this process captured.

This door is one of the most difficult doors to open. As we take our first step across its threshold, we move beyond a veil into a long corridor; there are pictures here.

A picture of Hector Pieterson, shot by the Apartheid police and denied the education he knew was essential because he was deemed inferior. This is a history that is always close to me as a South African.

Moving down the corridor, we see a picture of those fearless women who helped put humanity in space, and slowly endured to obtain the recognition, scientific and otherwise, that they deserved.

A picture of James Baldwin, whose writing has taught us so much. And aside him, Alan Turing. I’ll linger here. Their lives remind us of the intersections of race and religion and queerness and class and scholarship. This is an important memory---these intersections are part of my racialised living, and possibly many of yours.

A picture of Alice Ball, who against the grain of the society, developed one of the most effective treatments for leprosy in the early 20th century. A question forms: how do we come to know of some accomplishments and histories and not others?

And then picture of James Watson, famous for his role in the discovery of the helical structure of DNA and a recipient of the Nobel prize, who is on record as being "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa", believing that "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really". Sigh.

Who can’t smile seeing a picture of RuPaul, who always reminds us to first love ourselves.

One thing these images reveal to us, is a world of judgement based on the ‘look’. As I entered this room, you probably made judgements about me based on nothing other than what I look like. I probably did the same to you. In this process of racialisation, the great scientific contributions you and I may have made are erased---made irrelevant---and always secondary to the look.  This is how we become the Black woman, the brown man, the mixed-race child, the people of colour. The Black women is racialised, and so too is the White man, as is every person we have ever known, and so the cycle of our racialised lives lives on.

The question we face is how to move beyond classifying people based on their ‘look’, and beyond an imagined genetic heritage? At the same time, we know that our world is far from equal and representative. Part of the reason we are here today is to push forward on the  path to equality and redress. How do we address past injustices and remove enduring systemic barriers, especially for the progress of scientists, while not falling into the trap of perpetuating a racialised way of thinking.  This will require from us a double vision, and a double politics. This is a difficult question and one without easy answers. I’d like to share with you one thought from my own experience.

Let’s walk a bit further. There is a whiff of freshly baked bread in the air.

About two-and-a-half years ago, I was part of creating a new organisation called the Deep Learning Indaba, as one attempt to engage with these questions. The Deep Learning Indaba is an independent grassroots movement whose mission is to strengthen the science and application of artificial intelligence and machine learning across Africa. And we do this by building communities, creating leadership, and recognising excellence across our African continent. It is through the Indaba that I have been privileged to meet and support many of those who are leaders-in-waiting, seeing them take their first confident steps into the conversation around AI, their skills, and their contributions to their societies.

One of the lessons here is on the importance of grassroots organisations and their collective role in putting forward and supporting diverse groups. The grassroots are those groups within our institutions, like our LGBT resource group within DeepMind, and those outside movements, like the Deep Learning Indaba. One of the clear strategies we have available to us is to consider the support we offer to grassroots groups: by supporting their creation, with our time and networks, and in all the simple encouragements that people need to continue the work of true transformation.

What I am describing to you is a strategy of putting in place what is often called the critical yeast. This is the bread we smelled earlier. Yeast has the effect that, when making bread, starts with a small amount but quickly multiplies to become the key ingredient that changes water and flour into something textured and delicious. That is what is asked of us: who are the groups of people that when put and held together, begin to act like yeast, multiplying exponentially, and as that group rises and grows, they lift-up the people around them, and transform the world around us. We are the ones who can be the critical yeast. I see the leadership of the Deep Learning Indaba as such a collective. The leadership of the organisation for Women in Machine Learning is such a collective. You here today are potentially such a collective.

I walked us through this racial corridor for two reasons. Firstly, to create an opportunity for us to reflect on science and race and its impact on us as scientists. And to recognise that what we are ultimately fighting is an ongoing process of racialisation. And secondly, for us to consider the critical yeast, and the central role of the grassroots organisations.

This corridor we have started on is a long one. But at its end is something beautiful: a garden--of love. This is a political love. Love between us as people is highly under-appreciated. But I think we show the power of political love today, in this room, with our memory, with our energy, and in the celebration of progress that has brought us here today. With love we can create a world of diversity and difference, and one that we will proudly celebrate and forever defend.

Again, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you, and your attention.  

For more like this, read or watch a related talk on How to Support Under-represented Groups to put Themselves Forward. The material for this talk was created using some of my writing in two other essays, the Price of Transformation, and Decolonising Artificial Intelligence.

--Thinking of the Critical Yeast

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