Acclaimed Beasts of No Nation author Uzodinma Iweala - on science, power, and race
This is an ABC podcast. Welcome to science fiction the Tesha Mitchell and I hope you are doing I K- in these very strange wake managing socialist national self-isolation based as you can what a week it has been tie care out there and don't forget the ABC's Daily podcast Corona cast is your God hosted by our Colleague Medical Journal. Dr Norman Swannee Ever. There was a man who knows. He's pandemics. Ease Norman's a take care at their and chain into Carolina cursed in a way where the world suddenly feel so very very small and very very connected by this virus. That's of course porous to people and borders today. Show is really about being poor us. My guest today wants us to challenge us to look at the world and to look at science and the history of knowledge through beheads. Unfamiliar is we're living on the time of the Cova epidemic or corona virus. I just read something that made me laugh because someone said something like the Covet Nineteen virus which came out of China's an intelligent. It's not like he bowl which is rather dumb virus now. Obviously bullet comes out of the continent of Africa just like just think about that framework and that construct and what has been printed in a major magazine virus from Africa dumb virus virus from China. Smart virus you know. I say this about the corona virus like virus had emerged in the Netherlands. Just think about the way it would have been reported from the outset. Think about what would have happened. If it had merged in on the continent of Africa and the American President Donald Trump has been gratuitously coaling sods cove to the virus behind the current covet non epidemic the Chinese virus. Let's be clear your respective of what species and what place a virus might have been forced to take the dean pandemics. Have NO ETHNICITY. Science tells us that medical history tells us that but as we're about to explore xenophobic conclusions drawn from scientific observations can have an enormous impact on the course of history and on people's lives while is a novelist. He's a doctor a filmmaker and a whole lot more in his early twenty while still in college studying literature. He wrote the critically acclaimed novel baseds of Nine Nation which tells the extraordinary story of a child soldier. A little boy recruited given again and sent to wage a war in two thousand fifteen. That book was turned into a film. Don't like really look into my eyes since my nose picking is because I can't be explaining myself and leaving a damn not like be I am leg. Oldman try to talk to me about movies variances. I saw this an idea there would is. It would seem that some sort of this on Devon all this. I also having us I was really lucky to have the opportunity to write that novel diving. Into the stories of child. Soldiers around the world but mostly specifically in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia which had just kind of come out of their own internal conflicts at the time and then of course going back and talking with relatives. My parents my grandparents aunts and uncles great aunts and uncles about their time during the Nigerian civil war from nineteen sixty six really sixty seven three thousand nine hundred seventy and trying to understand not just what it's like to experience that kind of turmoil from the perspective of a child but also what. It's like to have everything that you thought. You knew that you understood blown open tournament and and unfortunately that's an all too common and all to universal subject after painting beasts of no nation Dima went on to train as a doctor right more books including speak no evil and Al kind of people. He worked for a time as well in health policy in Africa and today he's of the Africa Center in New York City. A storm speak at last year's will conference of Science. Journalists Center. Really wanted you to have the opportunity to he him too. So he joins us from the radio art studios in the heart of New York. You had such an interesting childhood. Born in Washington to Nigerian parents mother a former finance minister of Nigeria. And growing up. I get the sense that you very much spent time on on both continents and I'm curious to know. Have that shaped your sense of self as a as a boy and a young adult. My parents took it upon themselves to make sure that we could always get back to Nigeria. That this was to be so much a part of who we were growing up and it really did actually provide us with a really interesting way of seeing the world. You're not from one place near not from another place. You're from both places. It's kind of a glorious thing to be able to grow up knowing that there are multiple perspectives on everything in the world. What someone sees for example in the village that my grandparents grew up in is necessarily going to be from what somebody sees in suburban Washington? Dc things might be a little bit more difficult in Nigeria. But at the same time everybody is still living. I think that's something that a lot of people who only grow up saying in industrialized if we WANNA use that term or you know United States type or western context don't have and therefore very afraid of the wider world beyond. We just grew up not being afraid because of exposure and I think that's so important. Oh that's such a potent comment about FIA holding back so much dialogue and possibility in the world. Why a medical degree trying to be a doctor? Why did you save that time in your life as a part of any decision? I think there are multiple reasons for why you do something and not all of them are the most. I will freely admit that I did medicine because my dad's a doctor and you can kind of see okay. This is what a doctor does. You see the stethoscope. You see the medicines. It's already very concrete. You know in the little kids mind and as as the kid of African immigrants. There's this thing where you do. The practical like you become a doctor. You become a lawyer and then you think that the way that you have impact is through those practical professions. I think of course. There's this idea that doctors save people and that you can have a profound impact on on a person's life and so you know with all of that. It seemed like a natural choice. I think it became clear to me that one of the things that was missing was for me in full form. Was that creative output that flow and that ability to render the world as I saw an as sort of my talent allowed me to and I think one person can have an impact in multiple ways. Interestingly in many ways you work and your books have connected with how history in politics and in Dade Science and medicine in Western societies read and interpret and Judge View African bodies. If we think of the base of nomination also your your book. Our kind of people sharing stories from people living with HIV is in in Nigeria. That lenses interested you. It strikes me in house and I. I think you can't grow up in a black body and you can't occupy the space as an African person. Occupies space in this world is offering person or as a black person without thinking about the gains that is upon you because in in many ways that gains does and has adversely affected the lives that we all live both again in a very individual way and also on the macro level and so understanding. How black bodies move through space are interpreted? I think is something that's really important to me. And I say that not just from the Games of the other but also from the the way that we look at ourselves and this is where you presented last year at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Europe and gave extraordinary address on racism at the heart of modern science and medicine. What did you want that audience of journalists and scientists and? I was one of them in that room to think about to interrogate. I think oftentimes we just assume that the structures we operate within our for one solid and somehow especially when it comes to signs that they're they're vetted and true and one of the things that became increasingly clear to me. As I wrote the book I wrote on HIV AIDS was just how much quote unquote scientific. Ideas were grounded in people's biases and prejudices about black bodies and how that impacted the quote unquote science or signs. At least that initially was dedicated to trying to stop the epidemic and in some cases may have done more harm than good. Initially I think back to a lot of the articles that when I was writing my book I read about HIV AIDS academic articles about sort of the linking of the spread of HIV AIDS and promiscuity. And the idea that Africans were having sex like monkeys where promiscuous like monkeys like which came up in published scientific papers and then is it makes its way into the journalistic mainstream this idea of like African promiscuity as it relates to the spread of this disease you know things about like Africanness and and being unable to quote unquote keep the time why early. Hiv treatments which required like large. Regimens of pills like wouldn't work for people. And that was you know story that made it into major publications impacted policy that impacted the way the epidemic was dealt with you know these are things that are important and people need to be responsible for the way these stories are told and need to think about the frameworks in which the stories are told. People like to think of science as its own true in structured belief system. That is really infallible. Right that if we can just let the scientists decide and again as somebody who's been in science fields and somebody who has a lot of respect for scientists like more power to people who do research on research and I think you don't want to get into the space of questioning experts but at the same time you do have to understand that these are people and oftentimes there biases will impact many things for one. What is even studied? What's looked at? It will impact people's angles of attacks and angles of research on certain problems. Again it is a belief system in which people are meant to question for sure but we have to get back to. What are the questions that people ask especially when it concerns the place of black people or the place of Africans within the field of science also the the studies that are done about us as people many scientists would contest that science is not about being a belief system but you point is a Demata the early construction by scientists of the idea of rice of of racial science and You know a toll. Some of the story of the Eighteenth Century German scientist Johann Friedrich Bloomberg. Who came out with the theory for the classification of rice dividing the world into something like just five broad categories of human help powerful. Do you think the legacy of He's ID's and this classification of rice. That he came up with has Bain. I'll get to that. And what can I do want to go back to the idea of science as a belief system and I do think that there is a growing acknowledgment that this is a way of structuring. How you think about the world you come to that. Structuring with a certain set of beliefs created by the world around you that has influenced you and I think signs is a beautiful thing but is also susceptible to that and I think it's incumbent upon scientists especially in in fields a deal with human beings to recognize and realize that because not realizing that results in bad outcomes for a lot of people to talk about Bloomberg. I mean this is an example. I essentially just decided to make up his classifications. In many ways those classifications still exists today and govern how people think about race and difference in humans some random dude in Seventeen hundred was like all right. The five different kinds of people and now for how many years have people been trying to prove that that is true through science but that belief structure in some ways precedes the the search for the justification of that of that belief structure. So that's just what I mean about. What questions are you asking? Now you said the framing away. Hey set the frame for generations of interrogation. I mean he proposed a theory that there was a primeval human type and other races had degenerated so to speak from the fact that he was a scientist and the fact that he came up with a hot little classification system of five races five categories of humans. Africans Asians Caucasians Americans and millions you describe that classification is having a kind of V knee or of rationality when you reflect on heavy that has shaped how we think about human difference today. What comes to mind for you. I'm assuming that you are a a white woman in Australia. If I'm wrong I apologize. You know like you and I. We don't look the same you know. And there's a question desire to understand that is that's important and that's a powerful thing that helps us create stories about who we are and figure out how to move through this world But I think sometimes you're looking for justifications to allow for economic exploitation as was the case during the height of the slave trade. The idea that like you should be able to come modify certain bodies and others. You can't whether those bodies are women's bodies or the bodies of Africans and black people these classifications of this kind developed like. They didn't just pop out of nowhere they were and the ordering and the ranking didn't just pop out of nowhere to mean many ways when you look at some of the science behind or at least you know science and air quotes behind race like there. Is this desire to justify the exploitation of particular set of people a group of people to which I happen to belong against all the folks who would say. Oh you're you're focusing too much on on sort of victimhood or exploitation or whatever you know I don't know what else to say but like go and read the books. Go and take a look do a deep dive and you'll start to see things you'll see folks like Watson famous Watson and Crick looking for ways to justify the inferiority in terms of intelligence of of black people and Black Bodies. Like you'll see this come up over and over and over again and I have to ask myself why. What is the reason for that? Why is there so much emphasis and so much desire to find out that there is an essential route to this difference? So that you know in my mind can you? To continue justifying exploitation continued justifying and an order of the world in which a certain group gets to enjoy massive benefits and another group has to in general suffer. Or you know. Is there something else? I can say what I can see. But I'm willing to concede that there might be other reasons. It's very pungent that that idea that science. Whether it knows it or not operates in the service of human prejudice a fast forwarding to the present day you have observed the fact that what supremacists have been ordering genetic ancestry tests in an attempt to confirm the US right down to the deep heritage expressed image jeans an extraordinarily four days after those horrific watt supremacist. Much Zain and violence in Charlottesville in twenty seventeen you yourself ordered a genetic history heat in the context of those events and I. I wonder what motivated you to do that? Twenty three and me and this has really good marketing navy. They're a genetic testing company that allows you to do the home test. That's one reason but also when events like what happened in Charlottesville in the United States in this white supremacist march which is something that I think a lot of us never thought we would see in the United States in that fashion even as we know that that there are undercurrents of this you know obviously political change etc etc brings out brought out something on mass that perhaps we thought had been marginalized and that clearly hasn't been clearly wasn't I started to think a little bit more about what it means to be a person of color in the United States and what that means ancestry wise just wanted to think about like how do you think about it And so that then prompted me to say okay. Well let me take a look at one of these ancestry testing kits. And just see what happens you know and I did that in part understanding again like if you have done some reading or have had done some thinking around concepts of race and ancestry. You know that there's just a lot of fuzziness around this and that the the one thing that is very clear is that you know these categories are constructs in many ways even if they are seemingly proved by something quote unquote scientific or biological. And I think I just wanted to see how I would feel and to understand a little bit more about how what that would look like. Now I took the test and in many ways sort of proof when I got the test back I got results that basically said you are ninety. Nine point nine percent. African know at the time and this will tell you something about like these tests. I got really curious because I was like well. That's really helpful actually sent the test we have a little family email group and I sense you know a snapshot of My Test Results. And you know they're done really beautifully rendered like very nicely and then they just show like I think at the time just this massive purple. This is you your ninety nine point nine percent African and I think there was a point. Zero's something one percent native American and my mom sent a message back then said something like I could have saved one hundred dollars and told you that you know which was interesting. And when she sent that I started thinking it was like What's really going on here because if compared to some of my African American friends or compared to some of my European friends where they have okay. Twenty five percent this your you know fifteen percent. Italian like you know eight percent Askenazi. Jewish you know thirty five percents Scandanavia in and I'm here with basically one hundred percent African. What's this whole native American thing? I just luckily happened to have really smart friends. One of whom happened to be very steeped in the science of genetics and also evolutionary biology. And so I went to him and I was like. Yo can you me? What's really going on here? He also happens to be really good with algorithms and computers and he was like look basically. The resolution is such that of this task right now of their ability to read where you're from that they can accurately tell you anything more than the fact that your genes like as they see them happen to be from like this very big part of the world now it comes to this idea of how do we then order the world around us based on these quote unquote infallible scientific genetic essential things. That have been told you know. So you now have. White supremacists getting told that they are ninety. Five percents you know. Scottish and five percent Swedish or whatever. Nonsense numbers you get and believing that. Oh because of that they they have lactase an enzyme and they can digest Malcolm so then they out chunking gallons of milk to prove their supremacy over the black folks who are most likely or more likely lactose intolerant. It's absurd and yet somehow someway. These are things that do impact how we live. And you know I just. I find that to be extremely fascinating. Both in the way that it's it's problematic and also in the way that it says a lot about who we are and how we behave as human beings in other words it gets back to this idea of story and the stories that we tell ourselves and there is nothing essential about the information that comes out of some of these discoveries or processes this how western science has constructed interprets rice wrought up to the present day with genetic testing. Then there's the construction of the African continent is somehow inherently unscientific or backward and I wonder how these themes linked to give you you see portioned links one of them for example being that Africans are inherently less intelligent than and less scientifically minded than other people in the world. And you know what people saying. We'll just look at the place that you're from. Look at where you live and I think I gave the example of the dean of students. I went to medical school. This is an anecdote that was told to me by a friend where he essentially sent to this friend. Who is Chinese that White Fokin and an Asian full cover more intellectual academic type intelligence and black folk cover more? Physical Athletic Type Intelligence. You start to look at the makeup of medical school classes and you can see certain things that you start to look the makeup of who become scientists and WHO's admitted into certain programs and you can kind of see. There's a bit of a trend when you have someone like James Watson saying that genetics will proved. Africans are less intelligent. And he's a scientist and he's going to be somebody who's like runs alive and has PhD students working on things with him. Then it starts to be self fulfilling James Watson yes. He won the Nobel Prize for deducing the Double Helix of DNA. But he's also been seen as a racist at Lyra by his fellow scientists. Sure but I would suggest that like you could say that. He's egregious in his statements but is he really an outlier. The thing about someone like James Watson is. He's perfect because he's a bogeyman right people can say. Oh I'm not racist because I'm not like him and then you start to look at like. Are People doing things to diversify their labs? Are People doing the things to diversify the students? They mentor. Like. How do they think about students? That are black or of color and it starts to get a little bit funnier than and you know again. This is something where people say. Oh you are. You're playing the victim or you're like look it's all about marriage and whatnot. The truth is from the perspective of maybe a white person. Sure you can. You can claim that because the world that you live in his ordered that way if you are someone like me who's been through the systems and experience when it's like to to presumably be able to compete at that level and constantly be underestimated. You have a different perspective is all. I'm saying I have an older sister. I mentioned her in the speech who has an MD PhD from Harvard University. Who's an allergist and immunologist runs the lab at UNC? You know you mean to tell me that folks like that exist and yet somehow some way on that. Africans are not scientifically minded. Or that's why we're not represented in these fields. They're just so many people who are extremely intelligent who are working in these fields. Who either don't get notice or who for some reason people think are somehow someway outliers and the truth is it's not that it's that again. You look at the structural issues around some of these things and it begins to make sense. Scientific research costs a lot of money. You can do that in environments like the West where there's a lot of money to spend these things and the gap then increases. You can't run certain labs on the continent because of structural issues electricity etc etc. And those issues are in many ways like tied to something else not to the inherent stupidity of black people but to things like colonialism extraction that continues to this day like the disorder. That was sewn in these places by you know extractive occupiers like those things do matter. And then ask the thing about about science. And scientific progresses as the gap increases the gap further increases the more capabilities. You have in one place and the more you can do like the more you'll be able to do in comparison to the places that don't have those capabilities and so then you begin to to justify it is not an issue of essential intelligence starts to look like an issue of essential intelligence and people in these spaces begun to justify their thoughts and opinions about people who look like me or come from these spaces and I think it's a problem that will come back to bite. Everybody yes this this argument you make. The West has defined science in its own image. You then point out. Though that the child in Nairobi Kenya will feel the full force of quantum computing or Crisper. Jane Editing Technology or carbon capture technology. Even if it is more likely to be the case that those technologies might have a negative impact on her life. I found that very punishment that these these prejudices about as you say a dark skin holds existing outside of science what a line has an impact on real people's lives. It really. Does I mean I I to go to the thing about quantum computing lucky enough to be at a conference where I think one of the guys at Google who's working on quantum computing. And they. I was giving a talk. It was super fascinating as I was sitting there listening to him and look listening to like you know what is going on. I was thinking. Oh my God. This world is going to be reordered. By these discoveries by these technological advancements that come out of these discoveries and that's going to profoundly impacts. You know the the young kid who's born in in Nigeria. That's going to profoundly impact. The you know the kid from from Kenya or whatever and so. There's there's an an exhortation to us on the continent that we need to step up rate because you have to be a part of these conversations both on the level of basic science and also on the level of the ethics around the science we cannot be absent from those discussions because that matters like it really matters. It's you know it's the whole thing about Google's ai tool branding. African faces as gorillas and monkeys. You know it's that that whole concept of training ai to recognize criminality and associated criminality with dark skin or dark skin features. You know it's so important. Were involved in that were there. You know otherwise we're gonNA find ourselves in a really kind of awful world and and that scares me and that's one of the reasons why I think it's important we talk about all of these biases and I'm not the only one there plenty of people who are thinking about this like how do you think about the way that we structure how we think about science and how that impacts on the social issues that that research has done to to to have an impact on and how do these social impact issues impact. The science has done. Why do you think it matters this relationship between culture and science and history and prejudice? What do you think it matters at? This present moment was so vital right now in terms of the state of the world. Yeah I mean look where we are. It's no. It's no secret that we're living in a time where people are looking for easy answers and turning to wherever they think those answers are gonNA come from. People are confused. Like people are scared. I think that's one of the most prevalent emotions and people are worried about the change. That's happening around them. And as such you start to look for whatever it can justify being able to hold onto the life that you had and I think you know in some cases science conserve and some of the misuse of science. I think conserve to help people hold onto those ideas that are going to have to change. They will whether you like it or not you can adopt or you can kind of fight against it on one hand and uninvited hands you know. They can the misuse of this can can lead to further isolation and shutting down connectivity and I think what we need to be really aware of and what he needs to make sure that we're doing is every day at least from my perspective in the way that I think about things in the world we need to be looking for how we can bolster connection. And how the work that we're doing whether it's an signs intact whether it's the relationship of science and society all of these things can help to bolster the connections that will allow us to survive as a species on this planet like. That's what I think is is extremely important and I think in many ways we're missing the mark because we're afraid but I don't think fear has to be the only guide for how we live our lives and how we do the research and and order the world in the way that we do side. True fear is such a disabling emotion at every level In our hearts in at the level of human society is demand. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much for having a lot of fun speaking with you. Don't Dima Iwo heads up the Africa Center there in New York on Fifth Avenue just across from Central Park. Pretty NAS location. He's books are base of no nation. Speak No evil and our kind of people. Let's see facades. Friction talked me on twitter at Natasha. Mitchell does it get to subscribe to the corona cast. Podcast as well you can submit questions to its host. Dr Norman sworn by heading to ABC dot net dot org slash news. Click on corona virus. Rot there up the top and follow through to the links over lightest. Ib say coverage there. Thanks to carpentry. Suggestion lay all catching wake tight. Really hate washing is hands. I'm thinking of you. You've been listening to an ABC podcast. Discover more great. Abc. Podcasts live radio and exclusives on the ABC listen APP.