Racist medical myths persist with SA’s diseased apartheid ...


Racist medical myths persist with SA’s diseased apartheid mentality

A study on TB and coloured women shows the medical fraternity still links race or ethnicity to a particular affliction


All hell broke loose last week when Twitter posted a study by four white SA women on “cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women”. Before I even read the research report I knew this was racist nonsense not only because of the unsubtle subtitle of the journal, “Normal and Dysfunctional Development”. Time and time again I have come across SA research that links a medical or psychological malady to the race of a group of people defined by apartheid as coloured or Indian or African or white.
In front of me as I write this column is a study on the dietary quality of an Indian community and “their high prevalence of non-communicable diseases”. Also on my desk is a report on tuberculosis susceptibility in “the admixed South African Coloured population”. Young Afrikaners, says another study at hand, were investigated for high levels of cholesterol in their blood. And the most amusing research (let me be generous with the term) I once read distinguishes the dreams of psychiatric patients who are Mosotho from those once classified as coloureds.
Let’s first take a step back and ask what should be an obvious question: why is it such a natural thing for biomedical researchers in SA to draw a straight line between the presumed race or ethnicity of a group of people and a particular affliction? It’s quite simple, actually: it’s in the blood, if I may mix my metaphors.
More than a century of racist indoctrination has created in the minds and hearts of ordinary South Africans something those in the social sciences call racial essentialism. That is to say, the belief that there is something in the essence of being African or Indian (etc.) that explains certain attitudes, aptitudes, beliefs, behaviours and, of course, diseases. Once that underlying assumption locks in through the early socialisation of race-based ideas in family, church, education and community, then it is very difficult to convince the perpetrators of racial mythologies that frame their thinking about anything, including scholarly research.
It is quite easy to prove that the prevalence of TB in the Western Cape has nothing to do with colouredness and everything to do with the poor living conditions of people within a particular geography. The food people eat might well lead to certain dietary disorders that cannot be tied to “Indianness”, whatever that might mean. Heavy meat eaters will in general have higher levels of cholesterol and this might even have familial antecedents that has little to do with being an “Afrikaner” by any definition.
And so I was invited to deliver a memorial lecture in one of our medical schools and I chose the fancy title, “The politics and epistemology of health sciences research in South Africa”. I used several case studies to make the point that no doctor should graduate without a solid course in the critical social sciences. I might as well have spoken to a brick wall – not a single question from the academic doctors present, not even a spark of curiosity. The connections between race and disease was so obvious to physicians and medical scientists alike.
What makes the research on “cognitive functioning of Coloured women” so offensive is the obvious slippages. Take this sentence: “Young to middle-aged Coloured women present with low cognitive function and which is significantly influenced by education.” It is the kind of result that has nothing to do with being coloured or a woman and everything to do with discriminatory and oppressive education by race and gender over centuries. It would be true for poor white women deprived of education at an earlier point in history or poor African women at any moment in time. Why is this linked to “colouredness”? Moreover, instead of studying the oppressive system of education provision and its consequences for black women, the supposed research zeroes in on a random ethnic and gender identity – coloured women.
Nor is the irony of white arrogance obvious to the research team – five white women making declarative statements on the cognitive functioning of 61 coloured women. They are oblivious to the history of racist research in SA and tone deaf to the student protests of just the other day. I have no doubt that these patronising researchers actually believe that their findings are supposed to “help” this “vulnerable group” of poor coloured women.
But there are two larger questions that should be asked of our research institutions. How on Earth did this research proposal pass ethical clearance at the researchers’ university? And how did this project come to be funded by the National Research Foundation?
In their closing statement the research team on coloured women makes the unsurprising conclusion that “it is unlikely that the situation is any different for Black Africans; therefore, a similar study among this population group is warranted”.
I rest my case.

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