Photo by James Eades
On 17th February, I was fortunate enough to be given a ticket to an online event – Dr David Olusoga in conversation with Dr Adam Rutherford.
Anyone who enjoys history, whether fictional or factual, will know of Olusoga; a professor at the University of Manchester and TV Historian whose notable works include The House through Time, and Black and British: A Forgotten History. His works provide a much-needed and jarring account of history from the lens of marginalised voices and came to the forefront of media attention in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in discussion of how we treat colonial figures such as Edward Colston. His subject for the interview: Dr Adam Rutherford, a geneticist and science presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science (co-hosted with Dr Hannah Fry). Rutherford’s non-fiction book, How to Argue with a Racist was the topic of conversation, having initially been published in hardback at the start of 2020.
Rutherford conversed with Olusoga about the genetics behind racism, and went to great lengths in debunking the science behind racist beliefs. As well as writing about criticising racism through a moral and ethical lens, Rutherford argues that we can also argue with racists through the use of science. If we consider the centuries that have preceded our own, countless experiments have occurred with scientists intent on dividing white and BAME communities, but as Rutherford, a scientist himself argues, whilst science is meant to be fact based, it doesn’t mean that what we are told of scientific thought is always true. “We have to recognise that science isn’t this great bastion of truth”, Rutherford says, but rather that historical science has been skewed to suit white privilege and white, male, upper class agendas. Truth, like so many things, is malleable, especially in the hands of colonialists and supporters of the British Empire.
However, as we all know, so much has happened since January 2020, and at the discussion’s core was the disproportional impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities and the Black Lives Matter movement that gained significant prominence following the death of George Floyd. Through the power of social media and easier access to literature and news, our society is becoming an increasingly conscientious place. But that doesn’t mean bigotry isn’t present, we have a long way to go if we want to achieve a wholly equal environment. What’s particularly eye-opening was discovering the science behind race in previous centuries and the fact that many of us have been conditioned to believe fundamentally racist and problematic ideas, which Olusoga remarked have been “pumped into our society for literally centuries.”
“They are social constructs that science has put a stamp of belief upon, and therefore we believe it to be true.”
Over the course of an hour, Rutherford and Olusoga covered so much, from the lived experience of being BAME in Britain and from the perspective of a geneticist debunking the prejudiced attitudes ingrained into our country. It has never been more vital to learn about racism and injustice than it is in our current moment, and never have we been fortunate enough to have access to so many voices, narratives and experiences. Rutherford’s book and his conversation with Olusoga is warm, a welcoming guide to the person who wants to do more but doesn’t know where to start, and an educational refresher for those who know far more. Above all, it takes scientific establishment and academia to confront scientists of the past, and the “stamp of approval” they once gave to racist attitudes. How to Argue with a Racist is essential reading, and it’s certainly worth checking out the talk between Adam Rutherford and David Olusoga on fane.com.