Black bodies and white doctors: dive into

Racism has a history and medical literature tells like no other about prejudice, explains historian Delphine Peiretti-Courtis, in a book published by La Découverte.

During the nineteenth century in Europe and throughout the 19th century, the debate raged between polygenists and monogenists, in other words between those who believe that humans are divided between several species, and those who understood the uniqueness of the human species.

Among the former we find, for example, Voltaire, who wants to challenge the biblical idea that all people are descendants of a single couple, Adam and Eve. Thus, the Enlightenment could lead to the universal declaration of human rights, but also to combat convictions by pushing for racist theories. This is one of the paradoxes of the time.

Among the monogenists, of course, Charles Darwin stands out, making him one of the pillars of his theory of evolution. A century later, advances in genetics will complete the demonstration of the low diversity of the human species.

Science does not protect against prejudice

During the 19th century, the most imaginative categorizations were widespread. Some develop around fantasized sexual characters, others in the form of skulls, skeletons or noses. We will even classify people between those who have curly hair – called straight – and those who have straight hair – ulotric.

Saatjie Baartman’s story“Hottentot Venus”, studied by several famous scientists and then dissected by the natural scientist Georges Cuvier, is still a textbook. She tells how a discussion of scientific authority could have helped to reinforce prejudices.

Intimate details of this young woman from present-day South Africa, namely prominent buttocks and hypertrophy of the vulva labia minora, are thus pompously called steatopygia and macronymphia, and are then readily described as the physical characters. Specific to all women in her “ethnic group”.

These descriptions, like many others, drive white men’s fantasies about black women’s sexual appetite. Delphine Peiretti-Courtis thus recalls that European doctors have long justified excision on the basis of similar forecasts.

Biological racism and cultural racism

Examining the history of these anomalies also shows how much they depended on the interests and fears of the colonizer. Thus, the black woman is initially praised for her maternal inclinations and is then accused of being a bad mother when the increase of the colonized population interests the armies and the apparent high infant mortality rate seems to be discovered.

In the same way, given the times, the black man is thought to be more or less resistant to the diseases or to the effort. Biological racism is added to or replaced by cultural racism. In other words, we can very well conclude that there is only one human species but make assessments of “African morality”, and also adapt to what we claim to show. This is the very ideological basis for France’s “civilization mission” which makes it possible to provide moral support for simple territorial ambitions.

These prejudices, the author explains, are not just bad memories. They are still haunting public speaking, as can be seen, she recalls the Dakar speech by President Nicolas Sarkozy. “The African man has not gone into enough history,” he said in 2007. They remain in the public encyclopedia to this day.

Thus, the Wikipedia article on steatopygia continues to convey racist descriptions from the 19th century as scientific truth. Even today, we must go to special publications so that their illusory character is clearly evident.

Delphine Peiretti-Courtis, Black bodies and white doctors. The creation of racial prejudice, 20th century, Discovered.

►To also discover on RFI:

Why colonial medicine, with the historian Guillaume Lachenal, for his book The doctor who wanted to be king

Colonial utopia and epidemic on the island of Wallis, around Guillaume Lachenal’s book, The drug that would save Africa


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