Racialized bodies in bio-medical settings


By Rajes Balasubramaniam
MA Medical Anthropology 1994

The increasing power of bio-medicine has been very little time for a holistic approach in treating people. The development of bio-medicine and the doctors’ relationship with his patients is always the relationship of a master and servant, as medical language, technology investigations and practices are often alien to the receiver, even if the patient is ‘white’, sharing the same traditions, language, culture as most of the biomedical practitioners. The contemporary medical system has been developed by a social group of white males, who have the contacts, ability and material affluence to complete medical training, and they have limited knowledge in cultural understanding to successfully treat their clients from various other communities.

If the patient is black the treatment and approach can vary, as the white male-dominated profession already has certain assumptions about black people, race, and their bodies. According to Gilman SL (1993:14) “The standard definition of ‘race’ was the sum of all the ‘physical characteristics and physiological qualities’ of people”.
Rationalization of the body means that a person’s identity has been established through his/her biological origin and their physical characteristics, rather than with a person’s culture, language, religion, or nationality. Racializing one’s body is based upon some particular ideology that is derived from certain knowledge based on the culture. These ideologies centre on race, which is discriminating towards some people due to their genetic make-up and physical characteristics, which is selective and scientifically unfounded. A culture develops from a social condition, and it’s achievement is seen through its technical, scientific, and material expansion. Material expansion is historically based upon labour and oppression of others. To create a division and get the benefit out of the system a human mind always looks for reasons for discriminating against others from them, as Pajaczkowska C and Young L (1992:199) put it “… although racism exists as a subjective structure it also exists as an objective reality, produced by the history of imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation”.

In the bio-medical settings human bodies are, in parts or sections, seen under the medical ‘gaze’ for its purpose This gaze is not always neutral or based on a purely scientific approach, but with assumptions and attitudes toward the bodies, as the ‘knower’ sees himself as having higher knowledge than the owner of the body, who has little or no control over it when it is in the biomedical setting.

Domination of one group over another takes different forms; men control women through their sexuality able bodies control disabled bodies and parents control their children with their power in the family structure. In India, one group dominates others by the ‘caste’ system. “… the distinction made in the caste system si often recognised on grounds of physical appearance. In general, members of the lower casts are darker skinned than those of higher status” says Yi-Fu Tuan (1984:133). The function of the caste system in India and the function of Western Racism may have some similarity in the control of one group over another. The caste system and its range of possibilities operate in terms of isolating people by their caste from the social ladder, embodied with Hindu beliefs of ‘reincarnation’, Karma and its customs. The low caste people are isolated by their birth into a particular social group of labourers and the caste system operates for social control in the name of religion and culture. The nature of the human body has given the cultural identity as soon as the low caste woman conceived a child. The space of a low caste body and its function is constructed until the body dies for the service of a high caste’s social needs.

The ‘nature body’ is forcibly given an identity as a political body, religious body, and racialized body, in various settings. The human body is seen and used as a profitable commodity or an object to put through the pain of torture, or observed as alien or abnormal being for scientific research, or trained to do some skilled task or killed and destroyed in the name of civilization. According to Foucault (Rabinow P 1984:173) “This subjection is not only obtained by the instrument of violence or ideology; it can also be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated, organised, technically thought out; it may be subtle, making use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet remain of a physical order”.

To destroy and dominate the American Indian, white colonialism ‘racialized’ Indians as savages. The control and dominate India (Inden R 1990) the white imperialists created the myth of Indian culture as passive, imaginative, feminine as Indians are less of a man than the white man in terms of organising constructive political systems, power, control and self-development. “Whatever conclusion we draw about how that hegemony was so speedily effected, we would be unwise to overlook the role of terror.” Stated Taussing M (1986:5). A small group of white men and their brutal methods of controlling Africans and Indians by racializing bodies and their mind is based on the psychology of evil or superior cultural achievement?

Racializing the bodies of vulnerable people and oppression over them still goes on in many parts of the world in places such as South America, where indigenous Indians are hunted down and killed for the purpose of gaining access to, and control over, their land. “Throughout the early period of the industrial revolution, a particularly important development of the theory of the body politic linked the natural and political economy on multiple levels” say Haraway (1991:7). By the 1770s racism was firmly established in Britain (Fryer P 1985:165). Racializing the body for capitalism by the British did not stop with his practice of exploiting the others when the slave trade ended in 1807 or slavery in 1833.
The institutionalised racism is well rooted in every structure of the Western political system and to continue the process black people are given various names such as lazy or mad and these labels are somehow accepted by the white community as white media often focuses in such a way as to link black people with unsocial activities or madness. Bio-medicine and its control over an individual is structured through environment, epidemiology and specific theoretical constructions of gender and race. Social division and categorising the racial body is inevitable in a system which is based on class interest and profit. The relationship between bio-medicine and black people is as complex as the white man’s psychology and his behaviour towards the rest of the world.
The white man and his relationship with the black man is not only due to social power; it is also to do with psychological and sexual power as Fanon’s study on Negrophobia shows the white civilisation’s fear of ‘blackness’. Racist ideology constructed the nature of the human body into an object rather than a subject in order to prove their points. A body is a container for physiological function and a layer of the human skin and its pigmentation has nothing to do with the body’s internal organs function the same as a black man’s.

But when a black patient walks into a doctor’s surgery the black man’s colour appears more vividly in the doctor’s focus than does the patient’s illness. “…the white man’s eyes break up black man’s body and in that act of epistemic violence its frame of reference is transgressed, its field of vison disturbed,” said Fanon F (1986:xii).
Human skin and physical characteristics have been taken for granted by the Western culture in order to maximise its political, economic and military power over black people. The medical doctors are from these superior white races and their ideology has been influenced by their myths, history, religion, psychology and political events. The history of the black people is constructed by the white people according to their power of ‘knowledge’ over the black people. “The association of dark skin with animality or childishness is a familiar one in Western culture” stated Yi-Fu Tuan (1984:133). The dark skinned people were exchanged as gifts like animals and pets. The black people’s behaviour is always perceived as abnormal as they are always happy and grinning and that belief is still reflected in various forms in the diagnosis and treatment of people in many medical institutions as well as psychiatric units in the Western hemisphere.
“The first Negro landed in Virginia in 1619, though very little is known about their precise status during the next twenty years” said Winthorp J (1993:44), and he continued by saying “… the slave was treated like a beast” (p56). The skin colour and the physical appearance f black men was seen through a white man’s eyes as wold, or as a beast. According to White H (1978:153) “… the nation of wild man was associated with the idea of the wilderness, the desert, forest, jungle and mounts – those parts of the physical world that had not yet been domesticated …………….. in any significant way. “There are vast ………………… black men in British psychiatric hospital and the……. Such abnormally high doses of psychiatric medication according to black community activists, that they comment ‘we often wonder whether these white doctors are acting out of the past’.

A black man’s social body (black) and his expression through his mind in a form of speech (English) and physical language which varies according to the patient’s age, gender, why is he often misunderstood by a doctor (white) who shares the same language (English) and who is supposed to have the relevant scientific knowledge in physical and mental maladies.

Why do the ‘body’ boundaries in terms of colour, sex and physical characteristics give so much power to a white man as to intrude on one’s mind and body.

According to Comoroff J (1985:305) “Medicine held a special place in the imagination that colonized nineteenth century Africa. In fact the rising hegemony of biology in Europe can be traced in the control of threatening populations at home and abroad – and generally, in the regulation of relations between the ‘civil’ and the ‘unruly’.
Slavery existed in different times in the past; the Roman empire was filed with slaves from various parts of the world, the Arabs had a slave trade, in wars men were captured and treated as slaves, but the history of black slavery in America is shameful as this history is filled with inhuman treatment towards black people because of their colour and physical characteristics. The Christian (religious) beliefs and the explorer’s views about the black continent and its people created the ‘racializing’ of African bodies in many forms. “Understanding the dominance principle and its limits was central to encouraging ‘natural’ hierarchies of efficiency compatible with democratic ideologies constrained by gender, race and class” said Haraway D (1992:79) as the study of the human body by the whites was mainly based on the ‘racialized body’ of others.
“European civilization is characterised by the presence, at the heart of what Jung calls the collective unconscious of an archetype: an expression of the bad instincts of the darkness inherent in every ego, of the uncivilised savage, the Negro who slumbers in every white man” Fanon F (1986:187) and according to Londa, S (1994:161) “… the black women as Africans and as women, would focus on their sexuality. Europeans had long been obsessed with the sexuality of Africans – both female and male”.

European male’s sexual fantasies with black women were expressed through their portrayal of black women’s bodies. Black women’s breasts were portrayed as sagging. A sagging breast signified witchcraft and in black women portrays savagery and cannibalism. Racializing the black woman’s body was part of the exploitation f black women. They were sold as slaves for higher prices as they had good potential for service in the house and the field as well as for breeding slaves. “European planters commonly took black and mulatto women as concubines or sold them as prostitutes” stated Londa S (1994:161). She continued to explain how a black woman’s body was exhibited as a wild beast in London by a ship’s surgeon Alexander Dunlop in 1810, and the spectators could catch a glimpse of her ‘brutal’ figure for a mere two shillings.
A black woman became an object of observation by a zoologist and a physiologist in the zoo in Paris. They were observing her: (1) to provide a detailed comparison of this woman from the lowest race of humans (the Negro) and the highest type of apes (the orang-utan); (2) to provide the most complete possible description of the anomalies of her genitalia (Londa S 1994:170). The sexual fantasy of white about black Fanan (1986) described thus; “The Negro symbolises the biological…. The Negro is the genital”. Black bodies were ‘sexualised’ by the white in order to intellectually alienate the race as ‘wild, abnormal, beastly’ and so on.
The medical system is not different from the social system and the systems never hesitate to racialize, isolating ‘otherness’ if it seems that the system will be disturbed or confused. Littlewood & Lipsedge (1993:27) stated that “Outsiders always pose a threat to the status quo even if they are not physically dangerous. ‘they are threatening simply because they are different. Their apartness is dangerous”. The status quo and its propaganda machinery is always ready to attack and blame others for any disaster or epidemic rather than look for real reason and solution. When the Ads crisis hit the Western world they blamed the Africans. Refugees and immigrants from third world countries were screened for HIV at the airports. HIV is identified with skin colour as black – seen as dirty, evil and diseased. The image of the deadly virus was identified with black people.
They denied that the origin of the disease could be linked to the gay community in America, and put the blame on the green monkey in Africa and people from Africa. Illnesses such as dysentery and chronic chest infections which are usually recognised as poverty related diseases were in Africa and other third world countries labelled as ‘Aids’ without adequate scientific investigations or proof. The Western imperialism was not only racializing bodies but was also trying to ‘racialize’ illnesses in order not to accept the reality of the epidemic throughout the world.
The colour of the skin and the power radiating from its visibility is blinding the European from seeing the true self of a ‘person’ inside of the skin. A person’s mind, thoughts and the sensation stopped at the gaze of a white man instantly. A particular society’s outlook and assumptions are not only based on other’s bodies alone as Durkheim R (1987:60) stated “the physiological concept of motivation is much broader than the notion of intentional ends of objectives and includes action prompted by emotions such as fear, envy or anger”. In Europe the Christian blamed the Jew for various social disorders.
The Jews were ill-treated and discriminated against by the Christians in Europe not only for their intellectual abilities as well as Jew’s religious beliefs and their culture. To the European Christians the Jews were representative as Fanon stated “There are Good and Evil. Evil is Jewish. Everything Jewish is ugly”. As Gilman S (1985:219) stated “… in Germany a Jew’s nose, not the African, that was the salient sign of difference. Within the German proverbial tradition the shape and nature of the nose and that of the phallus were inexorably linked. Sexually transmitted disease, especially syphilis, was mythically associated with the Jews (read: circumcised) penis, the physical aspect ascribed to the Jew (read: male) which in the German eye defined the Jew as readily as skin colour defined the inhabitants of Africa”.

So racializing body and linking diseases are historical, well-structured by the Europeans. The science and its theories were constructed according to the European’s social needs. For the young Freud, according to Gilman S L (1993:16) “… being Jewish was being seen as different, as diseased, as culturally incomplete. The category of race had a real meaning for Freud throughout his life and it was closely associated with the field of science”. The Jew’s physical characteristics have been used to ridicule and humiliate them. The concept of the fundamentalist Jew came from the European’s unconscious mind and it’s fear.

Jew or black will always be racialized as long as a particular part of society uses this structure, philosophy and method to stay in power, as their psychology is based on fear and envy. As n F (1986:190) stated that “In the remotest depth of the European unconscious an inordinately black hollow has been made in which the most immoral impulses, the most shameful desires lie dormant. And as every man climbs up toward whiteness and light, the European has tried to repudiate this uncivilised self, which has attempted to defend itself. When European civilisation came into contact with the black world, with those savage people; the Negros were evil”. If bio-medicine is based on culture which sees others as Evil wouldn’t the bio-medical culture be seeing its own image through the collective unconscious?

Bio-medical practices and anthropological theories have differences in their views as bio-medicine sees the body supposedly through its pathology and anthropology in terms of a person’s gender, culture, religion, environment and the political circumstances. Racializing body by science and it’s practice in a medical setting is inevitable as the professional is not able or willing to learn about the ‘real body’ rather than their assumed ‘body’ as they follow and practice in a system which is constructed through its hierarchical assumption about others. The ‘civilization’ of the Western world and the medical bio-medical system interlinks with global control over the economy. The ‘scientific’ knowledge, development and practices of the West are and always will be based on inequality, discrimination and the systems of medicine and science are never going to be neutral or of benefit to people low on the social ladder as every social system is constructed and controlled by a few in terms of profit.

About noelnadesan

Commentator and analyst of current affairs.
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