When asked to think of a biologist, chances are that many of us would name one of the many white men we’ve been taught about from a young age. Charles Darwin. Alexander Fleming. Louis Pasteur. Despite the ever-growing recognition in the media of the contributions of women and people of colour to science, it’s clear white men still dominate our learning.
A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B – Biological Sciences, has shown that the range of scientists mentioned in textbooks are becoming more diverse. On the surface, this is the good news. For textbooks published between 1900 and 1999, only 3% of scientists mentioned were people of colour. Between 2000 and 2018, this percentage increases to 8%. Yet at this rate, it will take another 500 years for the number of mentions of Black scientists to accurately represent the number of Black students enrolled on biology courses. The same study reported that there were no Black women mentioned in any of the textbooks used in the study. The lack of racial and gender diversity in our textbooks is bound to have an effect on our education. Especially in subjects where diversity is important for our learning.
There’s no question of the lack of diversity in our textbooks, but what effect is this having on our students? The lack of representation reflects the societal inequalities throughout history. The issue of who exactly is mentioned in textbooks is only one aspect of the problem, what topics are discussed is another. Namely, the science behind a perm, whether for straightening or curling hair, is exactly the same. Yet, the textbook definition of a perm only lists it as a chemical process to curl hair. The narrow life experiences of authors limit the scope of information in textbooks they write. Books written from a white man’s perspective often exclude the experiences of other people with a different lived experience.
Eventually, the lack of diversity in our textbooks becomes dangerous for the people who don’t fit the mould set out. It’s no surprise that problems are arising in medical specialities such as dermatology where images are critical for the diagnosis of patients. Skin conditions involving pinkness or redness of the skin are often harder to diagnose in dark skin with the differences in skin colour being more subtle than in lighter skin. Medicine textbooks show little skin diversity in their images, with 4% to 18% of images being of darker skin. Doctors who haven’t had access to these images may find it difficult to improve their knowledge, leading to the misdiagnosis of people of colour. To illustrate, eczema may appear as pink or red on lighter skin. In contrast, on dark skin tones it can often appear brown, purple or even grey.
The current situation with coronavirus has brought this situation to a new light. For some patients, rashes on the skin and toes are a symptom of Covid-19. Jenna Lester, a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the University of California, reported that when searching medical literature for images of these rashes on Black skin, she was unable to find a single image. The scarcity of images in the medical literature about Covid-19 is yet another example of the dangerous lack of representation of darker skin that has pervaded dermatology research journals and textbooks for years.