Will the Eugenics Inquiry learn from past mistakes?

At a town hall meeting on 1 March, students and staff came together to debate and testify to UCL’s complex relationship with eugenics and scientific racism.

Last year’s revelations about the eugenicist London Conference on Intelligence taking place on campus sent shockwaves through the University. In its aftermath, UCL announced a two-pronged approach to address its past: convening an Inquiry into the History of Eugenics and establishing a Centre for the Study of Race and Racism.

A eugenicist by any other name

The Inquiry is independently chaired by Professor Iyiola Solanke of the University of Leeds, one of just 25 black female professors in the UK. The Inquiry, composed of academics, administrative staff working with race and diversity, and the Union’s BME Officer, will report on the role eugenics at UCL has played in shaping contemporary racism.

It will also weigh in on the renaming of spaces, such as UCL’s Petrie Museum and Pearson Building, named after eugenicists. Students at the Inquiry’s town hall meeting urged the panel to ‘think of the emotional impact of walking into a room named after people who would not have wanted you to exist.’

Buildings such as the Petrie Museum are controversial for being named after famous eugenicists.

However, others doubt the University’s sincerity. Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman worked at UCL until 2015 when the Critical Race Studies MA they had been hired to develop was dropped. Dr Coleman believes that ‘name-changing at UCL has, in the past, worked simply to aid the coloniser in brushing colonialism under the carpet.’

Racism, power, and institutions

The Centre is poised to open in the next academic year and will be housed in the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), with the intention to create a diverse, interdisciplinary research programme, and a Masters degree, provisionally titled Race, Racism and Society.

Without more concrete information, hopes and fears about the Centre abound. Dyi Huijg, who contributed to an indefinitely-buried report addressing racism and white favouritism at UCL, is hopeful that the Centre will be intersectional and ‘strongly commit to social justice, to an anti-racist and decolonial orientation in their research, curriculum and pedagogy.’

However, some doubt UCL’s ability to be self-critical. Dr Coleman said, ‘by avoiding specific reference to British National Eugenics, and by naming the Centre only in broad general terms such as “Racism”, UCL permits itself to sidestep its own role in Racism: a role that has been about White Power.’ They advocate borrowing from the methodology of Critical Whiteness Studies, and questioning whiteness across disciplines.

Dr Keren Weitzberg, a historian of Africa based within the IAS, views a critical approach as crucial for pushing back against normalisations of whiteness as a ‘background against which other racial and ethnic identities could be studied.’ She hopes the new Centre will not merely be ‘about a very tokenised idea of representation and just really about studying the “other.”’

The right time?

The creation of the Centre and Eugenics Inquiry are significant steps, but those who have previously sought to shed light on racism at UCL remain jaded. Delving into UCL’s previous efforts to contend with racism reveals a landscape of buried reports and willful blindness.

In 2014, UCL’s now-disbanded Ethics Committee examined the University’s history of eugenics, but its findings remain unpublished. A 2014 qualitative report on experiences of BME staff, for use in applying for the Race Equality Charter Mark, also never saw the light of day.

Hajera Begum, BME Officer at the time, told CG that the UCL community suffered from the burying of the ‘honest, raw experiences’ of BME staff. Begum believes a more open conversation on racial issues has been ‘forced,’ with UCL reacting to outrage at the events of the last year, not taking proactive steps examine its legacy.

While Professor Solanke expressed respect for ‘those members of the UCL community past and present who have played a part in its evolution’ when the Inquiry was announced, she later confessed to having been unaware of previous reports into UCL’s eugenicist past. This can only feed the doubts of people such as Dr Coleman, whose attempts to address racism were either rejected or co-opted by UCL.

At the Union General Meeting in January, Provost Professor Michael Arthur emphasised the openness of the Eugenics Inquiry, which will ‘get the whole picture and then make decisions.’ Previous reports, however, will likely remain in the dark.

Jasmine Chinasamy and Zoe West-Taylor
Additional reporting: Riddhi Kanetkar.
Images: UCL Digital Media 2018

This article appeared in CG 66.