Testimony - Racial bias in lecture's slide: The visual representation of Black women in Academia

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

Dear BLM-LSHTM Community,


Your voices matter to US! We are so inspired by this new cohort!!!


==> On October 14th, a student reached out to us about the image below.

Hi BLM LSHTM 

<redacted> and in one of the introductory lectures there was a slide about food security accompanied by an image of a black woman from Tanzania breast feeding. I feel like no white professor would put a photograph of a white woman breastfeeding on a very public lecture slide. She did know the woman personally so I assume, to her benefit, that she asked for permission to include it. But I just wanted to get your thoughts on it: do you think this is racist, should I approach her, and is this a common trend in public health? It just seems to perpetuate so many things: among them black female bodies as reproducible and the admonishing of black mothers' childcare practices. 

Does this make sense? Maybe I am reading too much into it and it's not a problem. I've attached a screen shot of the slide so you can see.

All the best and thanks for your time

The image showed a stereotypical image of an African women eating while breastfeeding


==> First - we offered the student to either (1) address the issue directly with the lecture with us in CC or (2) for us to email the lecture on their behalf. The student chose option (1).


==> Second - we did our research and offered resources. Our answers below:


In consultation with some of our colleagues, we have put together a few points you might want to raise with the instructor:

  • The key is to understand the intent behind using this image – in conjunction with the oral lecture itself, what narrative is she trying to advance around breastfeeding in Black mothers? Why is a picture needed, and why this one?

  • The use of a quite intimate image without express permission is also, as you say, very problematic, and even if permission is granted, a sign of respect would be to omit the woman’s face. Breastfeeding has socio-cultural/religious connotations in most cultures (including in the UK), and it is not always seen as acceptable in any given situation – something many public health experts fail to understand because they always focus on the health benefits.

  • The use of images of Black people in a global health context has a fraught history in general (there is a whole tradition in tragedy porn and white saviourism), not to mention other visual discourses around the sexualization of Black women. So, white researchers should be very careful about using any image of Black women or children, but especially when these depict private acts.

There is a whole field of study on critical discourse analysis (given the dearth of literature on this topic, it could be an interesting idea for a research project!), and this might be something you could draw on in your response. The fact is that this is a very common trend, and, like microagressions, while a single image may not be hugely racist on its own, the discourse created by the repeated use of them definitely is.


The image is linked to issues with representation of Black women and how it feeds into existing stereotypes (baby mamma, fertility, etc.). Here are some article that you might find useful.

It is important for the lecturer to not only reflect on her intent but also be able to assess her audience potential biases. While she meant no harm, she should consider how that image could be interpreted by Blacks and non-Black people in the audience. It is naïve to think that her intention only would prevent the use of this image from being harmful considering the societies we live in and really the million dollar question is “do that slide need that particular image? If yes why??


==> On October 19th - The student emailed the lecturer


Dear XXXX

I hope this finds you well. <redacted>. At the start of term we had the honour of attending your online lecture on livestock food systems, which was engaging and fascinating - particularly the elements about the need for the creativity provided by a wealth of linguistic diversity when tackling food systems dilemmas. Thank you for introducing me to this field of work.

However, there was one slide that troubled me because of its potential, unintended racist elements. It can be quite difficult to express the effect of "minor" incidences perpetuating racist stereotypes, such as micro-aggressions of the visual representation of BIPOC people, so please bear with me. 

When talking about the importance of red meat in increasing the availability of plant-based proteins, you include a slide of a black woman breast feeding. You mentioned the name of this woman so I assume you received her permission to reproduce the image publicly but it still made me wonder, "Would a white woman breast-feeding be inserted into a public health slide?" With consultation from LSHTM BLM I have composed a summary of why I find it problematic. Thank you for your time. 

I am sure your intentions were  in no manner harmful and I understand from your research that you are well connected with and trusted by the communities you work with, but without assessing the potential biases (conscious or unconscious) of your audience the image may reinforce certain stereotypes. Stereotypes can have real life harmful effects including internalisation and reinforcement of discriminatory behaviour. Black women are at greater risk of experiencing adverse birth outcomes and negative or neglectful treatment from healthcare practitioners. To what narrative about breastfeeding women does the image of this woman contribute? Breast feeding is an intimate act with globally varying socio-cultural connotations.

The image feeds into certain stereotypes of black women -many of which originated during transatlantic trade when black women took on the primary care role for slave owners' children- as hyper-fertile, irresponsible, or sexually available, producing archetypes such as the "mammy" and  "welfare queen". The decades longs struggle of the reproduction justice movement pushes for black women's rights to self-determination in relation to parenting. Despite this, negative stereotypes continue: Lobel and Rosenthal's research highlights that pregnant black women are more likely to be perceived as having lower education, lower income, and being more sexually promiscuous and in need of public assistance compared with pregnant white women.

In public health and academia, wherein less than 1% of professors are black females, this image serves to reproduce the idea that black women, particularly black mothers, are subjects in need of assistance, be it financial, medical, or nutritional, rather than autonomous agents. These perceptions may be internalised by Black members of the audience or reinforce discriminating behaviour among white members. 

I am certain that you had no negative intentions with the image but it is important to continue to reimagine the representation of Black women in research and the media to stop the continuation of harmful stereotypes that abet the continued oppression of marginalised groups. 

Thank you for your time, xxxx. Have a lovely week. 

Best wishes,

XXX

Citations kindly provided by the FAIR network 


On October 19th - Less than an hour later, the lecturer emailed the student - We DID NOT ASK PERMISSION TO SHARE THE EMAIL AND AS SUCH DECIDED NOT TO DO IT. OUR EMAIL BELOW HIGHLIGHTS THE ISSUES


==> On October 20th - we emailed the course director, DGH, decolonizing the curriculum, the director of education and the focal point for racial issues at LSHTM.


Dear Professor XXXXX,

We wanted to get in touch with you to follow up on a recent exchange between a student, who would like to remain anonymous from now on, and XXXXX, about xxx use of an image of a Black woman breastfeeding  in XXX livestock nutrition lecture. We paste the original, anonymized exchange below, but in a nutshell, the student was concerned that one of the images used in XXXXX presentation was reflective of certain racial biases.

First of all, XXXXX shared that XX had permission to use the photo, but XX didn’t address the student’s underlying concerns. We wanted to reiterate the validity of these and to also raise some additional points arising from XXXXX’s response.

First of all, we were disappointed to not see any in-depth, measured engagement about the topic in question – the representation of Black women in the presentation. Instead, the professor answered very quickly, just 50 minutes after the student’s original message, compared to the several days it took the student to read up on the topic and very sensitively articulate their concerns. Moreover, it was clear XXX did not take the time to read any of the references offered, and XXX did not actually address the issue. Instead, the message seemed to be a reiteration of her lecture. The original message did not mention things like menstruation, livestock nutrition, or vegetarianism in the Global South, so we are not sure why XXXX brought these things up.

At the same time, XXX message did not reflect any awareness about the existence of racism, neocolonialism, or how these forces affect the populations studied. Indeed, XXXX reply avoided saying the word ‘Black’ at all in reference to any women, as if public health education or practice were colour-blind or neutral (they’re not). Educators’ choices in the images they choose to use in their presentation always send a message, and in relation to Black women, if this message is not deliberately and intentionally countering the dominant discourse, the chances are that it is reproducing implicit biases and perpetuating them among students. As a white XXXX lecturer, we believe XXXX has a responsibility and opportunity to offer a more diverse perspective to her students. Let us also be clear that XXX job is not to give Black women a voice (and her affirmation that ‘these women don’t have a voice’) is actually really, and stereotypically, offensive. ‘These women’ have a voice; they just don’t have a platform.

We hope that you and XXX might take the time to examine the presentation XXX attached in response to XXX student and to contrast the images therein with some non-stereotypical images that we found, so you can get a better idea of what we are trying to say:

(section removed to ensure anonymity)

As you may know, LSHTM is in the midst of a process to decolonize the curriculum, and we hope that this can be a teachable moment, both from a faculty perspective and for us, as we try to critically and openly engage with these issues.

Kind regards,

Black Lives Matter-LSHTM


The course directors responded very positively.


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