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Sokal, revisited

Disclaimer: Some readers will likely feel that this musing too clearly represents my perspective as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, male. I apologize to those readers. I am who I am [1] and my writing will naturally reflect that.

A little while ago, I was reading Chronicle for Higher Education [3] and came across an article entitled How Free Speech Works for White Academics. I expected a reasonable discussion of privilege, but midway through the article, it felt like things went a bit off the rails. Brittney Cooper, the author, was writing about a form of the oft-made claim that scholars of any group should be able to take up scholarship related to any other group [4]. She writes,

No questions have ever been off-limits for white scholars. In Ibram Kendi’s recent book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books, 2016), he tells us that in 1664, Robert Boyle, the father of English chemistry, wrote in Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness that the physics of light … showed that Whiteness was the chiefest color. Boyle claimed that these were objective conclusions, uncolored by his personal opinions. Isaac Newton was influenced by Boyle’s work when he said white light was the standard from which all other colors derived. Boyle’s and Newton’s claims weren’t objective. They were white. It is identity politics that makes white scholars believe that their whiteness does not play a role in the kinds of scholarly questions they ask.

I was taken a bit aback by that claim. Weren’t Boyle and Newton writing about the physics of light? As far as I can tell, we know that the eye perceives that combination of multiple colors as white: If you shine a red light, a green light, and a blue light at a screen, the screen will be white. I see this effect in play whenever I visit a theatre; lighting designers take advantage of that to create different moods. I also see it when I shine white light through a prism and different colors appear.

But I remembered that I came from a place of privilege. So I asked a wise colleague what they thought [6]. And they suggested that many scientists applied their science results to other domains; for example, Boyle might have claimed that because white light is the chiefest color of light, white skin is therefore the chiefest color of skin. That question seemed to be worth exploring.

Fortunately, Project Gutenberg had a copy of Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours whose Part II is Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness. To explore the question, I went to look for the quoted text. I looked for chiefest color. No luck. I looked for the physics of light. No luck. Perhaps Kendi was looking at a different edition.

On to a search for Stamped From the Beginning. Fortunately, Grinnell owns an electronic copy. Let’s see what he writes about Boyle.

The year before, Boyle had jumped into the ring of the racial debate with Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness. He rejected both curse and climate theorists and knocked up a foundational antiracist idea: The Seat of human pigmentation seems to be the thin Epidermes, or outward Skin, he wrote. And yet, this antiracist idea of skin color being only skin deep did not stop Boyle from judging different colors. Black skin, he maintained, was an ugly deformity of normal Whiteness. The physics of light, Boyle argued, showed that Whiteness was the chiefest color. He claimed to have ignored his personal opinions and clearly and faithfully" presented the truth, as his Royal Society deeded. As Boyle and the Royal Society promoted the innovation and circulation of racist ideas, they promoted objectivity in all their writings. [7]

I was surprised to see that these quotations were not footnoted. However, the full paragraph was. And it led me to pp. 271–294 of Gary Taylor’s Buying Whiteness: Race, Culture, and Identity from Columbus to Hip-Hop. Taylor’s dense text is thoughtful; he carefully analyzes not just Boyle’s words, but the broader context of Boyle’s work and actions. He wonders, for example, how, given Boyle’s antiracist understanding of skin color, Boyle could nonetheless accept the frequent vivisection of Africans by Europeans in the name of understanding. And he does a really nice job of showing that the Royal Society’s claim of an objective observer really meant a white observer. He clearly criticizes the ways in which Boyle conflates different kinds of whiteness.

He wrote—in the same words, in the same essay—of the White Bodies of inanimate objects and chemical substances and of White … European Bodies. [8]

But nowhere does Taylor claim that Boyle’s physics of whiteness are incorrect. He accepts that you get white when you combine colors. He accepts that white objects reflect light while other objects absorb some wavelengths. That is, white is objectively chiefest, in some sense. And Taylor does see some strengths in Boyle’s approach. For example, he writes

Mind and body interpenetrate each other in manifold and complex ways, but color does not cross that line. A body with dark skin can do or think anything that a body with light skin can do or think. Boyle began the process of empirical investigation that has proven the irrelevance of color to intellectual achievement and psychological health. The scientific method, at its best, is color blind. [9]

That claim does not eliminate the problems with many aspects of Boyle’s work and the ways in which he conflated different forms of whiteness. But it also makes it clear that there are clear benefits to Boyle’s science.

But what about that quotation that got me started. What was it? Oh, yes, Cooper wrote

[Kendi] tells us that in 1664, Robert Boyle, the father of English chemistry, wrote in Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness that the physics of light … showed that Whiteness was the chiefest color.

I couldn’t find the physics of light in Boyle. I couldn’t find chiefest color. Looking back at the quote from Kendi, it appears that the physics of light … showed that Whiteness was are Kendi’s words, not Boyle’s. But about what the chiefest color? Where in Boyle had that come from? After some digging, I finally found the phrase on p. 291 of Taylor.

In 1637 Descartes–whose conclusions anticipated and influenced Boyle—had begun with black (noirs) and then preceded to white (blans). But for Digby in 1644 and for Boyle in 1664, whiteness was the chiefest color.

Taylor cites carefully. And so there was a reference for the chiefest color. I quickly flipped to the footnote [10] and found

Digby. Two Treatises, 259.

rhere’s a reason I could not find chiefest color in Boyle. It’s not there. It’s from a work printed twenty years earlier.

We’ve gone from Taylor’s careful argument about how Boyle incorrectly applied correct physics to develop a racist system of science, to Kendi’s transmutation of that to a racist system of Physics, to Cooper’s doubly incorrect quotation from Boyle. Boyle’s study of physics was objective, no matter what Cooper claims. Is it any wonder that scientists like Sokal get frustrated?

It feels like I’ve built up too much momentum. Do I have anything left to critique? Oh, yeah, in discussing Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness. Kendi writes

Black skin, [Boyle] maintained, was an ugly deformity of normal Whiteness.

I can’t find the word ugly in Of the Nature of Whiteness or Blackness nor in the broader Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours. But I recall reading it in Taylor. Let’s see. On page 270, soon after the section I like on the scientific method [11], Taylor writes

Boyle explicitly called the blackness of Negroes ugly and associated it with deformities.

That’s pretty damning. I did say that Taylor seemed to support Boyle’s physics, but not his broader philosophy. Let’s see, where did Taylor find those words? Endnote 88 reads as follows.

See Boyle’s Works: tis scarce possible to paint this ugly Negro in blacker colors than his own (12:339) and the French, amongst whom this Vice is grown so Epidemical [12] (as of Blacknes [14] among the Ethiopians) its commonness has removed all the deformities they would otherwise find in it (12:317). Both phrases occur in A Free Discourse Against Customary Swearing (1695), written in 1647; the colorphobia therefore antedates Boyle’s work on whiteness. Boyle began his investigations of color with a prejudice against blackness. [15]

Does this come, as Kendi claims, from Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness? Nope. It comes from a very different work. What he says is wrong, but it’s also incorrectly attributed.

Where does this leave us? I have no idea where it leaves you, but it leaves me even more frustrated than when I started. I’ve seen Taylor’s careful and thoughtful analysis get inappropriately mutated [16]. I’ve seen commonly accepted physical principals challenged for no clear reason. I’ve encountered forms of quotation and citation that I would not accept in my classes [17,18]. On the other hand, the experience did lead me to a thoughtful and careful work of real scholarship that I should probably find the time to read and reflect on. Not all is lost.

What about Newton? I expect that neither you nor I have the time or the energy for an equally detailed exploration of why Newton’s description of perfect white (the color of sunlight, I believe) may also be an unbiased physical principle. However, would be negligent in my writing if I did not note that, in at least one place, Newton makes black central in his color ring.

The first and only Colour which white Metals take by grinding their Particles smaller, is black, and therefore their white ought to be that which borders upon the black Spot in the Center of the Rings of Colours, that is, the white of the first order. [18]

Postscript: It was only when I hit the end of this musing that I realized one of my own, unrecognized cultural biases. I accept that white is the chiefest color of light because (a) it is the color of sunlight and (b) it is the combination of different transmitted colors. But one could equally argue that black is the chiefest color of light because (a) black objects absorb all colors; (b) the combination of reflective colors is black; and (c) the night sky and space are primarily black.

Still, that doesn’t change Newton’s claim that white light is the light from which all other colors are derived.

[1] I am, however, neither a sailor nor a yam [2].

[2] I feel sorry for those whose cultural background has limited their exposure to E.C. Segar, the Fleischer Brothers, Bud Sagendorf, and, in a far-too-short run, Bobby London. I’ll also admit that the quote may only be from the Fleischer’s.

[3] Chronicle, hereafter.

[4] Most frequently, it’s majority scholars who claim that they have the right to study issues pertaining to a minority group and who stake a position in opposition to members of the minority group who say that those outside the group lack the cultural context or understanding to do appropriate scholarship [5].

[5] And yes, I’ve simplified both sides of the argument.

[6] I can’t remember who it was. I’m pretty sure that it was a member of the library faculty.

[7] Kendi, Ibram X. (2016). Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books. Electronic version. p. 45. You may be able to read this section on Google books.

[8] Taylor, Gary (2005). Buying Whiteness: Race, Culture, and Identity from Columbus to Hip-Hop. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 292.

[9] Taylor, Buying Science, p. 276.

[10] Taylor, Buying Science, chapter 10, endnote 151, p. 461.

[11] The scientific method, at its best, is color-blind.

[12] In transcribing, I first typed Epidermical, since I was thinking about skin.

[14] It appears as Blacknes, with only one s, in Taylor.

[15] Taylor, Buying Science, p. 455.

[16] I will admit that I’ve mutated it too. When you summarize parts of a deep and carefully argued piece, you will likely leave things out and get things wrong.

[17] You’ve significantly misquoted Boyle. I can’t tell whether it’s intentional or careless. In either case, it’s wrong. F.

[18] Now you know why (a) I spend way too much time when I am carefully grading student writing and (b) students make jokes about the things that I comment on.

[19] Newton, Optics, p. 259.

Version 1.0 of 2018-01-10.