The Researcher’s Responsibility in Communities of Color

Today’s bloggers are professors Gholnecsar E. Muhammad, Georgia State University, and Bettina L. Love, University of Georgia. They describe here the background for their interest in Critical Community Conversations, which they recently wrote about in The Educational Forum.

Throughout history, researchers have come into communities of color to engage families and conduct research in unethical and inhumane ways. In these events, researchers have used our communities for profit or self-gain without working to advance these same communities or without deeply learning from or listening to community members.

Perhaps the most well-known case is the Tuskegee trials, conducted between 1932 and 1972, when U.S. Public Health Service researchers persuaded roughly 600 Black male sharecroppers into a clinical study by telling them that they would be given free medical care, meals, and burial insurance. Two-thirds of the men participating in the study had syphilis, yet were never informed of their disease or given a treatment for their illness, although a cure existed when penicillin was developed in the 1940s. They were lied to and told they were being treated for “bad blood” when, in fact, they were not.

Instead, the treatment was withheld; many of the men, and some of their wives and children, died as a result. It wasn’t until 1997 that President Bill Clinton offered a public apology, calling the experiment shameful and racist.

An earlier example, in 19th-century South Africa, was an enslaved Khoisan woman, Saartjie Baartman, who was taken to Europe so that pseudoscientists could “study” her body and “investigate” her sexuality due to her body shape. They wrongfully concluded that Black women have a greater sexual appetite.

During their research, Baartman was raped, tricked, and forcibly put on display (sometimes in a cage) in a museum for lookers to observe and mock. When she died in 1815, her body was dismembered and displayed in a French museum until 1974. Her remains were not properly buried in her homeland until 2002.

Neglect of and disregard for Black bodies in so-called research does not begin or end with these two cases. Although ethical and more humane research standards have since been put in place, we still question the authenticity and carefulness of researchers as they study communities of color, including their intent, their honesty, and the ways they represent and write about Black and Brown youths and families.

As we continue to engage with communities, conduct research with communities of color, and prepare the next generation of researchers, we are mindful that elements of the unethical research of the past can be and have been repeated today. This charges us to ask:

  • Do educational researchers love the people in communities of color and the participants in their studies?
  • Are researchers going into communities for self-gain or merely to publish in journals from the problems that Black and Brown youths experience?
  • Are researchers receiving substantial funding for their studies while the communities they study get no benefits from those dollars? Are researchers of color employed on these funded projects?
  • Are researchers deeply listening to and being positively changed by people of color?
  • Are researchers treating people of color as positively as they write about them in research articles?
  • Are researchers displaying honesty and integrity in their methods of collecting information? Or again, are researchers merely taking the information they desire and leaving people unhealed? In other words, are we seeing modern-day Tuskegee trials in educational research today?

We have found from our personal experiences that we need to ask these questions and understand who is being given consent to study our people and our communities. We need university researchers to have a keen awareness of the responsibilities and the impact they can have in authentically partnering with community members. We purposely use the word “authentic.”

So often we have found that researchers come in and take from communities of color because those are the sites of the greatest needs used to problematize their research. We have observed researchers talk about social justice in articles but not display the same awareness in day-to-day life.

The responsibility we have to communities of color is also one takeaway from our Critical Community Conversations in the Atlanta area. In this work, we remind others and ourselves that our intentions and actions must be grounded in lessons from history, intersectionality, and anti-colonialism.

There is a history of hypocrisy when it comes to researching and engaging communities of color, and we know that element of history is still present today. We must go beyond good intentions and continue to question our actions as educators and researchers. We purposefully start our questioning with love because, as we remind ourselves each day, love is the first responsibility we have.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share Gholdy and Bettina’s research with the education community. Access their article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through December 31, 2017.

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