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Forgetting is a tool of white supremacy. It keeps us from building on prior strategies led by our elders and ancestors.2

—Cara Page and Erica Woodland

I write to you about home, about our communities. I write to identify a persistent trend in research on Native communities, city communities, and other disenfranchised communities—what I call damage-centered research. I invite you to join me in re-visioning research in our communities not only to recognize the need to document the effects of oppression on our communities but also to consider the long-term repercussions of thinking of ourselves as broken.3

—Eve Tuck

If you are inviting your community into a transformative research process, having conversations about the harm that research has done and damage-centered research are important early steps. An analysis of damage-centered research can help establish a distinction between research as a process that can be decolonized, liberatory, or simply knowledge seeking and a formal research process that is not accountable to local community history, knowledge, and leadership, and is rooted in racist, sexist, or other oppressive assumptions. Local communities engaged in research will also very likely encounter critique of “unconventional or nontraditional” ways of knowing by dominant society, which may cause doubt. As we approach a research process, it can help to begin by asking a series of questions that help unpack our relationship to formal research processes:

  • What have we experienced or learned from our elders about research done in our communities? 
  • What are the negative effects research has had on our communities
  • How has research been used to co-opt or remove community knowledge? 
  • How has research prevented our communities’ responses and solutions to the challenges we face? 
  • How has harmful research taken away our communities’ spirit of knowledge generation and curiosity?

We can also ask questions that help us reflect on research that has been positive:

  • What types of research have had positive impacts in our communities? 
  • Who led these research initiatives? 
  • What did they do that was different from damage-centered research?
  • What local, cultural, or Indigenous and traditional knowledges guided them?
  • Who decided how the research was used?

Zooming out from our local communities, we must consider the broader question: How has research produced harm/violence against other communities across generations, geography, and identities? This helps us see how often dominant, formalized research processes reinforce a broader worldview based in white supremacist norms.

There are many forms of harmful research, such as:

  • Research exposing people to physical harm: For example, gruesome gynecological experiments were conducted by James Marion Sims on enslaved Black women, who were denied anesthesia even though it was available. Nonetheless, Sims is referred to as the father of modern gynecology (see more on medical racism and slavery, Vox). 
  • Research attempting to justify racism and other harmful ideologies: For example, scholarship supposedly proved the false concept that white people are a biologically superior race (see “Naturalizing Social Differences,” Race: The Power of an Illusion). 
  • Research that facilitated colonial dispossession: For example, the Rwandan genocide has roots in work by colonial academic researchers who created a violent context of civil war by pitting tribes against one another. 
  • Research that appropriates Indigenous knowledge as “discoveries”: Many insights attributed to white Northern European and US academic scholarship are derived from knowledge stolen from Indigenous cosmology, myths and practices developed over thousands of years. For instance, corporations have used patent law to take ownership and exploit Indigenous knowledge and create pharmaceuticals and other products.4
  • Researchers that parachute into a community and take knowledge without reciprocity: Many academics carry out interviews and surveys in communities then disappear with the data and do not report back or contribute to community-led efforts to address the issues being studied.

Even mentioning the word “research” often brings up past trauma, caution, and justified resistance in many community settings where harmful research has overshadowed beneficial and liberating forms of research. Far too much research has historically been done “on” or “for” BIPOC, queer people, people experiencing poverty, people with disabilities, and other communities, causing severe harm. Remembering the long journey of personal, collective, and systemic harm from research is a practice of reclaiming the process of knowledge generation. Reinforcing the importance of understanding Indigenous and local (her)history, practicing decolonization, and unlearning scientific racism are ways to reclaim knowledge and research as a practice of healing. In this way, healing justice reminds us that research is memory work.5 Recognizing the harm of academic scholarship includes the process of remembering and reimagining.

The harm of research reaches into our very identities and the foundational myths and history that inform them. For instance, in 1926, Drusilla Dunjee Houston, a self-taught Afrikan historian, challenged scientific racism by articulating that “the world is a lie,” in her seminal book The Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire. The book revealed hidden and buried wisdom of the great Cushite Empire that contributed to developing many civilizations. The following statements can spark deeper discussion on where knowledge comes from:

  • The Greeks are not the first philosophers of the world. 
  • Most of our current languages and words do not derive their origins from Latin and Greek culture. 
  • Rome was not the first world civilization to build architectural structures connected to math, science, and culture. 
  • Egypt or Kemet is not in the so-called Middle East, but it is in Africa. 
  • Christopher Columbus didn’t discover the “New World.”

Despite large, important, and varied bodies of radical scholarship by disabled, queer, Indigenous, feminist, and decolonial scholars, proactive interrogation of the impact of academic scholarship remains important. Notions of scientific rigor are sustained through institutional structures of white supremacy, patriarchal, Christianity empire ethics, rooted in population control and eugenics. Traditional academic scholarship and research reproduces scientific racism as truth that informs policy-makers and policies that affect the world and local communities. For example, traditional academic scholarship is rewarded with a points system—one that only assigns PAR a fraction of a point compared to more highly rewarded “double-blind” research studies. This impacts promotion structures within academia and also influences what is covered in the media or shapes policy development. 

Reclaiming research places ancestral cosmology, spirituality, cultural tradition, and local community wisdom at the core of the collective inquiry process of trust building, testimony sharing, and knowledge generation for action. Reclaiming research as healing doesn’t always feel good, but the struggle for reclaiming bears life-affirming fruit.

  • 2Cara Page and Erica Woodland, Healing Justice Lineages: Dreaming at the Crossroads of Liberation, Collective Care and Safety (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2023).
  • 3Eve Tuck, "Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities." Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 3 (Oct, 2009): 409-428, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/suspending-damage-letter-communities/docview/61828154/se-2.
  • 4For one recent example, see Marcos Vinício Chein Feres, “Biodiversity, Traditional Knowledge and Patent Rights: The Case Study of Phyllomedusa Bicolor,” Revista Direito 18, no. 1 (2002), https://periodicos.fgv.br/revdireitogv/article/view/85701/80824.
  • 5Cara Page and Erica Woodland, Healing Justice Lineages (North Atlantic Books, 2023).