Monday, December 3, 2012

I've lost my faith in science...

I wrote this post a long time ago and forgot to post it….:
I am in a lot of sociology classes right now so excuse me if this sounds like psycho-babble. I was honestly dumbfounded when Professor McKinney told us about Drapetomania and then again when he told us about Dysaethesia Aethiopica. I think it is amazing that we as a society can find “scientific proof" to back up our prejudices. I was also amazed that an entire country could be so naïve about the classification and diagnosis of psychological disorders. Psychiatrists claimed that African Americans were mentally ill if they had “an overwhelming want/need for freedom” and also once they were freed they could run the risk of suffering from a “lack of motivation resulting in laziness and apathy for their work”. Really American Psychology Association, really? It got me thinking about the social construction of slavery and how as a nation we were able to justify our unethical actions even once the obvious inhumanity was exposed.
First, I think it’s important to actually define “mental disorder”; a  psychological  pattern or anomaly, potentially reflected in behavior, that is generally associated with distress or disability, and which is not considered part of normal development of a person's culture. So given that definition, I think it is safe to assume that many of the mental illnesses that arise from the stressfulness of our culture can be prevented. Now why would slaves feel “distressed or disabled”, why would they deviate from their normal development in their culture?  Could it possibly be the constant oppression they face in our day to day society? There for the supposed “cure” to this disease would be to end that oppression.
Secondly, it made me wonder whether or not practically classifying the “freeing of slaves” as a mental disorder was the slave-owners attempt to justify their actions. This would also explain why they thought slavery was a good thing for African Americans; it gave them order and direction which, according to the psychiatrists of that time, they lacked, and there for had a mental disorder.
On a separate note, the fact that psychologists and psychiatrists identified African Americans as having mental disorders meant that they recognized their humanity. When we learned about these two disorders I was really disappointed and discouraged about American society at the time but then I realized that perhaps it was a step in the right direction. I was also reassured because I imagined that anyone who read or heard about these disorders would think they were just as ridiculous as I did. It’s important to remember that even though the majority of American society at the time was falling prey to the media prejudices and political discrimination towards African Americans, there were still people who fought back and went against social norms because ultimately they knew what was moral and ethical.


  1. As a psychology major, I too was mortified that by the American Psychology Association’s ignorance. I was even more mortified when I did some research on Drapetomania and Dysaethesia Aethiopica. Not only were these “mental disorders” identified in Negros, there were remedies for curing them. Samuel Cartwright, author of Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, prescribed “whipping the devil” out of Negros and removing both of their big toes as remedies for Drapetomania. Cartwright thought Dysaethesia Aethiopica was just as easily curable. His remedy was to stimulate the Negro skin by washing the body with warm water, anointing it with oil, slapping the oil in with a leather strap, then putting the patient to work in the sun. If that failed, whipping the Negro would be the second option. The remedies for Negro “mental disorders” were just as ridiculous as the disorders and the incompetent believers of them. The fact that Drapetomania and Dysaethesia Aethiopica were once accepted by the American Psychology Association and passed as science makes me question how much I should continue to invest in a psychology degree and career. How can I be sure that I am still not being taught bogus theories in my psychology classes? I do not care whether or not white people actually believed in Drapetomania and Dysaethesia Aethiopica. I care more that the American Psychology Association, an organization that I someday hoped to join, accepted scientific rasism as truth.

  2. I too, being a science major, believe that the fact that the American Psychology Association accepted these notions is horrendous; however it is important to consider a few things. Slavery was accepted then, and just like we talked about in the beginning of the semester slavery supported many other institutions. Slavery supported institutions such as slaver traders, the cotton and tobacco industry along with countless other southern industries. Although these “mental illnesses” may have been bogus, there is no denying the fact that these illnesses most likely brought revenue into the many other industries. These diseases gave many doctors and psychiatrists jobs. Many people today believe that diseases such as ADD/ADHD are bogus as well. However the profits from this disease are tremendous. A little under half of my close friends are prescribed to some sort of ADD/ADHD medicine. I’m not saying that I in any way believe these “mental illness” diagnoses or “remedies” to be justified, I am, however, saying that these diseases were accepted into the institutions supported by slavery during that time.