Rethinking the Narrative of Mars “Colonisation”
Biologist Dr D. N. Lee has been doing an amazing job educating on how enthusiastic narratives of “colonising” Mars are problematic. On her Twitter, Lee notes that the dominant ways of talking about colonisation add to the marginalisation of under-represented minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). If we want to make science more inclusive, we need to better understand how the stories we tell about STEM may exclude and damage under-represented groups we are trying to support.
Not Just Semantics
Lee notes that talking about Mars in terms of colonisation is not simply an issue of semantics – for example using “settlement” instead of colonising. Rather, media narratives unquestioningly champion rich White men’s ideas about what Mars travel should mean: “we don’t have to be stuck on Earth!” The narrative is being framed around “saving” humanity. (See a Storify of Lee’s discussion for further context.)
Lee asks: saving from what, whom, and why? And in this re-imagining of humanity’s salvation, who is left behind? Who does the dangerous, under-paid work of building new colonised spaces? In short, what have we learned from history about colonisation? It is rooted in exploitation and inequality. On Twitter, Lee writes:
“When I hear scientists discuss "for the good of humanity” I check who is talking and if they listen to “others.” History AND Contemporary events have demonstrated how often people will exploit and harm ‘others’ when diverse ppl cant inform policy… If Mars will be better place (where the wealthy are clamoring to) & earth is the place to be “stuck”, then WHO is stuck & w/ what resources… In human history there’s a profound diff in exploration, recon, even trading with other peoples vs Imperialism, conquering & colonization…Thing is, when Some of us hear Colonization, Enterprise Expansion, New wealth acquisition, we have a VERY different Movie trailer playing"
Lee is clear that space exploration is not the problem; she is questioning the context of talking about Mars as a place to colonise, as a way to escape problems on Earth, which have arisen as a result of colonial practices in the first place.
White Male Privilege in STEM Narratives
Lee demonstrates that White male entrepreneurs encourage the public to give up on our responsibilities on Earth, both environmentally and socially. They do so in ways that mirror the colonisation of Indigenous cultures.
White male space enthusiasts had been arguing back at Lee on Twitter, saying that Mars represents an opportunity to start over; to get social justice right. They tell her that if she continues to be “negative,” she will miss out on the opportunity to engage with the future of space science, because the public will turn off her.
Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam was one of the men who dismissed Lee’s conversation as “silly.” Lee discussed colonialism and White male privilege. For example, his views as a White man dominate STEM, but her views as woman of colour are dismissed.
Hickam responded that he is proud that his ancestors had social privilege because that means they were successful and earned their place in colonised spaces. He applauds manifest destiny more than once. He evoked a Native American ancestor to justify his racist comments (whilst celebrating the tenacity of his White ancestors to colonise). Hickam derided Lee’s concerns as a fellow scientist because she is a woman of colour. He then blocked her, effectively shutting down the conversation about inclusion. As a senior figure in STEM with greater social power, Hickam proves Lee’s argument, that only White men’s views are allowed respect in STEM.
Lee notes that if we can’t get the conversation about diversity and inclusion right, here and now – then how can we ever hope to restart afresh elsewhere?
Why Understanding Colonialism Matters in STEM
Exploration can happen in many ways, and these do not necessarily have to involve exploitation, enslavement, dispossession, rape, genocide, removal of children from their communities, being forced into missionary settlements, forced to convert religion and violently made to assimilate. Colonialism only happens through violence – including all the methods mentioned, which have happened to Indigenous groups around the world. This colonial violence continues in the present day.
Right now, the Australian Government is forcing 150 Indigenous communities off their ancestral lands in Western Australia.
Imagine you are a young Indigenous child intrigued about space. Indigenous groups, including in Australia, already have many sacred stories about the stars that have influenced science. Indigenous Australians may be “the world’s oldest astronomers.” What a great way to connect Indigenous youth with STEM careers! But now imagine they see these media stories, where White men conceive of space travel in colonial terms, while at the same time they are living through their communities being pushed off their lands. They also see only a few brave people of colour, like Lee, standing up to big-name White men in STEM, while these leaders and other so-called “allies” are calling this Black scientist “silly.”
We have so few Indigenous groups in STEM as it is; the numbers in astronomy can be counted in one hand when we look at gender breakdowns in different locations.* So why would these minorities want to join a STEM profession if White scientists want to assert their right to ignore historical violence? STEM pushes out minorities in many ways; this is just one example.
Language is not benign. Language matters for diversity and inclusion, as do the ideas informing our choice of words, and the stories we choose to weave, and those we ignore. Language influences how we teach and learn science; it’s how existing policies are maintained; it’s how some voices continue to shout down Others.
Learn more on my blog.
- Image: [White woman showing a story that reads “Mission to Mars.” She says: “Yay! Mars. Let’s go!” Group gathered around her frowns. Man of colour thinks “This is some bull.” Another woman of colour thinks “I don’t see it. Do you see it? You got to be rich to see it.”] Source: via Lee.
- *I’ll soon publish data on minority astronomers in the USA (including Indigenous men and women) on the Women in Astronomy blog.