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"Bleaching the Ethiopians": Desegregating Race and Technology through Early X-ray Experiments

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 47, Number 1, January 2006
pp. 27-55 | 10.1353/tech.2006.0091


This essay contributes to recent calls to "desegregate" the subjects of race and technology and interrogate technology as a tool that has historically made racial hierarchies possible. It considers the false reporting of "successful experiments" employing X rays and radium to whiten black skin in 1903 and 1904 as attempts by whites to exorcise the threats that these new technologies posed to established categories of race and racial superiority. It asks not why such experiments occurred, but rather why whites across the country believed they did. By analyzing the rhetorical coverage of these events and placing them in the context of contemporary fantasies about the power of X rays and radium, the piece argues that the degree to which we accept technologies depends, at least in part, on the ability of groups in power to reject the uses or effects of those technologies that might challenge accepted cultural "truths."