Apparently, Mathematics Can Be ‘Racist’

Written by:
2 May 2024
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In this article Colleen Harkin contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into the national curriculum.

It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

The allegation that maths is racist and therefore needs to be ‘decolonised’ is not unique to ANU.

Is maths racist?

Professor Rowena Ball at the Australian National University (ANU) thinks so.

Professor Ball leads a research and teaching initiative called Mathematics Without Borders, aimed at “broadening and diversifying the cultural base and content of mathematics.”

“Mathematics has been gatekept by the West and defined to exclude entire cultures. Almost all mathematics that students have ever come across is European-based,” she recently claimed. “We would like to enrich the discipline through the inclusion of cross-cultural mathematics.”

Unsurprisingly, the allegation that maths is racist and therefore needs to be “decolonised” is not unique to ANU.

In the United Kingdom, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which oversees curriculum standards in UK universities, states universities “should present a multicultural and decolonised view” of mathematics.

QAA recommends that “students should be made aware of problematic issues in the development of the mathematics content they are being taught.”

It says, for example, that some pioneers of statistics supported eugenics, or some mathematicians had connections to the slave trade, racism, or Nazism.

In New Zealand, Jodie Hunter, a professor in Mathematics Education at the Institute of Education at Massey University, states: “A common response by policy makers and educators alike is to fix the problem of those deemed academically bleak by putting in place a range of interventions.”

She goes on to say we should “instead focus on how we can address the practices inherent in historical forms of institutionalised racism related to colonisation. In the context of mathematics classrooms, this means examining how cultural and cognitive imperialism represented in classroom interactions and the curriculum perpetuate inequality.”

And in the United States, a proposed mathematics curriculum framework recommended teachers use a document provided by an organisation called Equitable Math that offers guidance and resources to educators as they plan their curriculum.

It also offers “opportunities for ongoing self-reflection as they seek to develop an anti-racist math practice.”

Equitable Math claims that “white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom” is evident “when there is a greater focus on getting the right answer,” or if “independent practice is valued over teamwork,” or when “math is taught in a linear fashion and skills taught sequentially.”

Its History Transcended Borders

The notion of white supremacy and racism in mathematics is a peculiar one, particularly given the multi-ethnic nature of the development of the discipline.

The earliest evidence of written mathematics dates back to the ancient Sumerians, who built the earliest civilization in Mesopotamia—modern day Iraq.

More advanced maths can be traced to ancient Greece and Pythagoras, who coined the term mathematics.

Ancient Romans used applied maths, and Chinese maths made contributions including a place value system and the first use of negative numbers.

The Hindu–Arabic numeral system, in use throughout the world today, evolved over the course of the first millennium AD in India and was transmitted to the Western world via Islamic mathematics through the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, a ninth-century Persian mathematician and astronomer known as the “father of algebra.”

Contemporaneous with, but independent of these traditions, were the mathematics developed by the Mayan civilization of Mexico and Central America, where the concept of zero was given a standard symbol.

Medieval Europe and Renaissance Italy contributed significantly to the discipline, as did Englishman Isaac Newton and the German Gottfried Leibniz.

Hardly a white supremacist history.

Universal, Neutral Language

Mathematics is a universal language that transcends cultural, social, and racial boundaries. It is a field that operates on principles of logic, reason, and abstraction—qualities that are devoid of human prejudices.

Mathematical truths are objective and independent of the identity of the mathematician who discovers them.

The Pythagorean Theorem, for example, holds true regardless of the race, ethnicity, or background of the person applying it. The angles in a triangle will always add up to 180 degrees and a circle, 360.

This truth is revealed no matter the colour of your skin or the country and community in which you reside.

Mathematics, by its very nature, is neutral. Often used as a tool to expose issues, rather than perpetuate them, statistical analysis can reveal disparities in areas like income, education, and healthcare access, shedding light on issues that disproportionately affect certain racial or ethnic groups, but it is not the cause of that disparity.

The fundamental principles, concepts and branches of mathematics, such as addition, subtraction, geometry, and algebra, are based on immutable laws that do not change based on the race or background of the individual studying them.

Current attempts to inject racism into mathematics fundamentally misrepresent the subject and its principles.

Across the globe, what should be an objective academic subject is being weaponised and turned into a form of activism.

Mathematics is a cornerstone of education, serving as a fundamental skill set that underpins a multitude of other academic fields and career opportunities.

Inserting ideological nonsense into the curriculum actually disadvantages “academically bleak students” by denying them the interventions they need to help them attain mathematical literacy, and the myriad opportunities that in turn opens up.

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