Routes of Science: The impact of UNESCO’s mental decolonization

Routes of Science: The impact of UNESCO’s mental decolonization

Michelle Brattain & Poul Duedahl

For more than 20 years, UNESCO was the core of a dispute in international scientific circles over the correct definition of race. This was essentially a dispute about whether the natural sciences or the social sciences should take precedence in determining the origin and value of man.

A major task in the wake of the Holocaust was to issue a statement containing a universal definition of race. Its statement on race of 1950, created by mainly social scientists, highlighted the unity of humankind as a species and claimed that human groups would be more appropriately referred to as “ethnic groups” rather than “races”, a claim which was based on the conviction that subjective feelings of cultural belonging were of primary importance to the choice of a partner and the spreading of genes. The statement was supposed to eliminate racial prejudice, but resulted in massive critique. UNESCO therefore issued a new statement composed by mainly biologists in 1951 that recognized race as a meaningful category. On the other hand, the statement rejected the notion that mental traits could be used in classifying races, and the concept of race therefore lost its potential to legitimize racial discrimination. At least in principle.

There are a few indications of whether UNESCO’s early efforts to de-legitimize biological determinism were successful or not. But except for a couple of studies, there is only little available information on the impact of UNESCO’s initiative in the wake of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung in Indonesia in 1955, even though it marked a turning-point in the history of Decolonization, involving the representatives of 29 of the world’s emerging countries, whose inhabitants included more than half the world’s population. They agreed to reject and fight all ideas of colonialism and racism, and in the subsequent years UNESCO initiated a program on the mental decolonization of people by producing a number of works which were critical of the concept of race, including a new statement of 1964, which formulated the UN’s definition of race ahead of its convention against racial discrimination, and a fourth of 1967, which was the first to be dominated by representatives from the new countries.

Therefore this sub-project will assess the impact in the nine selected member states of UNESCO’s initiatives on race, especially in the wake of the Bandung conference.

The National Archives of South Africa

Folder from the 1950’s in the National Archives of South Africa in Pretoria in November 2014.



Research Coordinator Poul Duedahl

Kroghstraede 1, 9220 Aalborg O, Denmark

Phone: +45 9940 9141