Uprooting bias: Decoupling discrimination from portrayals of invasive insects

Historic racial bias has frequently shaped portrayals of invasive insects and the words used to describe them. Scientists are working to push back against that biased language.

Historical Perspectives of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States: Uprooting Society Biases and Moving Forward,” an article written by Washington State University graduate Trinity Reeve, reviewed literature on how language used about insects like the Japanese beetle and the northern giant hornet reflects discrimination against Asians and Americans of Asian ancestry.

Trinity Reeve
Trinity Reeve, 2022 WSU graduate in organic and sustainable agriculture, reviewed racist language in the context of insects and science in American Entomologist.

A 2022 WSU graduate with a degree in organic and sustainable agriculture, Reeve wrote the article, published in the latest edition of American Entomologist, as part of an WSU entomology course taught by postdoctoral researcher Rae Olsson. Reeve was inspired by the work of Jeannie Shinozuka, assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies in WSU’s School of Languages, Cultures, and Race, and often referenced her research throughout the article.

“It was overwhelming to realize that even our language about insects perpetuates negative connotations about communities,” Reeve said. “Writing this paper made me more aware of the small ways in which we can try to be better as a society.”

From early 1900s Hawaii, through to the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reeve found Asians and invasive insects conflated as menacing, disturbing aliens. She includes a comment from a U.S. War Department engineer considering the Japanese beetle in Hawaii during the early 20th century: ‘the beetle long has been a menace… the native-born Japanese children in Hawaii are also another Hawaiian problem.’

When the northern giant hornet, formerly called the Asian giant hornet, was discovered in Washington state in 2020, stereotypes resurfaced.

Harmful depictions linger in our cultural subconscious, Reeve said. Not actively thought about, they survive and continue to be shared.

To move past these persistent portrayals, the author points to ideas like the Entomological Society of America’s Better Common Names Project, which seeks to identify and change derogatory or offensive names. For example, the northern giant hornet’s name was changed to not only reflect its origins more accurately, but to avoid negative and discriminatory language.

Change can happen through conversations that keep language on people’s radars. The increased recognition that humanity and nature are interconnected also helps reduce alienation, Reeve said.

“Once we see ourselves as part of the natural world, it’s harder to create these types of negative associations,” she said. 

Olsson, who encouraged Reeve to submit her work to the journal, is proud of their former student for tackling such a challenging issue.

“I’m so glad to be part of a scientific community that is willing to examine its influence on language and effect change toward increased inclusivity and diversity,” Olsson said.

“There’s a lot of amazing research pushing us toward being a more self-aware society, one that thinks critically about the power our words hold,” Reeve said. “We need to continue to amplify voices speaking out about these issues, especially when they come from the communities who are directly affected.”