[This invited post is submitted by Discuss White Privilege, an anthropologist who has written extensively to refocus the academy’s critique of racism on itself. We respectfully ask that you review our Comments Policy before responding below. Thank you. –DP]
I just read the Michael Brown post [by Uzma Z. Rizvi] while in a Black hair salon in East Oakland, where my African friend is getting her hair done (behold: transnationalism, diaspora!). I found the shirt pictured [above], worn by an older Black man exiting the salon, poignant in light of the article mentioning the Department of Homeland Security, and Prof. Rizvi’s statement about the inescapablity of being judged on the color of one’s skin. I wonder how many White anthropologists, reading what Prof. Rizvi has written about racism and the absence of benefitting from White privilege, are really willing to reckon with the implications of this admission, or care about the deep pain of racism they know they will never experience, especially in relation to racial profiling and brutalization by police–which as Prof. Rizvi rightly notes, occurs, especially to bodies coded Black, regardless of education and class (though low socio-economic status clearly exacerbates such racist encounters and outcomes).
In particular, I am struck by what Prof. Rizvi writes about the cultural character of resistance in the US, a theme which is worth problematizing in relation to the aforementioned shirt, pictured above.
I thank Prof. Rizvi for showing sincere solidarity with Michael Brown’s family, the residents of Ferguson, and Black Americans in general, as this statement of solidarity–within an acknowledgement of enduring anti-Black racism (versus an attempt to minimize or deny it) is something far too many anthropologists (i.e. White anthropologists) do not do, especially in relation to being honest about how often anthropologists share the very same anti-Black biases which make the murder of Black boys/men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, and Black girls/women like Renisha McBride possible–as well as the criminalization of Black people simply because of enduring stereotypes of Black people as violent subhuman animals and savages (as Dick Powis discussed in his response to Matt Thompson’s post on what constitutes a riot). In short, the slaying of Michael Brown did not occur in a vacuum: it is the product of larger structural inequalities and implicit biases which also exist in and are (re)produced by the academy.
The sad reality, as I have personally witnessed and experienced first-hand, is that many (non-Black, and especially White) anthropologists have extremely negative views of Black people overall, even as the discipline officially claims to be antiracist and rejoices, in self-congratulatory fashion, in publicly excoriating Nicholas Wade and identifying only the most blatant and explicit enunciations of racial inferiority and racial animus as ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’.
But what happened to Michael Brown, is also about White supremacy, including everyday practices that all anthropologists participate in which normalize devaluing Black lives and seeing Black people, especially the darker-skinned they are, as less human, less intelligent, more violent and criminally-inclined. (Yes, the Savage Slot persists.)
It is not just Prof. Rizvi’s students who are blind to ‘quotidian racism’. Plenty of (White) anthropologists are also blind to these ‘everyday practices of White supremacy’ (such that calling out behavior or individuals as ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’ comes to be misrecognized as being ‘mean-spirited’, because forthright critique of such everyday practices of White supremacy in the US happens far too little in Anthropology and is rarely the subject of anthropological ethnographies). The ability of so many of the author’s White students to believe we live in a postracial world, and their inability to be clued in to the racism people of color constantly face, regardless of class or education, is very much a product of Anthropology’s own ‘race avoidance’ as discussed in “Anthropology as White Public Space?”: ‘We’ don’t really write the books, articles, ethnographies about daily racism in the US, about daily manifestations of White power and privilege that would (re)educate these students, or ‘the public’ more broadly. (Public Anthropology?)
So I applaud the genuine solidarity and antiracism education in which Prof. Rizvi is engaged. I just wish more anthropologists were doing this work. And forcing a conversation on the implicit (anti-Black) biases of anthropologists themselves, as well as the daily practices of White supremacy and anti-Black racism which are a part of academic life, just as they are a part of American life more broadly. And please note that I did not write ‘US life’ because this issue of anti-Blackness, White supremacy, and racial control of people of color via (militarized) policing is not limited to the US, but is characteristic of ALL the ‘post-slavery’ states in the Americas. (Yes, buzzwords/themes like ‘globalization’ and ‘transnationalism’, which anthropologists usually like.) The issue is the ongoing legacy of racialized slavery, genocide, and dispossession in the Americas, and the racial logics of humanity and sub-/non-humanity with which we continue to live, and die, such that some people–like Michael Brown, by virtue of his Blackness–are always already seen as disposable non-persons, bare life, and those who Anthropology has long spoken for while often refusing to listen to as equals.
So yes, returning, recursively, to the shirt/photo above, it is worth thinking about the issue of resistance, raised by the author in the post. Whose resistance is even recognized as a political act in the first place, and whose is instead seen as the dangerous rioting/violence of subhuman animals who must be controlled and silenced, by any means necessary? Moreover, the anger currently being expressed by Black people and Black communities is a thoroughly anthropological issue: as anthropologist Catherine Lutz reminds us in her book Unnatural Sentiments, “emotion is an index of social relation”. Constantly denying Black people, especially poor and working-class Black people, our right to anger over being constantly dehumanized as nothing more than violent animals against whom the police and others/society must defend itself (yes, this is a conscious Foucault reference) is dehumanization in and of itself, reinstating the very racist logics that Nicholas Wade advocates about Black people as constitutionally less intelligent and more violent. This is exactly the racism that anthropologists claim they repudiate and do not want to support. When will our words match our actions?
Post-Script: I wrote this comment before reading Brittany Cooper’s In Defense of Black Rage, over at Salon. In it she articulates many of the same points I have articulated here and elsewhere, for years, often to be met with some version of ‘shut up and stop complaining about your “personal issues” no one cares about or racist abuse I am not going to believe’. Such a response is easy to give when you will never be on the receiving end of racial profiling and police brutality, and when the pain of racial discrimination is only an abstract concept and not an embodied experience. I think what is most important about both Prof. Cooper’s post, as well as Prof. Rizvi’s is, their willingness to acknowledge the real pain that racism causes those who have to endure it, suffering which those who don’t have to experience (anti-Black) racism all too often neither want to hear about or believe. In particular, I want to draw attention to what Prof. Cooper says about how Black rage scares White people. (But why would anthropologists, or anyone else, expect black people to be alright with being dehumanized, seen as animals, and treated as second-class citizens if human beings at all? Why should such racism produce something other than anger/outrage? And shouldn’t anthropological empathy be capable of understanding such anger, instead of summarily dismissing, pathologizing, and silencing it? If the good ethnographer can have sympathy for Nazis, why not Black anger too?) But Coopers’s discussion of why Whites fear Black anger is one I have found few White anthropologists willing to have. Why?
It is easy to talk about racism when it is displaced onto others. This is one reason it is so attractive for anthropologists to excoriate Nicholas Wade. But it is much harder to talk about the racism that involves ‘us’, admit to the fears Brittany Cooper writes about, admit how and why (White) anthropologists have them too, and admit the kinds if life-endangering, brutalizing abuse and dehumanization such racism makes possible – yes, even from anthropologists who believe themselves to be ‘past racism’. If anthropologists, as a discipline, truly want to be engaged in an antiracist project contra people like Nicholas Wade, they, too, will have to be honest about the fear/anti-Blackness of which Brittany Cooper writes – however uncomfortable and difficult looking in the proverbial mirror may be.