Rethinking Pedagogy of Race in Anthropology, Part 1

Every time I see articles/essays about racial issues on media news, I often read through the comments posted from other readers to see what folks out there are thinking, and I occasionally get into heated debates with random online strangers. Some people may find it pointless to engage in conversations with bigoted individuals they don’t even know. But as I read more comments, I came to notice a pattern where the same rhetoric is repeatedly and pervasively used to dismiss racist incidents. And these strangers have no reservation in spattering around their reactions, as they call people of color oversensitive, whiners, over-reactionary, and reverse racists. They tell people of color, “Stop blaming white people for your own problems, focus more on assimilation, and get over the past!”

Who in the world taught these people about race and the history of racism??

Anyone teaching “race” would agree that it’s one of the toughest topics to teach. Looking back on the days when I taught introductory anthropology courses several years ago, I can still vividly remember the sense of dread while putting my lecture together. The university was in a relatively liberal pocket in the middle of a staunchly conservative state. The fact that the majority of the classes were filled with in-state conservative students shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Still, it felt like I was going to a Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of white Republican relatives – except that I had no choice. I had to go in there and talk about the social construction of racial categories and its devastating consequences.

My lectures on race began with a quick look at humans at the genetic/biological level. I felt that it was a necessary start for challenging the faulty biological basis of race before ushering the students into the most critical point – the social construction of racial categories. Subsequently I emphasized that we all belong to a species called H. sapiens, which is a single, highly variable species inhabiting the entire globe but has no biological subspecies or races.

What ironically resonates with this academic/scientific discourse however is the current perpetual colorblind narrative – “We are all humans, and so I don’t see any color and I don’t see you as a person of color! We need to abandon all racial categories!” This utopian post-racial sentiment profoundly dismisses the multiple histories of people of color in the U.S., as well as the histories of their struggles, sufferings, and courageous battles against oppressive white supremacy.

It’s not that my lectures on race completely left out the history of racism, as I briefly went over how racial categories and their given meanings came from white European colonialism and how they continue to be the root of contemporary racist climate. But with the limited amount of time allowed for the particular lectures, I spent too little time on the racial history, and ultimately perpetuated the colorblind post-racial rhetoric.

I recently read two history books, “The Making of Asian America” (2015) and “The Intimacies of Four Continents” (2015). In the former, historian Erika Lee traces diverse histories of people who have come to the U.S. from East Asian, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. In the latter, the author Lisa Lowe lays out intersections of colonialism, slavery, imperial trades, and Western liberalism that emerged from intimate relationships between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. What caught my attention in these books is how the histories of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/a, and Native Americans are intersected and tangled with one another. In other words, the shared experiences of each group of color under racism in the U.S. have never happened independent of the shared experiences of the other groups of color.

Think, for instance, about the stereotypical label of Asian Americans, “model minority,” which was first coined in a 1966 article in The New York Times Magazine by sociologist William Petersen. It is built upon the (sub)conscious idea that whites are intrinsically better than all racial others. By comparing different groups of color to one another, it allows the white privileges unquestioned and the white supremacy to flourish even more. Creating the hierarchy among the groups of color is effective not only for preservation of the white privileges but also for preventing all of the groups from forming a unified front to challenge the white supremacy, or even for instigating animosities between the different groups of color.

There is nothing new about the “divide and conquer” tactic to keep whites on the top of the racial pyramid.

Clearly, all of these historical entanglements never ended because it’s still happening, not only as a consequence of racist colonialism, but also because of the ongoing U.S. political and economic relations with other countries. The acrimonious rhetoric against immigrants from the Middle Eastern countries, particularly Muslim people, is a case in point. And the entanglements continuously shape how many white Americans juxtapose, compare, and arrange different groups of color into racial hierarchies. What a vicious cycle!

[Go to Part 2]

Takami is a medical interpreter and Co-founder of Coalition of Anthropology Students of Color (coalitionascolor.org). You can reach her via @tsd1888 on Twitter.

7 thoughts on “Rethinking Pedagogy of Race in Anthropology, Part 1

  1. While I agree with most of the post, I often notice another generalization in the counter-discourse of colonialism and racism: the white privilege. Without doubt, this indeed covers a historical, political and cultural phenomena that can be applied to countries like UK, USA, France, Belgium, Netherlands etc., but since the colour seems to be the primary classification criteria, I find this concept over-generalizing and inadequate when it comes to other (“white”) countries. Take for example countries in Eastern Europe: by “colour”, they are “white”, but they never had the “white privileges”. By contrary, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the immigrants from these countries to the USA were treated almost no differently than people of other “colours”. On the other hand, the Irish slavery (which preceded the African one) in the USA speaks about a British/English privileges, but not necessarily a “white” one. I truly believe that this concept should be revisited and historically readjusted.

  2. Thank you for your comment Cristina. The Part 1 of this essay doesn’t clearly say that I’m talking about “race” specifically in the US context (although it becomes clear in Part 2). I’m of course not negating your concerns, but each country/region has a different history, in which how “race” is constructed is deeply embedded. If you’re interested more in the construction of race in the US, I find Karen Brodkin’s book “How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America” as a good place to revisit. Nevertheless, I’d like to respond to your specific statement about “the Irish slavery…preceded the African one”: The statement like that is exactly why I bring up the 2 history books in my post (there are indeed a lot more historical accounts that are equally important), because there are hidden histories that reveal complexities of historical processes where slavery, trading free/cheap labors, etc occur. We all need to be constantly vigilant about whether popular/dominant historical accounts tell all.

  3. To “Guy”: I’d like you to clarify your questions. Who is “us” you’re talking about? According to whom “every PoC want to live amongst us”? How do you know it’s not the other way around? What if it’s actually that the people you call “us” want to live amongst people of color, and to do so “us” went ahead and started practicing oppressive policies/rules on people of color?

  4. Many thanks for your reply, Takami! And thanks also for your recommendation, I will read it, for sure!
    I have to admit (shame on me!) that I didn’t read Part II of your post.
    I will try to make myself a bit clearer why I commented on your post: on the one hand, I find myself having same reactions as you, getting really involved in hotted debates about race/otherness. Who was first enslaved is a matter of chronology anyway, not a matter of gravity.
    On the other hand, the problem with the “white privileges” is something that I experienced myself as an inadequate concept: as a Romanian living in the UK, I am a “white among other white people” (if we keep it in terms of “colour”). However, the discrimination (we can call it xenophobia for the sake of conceptual clarification) is not different from other ethnic/racial groups, in some cases it is even worse (Nigel Farage constantly targeted the Romanians as a threat to the British economy and social stability and the fear that fueled Brexit campaign was directed mainly to Eastern Europeans immigrants). So I find it truly hard to situate myself in this binary narrative of white/black.
    While, indeed, the history of race and racism might be very different and nationally contextualised, I believe that one of the goals of decolonizing anthropology movement should be the change of this dominant narrative of race (where British, French etc.=white race) in such a way that groups like the one I belong to can find a place as well.

  5. Tak wrote: “What ironically resonates with this academic/scientific discourse however is the current perpetual colorblind narrative.”

    I think this ‘colorblind’ narrative can be a common take-away from anthro classes–students take anthro 101, learn a little about race, then learn that race is socially-constructed, and then come to the conclusion that it’s not real and therefore no longer an issue. And that would be that. I think these kinds of conclusions can arise when we simply don’t set aside enough time to talk about race and racism in 100 level introductory courses. That definitely happened to me when I taught those classes. It was definitely something I had to rethink–I used to think it was OK to rely on that ONE CHAPTER about race/racism in the intro textbook and then move on. But that’s definitely not the case. I definitely with you that teaching about race and racism needs not only more time, but also a greater focus on history. More than anything, it’s not something we can just breeze through (Ok, I checked that box) in our teaching.

  6. Thank you for your comment again Cristina, and I’m sorry I couldn’t reply sooner! I do understand your concern about the black-white binary, as I imply in Part 1 that the “model minority” stereotype against Asian Americans doesn’t always come up in debates about racism, because it’s often assumed as racism against black people (and in many cases like police brutality, it IS against black people). I have met people who said “I always thought Asian Americans were kind of white.” Here, these 2 small words “kind of” tell so much about what “white” really means. “Othering” is about what counts as “foreign,” like appearance, accents, nationality, religion, gender, etc.

    I don’t mean to be repetitive but that’s why I argue for the importance of understanding larger racial histories and how “powerful” white people (and their followers) started and continue to put different groups of color and certain ethnicities in hierarchical orders. And like I say in Part 2, understanding of larger racial histories is crucial not only for anti-racism efforts but also for the marginalized people to get solidified and challenge together the powerful on the top of the hierarchy. Asian Americans certainly don’t get the police brutality, but they can stand up with black people to confront such systemic racism, which ultimately can help move toward dismantling the racial hierarchy. Sorry if I’m being wordy, but I hope I make sense. Thanks again for your reply!

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