Tag Archives: Race, genetics

Anthropology: It’s still white public space–An interview with Karen Brodkin (Part I)

The following is an interview with Karen Brodkin, Professor Emeritus in the UCLA anthropology Department.

Ryan Anderson:  You co-wrote an article back in 2011 with Sandra Morgen and Janis Hutchinson about anthropology as “white public space” (AWPS).  What’s your assessment of the state of anthropology three years later?  If you could add an “update” to this article, what would it be?

Karen Brodkin: The short answer is that anthropology is still white public space, especially in the consistently different ways that white and racialized minority anthropologists see race and racism in anthropology departments and universities. This is my reading of results of the 2013 online survey of the AAA membership (more on that in a minute). What I’ll do here is summarize the findings of the article, and then survey findings that buttress, complicate or contradict them.

AWPS was based on a survey of about 100 anthropologists of color about how they experienced anthropology. We used “white public space,” to sum up attitudes and organizational patterns that told anthropologists of color that they and their ideas were not real anthropology.

The 2013 survey (referred to hereafter as TFRR) was developed by the Task force on Race and Racism appointed by AAA president Leith Mullings (full disclosure, Raymond Codrington and I were its co-chairs). More than 15% of the membership, 1500 people, mostly white, took it. Half were faculty. We reported findings to the AAA Exec Board June 2014. Continue reading

Is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge about structural inequality?

In case you have been living under a rock (or in the field, either is permissible for an anthro really) you may not have noticed that everyone and their mother is dumping ice water on their head in the name of ALS. Watching this fad unfold has provided Internet observers and other semi-employed persons an extraordinarily rich phenomenon to critique.

First of all, there’s a lot to like about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. By means of this fad I have learned that I have friends, Facebook friends, and friends of friends, who have loved ones or have lost someone because of this disease. It’s raised millions of dollars for rare disease research, which is inarguably a good thing. And it has done so by means of a viral marketing campaign that is, in essence, a short video clip of people acting silly. Wins all around.

It’s also interesting how, like the best of the Internet, the Ice Bucket challenge has spawned appropriation, reappropriation, and metacommentary. Here I’m thinking of Orlando Jones pouring a bucket of brass shell casings on his head to protest violence against Black youth in America, Matt Damon pouring toilet water on his head to draw attention to the lack of clean water around the world, and persons in Gaza pouring rubble on their head to draw attention to ongoing violence in Palestine. It’s really cool how the Internet allows people to riff on a theme and permutate established performances into something new.
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Boasian Critiques of Race in “The Nation”: SMOPS 12

I’m delighted to feature this, our dozenenth SMOPS, for readers. These papers provide an excellent example of anthropology’s long term commitment to social justice, public outreach, and a critique of incorrect folk theories of heredity and race. The real gems of this paper are not Boas or Herskovits or even Sapir, but the sparkling, penetrating papers by Hendrik Willem Van Loon and, especially, Konrad Bercovici. Read them first.

I’m also delighted that this issue of SMOPS is the first to feature an introduction by someone other than me. I’d like to thank Richard Handler, a distinguished historian of anthropology, for providing a brief introduction to this issue.

The pieces here are reproduced in full. Numbers in brackets indicate page breaks in the original. I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access, but it is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start looking for it. By curating a selection of important open access work, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.

Who is a rioter?

As the community of Ferguson, Mo. reels from the shooting death of a young Black man, Michael Brown, at the hands of a White police officer it is worth paying attention to how the ensuing social drama that follows forwards conflicting interpretations by means of competing narratives. Shortly after Brown’s death a protest began to congeal, this was immediately met by police control.

The New York Times describes it:

At a candlelight vigil on Sunday evening, the heightened tensions between the police and the African-American community were on display. A crowd estimated in the thousands flooded the streets near the scene of the shooting, some of them chanting “No justice, no peace.” They were met by hundreds of police officers in riot gear, carrying rifles and shields, as well as K-9 units.

The Washington Post elaborates:

His death immediately sparked outrage, with protests and vigils beginning that day and showing no sign of abating on Monday. The reaction took a violent turn on Sunday, as some protesters began looting businesses in the Ferguson area over several hours, leaving a trail of broken glass and burned-out storefronts in their wake.

It sounds like there was a confrontation between protestors and police as well as loss of property later on. Is this a riot?
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What happened at the Fuentes-Wade Webinar

On 5 May 2014 The American Anthropological Association hosted a webinar in which Ed Liebow, the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association, hosted a debate between Augustín Fuentes and Nicholas Wade. Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, and Wade is a science journalist and author of A Troublesome Inheritance. This post describes what happened there, for people who don’t want to stream the whole thing. Our fearless intern Angela transcribed the webinar, and I double-checked the transcription in key places where the recording was difficult to hear. I’ve occasionally cleaned up speech, but the quotations here are as direct as we could manage — indeed, this post is designed to let people hear the participants speak for themselves. Continue reading

Using George Zimmerman as an object lesson in the anthropology of policing

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Kevin Karpiak. Kevin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University.  His work focuses on policing as a useful nexus for exploring questions in both political anthropology and the anthropology of morality.  He is currently completing a manuscript based on his dissertation research (UC Berkeley 2009), entitled The Police Against Itself: refiguring French liberalism after the social, which provides an ethnographic account of the ethical work undertaken by police officers, administrators, educators and citizens as they experiment with new forms of sociality “after the social moment” in France.  He also maintains both apersonal blog and a group blog on the Anthropology of Policing. -R)

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been exploring the tragedy involving George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in a course I teach entitled “Policing in Society.”  My goal is to use the event as a concrete opportunity that can give students practical experience in using the tools we learn in class for conceptualizing “police,” “society,” and their relationship.  An added benefit is that it allows students to form and articulate their own positions in regards to such issues.

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Race, racism, anthropology #1: Mullings on “Interrogating Racism”

The comments section from my last post about the Napoleon Chagnon controversy eventually led into a discussion about race, racism, and anthropology.  If you read more about the debates surrounding Chagnon, it’s pretty clear that they bring up some important (and complex) issues about race, power, the academy–and anthropology’s place within all of this.  Near the end of the comment thread, one of our readers mentioned an article that’s well worth reading  (thanks, Kat): Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology, by Leith Mullings (Annual Review of Anthropology, 2005).

I thought that would be a good place to start for a discussion about some of these issues.  So I read the article and jotted down some notes.  I am just going to go through some of my own questions and responses to the piece by Mullings, and then I’ll open things up for discussion.  Please feel free to jump in whenever you want. Continue reading


Racial Differences In Skin-Colour as Recorded By The Colour Top


The “Bauhaus Optischer Farbmischer”
(via Mabak)

The title of this post comes from a 1930 article in Man which discusses the superiority of such tops over various other ways to measure skin color, such as Broca’s skin color charts. While I knew anthropologists had used Broca’s charts, I don’t recall reading about the use of color tops, which was apparently quite common. The tops used were actually by Milton Bradley, but as best I can tell they were quite similar to the Bauhaus design pictured above. [Can anyone find a picture of the actual Milton Bradely tops?]

The colour top is a device made by the Milton Bradley Company, of Spring- field, Mass., U.S.A., a firm which manufactures kindergarten supplies. It is, primarily intended for teaching children the principles of colour blending. The first investigator to use it for recording skin-colour was Davenport, who employed it in his study of the heredity of skin-colour in Negro-White crosses in Jamaica (1913). The principle is one with which we were all familiar in our childhood. The apparatus consists of a small top, of the disc variety, spun by means of a wooden spindle kept in place by a nut. On this basal disc, which is of cardboard, are placed paper discs of various colours. When the top is spun the colours blend… The proportion of each colour which goes to the make-up of this composite surface can be varied at will, by merely moving the discs round upon the spindle… By suitable adjustment of these four discs, the spinning surface can be made to reproduce,with a considerable degree of exactitude, the colour of human skin of all shades and gradations that may be met with.

Be warned, however,

The judgment must always be made while the top is rotating at full speed. Even slight slackening of speed renders matching difficult and the records unreliable.

I learned of the use of these tops from an interview with Michael Keevak, author of Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking. It sounds like another interesting book from the man who wrote The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax, which I blogged about back in 2006.

Why Are Evolutionary Psychologists Less Intelligent than Other Mammals?

Santoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist who blogs for Psychology Today. If I were as stupid as he is I’d probably shoot myself, but that didn’t stop someone at the magazine from letting him post the nonsense of Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women? (The same people who don’t know how to use capitalization in titles, maybe…)

The article disappeared pretty quick (the link above is to the Google cache), so either someone at the magazine had a lucid moment or they don’t know how to work their Internet thingies, but either way, it’s out there and it bears the imprimateur of a pretty mainstream magazine.

Here’s the gist: During interviews for a longitudinal study of American adolescent health called Add Health, researchers assign a score for how attractive their subjects are, using a scale of 1-5. Kanazawa takes those objective-because-it’s-a-number-yo! figures and averages them by race, does a little factor analysis, and concludes that black women are objectively less attractive than all other women.  And after discarding a few factors like the “fact” that black women are fat and stupid (which, he points out, doesn’t seem to hurt black men much, who are seen as the most attractive of men), Kanazawa concludes it must be because black women are so testosteroney.

We will NOT be seeing Mr. Kanazawa on Are You Smarter than a Fifth GraderContinue reading


Eugenics Image Archive


Over at BoingBoing Carrie McLaren points us to the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement. Despite its annoying flash-based interface, the site is a useful resource.

It’s hard to believe eugenics was as popular here as it in fact was without seeing the visual evidence. The images here include Fitter Family contests, where white Americans competed at state fairs–much like cattle–to determine who had the best breeding. (Make sure to check out this traveling exhibit.) Also, lots of documents and flyers linking criminality to immigrants and heredity. (Oh, the irony of using the swastika to indicate the racial inferiority of Germans!) The interface is pretty clunky but it’s worth pecking around.

For background on the early 20th century American eugenics movement, you could do worse than [Carrie’s] interview with historian Daniel Kevles.

Move over Obama

Hot on the heels of some discussion of racial attitudes in Asia, “China has called up its first black athlete”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/5157717/China-calls-up-its-first-black-athlete.html. Ding Hui, whose mother in Chinese and whose father is from South Africa, has “joined the national volleyball team”:http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/sports/2009-04/16/content_7685380.htm. Just as Americans think they have ‘ended race’ by reinforcing racial classification so strongly that a kid with parents from Kenya and Kansas raised in Manoa and Indonesia gets labelled as ‘black’ (and elected as president), so too the head coach of the National Youth Volleyball team, Zhou Jian’an, says “We pick players for their ability and to meet the needs of the team as a whole… He’s no different from the other players. They are all Chinese.” The head coach of his league volleyball team also notes: “He’s also a great singer and dancer.” The Telegraph reports that “On Chinese internet forums, he has been lauded for the ‘whiteness’ of his teeth and the ‘athleticism of his genes’.”

All of which is to say that inverting the moral valuation of different forms of racial classification is not the same thing as dismantling the system of classification itself.

Are we causality crazy?

update: I forgot to post my amended picture:


Steven Pinker’s latest apology for behavioral genetics is in this weekend’s NYT Magazine. There are two things to pay attention to. 1) he’s right about personal genome sequencing: regardless of whether it’s correct, or the results can be properly interpreted for people, people are going to do it, and for all kinds of reasons, good and bad, and this is in itself something that will change behavior–call it proximate causality for individual behaviors. And the comparison with astrology, sorcery and other forms of readouts about your fate should probably be taken more seriously, especially by anthropologists, rather than used as a dismissal of genetic essentialism or determinism. 2) genetics seems to have become so confused with heritability that the claims about “what genes cause” have become incoherent; scales are routinely mixed up, which is what results in the manic fantasizing about why we conserve one gene or another (“gene so-and-so is correlated with baldness, therefore baldness must have conferred an advantage on our distant ancestors by serving as an effective way to deflect light before mirrors were invented” etc). As a result, our ability to argue about the roles that distant causality play versus those that proximate causality play have been compromised. Oh, and one other thing, There is no mention at all of epigenetics… is that deliberate, I wonder, or does it represent troubling ignorance on Pinker’s part?

and btw, I will note that our category for genetics at SM is “Race, genetics” which (and I’m not blaming anyone here) is interesting.

Let Freedom Ring from your Navigation Toolbar!

I feel compelled to blog this: a browser for black people. Mostly it’s because when I tried to download it the captcha program made me enter the words “reveled Empire.” (!) But also because, as someone putatively an expert on open source and culture, I was a bit (okay very) surprised that it exists, and doubly so that it’s serious. Two things: 1) yea open source! anyone can download Firefox and create their own “Browser for X people.” As anthropologists we could make browsers for our peoples. Except that my peoples made the browser in the first place, so y’all will have to go on without me. 2) Do we need further confirmation that race is now simply a demographic marketing category, and that anyone who feels it is actually an identity has confused consumption profiles with values?

I’m off to make a browser for cynics. or maybe one for black panthers, which strikes me as something we might need more right about now.

Transhumanism vs. Anthropology

In my ongoing quixotic attempt to highlight places where anthropology should be and isn’t, I thought I would bring up the issue of transhumanism, once more with feeling.
Over the years of being a participant-observer amongst geeks, I’ve repeatedly found myself amongst transhumanists. I’ve even written about it a bit, though only as a kind of limit case for certain understandings of history. The only good scholarly work on transhumanism I know of is by Richard Doyle (which is to be distinguished from scholarly work BY transhumanists, which is actually remarkably common if you cast a wide net). I’m a bit gun-shy from trying to engage experimental philosophers, but I’ve often wondered why there is so little interest from anthropologists in this brand of scientific-cum-theological thinking—or vice versa. It seems to me that crap like Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near is pretty bad press for this group—worse in any case than Ted William’s freezing his head, which is just the kind of creepy shit the press loves. There are a lot of interesting variations on transhumanism, from your basic immortality by downloading consciousness onto silicon, to more probable concerns with alteration of the human body through drugs, surgery, or bionic additions. This is just to say that like any ism, it’s pretty hard to pin down.

So I was happy to see that a publication I had never heard of before— “The Global Spiral: A Publication of the Metanexis Institute”— has published a series of articles by scholars in science studies, philosophy and literature (Andy Pickering, Don Ihde, Katherine Hayles and others) about transhumanism (volume 9, Issue 3). Unfortunately, they are all pretty un-anthropological in their approach, preferring to criticize transhumanism rather than engage it. I know why… extreme versions of transhumanism can be pretty unctuous, raising specters of race-purity, eugenics, bad technological determinism etc. However, I for one am pretty surprised by the continued growth of this “movement” (what makes it a movement?) and lately, I’ve started to think that it might well move into a more mainstream light as there are people like Nick Bostrom (an Oxford Ph.D.) and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies gaining attention and authority… Wait a minute, ethics and emerging technologies? Isn’t that what I study?!? Quick, freeze my head!
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AAVE is Tangible and Irrefutable Evidence of Difference

Tomorrow I’m teaching my Taiwanese students about Black English, also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics. For this I’m using Chapter 9 of Lippi-Green’s book, English with an Accent, which contains her essay, “The Real Trouble with Black English.”

In re-reading the following passage I found myself thinking about the whole Reverend Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle.

in spite of many years of empirical study which is established AAVE as a normally functioning spoken human language, its very existence is often doubted and denied by African and European-Americans alike. The real trouble with black English is not the verbal aspect system which distinguishes it from other varieties of US English, or the rhetorical strategies which draw such a vivid contrast, it is simply this: AAVE is tangible and irrefutable evidence that there is a distinct, healthy, functioning African-American culture which is not white and which does not want to be white. This is a state of affairs which is unacceptable to many. James Baldwin who wrote and spoke so eloquently on the issues at the heart of the racial divide in this country, put it quite simply: “the value [of] a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people”