The Meaning of Whitemen

I just finished reading Ira Bashkow’s book “The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World”: for a review article that I am writing. Ira is a good friend of mine, but even setting aside our obvious intellectual affinities I must say that his book is one of the best ethnographies that I have read in a very long time time, and I really do recommend it to anyone — including anyone who is looking for a good mid-level ethnography to teach to undergraduates.

The topic of the book is what people in Papua New Guinea think of white people and more particularly how modernity is a ‘raced’ concept in Orokaiva thought. Orokaiva have been dealing with white for four generations and are hardly people whose encounter with ‘the outside world’ is hardly new. Along the way it deals with many of the hottest topics in Melanesian studies today — we have material that touches of partible personhood, cargo cultism, alternate modernities, identity, and consumption.

But the book is really about how humans imagine the other in order to say something about themselves. As a result it is not just about Orokaiva, but the possibility and utility of ethnography as a way of knowing. As someone with a keen interest in the history of anthropology and a genuine and informed commitment to the Boasian program (the book is about race after all), Ira has produced a book that defends the feasibility of anthropology as a comparative project. The introduction and conclusion deftly sketch out a defense against criticisms which claim that representing the other must necessarily mean disempowering those who you speak to.

Ira’s concern with reflexivity comes through in this volume — we meet the family that he stayed with, hear stories of his involvement sponsoring feasts and dancing at them. We hear about the dynamics of an American traveling to Papua New Guinea in order to ask Papua New Guineans what things are like in America in a way that is reflexive without being indulgent or narcissistic. And above all — and I cannot emphasize this enough — this is one of the most lucid and well-written ethnographies that I have ever read. Ira does not engage in a lot of stylistic fireworks — this is not a ‘beautiful’ or ‘literary’ ethnography — but the clarity and vividness (and sure-handedness) of the writing really is extraordinary.

This is important because the book is above all an ethnography of Orokaiva in the truest sense of the word. One chapter, for instance, is about how Orokaiva contrast Orokaina food (taro, pork) with ‘white’ food (rice and tinned mackerel). Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is about food. We have paragraphs on onion, cabbage, instant noodles — details about what people actually do and who they actually are. When was the last time that you read an ethnography that spent pages talking about what people thought about produce? This is ethnography in the sense of ‘a description of the way of life of a people’ in the truest sense of the word.

Like all good ethnographies, Meaning of Whitemen gets better the more you think about it, and it manages to do this by connecting detailed ethnography to wider theoretical points. What is interesting is that it does not ‘use ethnography to make a theoretical point’ — if anything it is the reverse. While issues of race and the state of the field are discussed, it is clear that the purpose of the ethnography is to inform you about how Orokaiva live not to use them as grist for the theoretical mill.

Perhaps I am biased. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book if you are interested in race, the contemporary Pacific, or just a great read.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Whitemen

  1. Yes. But did the following endorsement of the book disturb you as much as it did me?

    “We are one of the others. Deconstructing the ancient sociology of in-group versus out-group, this finely observed and brilliantly interpreted ethnography of a New Guinea people’s conceptions of whitemen fashions a powerful new paradigm for the study of intercultural relations. Incidentally, damn good reading.”—Marshall Sahlins

    In the context of a book about whiteness, does Sahlins’s “we” reproduce a, um, worrying slippage?

  2. Strong —

    I understand your concern, but don\’t worry — you\’ll enjoy the book even if you\’re not Jewish.


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