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.

First of all, the article was written in the Annual Review of Anthropology, so it’s a broad overview of the subjects of race and racism as they pertain to anthropology.  The article starts off by noting that the concept of “racism” is actually fairly new (she says it came into more common use during WWII), and that there are plenty of debates about: 1) what it means;  and 2) how useful it is as an analytical category; 3) what kinds of experiences should the concept of racism cover; 4) when does racism emerge; 5) how is it reproduced; and 6) how does racism intersect with class and gender?

She mentions two distinct “perspectives” about racism from the literature (in the US): 1) The “natural racism thesis” that basically links racism to a sort of innate or primordial human nature (i.e. prejudices and beliefs about “others” are deeply ingrained in humans); 2) the perspective that links racism to “structures of power that emerge through processes of accumulation and dispossession within local and transnational processes” (Mullings 2005: 668.  Mullings notes that the roots of this perspective can be found in the work of W.E.B. DuBois, Eric Williams, and Walter Rodney, among others.  She also explains that this perspective is the one that’s most common in recent anthropological, historical, and archaeological work on racism.  It’s also the one she focuses on throughout her review.

Mullings makes an interesting point right at the start that gets to the heart of anthropology: Compared to the “sister disciplines” of sociology and history, “anthropology’s contribution to the study of racism in the past several decades has been modest” (669).  “At the same time,” she continues, “key anthropological concepts of race and culture have been central to rationalizing inequality.”  Mullings then explains that her goal with this review is not to rehash debates about the social construction of race, but instead to “consider how scholars have grappled with racism” (669).

So why has anthropology’s contribution to the study of race been relatively modest?  Mullings suggests this could be due to the “contradictory heritage” of the discipline.  She mentions anthropology’s ties to “scientific racism” as one particularly troubling skeleton in the closet (specifically how scientific racism was used as a rationale for everything from slavery to eugenics).  She also mentions the “significant antiracist tradition” in anthropology, which peaked during the years surrounding WWII.   She specifically mentions Franz Boas, Gene Weltfish, Ruth Benedict, Ashley Montague, and Robert Redfield as examples of anthropologists who directly challenged the racism of the 1940s and 1950s.

Mullings then highlights a current of anthropological work that focused on the structures of racism (this work is generally not as well known as the work of Boas et al).  Here she mentions the work of St Clair Drake and Allison Davis, as key examples of an anthropological tradition that critically examined “the structures of racial inequality in the U.S. north and south” (670).  This strain of anthropology was further bolstered by the work of Hortense Powdermaker and Eleanor Leacock.  Despite  all of this work, Mullings explains, “anthropological analysis of racism failed to become a major current in anthropology” (670).  As a side note, this is clearly the case, since the names Powdermaker, Leacock, St Clair Drake, and Davis are certainly not dominant figures in the canon of US anthropology.  It might be worthwhile to ask why.

Mullings then moves forward to discuss some of the reasons why racism and race have not become central focal points in anthropology as a whole.  One reason she brings up is the deep internal disagreement about the place of  “race” and “racism” within the discipline itself (and within society).  She notes that about 40 percent of physical anthropologists use the category of race in data collection and analysis (citing Cartmill 1999 here).  Some anthropologists, she continues, “continue to defend the concept of biological race as an important mechanism for understanding human variation” (2005: 670).  So, when it comes to the “is the race concept even viable” question, anthropologists are decidedly split (to update this discussion a bit I recommend reading this 2009 special issue from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology).

As for the cultural anthropological side of the equation, many have become “race avoidant” (here she cites Brodkin 1999).  Well, what does that mean? It’s a sort of after-effect of the attempts of many anthropologists to disassociate themselves from the histories (and consequences) of biological racism.  This has led to arguments that focus on the socially-constructed nature of race, yet less attention on the problems of racism (racism tends to get ignored, says Mullings).  Part of this situation undoubtedly stems from the controversial and contentious nature of race and racism in the US.  Quoting Shanklin (1998), Mullings says that when it comes to these issues, “American anthropology won the battle and lost the war.”  Along with shift to focusing on ethnicity rather than race, this has led to a serious undertheorization of both race and racism in anthropology.

Again, this might leave many of us asking why this is really the case.  It’s pretty understandable that anthropologists would be wary of the histories of their own discipline, and that they would want distance themselves from some of the ways in which anthropologists (not to mention other scientists) engaged with the concept of race in the past.  But why would this lead to a situation in which anthropologists have avoided the subject, by and large, altogether?  Here Mullings cites anthropologists (Baker 1998, Brodkin 2001, and a few others) who argue that this may be due to certain inherent theoretical weaknesses in “Boasian liberalism.”  The main point here being that Boas and at least of his students basically “interpreted racism as a matter of ignorance, rather than as a fundamental element of the social structure” (Mulling 2005: 670).  The result of this Boasian view was a focus on educating people (specifically white people) to combat racism, rather confronting the deeper structure and histories of racism in US society.  Now, while I see the point about this weakness in the Boasian project, I do not think it really explains why the subjects of race and racism have been ignored and avoided.  This may explain why the Boasian project failed to adequately address or challenge racism, but it does not explain the lack of attention to or engagement with racism–in my opinion at least.

But Mullings brings up another issue that I think gets much more to the root of the issue: A lot of the overtly antiracist work undertaken in anthropology during those years, was spearheaded by people who were marginalized by the discipline and the academy: women and people of color.  To me, this is a point that really stands out, and something to really think through when we talk about the histories (and canonical literature) of anthropology.  Who gets left out?  And more importantly: Why?

A final factor that Mullings highlights is this: There was tremendous financial and institutional support for research that supported biologically deterministic perspectives (here she cites Baker 1998, Blakey 1994, and Tucker 2002).  So overall we have internal marginalization of particular views/research (which focused on challenging racism), in combination with overt support for another avenue of research coming together to create a situation in which racism gets relegated to the back burner in anthropology.  Mullings ends this section of her review on a somewhat positive note, saying that the 1994 publication of Roger Sanjek’s Race “represented an important milestone in renewing anthropologists’ attention to the study of racism” (670).  She also argues that anthropology has plenty of potential to contribute to critical studies of racism–despite its troubled history and “late entry into the field.”

This is a point that she comes back to in the conclusion, when she specifically discusses what anthropologist can do to address racism (Mullings 2005: 684).  There is no shortage of potential in anthropology–this is a point that Mullings makes more than once.  So what should anthropologists do?  What needs to happen?  First, she argues, “we must critically scrutinize our own discipline” (684).  This means that the history of the discipline can’t just be dismissed or denied–it makes sense to take it on directly than to try to hide it out of sight in some closet.  The point here is that anthropology needs to confront its past, rather than ignore or avoid it.  But it’s not just about the past, as Mullings makes clear when she argues that anthropology is “one of the least integrated disciplines” (685).  Here she implores anthropologists take account of the differences between diversity and affirmative action, noting that while both goals are valuable, “diversity measures do not necessarily address the historical injustices of racism” (685).

Further, Mullings argues for the need to “confront the manner in which race, class, and gender shape the production of knowledge.”  In other words, we need to pay close attention to whose work gets valued, and whose gets dismissed–and what factors/biases could be behind these kinds of decisions.  This includes the kinds of material that gets chosen for textbooks, which helps to pass down anthropological practices to new generations.  Another key issue, argues Mullings, is the status of the concept of culture, which she thinks needs some radical rethinking in order to address issues like racism.  In short, the Boasian approach to culture needs to be updated with a conception of culture that confronts both political economy and power.  This is especially important, considering the ways in which Boasian or “culture and personality” notions of culture get incorporated into mainstream political discourses, often using “culture” as an easy tool for explaining away complex issues.  Like this, for example.

Mullings ends her review by once again reminding us of the tremendous potential of anthropology to contribute to critical discussions about the causes, structures, and consequences of racism.  She writes:  “Anthropological research has the potential to uncover the systemic and dynamic nature of racism and to identify the subterranean mechanisms through which racial hegemony is both perpetuated and deconstructed” (685).

Her article is meant to both encourage and provoke.  She encourages anthropologists to push their discipline forward in order to confront the pressing, pervasive issue of racism.  She also provokes us rethink our past and critically examine the practices and patterns of our discipline in the present.  One of her final points is about public engagement:

No matter how well we research racism, it will remain largely irrelevant unless we are able to get our analyses out of the academy and into public discourse.

A powerful point.  Keep in mind that she wrote this article nearly a decade ago.  And here, I would argue, is another key part of the problem: The collective anthropological disengagement and silence regarding these issues persist.  No wonder folks like David Brooks can get away with their less-than-stellar-arguments about “culture” and poverty.  That’s where silence gets us.  Maybe it’s time to end it.


Select References

(for the complete list of references see the full article by Mullings)

Baker, Lee D.  1998.  From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896–1954.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brodkin, Karen.  1999.  Race, class, and the limits of democratization in the academy.  In: Transforming Academia: Challenges and Opportunites for an Engaged Anthropology, ed. LG Basch, JWSharff, J Peacock, pp. 63–71. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Mullings, Leith.  2005.  Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology.  Annual Review of Anthropology, 34: 667-693).


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

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

  1. Note: In this post I have only talked about certain aspects of the Mullings article, which covers a LOT of ground. I kept my discussion focused more specifically on how these issues relate to contemporary practices in anthropology. But there’s a lot more to get out of this review article, and I encourage everyone to read it.

  2. Ryan, first I just wanted to say thank you for really putting some thought in effort into this post.

    I’m intrigued by Mullings point that anthropology at one point began to focus their efforts on the study of ethnicity to the detriment of an anthropological understanding of race. It does seem to be the case that many anthropologists have yet to approach the analysis of race by understanding the historically contextualized issues of power and political economy that are wrapped up within the discourse. But this lens has certainly been used to study ethnicity, nationalism and colonialism all over the world. Why have the insights we’ve gained from such studies not been focused on race…particularly in the U.S.?

    I’m going to dig my own grave here and say that perhaps one of the reasons is because of the discipline’s (at least in the U.S….not sure about elsewhere) trend…might even call it a requirement…to train students to focus their research outside the U.S. When you look at the bulk of the job offerings out there, how many of them are asking for an anthropologist with a U.S. regional focus? Very few. The academy is not interested in hiring people who turn the anthropological lens on itself, and that is certainly a problem, particularly if we really want to engage with the fundamental problems in say Brooks’ article or the discipline of anthropology. How could an anthropologist who does have a U.S. based research focus ignore the political economic issues of race? I’m thinking of the political ecology work of Melissa Checker as a stellar example of someone who definitely does not ignore these issues. And I do realize that many American Professors who have an international focus, do have projects at home as well, but it does seem like those projects tend not to engage with the racial discourse in America. Perhaps because some of us are uncomfortable writing on that topic, perhaps some of us just don’t know how because it is so under-theorized. But regardless of whether we have an American focus or not, this is an important issue of which we should have some knowledge and training.

    Now that said I, obviously–since I’m writing from Hong Kong right now, do think it is important that anthropology be engaged with the world. Anthropology contributes many important discussions from the world into the American discourse and all for the better in my opinion…because some (and it certainly doesn’t have to be the focus for all American Anthropologists working overseas) of those discussions are highlighting the atrocities and inequities perpetrated in the name of “Americans”. But how can those of us trained in the American Anthropological style be fairly unfamiliar with the theory needed to properly frame a crucial concept like race, and still be able to make our writing from a global perspective constructive within the debates happening back home. I found it fascinating that the only anthropologist Mullings described who I knew fairly well was Eleanor Leacock (who I believe was initially attacked ad hominem style because she was believed to be a Communist! God forbid! But also I believe she was generally disliked because she was one of the first women to truly challenge the powers that be for their male chauvinism). The article and your stimulating summary and questions have really helped me fill a gap in my knowledge, a gap which has been readily apparent to me after starting to read SM. So, thanks again for a thought provoking and constructive post!

  3. Thank you Ryan for this article.
    I like that you specify several times that you are talking about anthropology in the USA, where race is an analytical category that surprisingly is not used to address racism.
    It is always unsettling for a European researcher to see this word used over and over in articles, when what is addressed is very often class or socioeconomic status.
    Of course replacing it by “ethnicity” like we do still doesn’t address the main question of racism.
    It is a fascinating topic I keep an eye on. Thanks for your review!

  4. The article was painful, more the work of a librarian than a scholar, or a scholar writing for a UN conference, where everyone nods and applauds and not much results. Mullings ran down a list and added a comment and this post duplicates that process.

    My mother was involved the fight for desegregation of public schools in Berkeley.
    Both my parents were in the thick of it from the late 50’s through the late 70s. Their generation of Berkeley grads was responsible for the first teach-ins against the war in Vietnam, in Michigan, Boston, and Philadelphia. I jokingly refer to my mother during her years at the ACLU as the lawyer for the Fruit of Islam, since they called the office so much. My father refused requests by the Panthers to store guns in the basement and my mother would tear up remembering her first son’s inability to refer to the friend he was struggling to point out in a class photograph as black. He mentioned everything but skin tone. He was startled but not offended when someone pointed it out. Later he went to one of the toughest high schools in the city as one of the only white kids. He was bused out briefly to a working class white school in a different neighborhood and panicked. He couldn’t navigate his new surroundings. They shipped him back. White working class neighborhoods still make me a nervous.

    My mother was a bit of a racist, as my father was. And even with 2 Jewish husbands, she was an anti-semite. She “got rid of all the Jewish crap” when my father died. Mailer, Roth and Malamud all went off to the Salvation Army.

    I’ve always assumed, just to be on the safe side, that I’m a bit racist. I’m happy to hear evidence I’m not but it’s not my job to make the claim. I worked with a 20 something ex gang member on a job site for a few months. The two of us were working for a contractor but we were the only ones there. I was the working boss. After a month on the job one day he looked over to me with a quizzical expression and said “You’re not white!” I thanked him for the compliment. A few years ago, during a lull in conversation on a date, in a pricey manhattan restaurant I looked over to another table at a well matched interracial couple and thought it was good that things were changing. Then I looked back at my girlfriend and her dreadlocks and brown skin, and remembered. Does this mean I’m incapable of racist thoughts? No. I don’t call myself a feminist. That would make no sense. I’m not an anti-feminist, and that’s much more important. And whatever my day job, I’m not working class, so I can’t have working class politics. I respect them. As with whites about race, so with educated liberals about class.

    Thinking to the idea is like teaching to the test. Liberals are never as flat as their ideas. People are complex; we’re creatures of experience and experience is individual. Generalizations are no more true than specifics but bureaucracy prizes one over the other. I’ve noticed an increase in race-blind affect but that’s the result of increased social interaction not ideas. The experience of being around others means more than the idea of equality. And we’re beginning to have the experience of being around Palestinians, which is why Israel is in trouble.

  5. @Seth

    Nice comment. Agree completely. Still think we need scientists, engineers and people who can make decisions and take action based on less than perfect ideas or evidence. But that’s another issue.

  6. @Edwin:

    Thanks for your comment. Ya, I agree that the point about the shift from focusing on “race” to “ethnicity” is an interesting one. Especially here in the US.

    I agree with you that part of the issue here could be the general trend of the discipline to push students to look everywhere but the US. Sure, some have studied in the US, but the main push as you point out is to get outside, look at issues in other places, etc. I definitely agree with you that the academy is not all that keen on turning the lens back on itself for the most part (ie studying up, or sideways, and all that). So it’s probably not much of a surprise that St Clair Drake, Powdermaker, Allison, and Leacock do not hold the highest clout in the anthropological canon. They were looking at the “wrong” places I suppose.

    Like you, I am all for an anthropology that continues to engage with the rest of the world. But I also think we could encourage more US-based anthropology, and find ways to make it just as valuable as traditional anthropology. I see no reason why anthropology should not be put to use at home. It should.

    And I am right there with you about not knowing much about the anthros that Mullings mentioned. I knew about Powdermaker, but had not heard much about the rest (a little about Leacock). Definitely a gap in my knowledge as well, and something I want to look further into to see what else is missing. Thanks again for your comment!


    Ya, I agree with you that very often “race” gets conflated with things like class and status. Sometimes the term is used in very broad, unclear ways and that only confuses the issues.


    “The article was painful, more the work of a librarian than a scholar..”

    Well, to be fair it was in the Annual Review of Anthropology…it’s meant to be an overview article that goes through some of the main literature–somewhat like a librarian I suppose. And my post was an overview of an overview, so maybe that’s why it was doubly painful! But at least Tylenol is pretty cheap…

    I appreciate your comment, especially your points about “teaching to the test” and the limits of ideas versus experience. People are complex. Experience is individual. Changes may or may not come about because they go to a class that “teaches” about racism. Maybe, maybe not. I think that the “experience of being around others” can go a long way. But then, some people are around “others” for years and years, and they don’t get past their prejudices, biases, hatreds. Thanks for the comment.

  7. “No matter how well we research racism, it will remain largely irrelevant unless we are able to get our analyses out of the academy and into public discourse.”

    On this note, I am concerned with the history of visual representations of race, within anthropology. Does anyone have an idea of I can find useful information on this matter?

  8. Let me confess at the start, I have not read the Mullings article. When I searched for it on line, I found it behind a pay wall and only scanned the abstract. I am, thus, responding to what Ryan has written. I offer two propositions for further discussion.

    1. Do anthropologists need to do more to “theorize” race? I can imagine nothing more pointless when it comes to addressing the injustices of racial inequality. The basic framework on which the Civil Rights movement was built, the Protestant/Enlightenment/Liberal assumption that every individual is “endowed by his [and her]creator with certain inalienable rights,” that every individual should, thus, treated with respect, equal under the law, and provided with equal opportunities in their pursuit of happiness, has not been fully realized–but the notion that anthropologists, especially those who “theorize” will come up with something better–one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    2. Let us suppose, however,that anthropology has something more to offer than the classic Boasian observation that the basic human capacities to acquire language and culture are independent of skin color and other morphological features of biological “races.” In what sense will it be different, let alone superior, to the work produced by sociologists,political scientists, and historians, for example? What will it add, for instance, to the work of mathematical modelers who have demonstrated that small differences in homophily, the birds of a feather flock together phenomenon, produce radically segregated residential patterns in cities? What will it add to the work of historians who have closely studied the impact of reconstruction and reactions to it in hardening racial attitudes in the South? What can we bring to the table that isn’t already there?

  9. @John: well, for one, unlike mathematical modelers, we will not assume that ‘homophily’ is stable and predetermined, but will understand that the categories which come to be considered homophilic should be the starting point for interrogation, as similarity and difference are perceived and constructed in relation to ‘culture/power/history’. Additionally, we are better suited to asking what does it really mean to be human, in relation to the full range of humanity, and not just in relation to a few societies (in either space or time). We (often) do not assume the same normative categories as, say, political scientists, and thus can ask different questions–if we want to and think doing so is actually important.

  10. @John
    Since I’m the only person that used the word theory in this blog I’ll try to respond with my thoughts, meager as they probably are.

    1) You are absolutely correct that no anthropologist is likely to come up with a better “theory” that could improve on the framework on which the Civil Rights movement was built. And I don’t think anyone is making that suggestion. But how does this framework help explain a) how people interpret race (particularly those who reject the framework you mention above) and b) how people practice racism in their daily lives. If the framework can not answer those questions, then just the existence of this framework is not enough to help people who reject that framework realize that the practice of racism is wrong. The framework (or “theory” which ever word you like) I’m looking for has to be able to expose the contradictions of practicing racism according to the logic of those who practice it, otherwise how do you convince them that they are wrong?

    2) Actually your point here is directly related to 1). Of course Boasian anthropology and cultural relativism provided an important intellectual component to the framework that supports the Civil Rights movement. Following on that, it seems to make sense that anthropology and more importantly well researched and reflective ethnography can provide an argument, a theory, and/or a set of empirical data, to help answer those questions which I point out in my response to 1). I do not believe that economics is interested in uncovering such contradictions. From the little I know, it seems that history, sociology and political science (although the last two make me wonder at times) certainly have that ability to answer those questions, and you seem to have some good suggestions along those lines, so please do share. Perhaps I’m wrong in thinking that it is an important question that anthropology could also contribute to, but you haven’t convinced me just yet.

  11. @DWP/Eric

    I submit that you have both replied in the usual anthropological manner, making plausible sounding but unsubstantiated claims. My central question is what do we contribute that goes beyond what those in other disciplines are already doing? Not just the mathematicians but also the other social scientists and humanists who have long been engaged in discussing race and racism. Do we tell better stories? Produce more sophisticated analysis? Display a better grasp of historical materials? We offer a lot of wishful thinking. Could we have some post-Boasian evidence, please.

    To which I would add that “exposing contradictions” is something that all serious scholarship has always been involved in, a bit of scholarly habitus that contributes to logical consistency and consistency between logic and evidence. Politically speaking, it is a once useful phrase that is now exceedingly tired. Attempting to use it to claim a position of particular authority is weak on both counts.

  12. @John
    We are definitely talking past each other. Your question is what can anthropology contribute to the study of race, beyond the Boasian arguments discussed above. I made a series of *suggestions* for how this could be done based on the kinds of Post-Boasian research that anthropologists do in other contexts, such as ethnicity, which I mentioned in my first reply. With your years of background in East Asian Anthropology I’m sure you know much more about this topic than I do…but if you need post-Boasian examples of anthropological research on Ethnicity in China, I’d be happy to copy the list of titles I need to read on the topic before April 8th…which indeed do include contributions from historians, sociologists and political scientists. But with regard to how anthropology can contribute to a discussion about racism, particularly racism in the U.S., how can I be making unsubstantiated claims about research that, as far as I know, has yet to be done by anthropologists?

    My suggestion was based on the importance of pointing out contradictions within flawed arguments which anthropologists are quite good at, better than most disciplines. In fact, it sounds like you are saying we’re so good at it, that using it as a justification for our research has become “tired”. Great, again, it sounds like you know of research done by other disciplines which have done a better job of approaching issues of racism without using the “tired” Marxist political economy approach of uncovering contradictions within the arguments of racists. I hate to throw the question back at you again, but can you also please share these “non-tired” approaches with us? What approach is “strong” in its attempt to claim a position of authority on the topic of racism?

  13. @DWP

    The point about homophily is definitely worth thinking about. We should note, however, that the model builders in question are both aware of this sort of question and deliberately putting it aside. Why? The mathematics of the model require only that their be some criterion in terms of which members of two populations distinguish themselves. The content of the criterion is mathematically irrelevant. The models work equally well if the populations are labeled black and white, lions and lambs, or green chili peppers and red chili peppers. The relevance of the model to empirical reality depends entirely on the results of applying the model to a body of data. The predicted patterns of residential segregation are clearly visible on the ground.

    What is striking about these models is the demonstration of how little prejudice is required to produce segregation. Individuals who are comfortable living in mixed neighborhoods in which “our kind” is a majority may become uncomfortable if the “others” become or threaten to become the majority and the model predicts as accurately if our kind is black and the others are Hispanic as it does if our kind is white and the others are black.

    Do the models answer every question? No,nor course not. Why, in some cases but not in others, prejudice becomes enshrined in law or enforced by banks’ redlining is a problem that introduces a whole new set of issues–and thus require more sophisticated models.

    But, reverting to my larger point, model builders are building those more sophisticated models. Fresh thinking is emerging and being applied in innovative ways. In contrast, anthropological theorizing shows little, if any, advance since the early 20th century.

  14. @Eric,

    You are right. We are speaking past each other. Please note that in my previous message I distinguished between scholarly and political uses of “exposing contradiction.” To me, exposing contradiction is a well-honed tool in the serious scholar’s tool kit, not something that anthropologists can use to claim particular authority for themselves. From a separate political perspective, the phrase “exposing contradictions” now does little more than signal that an author self-identifies with theories derived from Marxian political economy. Is this political gesture effective in today’s world or, more likely in my estimation, a barrier to fruitful collaboration with people with other perspectives?

    Personally, I have nothing against Marx or Marxian political economy. A perspective from which we are constantly aware that human social arrangements are shot full of contradictions and begin by examining material conditions that embody or affect those contradictions is one I find congenial. As an isolated but still emotionally connected member of the Manchester School lineage whose ancestors include Max Gluckman and Victor Turner, what else could I be?

    But a paper I was reading yesterday put it very nicely. The classic theories (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel) are powerful metaphors for framing research projects. They are not theories in either a scientific covering law or historical who-shot-John sense.

    P.S. I would be delighted if you would describe for us the recent work on ethnicity in China and what role, if any, “race” plays in its discussion. This is an area in which I have not kept up and I would be happy to learn more.

  15. @ John,
    Feel free to call me Eddie (no one actually calls me Edwin…not sure where you got Eric?)

    Actually I personally don’t think denoting oneself as a political economist of the Marxian strain prevents one from having civil discourse with those outside of that particular ideology…although I have to agree that there are many Marxists that do trap themselves into that corner…definitely to their own detriment. But this is precisely why I kept inviting for further suggestions outside of the “exposing contradictions” tool-kit. I’m curious about the paper you mention which considers political economy not to be a theory but rather a framework for analyzing social science research, could you send a link or a title? I think though this begs the question, what exactly do you mean by “theory”?

    Oooh, @Ryan, perhaps that would make an interesting post…”What is Anthropological Theory”… kind of in the line of “What is Ethnography” post from last year…perhaps there is something in the SM archives.

    P.S. Yikes, yes, a summary of anthropological work on ethnicity in China…ugh, I’m already suffering from preparing for my QE so won’t go into too much detail here. But there are a few good sources already written. “Race” as a socially constructed discourse in China does play a part and has been well examined by Frank Dikkoter, particularly his The Discourse of Race in Modern China and The construction of racial identities in China and Japan: Historical and contemporary perspectives…he has an article up on his website from China Quarterly which is a good summary

    But Chinese concepts of “race” and “ethnicity” are interpreted and integrated in a complex discourse of “nationality”/”nationalism”. Dru Gladney has been working on untangling these issues, particularly in his ethnography Muslim Chinese…Ralph Litzinger’s Other Chinas and Lousia Schien’s Minority Rules are also classic ethnographic examples that show the political complexity of ethnic identities in China…sadly I can’t find much of their work that isn’t behind a paywall at the moment.

    But my personal favorite (and those who know me, know I have a bias here) is still Stevan Harrell’s Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China. This book is a great read, very direct in its approach and is able to uncover the complex ways a great number of ethnic groups (many who are subsumed into a shared official political identity) perceive their own ethnicity and the ethnicity of others who live in Southern Sichuan Province. And while the book is definitely not apolitical, its primary framework is not necessarily based in political economy, it is much more nuanced than that. Check out his website for the range of material he’s currently working on.

    I’m not giving the topic justice here…perhaps I’ll find time to put together a better summary after the exam.

  16. @John: a quick question for now:
    Why are you holding the study of racism and racism by anthropologists to a different standard than you are holding other forms of social differentiation and structural inequality? How is it that only when it comes to race and racism are you advocating that anthropologists step aside and allow other academic fields to take over, especially when it is not as though race and racism are not also imbricated in discussions/analysis of political economy, state formation, religion, kinship and other domains which you clearly see anthropology as being integral to ‘theorizing’, making for an odd and artificial boundary between race (as a form of social stratification) and everything else.

    Moreover, the categories the mathematicians use for their models do in fact matter, even if any two categories can produce some kind of social differentiation. You are using terms like Hispanic, black, and white as though these categories just exist outside social construction–which they do not–and it is analyzing why these categories exist in the first place, and how they are defined and demarcated (especially since the categories as you’ve used them implies a mutual exclusivity that is not in fact the case) is precisely a place where the mathematical models come up short, unlike anthropological analysis of these categories, as these models do not tell us why we are using these categories black/white/Hispanic in the first place. It is not very anthropological to say all categories are the same after all. Categories have particular histories and social meanings and get deployed in some contexts and not others. So if one thinks that such differences matter for political economy, or kinship, or religion–domains for which you don’t find anthropological analysis ‘tired’, redundant, or unnecessary–then why would one think they don’t also matter for race and racism? It is just a very puzzling reductionism to me.

  17. It is also hard to see how these mathematical models elucidate power inequalities (their origins, causes, histories) and not just ‘disparities’. But then again perhaps this is the point. Because you can’t really talk about racism without talking about power (asymmetries) and (structural) inequality.

    When one simply uses mathematical models to talk about disparities in the way you do above, one flattens racial inequality to ‘everyone is prejudiced (conveniently, and disingenuously, naturalizing race/color biases) and wants to move away from those not like them’, making it seem as though all indiviuals are equally situated in ways which are just not true. Such power-evacuated discussions of race really aren’t analysis of racism, and make it difficult if not impossible to engage and acknowledge structures of white power/privilege/supremacy, much less name them as such. Because even if individuals and groups maybe exhibiting the same behaviors, they are not necessarily doing so for the same reasons/motivations. And isn’t this one of the insights anthropologists are supposed to be good at bringing to the scholarly table. How are mathematical models illuminating *motivations* for actions, either social, cultural, structural, historical? Just telling us that a disparity exists does not tell us *why* it exists, or how it could be countered.

  18. @DWP

    You ask, Why are you holding the study of racism and racism by anthropologists to a different standard than you are holding other forms of social differentiation and structural inequality?

    I don’t. In the first place, I don’t see the study of racism and racism as the same issue. When it comes to the study of racism, I apply the same standards to anthropology that I apply to any other body of scholarly work. From that perspective, I see little substantive contribution from anthropologists since Boas and his students. I also regard it as unlikely that anthropologists are likely to achieve anything remarkable if their “study” of racism is restricted to rehashing what was becoming common knowledge half a century ago.

    When it comes to racism itself, I am not surprised that it persists as much as it does. Scholars of my generation, those who stayed in the academy and are now tenured faculty, likely grew up as I did. If so it is not remarkable that the unconscious or simply thoughtless habits in which they were socialized have not been erased by academic arguments. The good news is that this generation is dying off. It may take another ten or twenty years, but people with different habits will, one hopes, replace them.

    I have also observed how often our debates are informed by stories of truly appalling treatment (your own story comes to mind). I accept them as true. How typical are they? I don’t know. Are you a victim of structural violence or did you simply have the misfortune to encounter some real SOBs? Does the difficulty young black academics have in getting ahead reflect their blackness or a truly crappy and worsening job market in which most young academics will not enjoy the careers they dreamed of? I don’t know.

    Those models you don’t think much of may be more relevant than you think. When I was in Boston last year, I read an appalling account of 19th century racist riots whose victims were Irish, including nuns burned to death in their own convent. Now, at least outside of places like South Boston, being Irish is no big deal. How did that happen? It clearly had something to do with the fact that skin color similar to WASPS made assimilation easier. It likely also had to do with a willingness to assimilate itself, taking on enough of the cultural coloration of the surrounding society that the Irish ceased to be uncomfortable neighbors. That skin color and other morphological features remain clearly visible regardless of cultural coloration is clearly a handicap for blacks and other colored people. One has to note, however, that black power and other efforts to carve out a distinct black identity, reinforced by multiculturalist ideology that celebrates tribe over common humanity, reinforces the difference. Then the models’ prediction comes true. Society remains segregated, regardless of laws that discourage discrimination based on “race.” Old bad habits are reinforced instead of fading away. Is that a desirable outcome?

  19. @DWP

    Re mathematical models. I think I’ve said this before, but a model is only a model. Most models, including the ones I have mentioned here, are simplistic. They do, indeed, flatten the landscape being described. But if they are good ones they suggest alternative explanations and raise interesting questions that conventional ideas, including the rather crude notions of “power” commonly invoked in our debates, neglect. That is how they challenge received wisdom and may even play an important role in political debate.

    Consider two hypotheses:

    (1) The Sultan, the embodiment of both sacred and secular power, has declared that members of designated tribes must live in their own neighborhoods.

    (2) Members of the tribes in question will, if left to their own devices, sort themselves into segregated neighborhoods (as the models in question suggest).

    Which is closer to the truth in any particular historical case? How will policies designed to reduce segregation be affected if (1) or (2) is closer to the realities of the case? These are serious questions. To mutter “power” and brush them aside is, I suggest, not helpful, either for understanding or for rectifying the situation.

    Where (1) is closer to the truth, segregation can be reduced by the Sultan’s changing his mind. An actual modern example is the U.S. military. When Harry Truman integrated the services, the rules changed overnight from black and white units, black and white jobs, to “The only color here is green” [the color of the Army uniform], there was resistance, but the outcome is evident to anyone who visits a U.S. military base. A black man, Colin Powell, has been head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and there are plenty of other black men, and increasingly women, with stars on their shoulders.

    Where (2) is closer to the truth, a top-down policy decision doesn’t always have the desired effect. White flight to the suburbs has left many inner-city schools more segregated than they were when Brown v Board of Education was decided.

    Which reminds me, I thought I was pretty careful to cite both mathematical models and historical research as alternatives to “anthropological theory.” How come you got so hung up on the math?

  20. @Eddie

    Sorry about the misnaming. Senility is looming. Sorry, too. I have been looking for that paper I recall seeing on line yesterday, but so far no cigar. Will keep on looking, and if it pops up will let you know.

  21. John, sorry, not trying to be evasive or rude, but for now I can only offer an indirect response to your last two comments. I hope it suffices for the time being, and is conditioned by your mention (rightly) of appalling behavior.

    Mathematical models do not do a good job if translating suffering (nor, for that matter, am I sure that anthropology does, especially in relation to experiences like racialized suffering). Especially because of my own experience, and the extent to which I was truly shocked at the kind and depth of vile racist (and sexist) hatred fellow anthropologists had no qualms subjecting me to (and in fact felt quite entitled to engage in and were outraged to be challenged about), I have thought at length about the limits of anthropological empathy, and the ways in which racism and racial subjectivity challenge the participant observation that is supposed to be foundations to ethnography (and this issue is not in fact seperate from the Chagnon debates/brouhaha as it fundamentally questions the ‘going native’ which Chagnon, and others of his ilk, have used to secure anthropological authority and credibility).

    I came to realize that people–anthropolologists who profess to be antiracist (and antisexist/feminist)–had no problem using race/racial stereotypes/racism to dehumanize and retaliate against me not simply because they did not see me as human like them, but also because of the ways in which an anthropology which refuses to ‘exoticize the familiar’ in relation to daily forms if white supremacy and (antiblack) racism actually encouraged/encourages a fundamental lack of empathy for those who can be cast as (deviant) racial Others–others who need to be ‘spoken for’.

    This lack of empathy is one of the reasons why I don’t think it is accurate to say that Boas/Boasian approaches to race–and espoused belief in racial equality–is all that anthropology needs or has to contribute to scholarship on race/racism. The white anthropologists who see me as a “meaningless” “very dark-skinned South African” can never ‘go native’ to experience life as I do, and they know they both can’t and don’t have to (and this knowledge is foundational to the experience of whiteness, white subjects–and is a mode of being in the world not only opposed to empathy, but actually constituted through its negation and corporeal-structural impossibility) such that they will never have to care what someone like me thinks or feels, or what motivates my actions. Such a condition of being is radically opposed to what is supposed to be anthropological empathy, and is not necessarily or automatically challenged by the Boasian antiracism of the first part of the last century.

    Much of the most provocative and potentially transformative work being done on race/racism right now is being done by implicit bias researchers (largely coming out of social psychology). Anthropologists could actually contribute a lit to this research, including analysis that would keep psychology researchers from making ethnocentric claims (i.e. overgeneralizations across social/’cultural’ groups).. Anthropologists could also be producing ethnographies of/on implicit bias–including and especially by ‘studying up’ and ‘sideways’–showing the everyday practices and discourses which produce implicit (racial) biases even as individuals (yes, including anthropologists themselves) claim not to be racist and to believe in racial equality.

    Many people profess (pun intended) to believe in racial equality, but in reality they do not. They see some people as of ‘the lesser orders’, they see them as ‘those people’ who need to ‘know their place’ and “respect boundaries”, they perceive them as *fundamentally different*–as so fundamentally different that it is acceptable to be uninterested in their actual lives and experiences and motivations because they are simple irrational and violent primitives.
    Mathematical models don’t do a good job of explaining why this kind of contradiction occurs, a contradiction deep within anthropology itself.

    So yes, I agree with you: we should use the models as one tool amongst many.

    If we really were a discipline committed to Boasisn notions of racial equality, we would be far more integrated. And we would have a zero-tolerance policy for racist abuse and bullying. And as I have found out the hard way, this is not the case.

  22. @DWP

    I am glad to find that our relationship is mellowing. Didn’t start on a good footing, and I have said some pretty rough and unpleasant things along the way. Thanks for hanging in.

    Your last paragraph raises an interesting question for me: What is a “discipline” anyway? In an academic context, it is little more than a collection of individual scholars who share certain interests and an identity as a distinct field that gets them salaries, office space, and a few other perks—until, as the punchline says—it doesn’t. Collectively its members aspire to be recognized as members of a profession; but the sociology of professions suggests a sobering perspective. The original professions were the clergy, law, and medicine. Only law and medicine retain the legal sanctions that make pretending to be a lawyer or doctor when you aren’t properly certified a crime. In this respect, policemen and members of the military are more professional than the clergy now are. Anyone can start a church.

    What, then, of the academic professions. They are, objectively speaking, only profession-wannabes. Anthropology is particularly so. What reason is there, without those old evolutionary grand narratives, for people who study linguistics, archeology, primates and human biological evolution, and the customs and habits crowd to hang together? In the terms Thomas Kuhn made famous, anthropology is a pre-paradigmatic field. Anyone can call him or herself an anthropologist and, if sufficiently persuasive, get away with it. People may huff and puff, but there is no official body with the authority to disbar or strike you off the register.It’s like religion that way.

    Is this the way it should be? Maybe not. But before any sanctions we might have in mind would have any teeth, we would have to agree on the rules and who will enforce them and how. Given our diversity, I see that degree of consensus as unlikely.

    For what it’s worth, people who want to make a difference, for themselves or for others, have to think about politics in a different way. Assuming a consensus is like assuming the existence of God. Do we have agreement on that?

  23. @John: your last comment makes some interesting points which make clear that this post (and comments on it) should not in fact be seen as seperate and disconnected from Matthew Wolf-Meyers’ post on professionalization, or Donya’s post on activism.

    The racist-sexist bullying I’ve been subjected to is worth thinking about, amongst other reasons, because it answers (at least in part, and perhaps even in large part) your question aboutr what a discipline is, what profession means to/for anthropology, and the question you posed as the following: ” What reason is there, without those old evolutionary grand narratives, for people who study linguistics, archeology, primates and human biological evolution, and the customs and habits crowd to hang together?”

    When I read this question I thought that race/racism is actually one topic which binds all theses subfields together: thinking about how the language we use shapes our thinking about and produces and perpetuates racial inequality, in conversation with how this language and the inequality it both indexes and produces becomes embodied in the ways biological anthropologists like Daniel Lende and Lance Gravlee (among others) write about, and how the embodied effects of racial inequality need to be understood in terms of historically sedimented practices which can in part be addressed by archaeological knowledge/analysis, all of which relates directly to sociocultural anthropologists understandings of themselves as well as the kind of work they do and don’t do on race/racism–as much as it relates to ethnographies that could be written on race/racism and why some people come to be seen and treated as ‘those people’ of lesser value, because of (their) race.

    While what you say about anthropology as a discipline/profession is probably true, I think it is also letting the discipline/profession off far too easily. If you claim to be an antiracist discipline, with an official race statement, then you need to do better, and individual anthropologists should in fact be expected not to engage in flagrant acts of racist abuse and insensitivity. And if this basic consensus can’t be reached, then dispense with the official race statements and stop pretending that they are deeply meaningful in ways they are not.

    The lack of profound meaning of AAA race statements to the actual practice of (US) anthropology is an issue of professionalization, of the kind now being discussed in posts on this site and also directly related to the comments of people like Fran Barone on the institutionalization of abuse in the academy. I know that I will be jumped on for saying the following, but we need to be honest about how the processes and practices of anthropological professionalization (i.e. graduate school) in the corporate neoliberal academy actually promote and normalize racism, especially in a profession as lacking in racial integration as (US) anthropology. Not speaking up about racism–even clearly sociopathic forms of racist bullying, even when public and clearly in contravention of AAA race statements–is seen as **appropriate professional behavior**, and is encouraged as the path for getting a job (or climbing to the next rung of the prestige ladder, as tenure, as previously discussed, is not the proverbial finish-line, especially for the most ambitious individuals). Speaking up to challenge racist and sexist behavior–especially as a (racial-minority, female) graduate student–is seen as “unprofessional” and “inappropriate”, a sign that one is a Troublmaker (especially when one is also seen as a racial subordinate who needs to know her place). ‘Professionalization’ in the neoliberal corporate academy is largely about self-interest–including racial self-interest. And I don’t see this changing anytime soon, especially not when people continue to be rewarded for such behavior, or given the disciplining effects of academic/economic precarity.

    ‘Those people’ are always expendable after all. Especially to the profession/discipline of anthropology, a profession/discipline still problematically allied to seeing some people as needing to be ‘spoken for’–or silenced–for the career benefit of (‘real’) anthropologists.

    Any wonder, then, that anthropology is one of the least integrated academic fields, with persistent ‘white public space’ issues (which are very much also an issue of ‘professionalization’)?

  24. @John, Eddie, Ryan:

    Think the following will interest you given the topic of this post and my comments on it and comments on the Chagon post which led to this discussion of racism in anthropology/the academy. It is also striking given my previous comments on implicit bias (and (white) anthropoligists racism denial and race avoidance); also noteworthy that a friend emailed me the link this morning (given that just yesterday I was having a conversation with an implicit bias researcher in which I wrote that the “appalling” racist abuse I’ve written about (and have been censored for and viciously retaliated against) was a sad example, prevalent in this field/discipline, of “I voted for Obama and am an anthropologist so I can’t be racist!):
    “There’s a lot of institutionalized racism, even among the liberal crowd of tenured radicals. In fact, one of my friends, a law professor put it best: “It’s the liberal who can often have the least self-consciousness about the pain they inflict.” She smiled wryly and put on her best NPR voice. “I can’t be a racist; I voted for Obama.”


    The HuffPo piece is worth reading, especially for those who have convinced themselves I am just “meaningless”, ‘whining’, one of those annoying Black Troublemakers just ‘frivolously complaining about racism’, because it is a reminder of how sadly structural, institutional, and predictable the racism/sexism/colorism I have written about truly is, as well as its denial and unethical (and also racist and sexist) cover-up.

    I would also say it is worth reading in relation to the paucity of respondents to this race post. (Totally unsurprising and entirely illustrative of Anthropology’s ‘white public space’ problems.)

    @John: I am also glad our interaction has mellowed. Your apology and acknowledgement of abusive and insensitive behavior stands out for me for the ways in which it is anomalous. Especially in relation to Presumed Incompetent. When Rex engaged in the kind of racist-sexist disrespect that black women like me routinely deal with–as documented in Presumed Incompetent–he made a point of not apologizing. Along with his larger pattern of treating me with contempt, it speaks to the pattern of behavior that makes books like Presumed Innocent and articles like “Anthropology as White Public Space?” necessary in the first place.

    Many people are not willing to confront the ugly racism and sexism motivating their behavior. And the way anthropology, and the academy more broadly, is configured, there is no reason to do so. Racist-sexist abuse is continuously rewarded (professionally), and few–especially pretenure–are really willing to talk (honestly) about it.

    So it’s OK if people hate me, as a ‘stupid black b*tch* (or “meaningless” “loud/argumentative” “very dark-skinned” South African”), for telling the truth (especially about virulent antiblack racism in a certain *large* anthropology department with no black *professors*, which its ‘just happened’ not to have hired in the ten years since the last, sole black professor died). But I am glad you are not among them.

  25. One thing that confuses a lot of discussions on the topic of race and racism seems to me to be the old structure/agency tension. Is racism just individual attitude or is it an institutional and systemic dimension of society? Seldom is the understanding of racism specified. Mullings – and I agree on that – clearly goes for the latter.

    In an introductory article Desmond and Emirbayr (2009) use an interesting metaphore to describe the tendency (mostly among white people, I guess) to turn a “blind” eye towards the pervasive effects of racism:
    “hate groups epitomize what the essence of racism amounts to: intentional acts of humiliation and hatred. While such acts undoubtedly are racist in nature, they are but the tip of the iceberg. To define racism only through extreme groups and their extreme acts is akin to defining weather only through hurricanes. Hurricanes are certainly a type of weather pattern – a harsh and brutal type – but so too are mild rainfalls, light breezes, and sunny days. Likewise, racism is much broader than violence and epithets.” (p. 342)
    See: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~emirbaye/Mustafa_Emirbayer/ARTICLES_files/What%20is%20Racial%20Domination.pdf

    The way I understand Mullings, she sees anthropology suited to bridge the gap between structure and agency, when she writes of its “potential to uncover the systemic and dynamic nature of racism” (685). Ethnographic material has the chance to illustrate and specify abstract claims about racialized power relations.

    So, there is a need for the focus on how we are “doing race” in everyday life as well as on what that entails for the differently constructed people in all kinds of situations (racism). The first issue is taken up e.g. by John L. Jackson in “Harlemworld” or Lorraine D. Kenny in “Daughters of suburbia”, the second e.g. by Helán Page’s concept of “white public space”.

    Regarding the situation in our own discipline, I’m a bit pessimistic. As long as these issues are so little talked and taught about (there and in society in general – after all, the first is not isolated from the second), things won’t change fast. Not so much the silence but the possibility of white people to view themselves outside of the dynamics and structures of racism is, I am afraid, what keeps the situation in place.

  26. “Not so much the silence but the possibility of white people to view themselves outside of the dynamics and structures of racism is, I am afraid, what keeps the situation in place.”

    An interesting thought, but the silence could use a bit more thought. Why isn’t race talked about more? Consider, for example, the possibility that some white or Hispanic or Asian people are both well aware of the dynamics and structures of racism but don’t see racism as the most urgent issue confronting the country—seeing climate change, or the collapse of the global financial system, the stagnation of middle class income growth while the rich get richer, nuclear security, or millions of children in third-world countries lacking basic nutrition, medical care and education, for example, as more pressing priorities.

    Consider, too, a point made by Chicago sociologist Everett Hughes and repeated by Howard Becker in Tricks of the Trade. Social boundaries exist when people on BOTH sides agree that they do. White people have a lot to answer for, but what about the folks on the other side of the racial divide? In the Martin Luther King era, the Civil Rights movement was all about asserting that race is irrelevant when it comes to basic human rights. The integration of the Army involved the proposition that there is no color here but green (the color of the Army uniform). Does insisting that race is something profoundly different from ethnicity—which Boas and his students flatly denied, insisting that both were cultural artifacts–help or hurt the cause of those who would like to overcome racism?

  27. @Giuliano: Thanks for your comment, which I agree with entirely.

    @john: I think your response to Giuliano is really failing to understand race as the relation of power–asymmetrical power (and the ability to dominate and discriminate against, and not simply at an individual level)–that it is. This is particularly evident in your ‘both sides have to agree on the categories of difference’ comment. Seriously, I wonder how you can really believe this. As if black people in this county really have all that much choice in accepting the category of blackness. Simply look at how ridiculous it would be for Obama to claim that he is white and not black. And it would be absolutely ridiculous and dishonest to claim it is because black people wouldn’t allow it. The category of blackness only exists because of white supremacy and racism, and having been imposed by and through white supremacy. Any understanding of the racial categories you used above should have started from this recognition. To simply say people on both sides choose to agree on the categories is simplistic and fatuous; and itself indicative of white privilege and the ways in which not constantly being racialized in negative ways frees one up to think that one is focusing on ‘more important issues’ simply because they are ‘more important’. Not to mentioned that all the ‘more important’ issues you raised are also about race and racism: such as climate change and environmental racism.

    It is interesting that you lumped ‘Hispanics and Asians’ together in opposition to blacks. Yes, we have our ‘good minorities’ who shut up about racism and then those annoying blacks who never do. So goes the narrative. A lumping which is a reminder of how much the black/whie binary dominates and structures (US) racism. And certainly not because black people simply choose to agree with the category. This is not why the one-drop rule continue to exist.

    Moreover, given the experience I have shared about racist abuse, it should be clear that your ‘both sides choose’ explanation is a serious misrecognition of race/racism. Choosing to call myself black actually has largely been about lack of choice and imposition. I do not simply choose to agree with or choose the category. And to the extent that I choose to agree with it it is as a political category, with full recognition that I am never seen as and assumed to be a ‘model minority’ but am instead always easily seen as or assumed to be things that I am not–because other people will always see me as black regardless of how I may see myself or want to define myself–and such that I ALWAYS (yes, literally every day) have to deal with being seen as or assumed to be unintelligent, “frightening”, “loud/argumentative”, “meaningless”, violent and criminally inclined, and from the ghetto. And this is precisely why my department had no qualms helping a sociopath smear me as a violent black criminal and untrustworthy hypersexual Angry Black Woman who makes “frivolous” complaints about hostile racial and sexual climate–and the lack of choice Ihave in being perceived and seen as/labeled black (with all its negative stereotyping) iis why so many people have had no problem believing what should have been obvious to any one with the proverbial half a brain as lies, and why, as Giuliano has rightly observed, so many white people (and especially white anthropologists) could care less that this is the form of racially terrorizing retaliation that has been used against me for speaking the truth about the department’s hostile climate and ‘white public space’ issues, and are more than happy to not see the racism in what should be obvious as racist abuse and to not care (especially so as to speak out against it.

    I am sorry, John, but you need to rethink the assumptions on which your comment above is based. Race and ethnicity are NOT the same. No one really cares that my parents are from West Africa (so nope, racist professors sending out confidential emails directing the department’s staff to use the campus police to retaliate against me while I am carrying my “baby in a tummy pack”, I am not a “very dark-skinned South African”) when they are deciding to see me as and/or smear me as a violent (and crazy, of course) black ghetto criminal.

    Please, see racism for the asymmetrical power relation and political technology that it is. The issue is white supremacy (including racial hierarchies, rooted in slavery and colonialism, which create the categories white and black and then slot other groups into this hierarchy, in relation to whiteness and blackness, which are constructed as and assumed to be most different from each other).

  28. @John: when I read your comment, especially in relation to both sides choosing to agree and ‘more important topics’, I connect it to the following from Giuliano’s comment:
    “the tendency (mostly among white people, I guess) to turn a “blind” eye towards the pervasive effects of racism”, as well as his pessimism that things will change soon or quickly–especially in anthropology–given how little both anthropologists and the larger society actually (and honestly) discuss how race is ‘done’ daily.

    I am often struck by the way (US) anthropologists often care more about learning about the lives of far-off others than they are about understanding the lives of their own non-white/black colleagues and fellow citizens. It is a reminder of the dreadfully racist gorilla poster that went up two years ago in the Berkeley Anthropology department: so much of this discipline/profession is rooted in and still about ‘speaking for’ subordinate(d) non-white others, and not exploring why so many are still so invested in such anthropological projects and *desire* them, and the power asymmetries which encourage and make such dynamics possible. Interrogating whiteness and white supremacy/power/privilege, especially by a black female anthropologist, is the antithesis of such ‘speaking for’.

    @Giuliano: You are right about the structure/agency question. I don’t know that a lot of white anthropologists are willing to really drill deep to think about how this relates to their discomfort with and aversion to studying racism, and especially how they are produced as racial subjects through racism (and especially white supremacy and antiblack racism), when so much of one’s production as and experience of being a white subject, especially in the US, is of individualism and expansive agency: agency which those without white privilege don’t grow up being able to so easily take for granted. Especially for class-privileged straight white men, the assumptions of individuality and freedom that are so cherished are so deeply rooted in privilege and structural inequality and racial domination: work on race/racism requires thinking about structure and agency that is thus deeply disturbing at the most embodied level. A serious and unpleasant which to the system, to be pushed away–because it can be.

  29. I was trying to write “a serious and unpleasant shock to the system”, but what should have been shock was incorrectly autocorrected.

  30. Matthew Wolf-Meyer is right, we should be more trans/interdisciplinary and in conversation with sociologists. I think about the rectitude of Giuliano’s comment in relation to the following article belie, whose findings were independently confirmed by the statistical analysis of the Stanford ‘math geeks’ who run OK Cupid, all of which confirms the ethnographic work I did in the 90s as a Yale undergrad for which I won the departmental prize (worth thinking about, John, in relation to Rex’s racist-sexist ridicule of my responses to his “Thinking Woman’s Crumpet” post, and the ease with which a department chair/grad school dean/AAA section chair made a point of supporting a documented racist white male bully (from Texas), who publicly bullied me via the department’s forgrads list, in smearing me as a violent black ghetto criminal, confirming via an email she wrote to a third party that she fully supported falsely accusing me of being a violent ghetto criminal so as to discredit me and punish me for speaking out about hostile departmental climate, in an email in which she wrote EXPLICTLY that everything I have to say/write about racial sexual politics, departmental hostile climate, implicit bias and structural/institutional racism and sexism, and white anthropologists (unexamined) antblack racism (in my ‘her’ department, of which I ‘do not deserve to be “a legitimate member” of that community’ is “meaningless”): http://paa2008.princeton.edu/papers/80046.

    No, the issue is NOT simply people on both sides agreeing on the boundaries, especially as ‘both sides’ do not have equal power.

    I am sure what I write next will enrage people–and probably largely produce no response for/from people like Rex who deploy their white power by never engaging any of what I have to say so as to reinforce the ‘white public space’ in anthropology and make clear, as certain professors in my graduate program have, that NOTHING I ever have to say about racism/sexism/colorism will ever matter to them because or be accurate and meaningful as I am ‘just another stupid and disposable black woman’ who can never teach them anything, much less be their intellectual equal (creating the situation Giuliano and Leith Mullings have identified as a lack of ethnographic work from anthropologists on how race is ‘done’ and a lack of research on/willingness to engage racism (and especially daily forms of white supremacy/power/privilege)–but most white anthropologists really don’t perceive black people as ‘just like them’ or as (their) equals. As with the Cynthia Feliciano et al. research linked to above, what people claim to believe about racial equality often does not match up with their actual actions and the implicit biases which motivate them to act in racist ways even as they claim not to be racist and claim not to see race (when really it is racism that they tend not to see, especially their own). Yes, anthropologists could be writing *many* brilliant ethnographies about the dynamics which make these contradictions possible–if they cared, which overwhelming (as based on actions v. espoused commitments to antiracism) they do not.

    Most white anthropologists, as I have seen for the racist terrorism I have been and continue to be subjected to, see themselves as more like a white sociopath then like me. White identification is primary, especially as I am dark-skinned. Easy to believe a dark-skinned black woman is a violent ghetto criminal, even when the facts show otherwise, then to see a white male anthropologist that they fundamentally see–and identify with–as fundamentally like them–as a sociopathic racist bully. They understand and relate to his white life, white experiences, white aspirations, white race-avoidance; what do they really know about black people’s lives, black colleague’s experiences? How much do they really identify with them? How much do they even care? I mean, what do you actually really need to know about me when you can just defer to easy stereotypes, right?

    To many people in this field I am indeed ‘just another disposable black woman’ “whining” about racism, which they do not care about both because they do not really see me as a person ‘just like them’ (much less a human being of equal worth and value; yes, that dreadful gorilla poster) and because they do not have to care about racism which is not adversely affecting them/their lives/their careers/their ‘professionalization’.

    I know many people, to the extent they are even reading one of my ‘annoying’ comments, will protest and say, That is total bullsh*t, I see black people as equals!!!

    Really? Do you *really*? All of them? Without exception? Because generally it is not that all black people are seen as equals, just some–‘the good ones’, the ‘exceptions’, those who know how to ‘behave’ and “respect boundaries”, and aren’t “loud/argumentative”, and “disruptive” and “frightening”. To what extent ,when you meet a black person, especially the darker they are, do you expect the worst, do you assume you know what kind of background they come from and that it is not ‘just like yours’, do you cut them the same slack when they make a mistake that you would give to a white person (as opposed to resorting to negative racial stereotypes so as to feel justified in judging them and treating them more harshly while thinking of course the ‘bad behavior’ was to be expected)? To what extent do you really and truly care about black people’s lives and experiences, care about them as you care about your own? I’m sorry, but most white anthropologists, as evidenced by the actions that they constantly engage in which make anthropology ‘white public space’, really do not (including turning a blind eye to even truly heinous and sociopathic forms of racist abuse, because the target is ‘just another disposable black woman’ and “very dark-skinned South African”, and one really doesn’t care what happens to such people and finds it all to easy to see them as just ‘those people’ from ‘the ghetto’ not worth caring about because they don’t matter as much as people like me or people who live in places like Newton, CT–even when those “very dark-skinned South African[s]” are in fact from small-town CT, not far from Newton).

    There is what people say they believe about race, and then there is what they do. Statistical racial disparities exist for a reason.

    And that’s the great thing about those ‘Durkheimian social facts’ that sociologists like to use, and is certainly a reason for anthropologists to be in conversation with sociologists–especially about race, racism, and racial disparities. Statistical data shows quite clearly that both structurally and individually, we are still quite racist, even as we profess not to be. So yes, anthropologists could be engaging these statistical disparities to write ethnographies about how race is ‘done’ and lived daily, and why there is such a contradiction–every minute of every day–between what people claim to believe about racial equality and what they actually do, think, feel, and say in private (or in retaliatory racist/antiblack emails they think will remain confidential).

    Giuliano, I am not hopeful for anthropology having any of these conversations anytime soon because that would mean caring about–and seeing as truly equal–people like me, in ways that just are not the case. As I wrote about all those years ago as a Yale undergrad: it is about *perceived* similarity and differences through gendered racial hierarchies structured by the black/white racial binary, imposed by white supremacy–not simply equally-situated individuals ‘choosing’ to agree on boundaries. No. And the Feliciano et al. study is one place to see this asymmetry played out.

    So no, the issue of having one’s ethnographic-anthropological voice heard–and listened to, respected, taken seriously–is not simply a matter of the quality of one’s ideas and scholarship, or being undeterred when dissertation advisers tell you that you are “not anthropological enough”. I don’t look like Gabriella Coleman. When you are essentially seen as a gorilla to be ‘spoken for’ or ‘one of those violent ghetto black women’ with nothing meaningful to say, and you have professors in your own department (including your own adviser) supporting racially stereotyping you so as to smear and retaliate against you, and professionally sabotage you–because they see your ideas as dangerous and a threat to their own status, reputation, career advancement, and WHITE POWER and privilege–then you are talking about a very different kind of anthropological battle. And you are talking about a deeply racist anthropology that does not give me hope, despite what should be Anthropology’s ‘moral optimism’.

    There are just not enough white anthropologists really wanting to confront the ugly racism in anthropology, or wanting to critically interrogate (their own) whiteness and admit their implicit biases for things to change anytime soon.

  31. And another ‘interdisciplinary’ example directly related to Giuliano’s comment and why I endorse it so highly, and an example worth thinking about in relation to the ongoing racism/sexism/colorism of/ in the academy (and in anthropology; including the entitled ease with which Rex mocked me in his Crumpet post’s response, and way it normalized showing black women/female scholars and treating us as less-than, including via the way in which other SM moderators saw no reason to flag his behavior as racist/sexist disrespect) addressed by the recent books Presumed Innocent and Reversed Gaze: http://www.sunypress.edu/p-4915-the-suffering-will-not-be-telev.aspx.

    Anthropologists like to pat ourselves on the backs for the ways in which we are not like the ‘mainstream corporate media’, but what about the ways in which we are just like the MSM in our hierarchies of value–who is seen as always authorized to speak (especially as an expert) and who is not, who is always seen as valuable and worth caring about, and who is not.

    It would be hard for a black female anthropologist to write an ethnography of Wanzo’s subject, especially pretenure, and especially given how hard it would be for her to get access to media elites–much less be treated with respect and get honest answers, especially the darker the ethnographer. I do not look like Adam Fish, either.

    Why can’t we be honest about these simple social facts, especially given the professed ‘self-reflexivity’ Writing Culture was supposed to produce?

    Where are the anthropology ethnographies that focus on how white people are socialized to be white in ways that are fundamentally about understanding themselves as the norm and more important than racial Others? And how many white anthropologists would even want to read such books, much less encourage their nonwhite students to write them, to focus attention on the daily practices of white anthropologists themselves.

    So yes, especially in relation to Chagnon, it is day to counterpose anthropologists understanding of the social world to that of journalists and other non-anthropologists, but what about the ways in which anthropologists are not so different in assigning racial value and seeing fundamental racial difference and/or lapsing into lazy racial stereotypes (as an explanation for behavior)?

    How can one understand racism as something other than individual in the absence of understanding the daily practices and discourses which socialize–and professionalize–anthropologists to understand themselves as white, in de facto and structural opposition to those who are not?

  32. @John: “DWP has no clue”. Of course not. Because I am just a silly little black girl ‘whining’ about my ‘personal’ experiences.

    And yet again you have missed the point as it would mean acknowledging the definition of racism and white supremacy Giuliano discussed in his comment.

    I do not reference my personal experiences so as to whine because I am kissed off, but that you think so speaks to how little you are actually willing to think deeply about the actual effects of racism and its causes. I use my personal experiences to concretize the experiences discussed in books like Presumed Incompetent and Reversed Gaze and articles like “Anthropology as White Public Space”.

    If you were not so invested in not thinking deeply about what white supremacy and racism actually are, it would be clear to you that racism is not going to be solved by your sixties-era ‘let’s have a kumbaya moment’ perspective. Precisely because it is so ingrained, structurally, institutionally, corporeally and psychically that even when a black person does go to Yale and is from an all-white background they are still seen and treated differently, even by anthropologists who claim not to be racist.

    It is a sad comment on you, John, and others of your ilk, that you think falsely accusing innocent black people of crimes they have not committed such that you can put them at risk of ‘death by cop’–even when carrying an infant–amounts to nothing more than the whining of an Angry Black Woman who went to Yale. That you so clearly miss the life-and-death stakes of such racism is truly a sad comment on you. And these stakes are not unrelated to things like the growing racial wealth gap–which I have in fact talked about–especially as such a gap is directly related to residential segregation practices.

    But am I really surprised that you missed the bigger picture of understanding why I’ve been talking about my personal experiences to try and get people like you to actually recognize how deep implicit bias and racism are, precisely because claiming that one believes ‘we’re all equal’ while referencing MLK is just not enough to undo racism.

  33. Discuss White Privilege, cut the crap. It seems you view racism as Whites against Blacks only. Blacks, Whites, even Mexicans are racist to Asians. Even East Asians are racist to their Malay neighbors in the South East. Racism has a different face and tone now. Update your knowledge on racism.

  34. Try reading my actual comments and not what you imagine them to be, Ilognot Headhunter. I say no such thing.

  35. @John: You, too, should try reading my actual comments. That you claim that I accused you of criminalizing me shows how much you missed the point of what I was actually saying.

    And nice ad hominem attacks, which clearly violate the SM comments policy.

  36. How on earth does your comment on NBA basketball players relate to my comment.

    You are trolling. But nice display of derailing so as not to engage a legitimate point about antiblack racism. Honestly, your comment is tired and ridiculous. And I certainly had said nothing to imply that I don’t think anti-Asian racism exists.

    I fear for your critical thinking skills. Truly.

  37. I’m giving you a different face of racism. Isn’t your handle “Discuss White Privilege”? Well, I’m showing you “Black Privilege.” Let’s discuss it.

  38. @Ilonggot Headhunter
    Black people can be just as racist as white people, I think everyone agrees on that. That doesn’t do much to invalidate what DWP is saying. Are you a sociologist?

    I used to like your comments (not in reference to DWP) but you lost me at this:
    “I grew up in Bull Connor and Strom Thurmond’s America and now live in Obama and Oprah’s America.”
    That you can draw any kind of equivalence to the politics of white racist men to Obama and Oprah is incomprehensible.

  39. [Due to the unusually high number of flagged comments on this post, comments have been temporarily closed until Ryan is able to moderate them.]

  40. This thread has been permanently closed due to multiple violations of our comments policy. Please:

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