Nothing like #Ferguson to Reveal those Closeted Racists (in Anthropology)

We all knew it was going to happen. For a couple weeks, we kept hearing about how the Grand Jury decision was going to happen at any moment. The governor called in the National Guard and declared a state of emergency; businesses in Clayton, MO (a small affluent suburb of St. Louis) started boarding up windows and blockading the streets. And then came Monday morning: as I left home for school, I saw the news. The city was wrapping monuments to keep them from being vandalized. As Michael Che commented on SNL: That’s like your lawyer telling you to show up to court in something orange.

It’s all people could talk about at school. “When do you think they’ll announce it?” The conversation even veered into “Ferguson” in my seminar on reproductive health issues. It gave us a chance to talk about how #BlackLivesMatter is a reproductive rights issue, something I had hoped to discuss for the last several weeks.

Hours later, I was back home watching the local news on my television, @AnonCopWatch on my laptop, and listening to the STL Police Scanner. McCulloch’s speech, calculated from the beginning, was chilling, especially in the context of his background. No one was surprised. President Obama’s speech was a disappointment, as if he was running for re-election. The police moved in with smoke and then tear gas and we all know the rest of the story.

The Grand Jury decision has come on the heels of the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer for carrying an Airsoft handgun without the orange tip, and I had just spent about a day fruitlessly arguing with people on Facebook about whether or not this was a “race issue.” Because I’m a sucker for being drawn into these things, I gave up yet another day of valuable time trying to convince a brick wall to bend.

The most astonishing part about the discussions that I’ve had is that half of the people with whom I sparred are trained in anthropology (and the other half, closet racist relatives; but you almost have to expect that). I apparently believed – naively so – that we (anthropologists) are on the same page, especially about things like structural violence (or vulnerability), governmentality, state-sanctioned violence, privilege, méconnaissance, social reproduction and so forth; I assumed that we could all discuss things abstractly in order to flesh out a conceptual framework of why the sudden rash of “justifiable homicides.” Nope. I shouldn’t have been surprised, and here’s why.

“Race is a biological myth.” The AAA should tattoo it on our faces when we buy lifetime memberships. We say it all the time and don’t pretend that you don’t get some satisfaction from the look of shock when your students hear this for the first time. The problem is, it lacks a very crucial corollary: “[But] race is a social reality.”

Another friend – a non-anthropologist woman of color – messaged me privately. “Why don’t your friends get it? Why do they insist on telling me that my experience as a black woman is wrong?” I told her: They are (or were) anthropology students. We are taught that “race is a myth,” and therefore it follows that race cannot be implicated in the issues that they were happy to identify as “structural” or “systemic.” They just weren’t willing to take the next step and see that even if the whole system is flawed, it affects people of color much differently than it affects white people; that parents of black children worry differently than parents of white children. Additionally, I told her, students of anthropology are implicitly taught that anthropology is done outside of the United States and sociology is done inside the United States, and so were aren’t exactly receptive to the idea of viewing “justifiable homicide” through an anthropological lens, and I’ll be damned if we even know what a sociological lens looks like. I suggested that some of my friends read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and one friend replied that they didn’t need to read to learn about “the real world.” I assume “the real world” in this case means “America,” because as an anthropologist this person had no trouble reading literature related to their research.

Professors of anthropology, you need to sit down with your students and hash this out. I don’t need to tell you that if we deny the social reality of race, we will continue to reproduce this lacuna of empathy in the next generation of anthropologists. The “race card” can be a powerful tool for us. Don’t let anthropology persist in being a white public space.

Dick Powis

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at

9 thoughts on “Nothing like #Ferguson to Reveal those Closeted Racists (in Anthropology)

  1. Really? “Closeted Racists (in Anthropology)”??? What the heck is wrong with you social justice warriors, always trying to one-up each other in terms of progressive purity? That is a foul, disgusting, and childish title.

  2. “Race is a biological myth.”

    A few months back this very site was host to serious discussion about the genetic basis of continental ancestry. It seems that the work coming out of population genetics should further complicate academic and popular understanding of human biological variation to the extent that PC catch phrases, such as the one above, hold little merit.

    ” I apparently believed – naively so – that we (anthropologists) are on the same page, especially about things like structural violence (or vulnerability), governmentality, state-sanctioned violence, privilege, méconnaissance, social reproduction and so forth;”

    There are anthropologists, those who seek to investigate the world and produce analytic results, and then there are anthropologists, those who navel gaze, fancy themselves as some sort of avatar of the late “che,” and cite horribly thought out continental philosophy. Not all anthropologists subscribe to the same theories. From the looks of some of the terms you listed, I would wager that you find something insightful in both Foucault and Bourdieu. That is your prerogative, but some of us, myself in particular, do not find much analytic purchase in “governmentality, meconnaissance, social reproduction etc”.

    With respect to the situation in Ferguson it is unclear to me if the suspect committed a crime. If the authorities cannot provide substantial evidence to bring the suspect to trial then it may be because there was no wrong doing. This is a fairly unpopular view, but instead of falling into the good ole’ mob mentality I believe it is best to remain calm . There are far too many celebrities, and others, condemning the suspect. One of the nice things about this country is that people, at least in theory, are “innocent until proven guilty.” The same can’t be said about people living in many of the countries we anthropologists work in.

  3. Thanks for this post. I teach ‘race is a social construct’ as my primary take away, in hopes of not creating students who say what you apparently heard a lot of. There is a great pbs series called ‘ Race: the power of an illusion’ that shows both why race is not biologically tenable, but culturally it is very powerful. I use that too.

  4. Thank you Megan. I check out the PBS series. Not to take your words overliterally, but you reminded me: I don’t think it’s enough to tell people that race is a “social construct,” which has become another way of saying that it’s fake or it doesn’t exist. “Social construct” really obscures that race is culturally very powerful, as you said.

  5. “Race is a social construct” is a way of indicating the domain in which race has meaning: that of human invention, definition, and usage. Kinship is a social construct as well, but I don’t think anyone would argue that the fact that it does not map exclusively biological relations and varies across cultures means it’s “fake.” To my mind, the key to getting people to understand how race works in this society is to convey the myriad ways in which it is a social construct, and therefore our responsibility. We made it; we can unmake it. It’s up to us all to choose whether to perpetuate the myth or explicate it, revealing what a hollow concept it is. The fact that millions of our fellow citizens suffer because so many still believe in the “reality” of race does not give it any more measurable existence than the belief in Jehovah does for the notion of deity. Race is not a reality of any kind; racism is.

  6. Dick, I agree. I don’t just talk about it that briefly, and we clearly talk about the implications of how we construct our cultural categories in class, just like gender, family structure, etc… Two activities I use are A) to look at historical census categories in the US to see how these categories have changed and what the polical and economic purposes of thise census categories are and B) to look at the racial categories that are salient in some other countries in the world.

  7. Thanks for taking this on Dick. There are a lot of people who fancy themselves enlightened who are not that interested in looking at their own lives. And of course there’s plain old hypocrisy. Plenty of that everywhere in the world. Have you considered talking about race in tandem with privilege? It sometimes helps get people to re-think their taken-for granteds. Of course, many people don’t like talking about privilege because they have absorbed the idea that they are NOT the beneficiaries of a system that is skewed in their favor. Your post reminds me that we have a long, long way to go in changing people’s attitudes and that education alone doesn’t guarantee that people will be willing to look beyond their own “obvious” realities.

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