The social role of anthropology’s racist uncle

There’s a certain trope that has been going around for years, and it has hit a peak these days as many people express their collective shock and surprise at recent events here in the USA. The narrative uses a family metaphor to talk about the problems of race and racism—and specifically the difficulties of confronting racism.

The narratives center upon the figure of the stereotypical family member, like the old racist uncle. This narrative goes something like this: White liberals think of themselves as progressive and they condemn racism, etc. They “get it,” you know, and want to do something about the issue, and are definitely not racist. But, there’s a problem. They have a lot of family members who don’t think this way, and it’s often uncomfortable to deal with them and talk about issues of race and racism. It’s those family members who are the bigoted, racist, 19th century leftovers, and, therefore, the real problem. The racist uncle personifies this conflict:

One response to this trope is that white liberals need to just get over it and confront their collective racist uncles (read: the older generations who still hold onto strong prejudices and hatreds). This is perhaps not a bad starting point. But there’s something deeper to think about here. Another response critiques the whole scenario, arguing that the trope of the old racist uncle is just an excuse people use to avoid talking about and dealing with the broader causes and conditions of racism. That hypothetical family member is a rhetorical device that people use as a point of comparison to say “Hey, at least I’m not like that.”

This is an example of Jane Hill’s argument about how middle-class, white Americans use everyday talk to “produce and reproduce White racism.”[1] But it’s a subtle form, which ultimately serves to deflect and avoid conversations about race that get a little too close for comfort. One of the worst aspects of this narrative is that the whole notion of discussing the problem (at the Thanksgiving dinner table, for example) is so uncomfortable that people just don’t want to get into it. And here lies the deeper problem, which is complete avoidance of the whole question of racism. In this case, familial concerns about niceness, politeness, and tact Trump the need to confront the racist elephant in the room. The end product is not just silence, but a maintenance of the status quo and the conditions that allow racism and discrimination to persist. The bigger point here is that all of this collective silence and avoidance helps perpetuate the whole problem. Blaming this on the metaphorical racist uncle who is difficult to confront is the convenient escape hatch.

Let’s extend the familial metaphor here to talk about how this applies to the discipline of anthropology. It turns out that American anthropology has its own “racist uncle” figures, and they play a role that is similar to the collective uncles who sit around our dinner tables. They allow us to pretend that “the problem” (of racism) exists outside of ourselves, in this case safely tucked away in the distant past. In the story of American anthropology, Daniel G. Brinton, who helped consolidate and legitimize the discipline as a serious academic endeavor, is just such a figure. He’s one of anthropology’s distant, clearly racist uncles. Here’s an example of his “anthropological views:

It cannot be too often repeated, too emphatically urged, that is to the women alone of the highest race that we must look to preserve the purity of the type, and with it the claims of the race to be the highest. They have no holier duty, no more sacred mission, than that of transmitting in its integrity the heritage of ethnic endowment gained by the race throughout thousands of generations of struggle … That philanthropy is false, that religion is rotten, which would sanction a white woman enduring the embrace of a colored man.[2]

That, dear readers, is the history of anthropology. Brinton was indeed an unabashed racist, and his views helped structure the legal systems that empowered white supremacy in 20th century America. Make no mistake: Brinton and the discipline of anthropology were complicit in fostering and supporting these systems of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and discrimination. But, as many of you well know, the story of anthropology doesn’t end there.

Enter the figure of Franz Boas. In many of the canonical versions of the history of anthropology, the narrative begins with the discipline’s “problematic” 19th and early 20th century past. But then we meet the dashing mind of the young Franz Boas, the brave race warrior, who managed to save anthropology from itself. It’s not that this story is untrue, mind you. Boas and some of his students, like Ashley Montagu, did in fact transform anthropology into a discipline that explicitly challenged racism. But the Boasians weren’t alone in this, despite the picture that many canonical textbooks paint. Even more importantly, the story doesn’t end there. Sometimes, if you read introductory anthropology textbooks, it seems as if the story does end there, and that anthropology managed to conquer the specter of racism, once and for all, thanks to Franz Boas and company.

Not so much.

This brings us back to the racist uncle trope. At the collective familial dinner table that is anthropology, Brinton plays the role of the old, white, racist uncle who represents the distant past. Boas and his allies play the role of the (white) liberals who have conquered that past and, therefore, don’t have to worry about it. Sure, when they all sit around the dinner table some of this stuff comes up, but the racist uncle is always there to remind us that the problem of racism isn’t really about us. We’re all nicely exonerated from having to consider the possibility that racism still exists…and that we might, shockingly, be implicated in that reality.

What’s missing from the story that American anthropology tells about itself? Well, key figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston have been swept aside.[3] That’s not a minor issue. For the most part, many non-white scholars have been written out of the discipline’s collective memory. This is the effect of anthropology’s largely white canon. But alongside these occlusions, anthropology’s narratives about race also obscure current issues and realities that speak to the continuing plague that is racism. This plague—despite our stories and hopes—infects and affects social realities inside and outside of the ivory tower. But we don’t talk about this, and the stories we tell about our symbolic racist uncles help us avoid that conversation. Brinton was anthropology’s past, we tell ourselves, and now we’re all basking in the enlightened, Boasian glory of anthropology’s emancipated and heroic present.

It’s time to rethink the stories we tell ourselves about race and racism. This includes those conversations with our less-than-open-minded family members and friends around the holiday table. Sure. My point was never to say that such conversations do not matter. They do. My point is that we can’t use those conversations—which focus on race and racism as they relate to others—to avoid critically examining ourselves when it comes to these issues. It may feel good to focus on that conversation with your uncle, mother, sister, father, or grandparent…but don’t let the investigation stop there. Even more importantly, such moments may also be a good time to think about why discussing certain issues can be seen as a breach of decorum and politeness—and what that might tell us about the social spheres we inhabit, maintain, and reproduce. Such taboos, I argue, tell us quite a lot about how everyday forms of racism actually work. These kinds of things are easy to miss when we’re always looking across the table, rather than within.

We need the same kinds of conversations in anthropology. Yes, we need to learn about the history of the discipline—we cannot dismiss the past. Learning about the true history of anthropology—from Brinton to Morgan to Boas—is essential. Yet it doesn’t stop there. We also have to confront our convenient Boasian narratives that depict racism as something from the past, something that was conquered during the Civil Rights Era, or perhaps the election of Obama. If the recent election should tell us anything, it’s that we clearly never arrived at that mythical post-racial moment. It never happened. This is not a stunning revelation for many Americans, mind you.

American anthropology should critically challenge its own mythical narrative about race/racism, look within, and reclaim its position as an explicitly anti-racist discipline. We have to do better than we have on this one. We have to push back. Yes, we must recognize our problematic past, but, at the same time, we can’t simply retreat from the present. At a moment when “race realists” are crawling into our political stage, this is not the time to stand by in complacent, self-assured silence.

What does this mean for anthropology? Well, around the collective table that is our discipline, it means starting within. It means looking around at our classes, departments, and programs and critically assessing who is part of the discussion—and who is not. It means thinking not just about those who make it through the process of becoming a “real anthropologist,” but also those who, for varying reasons, did not. We may learn something if we starting asking these kinds of questions. Despite all of our rhetoric, anthropology is still, for the most part, a discipline dominated by white people. Perhaps now, finally, is the time when we ask ourselves why that’s the case—and what we should do about it. In 2016, this is surely not a reality we can blame on Daniel G. Brinton. It’s all on us, and so it begins with us. The sooner we start, the better.

[1] Hill, J.H. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

[2] Baker, Lee. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954, pp. 36.

[3] See also: Harrison IE, and FV Harrison. 1999. African American Pioneers in Anthropology. University of Illinois Press.


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.

13 thoughts on “The social role of anthropology’s racist uncle

  1. Ryan, yes, yes, yes, but….shouldn’t we add something about multiculturalism and legitimation of sorting ourselves into racially or ethnically discrete groups, assigning higher value to cultural difference than to common humanity?

  2. While I agree with the general structure of your reading of Boas as an image/”uncle, wasn’t the Boasian family much larger? Why use only Papa Franz when his extended anthropological family encouraged and included an extended kin group that included, in addition to Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Ella Deloria, Melville Herskovits, Edward Sapir and others. Wouldn’t a more extended family metaphor, perhaps replete with a remarkably feminized kinship network be more accurate? Just teaming Zora Neale Hurston with Ella Deloria provides a richer field of critical discourse. If we are inviting a “true” history of anthropology shouldn’t the full critical complexity of the entire Boasian clan be admitted?

  3. John, here’s another quote from Daniel G. Brinton, which was published in Popular Science Monthly in 1896: “the black, the brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white … that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts” (in Baker 1998:27).

    Keep in mind that the ideas of Brinton and others were used to systematically disenfranchise people of color via the US legal system. Brinton’s arguments underpinned the logic of the “separate but equal” doctrine of the Jim Crow era. Early anthropology played a key role in supporting Jim Crow legislation by providing the supposedly “scientific” justifications of a legal system premised on white supremacy. It’s all there if you’re willing to go back and read it.

    So…you’re arguing that ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘sorting ourselves into racially or ethnically discrete groups’ is a real issue here? Your argument is that people have sorted themselves into these groups?? And that people who celebrate cultural diversity are a problem? Really?

  4. Michael,

    Yes, of course there are more Boasians that could be added, but I believe you have missed the point. Brinton is the uncle. Boas is “us.” Mentioning more of the Boasian clan doesn’t add to the argument I’m making. Also: the Boasians were mostly white, and it’s debatable, in terms of the canon of the discipline, whether or not people like Hurston and Deloria have actually been included at the metaphorical table. I’d say they have not.

  5. Ryan, what, after all, does trotting out Britton and the fact—I don’t deny that it is a fact—that his ideas were used to legitimate the disenfranchisement of people of color, something we now abhor, actually achieve? I am questioning the relevance of this fact to current debate about how members of diverse racial, ethnic, and gender categories should behave toward each other. I observe that Martin Luther King had wide appeal outside the black population because his message, at least in the case of my people, white southerners of Scots-Irish descent, resonated strongly with Robbie Burns’ “A man’s a man, for all that” and the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. As late as Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the appeal to universal human rights that all should enjoy was the heart of the civil rights movements. Now movement language, it seems to me, is mostly about “You done me wrong. You owe me.” And, by the way, “Let me tell you about the bad, bad things your ancestors did to mine.” Universalism has become at best second fiddle to “my blood, my turf, my grievance” nationalism. Consider, Israel v Palestine, Turks v Kurds, HIndus v Muslims, Protestant v Catholic Irish, Northern v Southern Sudan, or the recent rightward turns in US, UK and European politics. Don’t you see just a wee bit of cause for concern?

  6. I thought the trope was about the annoying conservative uncle, which is not the same thing as racist uncle. (never mind about the annoying liberal uncles, because conservatives aren’t the people consuming this trope, or occupy the mass media)

  7. JM: “Ryan, what, after all, does trotting out [Brinton] and the fact … that his ideas were used to legitimate the disenfranchisement of people of color … actually achieve?”

    What does it achieve? It highlights the role that turn of the century anthropology played in creating and maintaining a legally-codified system of discrimination that underpinned structural racism throughout the 20th century. Paying attention to the histories that shape the present matters. And the effects of those histories—despite some liberal myths—didn’t just evaporate during the Civil Rights era.

    JM: “I observe that Martin Luther King had wide appeal outside the black population because his message, at least in the case of my people, white southerners…”

    Which ‘message’ from MLK are you talking about? Any of these:

    “The thing wrong with America is white racism.” (1968)

    “Large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility & the status quo than about justice & humanity.” (1967)

    “However difficult it is to hear, however shocking it is to hear, we’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country.” (1968)

    “I am sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.”

    “There aren’t enough white persons in our country who are willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege.”

    I doubt that any of these messages were the ones that resonate with you and other white Southerners. The problem here is that MLK’s legacy is often cherry-picked, co-opted and used as a tool to browbeat and admonish people of color today who protest and speak out. Perhaps it’s time to stop doing this.

    JM: “Now movement language, it seems to me, is mostly about ‘You done me wrong. You owe me.’ And, by the way, ‘Let me tell you about the bad, bad things your ancestors did to mine.’”

    What movement language do you have in mind here? Black Lives Matter? Or? So you’re saying that all they’re doing is complaining about being wronged and rehashing history? Well, here are a few more quotes from King, the person whose message supposedly resonates with you:

    “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” (1963)

    “The white man does not abide by the law… His police forces are the ultimate mockery of law.” (1968)

    “Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.” (1967)

    “Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten….America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness–justice.” (1967)

    What do you think of this language? Do you dismiss these words as well?

  8. Here’s another relevant quote for this post: “White people, obsessing over your own discomfort and displeasure this holiday season ignores the most vulnerable victims of this election. I’m tired of hearing you complain about your problematic families and whether or not you’re going home this year. If you are not personally threatened by Trump’s administration or if—as Mahroh writes—you do not have to worry about having a safety plan right now, step up this Thanksgiving—and don’t try to snag cookies for doing it. Engage with your racist grandmas and cousins. Ditch the performative allyship. Do the work people of color can’t and shouldn’t have to do. And please, stop talking about how terrible this Thanksgiving is for you as a white person because we POC don’t want to hear it.”

    From here:

  9. Ryan, mea culpa. I did not pay sufficient attention to your last paragraph, with which I largely agree. I say largely because In my part of the world, the majority of anthropologists are not white people. They are Japanese or Chinese.

    I note, too, that a growing number of notable names in what we might label “California” or “West Coast” anthropology seem to be of Chinese origin. I think, for example, of Anna Tsing and Aihwa Ong. I wonder if Rex, who keeps up with such things, could add a comment here.

  10. Ryan,
    First of all thanks for your very interesting post ! It’s now more than a month that you wrote it but now that I’m heading to a Christmas family dinner I find your post an interesting starting point to think in how I’m going to confront my -literally- ‘racist uncle’ later this afternoon.

    My comment has less to do with the ‘racist uncle’ in anthropology – however considering a very compelling and interesting argument- but rather relates to the firsts paragraphs of your post on the narrative of the old racist uncle.

    First I totally reflect myself on these moments with family, friends, colleagues where I – as a white liberal progresist – have often to deal with racist – and also sexist- comments. I personally struggle in finding a way to engage with these issues. I, of course agree that part of it is due to a tendency to deliberately ‘avoid’ confrontation. However I feel that it is more complicated than that. While I try to be personally reflexive about my privileged position in my daily life – as a white European male – I find a series of challenges to confront other people to it:

    First: With which bases can I talk/critique racist/sexist comments while I’m not myself racialized or sexualized? Would I not fall in the trap of entitling myself – as a white anthropologist – to know what racism and sexism is ?

    Second: With the different people with who I would like to talk about these issues I try to understand how and why they sustain such comments. Sometimes it is because they use their privileges without realizing it, sometimes it is because they have a life trajectory – where often they found themselves in an unprivileged position at some point- and they think in that way. What is my role as a white liberal progresist in that case? Acknowledging these different life trajectories, how should we engage this ‘confrontation’? I realize that trying to have a ‘smooth’ confrontation it is also part of avoiding a ‘clash’. However I’m wondering to what extent it would result unfruitful a direct – and non prepared – confrontation where rather than making one think more about his/her privileges it instead reinforces them.

    I’m sorry for this long question/remark but I’m struggling to see how anthropology could help us to find ‘tools’ for white liberals to confront their ‘old racist uncle’ in a way that the following year we can see that our Chistmas discussion produce a change on him.

  11. Alex, have you considered the possibility that whether you change your racist uncle may not be what is important here? Compared, that is, to the effects of your conversation on others?

  12. John, you are certainly right, a confrontation rather than having the purpose to ‘change’ the vision of our racist uncle could have a positive impact on others and have the effect of breaking a taboo. However there is still for me an issue at stake in those debates that is often overlooked: the emotional and affective components that these discussions carry with them. Nowadays debates on race are for instance highly emotional (since we are dealing with a very embodied privilege – whiteness – which is not recognised as such). Hence I wonder to what extent we have to consider the emotional and affective element of these debates and finding tools – maybe rhetorical?- to produce a change, or at least being more effective in the debate.

  13. Alex, one of the things I learned working in advertising is that we never expect to persuade everyone. We have to be careful not to offend existing customers but the focus of our effort is persuadables, those in whom our rhetoric is likely to induce change.

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