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.
This was a close election. What impact would every hard conversation you wish you had with close-minded friends & family members have made?
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) November 11, 2016
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:
In Trump’s America, every day is now Thanksgiving at your racist uncle’s house.
— Betty F*ckin’ White (@BettyFckinWhite) November 23, 2016
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.” 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.
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. 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.
 Hill, J.H. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
 Baker, Lee. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954, pp. 36.
 See also: Harrison IE, and FV Harrison. 1999. African American Pioneers in Anthropology. University of Illinois Press.