Friday, May 24, 2013

Race and the public perception of anthropology

Anthropologists have dedicated much time to deconstructing and denouncing racial myths (see, for example, the AAA's statement on race from 1998) and, as a result, the idea that "race does not exist" has been as strongly absorbed into the anthropological canon as cultural relativism. More recently, collaboration between social and physical anthropologists reaffirms that race is "not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation" (Edgar and Hunley 2009: 2) while scientifically detailing the genetic evidence for actual human variation. Still, dismissing fixed racial categorization as biologically unsubstantiated has done little to eradicate the very real presence of race in everyday life. So what has all the effort we have spent in deconstructing race actually achieved?

Teaching race
In Race Reconciled?, Edgar and Hunley address one of the main concerns I will concentrate on here; namely, how preconceived notions of race present a challenge for educators:
Specialists in informal education talk about "naïve notions," which, in the context of education in biological anthropology, are the ideas our students have when they walk in the doors of our classrooms. Often, these ideas are typological, even when they are not racist. Although we have now been teaching for generations that races do not exist, these naïve notions persist and they continue to have social and scientific consequences. This may be because we have failed to offer a clear and satisfactory explanation that meshes with students' lived experience (2009: 3).
Is it possible that the idea that races do not exist is itself becoming a "naïve notion" within anthropology?

Anyone who has taught subjects like race or ethnicity knows that class discussions can easily stir up intense emotions and indeed no small amount of confusion. My students, for instance, have been woefully under-prepared to discuss race beyond the idea that perceptions of racial boundaries are culturally constructed and that racial stereotyping is wrong. Past that, they are unsure of how to critically analyze race, power, politics, etc, without feeling as if they are stepping into a trap. Having said that, I taught in the UK, where most of my majority white, British students tellingly saw race and racism as distinctly American problems. Of course, this is certainly not the case, which highlights another complication regarding how to deal with race in anthropology as a project of global education.

There is apparently an all-too-common problem with the way our students perceive race based on how the standard textbook definition is framed. At Living Anthropologically, Jason Antrosio notes a similar phenomenon in his classes; namely, that his students "are very likely to conclude the anthropological critique of race supports their own desire to be 'colorblind'". Anthropologist Angela VandenBroek likewise has to explain to her students how,
despite the fact that race is socially constructed and that true color-blindness would be wonderful […] racism exists as a fundamental thread that permeates every context of everyday life. So, to approach any situation from a 'color-blind' stance denies the reality of the lived experience of racism and thus exacerbates the problem more than it solves it.
Both of these statements are from Antrosio's excellent post Anthropology on Race.

These types of misunderstandings are a good clue that more progress needs to be made in contextualizing what is meant by "race is a social construct". Accordingly, advancing the race debate in anthropology today is the argument for the recognition of privilege and its role in racial politics. This is actually not so new. The AAA statement from 1998 acknowledges that the common "'racial' worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth". Nevertheless, calls are rightfully being made for increased attention to whiteness and white privilege in order to update popular anthropological notions of race to more adequately reflect its cultural, political and historical underpinnings.

What I want to explore in admittedly loose terms here is what kind of impact this shift in discourse is having on public perception of race and anthropology including among our own undergraduates. Perceptions of race among students of the social sciences are important not just for anthropology, but for future social and public policy everywhere. It is therefore important to address privilege in a way that both better informs students and offers a more nuanced discussion of race which is not simply a blanket rejection of the well-worn slogan "race doesn't exist" in favor of "race is everything".

Check your privilege
Social media is an influential platform for the dissemination of ideas about race that produces new and unexpected challenges for contemporary education in anthropology. Last year, one particular online social drama surrounding anthropology and race earned public internet notoriety when a former Disney child actor-turned-undergraduate anthropologist clashed with militant social justice bloggers – including more anthropology students – over race and white privilege on the microblogging platform Tumblr1. The controversy began when the white, teen male took offense at the post of a 19-year-old African American female who asserted that "white boys that are students of anthropology are usually not not2 students of anthropology. They're just assholes" and tagged it with the star's name.

Such an opinion itself is pretty telling of anthropology's public historical legacy and inadvertent self-sabotage regarding race. I estimate that undergraduates make up a good majority of the vocal anthropologists on the site and they were certainly active in joining both sides of the ensuing debate. Some participants agreed that the white actor was ignorant for daring to study the subject at all since anthropology itself was built upon white privilege. Others came to his defense only to then receive vicarious assaults against their ignorance, whiteness or complicity with privileged whites. More readers and contributors matter-of-factly acknowledged anthropology's own racist past as justification for labeling white anthropologists "assholes" without hesitation.

Why ruminate about a Disney kid and the social psychology of Tumblr? As academics write at length for solutions to better understanding race, anthropology's public image is anything but in line with our own contemporary studies. Our cumulative body of knowledge and recent works in this area are strong, but there is a noticeable gap between the science and its popular perception that – whether we like it or not – falls on us to rectify. At the same time, anthropology students are up against increased pressures to make what they learn in class fit with what they experience in life.

Militant social activism is somewhat of a proud tradition in the Tumblr community, and to their credit participants in this public drama did, in fact, display an understanding of race that moves beyond skin tone to address deeply embedded social, economic and political inequalities. But what struck me when scrolling through bloggers' responses was the number of times check-your-privilege advocates began sentences with "you're white, so what you say/think about race (or insert any other topic here) doesn't count". Rather than enabling a productive recognition of privilege, this type of assertion just as easily stifles debate, learning and progress by instilling fear and forcing people onto opposed sides of a renewed and self-perpetuating battle of skin tones.

Finally, one particularly troubling avowal of support for the actor-student was this comment from an exasperated user (italics added): "dear lord. please don't even try to bring race into anthropology. ANTHROPOLOGISTS BELIEVE RACE TO BE A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT, NOT FACT." And we're right back where we started.

Communicating race
While anthropology's role as broker in race and racial politics remains more or less secure, what needs critical attention is how we communicate race and the new and old baggage that it carries. How do we affect the national (US) and global conversation on race without explaining it away and likewise without enabling the co-opting of anthropological truths for justifying blind hatred? At the same time, it is essential not to take American experiences of race for granted as universal. Commentators from the US are quick to dismiss the reality of lives elsewhere or even cling to their own ignorance of what it is like in other places, thereby feeding into the muddled confusion that arises when forcing others to conform to a specifically American historical paradigm.

Socio-cultural anthropologists should not let the opportunity to correct public perceptions of race slip through our disciplinary fingers and expect the biologists and geneticists among us to take up the slack. A fumbling stance on race that is out of touch with reality or in itself inherently racist will simply feed into vicious cycles of blame, not to mention cause mystification when people turn to anthropology to make sense of it all. Worse still, if we cannot correct our negative image, they may not turn to us at all.

Francine Barone
Research Associate, University of Kent


1. The entire archive of posts can be found here.

2. The repetition of "not" exists in original text, but is probably a typo.


Edgar, H. J. H. & K. L. Hunley 2009. "Race reconciled?: How biological anthropologists view human variation". American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139: 1–4.

1 comment:

Angela VandenBroek said...

I just found this post. Nice work! For anyone that is interested the quote from me (Angela Kristin VandenBroek) is from a longer post I published on my blog. You can see it here