Friday, May 24, 2013

Researching Race While Being Raced: Reflections on Race Politics in Anthropology

Let’s have an honest discussion about Race in Anthropology. As a non-white anthropologist who conducts research on issues of race, racism, class, nationalism, citizenship, and belonging I find that frank discussions on race and racism within the discipline of anthropology, between the majority and the minority, are few and far between. While many can acknowledge that there is in fact racism in the world, and that the concept of race does have some impact on the lives of those who are raced, I have come to notice that many within the field are more reluctant to talk about the ways in which race influences their perceptions on who has the “right” to conduct certain types of research on the topics of race and racism. As Elizabeth Chin (2006) succulently said, the unwritten rule within the discipline is “people of color study themselves, white people study everybody.” (44)

I came face-to-face with this assumption throughout my doctorate as I began to examine the intersections of race, citizenship, and nation in the UK. My initial interests in the UK stemmed from a desire to theoretically and practically engage with the concepts of race and racism outside of an American race paradigm. Of particular interest to me were the emerging debates around mixed-race identity and mixedness (Cabellero forthcoming; Ifekwunigwe 1998; Edwards et. al, 2012) in relation to Britishness (Gilroy 2002; Goulbourne 2009; Meer 2010; Modood 2007). As I applied for funding for this topic I was met with reviewers commenting not on what I proposed I wanted to do, but what I should be looking at for a dissertation. Where I stated I wanted to work with mixed-race organizations in London or Bristol, I was met with comments that suggested this was a futile pursuit and instead I would be “better off” working within African-Caribbean or South East Asian populations. After a number of rounds of going through these types of comments with various funders I decided to change my population to racial and ethnic minorities in general. I was immediately funded.

Once in the field I faced more challenges over my research. I worked with a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) civil society regional organization in Bristol, England for two years, examining the ways in which racial and ethnic identity was used as a political platform for BME communities to engage with the state. The term “BME” encompasses a large heterogeneous population of ethnic minorities in the UK – from Irish traveller populations to refugee populations from Eastern Europe and East Africa, to those with roots in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. This complicated and complex construction of racial and ethnic minority populations is rooted in a specific historical and geographical context unique to the UK. As someone who was interested in the intersections of race and nation, the UK offered an interesting contextualization of these issues.

Yet, when I expressed this sentiment to fellow anthropologist I was met with perplexed looks and interesting questions. “Are you British?” was the most common one, implying that my personal national/ethnic/racial identity must be the main deciding factor in my decision making process of selecting a dissertation topic and field site. When I would respond with a “no” then other questions followed that further delved into someone trying to find that personal identity attachment to my research. Instead of seeing me as another researcher who worked on political anthropological topics, I was seen as a mixed-race/brown/black anthropologist who focused on issues that related to my own identity. This is what Steele (2010) calls identity contingencies – “the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity.” (3) I found throughout my time in the academia I have had to deal with being a non-white researcher who does race research, and having that research examined by others through my own racial identity and not the research itself. And that is what I call a problem.

This problem stems back to the original quote I used from Elizabeth Chin. In that simple statement the issues of race politics within anthropology emerge. The “legitimacy” of race research seems to depend upon the perceived racial/ethnic identity of the researcher – when that researcher is non-white. If it did not then other anthropologists would not have questioned my personal nationality repeatedly throughout my fieldwork experience as I unraveled the tangled intersections of race, nation, and citizenship. If it did not then those asking me the questions would have turned those same questions onto themselves to uncover why they, as white researchers, chose to go to Sub-Sahara Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, etc… to conduct research on a number of different issues.

This is not new – many have written about this phenomenon in different aspects (see Bulmer and Solomos’ edited volume 2004; Duster 1999; Mukhopadhyay and Moses 1997; Mullings 2005; Harrison 1998; Rhodes 1994; Smedley and Smedley 2012 to name a small few). So then what can we do about this now? For me the simplest solution is to start having frank conversations amongst one another on the politics of race within anthropology. By this I do not mean renting a small room at the next AAA meeting and that room being full of only non-white faces speaking about these issues. This has been done in the past, and it ends up being minorities speaking to other minorities. This is not only a minority issue. Instead the majority needs to be apart of this discussion, and not making the discussion. We need real conversations between the majority and the minority so that the stereotypes and prejudices that we all have can be brought to the forefront and worked on in order to advance the research done on race and racism within the field.

Essentially race is complicated, uncomfortable, and elicits an emotional state for both those who are raced and those who do the racing (Caballero forthcoming). But, if we wish to educate the public about race and race politics then we need to start talking about race politics within our own discipline, and the impact this has on the perception of who can do what types of research on race.

Nicole Truesdell, PhD
Director McNair Scholars Program
Adjunct Assistant Professor in Anthropology
Beloit College


Bulmer, Martin and John Solomos. 2004. Researching Race and Racism. New York. Routledge. Caballero, Chamion. Forthcoming. Mixed Emotions: reflections on researching racial mixing and mixedness. Emotion, Space and Society.

Chin, Elizabeth. 2006. Confessions of a Negrophile. Transforming Anthropology 14(1): 44-52.

Duster, Troy. 1999. Foreword in, Racing research, researching race: methodological dilemmas in critical race. pp. xi-xiv. France Winddance Twine and Jonathan W. Warren, eds. New York. New York University Press.

Edwards, Rosalind, Suki Ali, Chamion Caballero and Miri Song. 2012. International Perspectives on Mixing and Mixedness. London. Routledge.

Harrison, Faye V. 1998. Introduction: Expanding the Discourse on “Race.” 100(3): 609-638.

Gilroy, Paul. 2002. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. London. Routledge.

Goulbourne, Harry. 2009. Ethnicity and Nationalism in post-imperial Britain. New York. Cambridge University Press. Ifekwunigwe, Jayne. 1998. Scattered Belongings. London. Routledge.

Meer, Nasar. 2010. Citizenship, Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism. London. Palgrave MacMillian. Modood, Tariq. 2007 Multiculturalism. A Civic Idea. Cambridge. Polity.

Mukopadhyay, Carol C and Yolanda T. Moses. 1997. Reestablishing “Race” in Anthropological Discourse. American Anthropologist 99(3): 517-533.

Mullings, Leith. 2005. Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology. Annual Review Of Anthropology 34: 667-693. Rhodes, P.J. 1994. Race-Of-Interviewer Effects: A Brief Comment. Sociology. 28(2):547-558.

Smedley, Audrey and Brian a. Smedley. 2012. Race in North American. Origin and Evolution of a Worldview (4th Edition). Boulder. Westview Press.

Steele, Claude E. 2010. Whistling Vivaldi. New York. W.W. Norton and Company.

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