What is anthropology's most valuable contribution to the understanding of racialisation?
I argue that anthropology’s most valuable contribution to the understanding of racialisation has been giving a voice to people’s everyday experiences of racialisation, which has been significant for two prominent reasons. Firstly, this contribution transcends essentialising and universalising racialisation by highlighting how this process manifests and is made significant differently in different contexts. Secondly, anthropology’s focus on the everyday also shows how contemporary understandings of ‘race’ and racialisation are informed by colonial legacies, which is an enduring reality that requires both consistent conversation and awareness. Anthropology does this meaningfully through the ethnographic presentation of the lived reality of racialisation to not only show how it is a historically ongoing social process but also draws anthropology closer to the ‘other’ that the discipline studies by giving people a narrative. Colonial traditions in anthropology often studied the ‘other’ through a racial lens, where ’race’ was a biological phenomenon that constructed entire human groups as primitive savages. These legacies massively inform understandings of ‘race’ today, which is also a fundamental reason as to why racialisation needs to be studied.
In this essay, I first point to how anthropology has contributed to this understanding of racialisation through two ethnographic examples by Duno-Gotteberg (2011) and Ralph (2020). By comparing the different ways that anthropology has studied racialisation, I highlight how anthropology has given a voice to the everyday experience of racialisation that powerfully transcends essentialisation. Both texts also evidence how legacies of colonialism live on, which is foundational to understanding the transience of racialisation. I then contrast this valuable contribution by highlighting the potential limitations within anthropology. I ask firstly what kind of voice anthropology is giving to the people it studies and secondly whether anthropology needs to take on an activist role when portraying experiences of discrimination that often come hand in hand with racialisation. I suggest that a potential solution for the discipline is to raise awareness about the lack representation of scholars of colour that remove key avenues of thought that also sometimes involves an over-reliance and romanticisation of white academics.
Anthropology has always had a difficult and complex relationship with ‘race’ and anthropologists often use the term in inverted commas to stress that it is a social construction and not a biologically inherent one (Smedley and Smedley 2005). Racialisation is then not the study of ‘race’ itself but the process by which ‘race’ is made meaningful in any given context (Garner 2010: 19-32). Historically, racialisation has been predominantly made meaningful through the ‘othering’ of entire non-white ‘racial’ groups deemed primitive or less superior on the basis of their ‘race’. Acts of racism and racial prejudice however are not directly sparked by physical traits and differences between groups, but by “the culturally invented ideas and beliefs about these differences that constitute the meaning of race” (Smedley 2005: 20). Mavhunga builds on this idea in his work on Vermin Beings in Zimbabwe to emphasise “not only metaphors of the colonised as pest but also the actual transformation of colonised people into pests” (2011: 151). This was a critical racialising process as colonised groups were transformed along racial lines from humans to human game and further into vermin beings. In his analyses, Mavhunga is not equating being an African to blackness, but rather examining how European colonists themselves ‘blackened’ primitives and associated these groups with being vermin to affirm colonial control and justify white right to land. This imagination of certain human groups as vermin is crucial as it is a very real legacy of colonialism that is not locked in the past but evidenced in contemporary understandings of racialisation. Duno-Gotteberg (2011) and Ralph’s (2020) ethnographic work showcase how Mavhunga’s idea of vermin beings characterises certain experiences of racialisation to show how contemporary issues of ‘race’ are informed by colonialism. Both texts unpack how racialisation is therefore socially ongoing and not static in time and manifest differently across time and space.
Duno-Gotteberg analyses contemporary political tensions in Venezuela by exploring the “racialisation of crowds” (2011: 272), which was one of the many strategies deployed amidst a struggle for government hegemony sparked by a loss in governing legitimacy. Duno-Gotteberg explains how the Venezuelan media - including journalism, press photography and television - constructed the dark-skinned “illegitimate political subject: ‘the crowd’ or ‘the mob’” (2011: 271), in opposition to the white, elitist, “acceptable political subject (the so-called civil society)” (Ibid). In this context ‘the mob’ becomes a racialised category of blackness that is made to be a disruptive and irrational community. This alludes to Mavhunga’s idea of vermin beings, because this racialised ‘mob’ community is deemed separate from civil society and is removed from being a legitimate social category. What is also interesting about racialisation in Venezuela is that it takes place in front of a backdrop of denial as Duno-Gotteberg highlights how, “we consider ourselves strangers to the kind of prejudice common in other countries. Since the issue is theoretically resolved, not only do we refuse to talk about it but we react defensively to any attempt to re-think our ‘racial democracy’” (Ibid: 273). This refers to how issues surrounding racism appear be resolved in this context, however Venezuelan media’s racialisation of mob crowds demonstrates that racial prejudice is not actually completely resolved and that colonialist legacies of racism, racial discrimination and degradation of labour are still stark realities (Ibid). This ethnography is therefore poignant as it exposes how racialisation can sometimes appear covert in ground-level discourse in comparison to other contexts. Anthropology has therefore given light to how racialisation is made real even when it is hidden behind layers of supposed racial harmony and in this context specifically, a mestizo reality. Anthropology examining how racialisation in this context reaffirms colonial manifestations draws attention to how racialisation has real lived effects despite an official ‘end’ to colonialism. Everyday experiences make racialisation more accessibly understood as it is transformed from being an abstract political phenomenon to one that is real.
The way racialisation happens in Venezuela, takes form quite differently in Ralph’s ethnography, The Torture letters: Reckoning with police violence that focuses on Andrew Wilson’s trial (2020). This case is particularly significant firstly because it brings light to Wilson, who was the first person to file a lawsuit against the City of Chicago for the crime of torture in 1986. It is also significant because it “reveals something important about the anger and loathing directed against Black criminal suspects - indeed, against entire Black communities” (Ralph 2020, 23) where anthropology then becomes a valuable platform in expressing and examining contemporary consequences of racialisation. Wilson was convicted of murdering two police officers and was both physically and mentally tortured for his crime. His torture speaks to something much more serious about the disproportionate brutality experienced by people of colour in America, especially Black communities. Ralph brings Wilson’s story to the fore to essentially explain how as more stories of police torture surface the trope of the “unjustly incarcerated and brutalised person who embarks on an ultimately successful quest to prove his or her innocence and obtain freedom” (22) becomes more and more familiar. In bringing light to these cases it becomes increasingly familiar how Black communities have been racialised in America to a point where inequality is embedded in the criminal justice system on the basis of ‘race’. Ralph ends by expressing how important it is to publicly air the truth about Wilson’s torture story otherwise these stories are forgotten about and lost in an abyss of racial injustices. Ralph also talks about racial discrimination in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and we see how there is still a narrative in America haunted by colonialism that frames how ‘race’ is conceptualised today. This conception is wired with discrimination and continues to racialise Black communities into vermin beings as they are made to feel as though they do not belong in society. Prisons as an institution therefore become a physical and symbolic institution that ‘exterminates’ vermin from society as Black communities are disproportionately incarcerated. Ralph also powerfully contextualises Wilson’s experience within his own experience of racism by the police, which brings the ‘other’ that is being studied not seem so distant. By giving Wilson a voice that is similar to his own, Ralph is blurring the line between anthropologist and subject that makes this experience of racialisation not so distant.
In comparing Duno-Gotteberg and Ralph’s ethnographys, it becomes clear how racialisation manifests is made meaningful in different contexts that therefore transcend essentialisation. Anthropology’s focus on the everyday also shows how colonialist legacies continuously shape how ‘race’ and racialisation are understood and made significant today. This comparison was presented to highlight how valuable anthropology has been in giving a voice to these experiences through ethnography to raise awareness and unpack the enduring implications of racism, racial prejudice and discrimination that come hand in hand with racialisation. Both ethnographys also highlight how Mavhunga’s vermin ideology still applies in contemporary times even after an official end to both slavery and colonialism where elites or government institutions still hold power to exterminate and/or cleanse certain racial groups.
However, despite how anthropology has given a voice to those who have not traditionally been given one, we must continue to ask what kind of voice is anthropology actually giving. Ghosh raises this issue in relation to the portrayal of violence, which similarly resonates with the portrayal of racialisation. Ghosh writes about the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in India discussing how difficult it is to write about violence without recreating it as an “aesthetic phenomenon” or an apolitical spectacle (2018). Likewise with presentations of racialisation, we must ask how anthropology can best portray these experiences. It is important to portray racialisation as factually correct, whilst also giving voices to people who experience it. It is the challenge therefore of finding a middle ground so as not to sensationalise racialisation nor present it apolitically, which is a potential limitation that must be recognised in anthropology.
Another limitation in anthropology’s contribution to the understanding of racialisation is the tension and confusion surrounding what role anthropology should take on in relation to witnessing experiences of suffering and injustice. This is an incredibly important limitation to consider because racialisation is so closely linked with experiences of racial discrimination and violence. In asking therefore what role anthropology should take on, I am following on from the ongoing anthropological debate sparked in the 1980s where a lot more anthropologists became involved in political discussions. This links to increasing involvement by anthropologists in anti-racist struggles such as the civil rights movement and protests over the Vietnam war, where anthropologists started to see more and more experiences of suffering, injustice and violence. The debate is therefore situated amidst a tension between whether anthropology should focus more on cultural critique or activist research, and questions the purpose of critique itself and presenting injustice ethnographically. Should anthropology reveal iniquities and leave it there, or reveal in order to then take on an active role in establishing change? The answer is not so clear cut but to help tackle this question, I turn to Pandian (2019) who suggests that anthropology should start with affirmative positions rather than negative claims. In other words, anthropology should not ignore injustice but strive to imaginatively understand the ways this injustice can be overcome.
I believe one way of doing this is to recognise that there is a major lack of representation of scholars of colour in anthropology and that there should be consistent drive to include their thinking more prominently. The open syllabus project analysed over 41,000 anthropology syllabi, which revealed a major lack of representation of Black anthropologists in anthropology where for example of the top 1000 texts taught in anthropology only 10 were authored by Black people (Buell et al. 2019). The prominent issue is that Black identified anthropologists are not being included in the same way as white scholars are. Consequentially, despite the fact that anthropology may give voices to those that the discipline studies, there are still issues with giving a voice to those who study. Anthropology has often granted white theorists intellectual superiority such as Boas and Foucault who were both greatly influenced by African-American intellectuals however never awarded them with the recognition they deserved. Boas massively failed to acknowledge the impact Du Bois had on his work, and similarly Foucault never acknowledged that his ideas for Discipline and Punish (1975) were inspired by the Black Panthers. Anthropology’s traditional walls also border off non-identified anthropologists such as Gloria Anzaldua and Marlon Riggs, who are very much anthropologists whose thinking has not been applied to anthropology in the way that it should be (Behar 1993). These thinkers can help reimagine the pseudo-intellectual walls that anthropology has erected in offering different but key ways of thinking about racialisation. White supremacy unfortunately continues to taint anthropology, where the understanding of racialisation through scholars and thinkers of colour is continuously denied. This is not to say that white thinkers are unable articulately examine this process, but that in order to transcend the ‘othering’ of people based on ‘race’, anthropology cannot be a discipline wholly centred around white scholarship.
I have argued that anthropology’s most valuable contribution to the understanding of racialisation has been giving a voice to people’s everyday experiences of racialisation. This contribution has been extremely valuable to anthropology because it has allowed racialisation to not become a universalised experience. This is fundamental and marks the critical shift in anthropological thinking from scientific racism, to the study of ‘race’ as a social and cultural construct. I drew on two ethnographys by Duno-Gotteberg and Ralph to highlight how anthropology has done this to initially reveal how racialisation is not an essentialised experience as it shifts across time and space, whilst also demonstrating how colonial legacies are not wholly in the past. Colonial legacies of racism and racial prejudice still live on today, which is a critical reason as to why everyday experiences of racialisation need to be given a voice. However, anthropology does still have it’s limitations, which for example includes questioning what kind of voice anthropology is actually giving to the people it studies. How accurately is ethnographic presentation? How sympathetic should it be? These questions are difficult to answer and are followed by another question of what anthropology’s role should be in response to experiences of racial discrimination and violence that are often associated with racialisation. One potential solution to this is to raise awareness about the lack of representation of scholars of colour in anthropology to tackle this limitation at its very root by breaking down the traditional walls of the discipline itself.
Behar, R. 1993. Expanding the Boundaries of Anthropology: The Cultural Criticism of Gloria Anzaldua and Marlon Riggs. Visual Anthropology Review 9, 83-91.
Buell, R., S. Burns & Z. Chen et al. 2019. Decanonizing Anthropology. Footnotes (available on-line: https://footnotesblog.com/2019/02/15/decanonizing-anthropology/, accessed 10 December 2021).
Duno-Gottberg, Luis 2011 The Color of Mobs: Racial Politics, Ethnopopulism, and Representation in the Chávez Era. 271-297. In Venezuela's Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Garner, S. 2010. Racialisation. In Racisms: An Introduction S. Garner(ed) , 19-32. SAGE Publications Ltd.
Ghosh, Amitav. 2018 . The ghosts of Mrs Gandhi: Amitav Ghosh looks back at the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. scroll.in.
Mavhunga, Clapperton., 2011. Vermin Beings: On Pestiferous Animals and Human Game. Social text, 29(1), pp.151–176.
Pandian, A. 2019. A possible anthropology: methods for uneasy times. Introduction: An Ethnographer among the Anthropologists.
Ralph, L. (2020). The torture letters: Reckoning with police violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Part 1 The Black Box, pp. 13-56.
Smedley, A. & B. Smedley 2005. Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American Psychologist 60, 16-26.