I am an English PhD researcher based in Paris, doing fieldwork in the US and Brazil. My research looks closely at current perceptions of identity, paradigms of human difference, and the social legacies of colonialism in different parts of the Atlantic world, from a cultural anthropological and historical perspective. In particular, I am interested in observing how the increasing popularity of recreational genomics is changing our notions of race, ethnicity, kinship, origins, and ancestry – for better or worse.
This blog is the fruit of numerous research trips from the Old World to the New, during which I have found myself transformed from a researcher into a white researcher, and have been confronted with my own whiteness in curious and often uncomfortable ways.
I grew up in a small English town with a negligible immigration rate, reading foreign literature, dreaming of far-off lands, and harbouring ambitions of ‘making a difference’ in the world. I had only a vague conception of the meaning or function of ‘race’, and found skin colour prejudice to be a bizarre and foreign notion.
I first became acquainted with my white alter ego on a six-month trip to Ecuador at the tender age of 18, as an idealistic and enthusiastic gap year volunteer. At the time I didn’t have the cultural knowledge or theoretical framework to fully understand the image I projected to the people I met – the underprivileged ‘natives’ I was naïvely hoping to help – and how this influenced our interactions. But some of my memories from that first visit stuck with me, helping me to gradually change my ideas and develop my powers of introspection. To paraphrase Rigoberta Menchú, I began to perceive my own whiteness, y así me nació la conciencia.
Subsequent trips to Cuba, Brazil, the Dutch Caribbean and the US – this time as a researcher and anthropologist – have allowed me to develop a more nuanced comprehension of the symptoms and side-effects of travelling and doing research ‘while white’. I firmly believe that race, ethnicity and skin colour have little to do with the content of a person’s character, and nothing at all to do with the good faith of their intentions or aspirations. Yet, depending upon where you are in the world and the role you are inhabiting, your skin colour can shape your experiences and the way you are perceived and treated by those around you. These are the experiences and situations I would like to share and explore in this blog.
I write, in part, with a Western European audience in mind: friends, colleagues and readers from countries like England (where I grew up), France (where I study), Spain (where I have lived), Belgium and Holland (where I have visited). For centuries, these countries were the Metropolis; the heart of colonial empires; the source of scientific racism and theories of white supremacy. Yet Europeans have generally had the privilege of exteriorising racism: watching slavery, apartheid and Jim Crow segregation unfold from afar and shaking our heads at the barbarity of ‘the colonies’. For these readers, my posts are an invitation to reflect not only upon the peculiarities of race and society across the pond, but on our shared historical connections, and the tensions within our own national communities that we are so good at pushing under the carpet.
I am also bearing in mind my American readers (broadly defined): those who grew up familiar with concepts and phrases like mestiçagem, ‘mejorar la raza’, and the one-drop rule. Studies of race and ethnicity tend to focus on dark-skinned individuals, as if they were the only ones to live, experience and be affected by these phenomena. As a foreigner and a pale-skinned researcher I am often questioned or challenged on my motives, and I hope to make these clearer by explaining and analysing my experiences and thought processes as I carry out my research and go about my daily life.
I am aware, from conversations with friends and colleagues, that researchers of all shades and backgrounds encounter similar situations and dilemmas all over the world, with different conjugations of skin colour, class, gender and nationality. I therefore welcome comments and constructive criticism, and hope to stimulate debate about the politics of race, as they act upon daily scenarios; the logic of political correctness; the meaning of whiteness (as privilege or handicap); and the implications of doing anthropological research ‘while white’.
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If you have a similar or related experience you would like to share or talk about, or if you are interested in writing a guest post for this blog, please get in touch using the Contact tab at the top of the page.