On Racial Profiling and the ‘While…’ Phenomenon

Following inquiries from some of my international readers, I would like to take a few moments to explain the title of this blog.

The ‘anthropology while white’ formulation is a rip-off of the phrase ‘driving while black’ – itself an ironic twist on the legal jargon phrase ‘driving while intoxicated’ (DWI), which is used in varying forms throughout North America (equivalent phrases also exist in Spanish, Portuguese and French). If our good friend Wikipedia is to be believed, the phrase ‘driving while black‘ (DWB) has been in the vernacular since at least the early 2000s, in response to racial profiling that leads to a disproportionate number of black drivers being pulled over under suspicion of criminal activity. The example cited on the Wiki page is that of a black man who, in 2012, was pulled over for the fourth time in ten days under suspicion of driving a shiny new BMW registered to the name of one ‘Joel Debellefeuille’ (a typically Québécois name). Problem? The man was Joel Debellefeuille, and the sole basis for him being pulled over was that his skin colour did not match the stereotypical image of the kind of (white, Québécois) man that one would expect to be called Joel Debellefeuille.

Various snowclones have since been coined to describe other ‘minority’ groups and offences commonly linked to them: ‘flying while Muslim‘; ‘running while Arab‘; ‘seeking help while black‘. The phenomenon is not restricted to North America: London residents have witnessed a rise in stop and search interventions aimed at citizens found to be ‘walking while black’, while in Brazil, a popular witticism goes: ‘How do you know if you are black? Ask a policeman’.

As absurd, unjust and frustrating as racial profiling can be (not to mention divisive, frightening and downright racist), the phenomenon is not born merely of prejudice. In each of the above cases, the stereotype is rooted in an actual precedent: concrete acts or moments of violence preserved in the collective imaginary, in which ‘race’ (read: skin colour and other visible markers of ancestry/culture/nationality/religious identity) played a discernible part – for example, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Boston bombings. The widespread criminalization of black individuals, and particularly men, in the US and Brazil (not to mention other parts of the Atlantic World) belongs to a much longer historical heritage, dating back to the times of slavery when white landowning families lived in acute fear of mass insurrection by the black slaves whom they abused on a daily basis in an effort to maintain control. It is due to the social legacy of slavery, as well as the political solutions aimed at coping with the aftermath of abolition, that the poorer, most marginalized strata of society are still likely to be darker-skinned, and, arguably, more likely to be involved in criminal activity due to disenfranchisement, poor infrastructure, and lack of access to social resources.

All this helps to promote a culture of prejudice, which is compounded by actual acts of aggression, creating a heavy atmosphere of public insecurity, fear, and widespread paranoia. And this leads to visible markers, such as skin colour, being attributed undue importance in the evaluations we make of strangers – particularly in situations or spaces that trigger feelings of unease or threat. And the more situations and spaces in which defined groups are placed under suspicion, the more we reify skin colour and come to believe in its genuine significance to our lived experience, our sense of identity, and the way we are treated by others in general. Wearing one’s skin colour constantly is exhausting and stressful, yet stepping outside of it becomes ever more difficult.

The recent flashmobs* in Brazilian shopping centres by (mainly dark-skinned, working class) adolescents are a case in point: the first major rolezinho (‘little outing’) took place at Shopping Metrô Itaquera, São Paulo on 8th December 2013, attracting around 6,000 teenagers aiming to hang out, have fun, and hook up. Accounts from shopkeepers and the mall administrators disagree on whether reports of shop-lifting from that night were verified, but in any case, shops began to close early, the police were summoned, and a handful of arrests were made. Further rolezinhos were scheduled via Facebook; each was met with police intervention on a steadily more aggressive scale. In response, the rolezinhos themselves devolved into confusion, culminating in cases of actual theft. Shopping centres across the city reacted preemptively by promising hefty fines for participants in future rolezinhos, and by implementing stop and search checks against those who fit the key demographic, even if visiting the mall for legitimate reasons. The situation has been met with public outcry, allegations of police and middle-class white racism, and hysteria from both the political left and right. This reaction is unsurprising, given that racial discrimination is a criminal offence in Brazil (albeit one that is extremely difficult to prove in a court of law). The outcome is likely to be more skin colour prejudice against young, dark-skinned Brazilians in shopping centres (and elsewhere); more resentment among marginalized adolescents towards the ‘white’ middle and upper classes; and more difficulty in allowing open, dispassionate public discussion of issues of skin colour, ‘race’, and prejudice in Brazil.

Allow me to return to my original intent. I am not insensitive to the risk I take by appropriating the term ‘while black’ – so often used to describe scenes in which skin colour has placed an individual in life-threatening danger – and applying it to the case of (usually) middle class, highly educated individuals who choose to pursue anthropology as a career or personal interest. But hear me out.

In the Americas and Western Europe (and forgive me for speaking in very broad and blunt terms here), white people do not generally encounter discrimination, nor are they usually a political or physical minority in public spaces. All too often, the ‘white gaze‘ is guilty of bringing (nonwhite) people under suspicion, then acting upon that prejudice, with sometimes fatal consequences. The result is what is known as ‘white privilege’, which effectively excludes white people from the experience of ‘colour’ and all that goes with it: white people cannot understand prejudice, nor can they be fully sensitive to it, nor can they legitimately talk about it. This notion is embraced, either sheepishly or willingly, and white people are allowed for the most part to forget their colour and go about their business as people – nothing more.

The anthropologist, on the other hand, is one who seeks to experience and understand social phenomena from different points of view; to develop a double consciousness in order to view oneself through another’s eyes; and to immerse oneself in foreign cultures in an attempt to better comprehend the human condition as a whole. In my own research, this implies experiencing ‘race’ and skin colour in ways that would not have been possible in my provincial hometown in the East Midlands, nor in the elite halls of Cambridge University, where I studied. Yet, as I have often found, doing anthropology as a white researcher in the Americas (and elsewhere) comes with its own historical burden and its own brand of racial profiling: the sincerity of your motives is challenged; your ability to empathize with the ‘subaltern’ experience is questioned; and your authority to speak about issues of ‘race’ and alterity is cast into doubt.

As with the other examples cited above, the stereotypes surrounding the white anthropologist relate to a not-so-distant history of well-documented abuses and human rights violations of which white scientists were the perpetrators. Their crimes range from behavioural and morphological studies intended to prove the inferiority or subhumanity of nonwhite ‘races’ of man; philosophical and theological exegeses aimed at confirming the right of Europeans to enslave other populations; eugenic theories implemented to cleanse undesired individuals and traits from the national body; and medical experiments that misled and took advantage of vulnerable patients, sometimes to the point of denying them life-saving medications in the interests of scientific progress. The fact that the authors of these acts were largely white males is not coincidental, but the result of an accident of history which culminated in white men holding a monopoly over politics, science and learning in the Western world, up until the mid-twentieth century. An excess of power led to the implementation of racist doctrine and large-scale megalomania, culminating in war and disaster.

I have no interest in creating a forum in which to bemoan the treatment of today’s white anthropologist at the hands of their ‘subaltern’ subjects. Nor am I attempting to put in my two pennies’ worth for white victimhood. I am not even especially concerned with the specificity of the ‘white’ experience, although it is the only one I can personally and fully attest to. What does interest me is identifying the scenarios in which skin colour becomes an active, defining factor in social interactions – in which our skin colour becomes us – in order to deconstruct those experiences and move beyond the ‘while…’ phenomenon.

* Thanks to ALA for this example.


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