The Rules that Rachel Broke

If you have spent time on any social networking or news websites over the past week, in all likelihood you will already know that the Rachel referred to by this post’s title is ex-regional NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal, who has been at the centre of a veritable media storm since she was outed by her parents for concealing her “true” racial background for the past decade or more. According to Dolezal’s parents, not only has Rachel persistently lied about her racial origins to her employers and the community she aims to serve through the NAACP, but she has undergone a series of physical transformations since her early twenties, cynically intended to conceal all trace of her “real” identity.

For the past week, the web has been ablaze with accusation and speculation. The response from the black community (and from the Internet at large) has largely been one of outrage and confusion, with commentators speculating widely on the motives behind this brazen act of cultural fraud, as well as on Dolezal’s mental health and relationship with her estranged family. “White privilege“, “cultural appropriation” and “blackface” are some of the recurring buzzwords used to suggest interpretations and explanations for Dolezal’s behaviour; meanwhile, a whole host of bloggers have come forward to offer their own bi-/mixed-/trans-racial narratives, both in support and condemnation of Dolezal’s actions. Yet the question remained: why did she do it?

On Tuesday, at long last, Rachel spoke out. The Today show interview is as fascinating to the viewer as it appears to be frustrating for the presenter, in his thwarted attempts to chide and cajole Dolezal into acknowledging her crimes. “Are you an African American woman?”, he challenges. “I identify as black”, she replies.

While Dolezal’s story has undoubtedly already been examined from every angle by those in search of a moral to the story, what interests me here is what the interview can tell us about the usually imperceptible nuts and bolts that hold the concept of “race” fast in the American imaginary. Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields have named this phenomenon “racecraft”: a system of ideas that govern “what goes with what and whom, how different people must deal with each other, where human kinship begins and ends, and how Americans look at themselves and each other”. Thus, by contravening the system’s norms, Dolezal has – intentionally or unintentionally – laid bare the inner workings of racecraft.

So what are the rules that Rachel broke?

Let me put up a picture of you”, says the presenter. Dolezal appears on the screen, depicted in her late teens, with straight, blonde hair, pale skin, and freckles. “Is this an African American woman, or is that a Caucasian woman?” The answer, apparently, could not be more obvious.

Famously, though, it is not skin colour or hair texture that has defined blackness throughout US history, but rather the notion of descent, as decreed by the “one drop rule”. Initially a rule-of-thumb used to determine who could and could not be enslaved in colonial America, the concept became enshrined in law in some southern states under Jim Crow segregation, as a means of establishing who could be classified as white: namely, those with no known “negro” ancestors. This circular logic also led, by exclusion, to a definition of who was black: anyone with any “negro” ancestors in living or genealogical memory.

Yet Dolezal’s parents affirm that they are of Czech, Swedish, and German ancestry, with “a little Native American”, planting Rachel, their biological daughter, firmly in the “white” category. It is this phenotypic “whiteness” that Dolezal has visibly worked to transform, first by darkening her skin (through as yet unknown methods), and, most strikingly, by adopting an entire repertoire of “black” hairstyles. Armed with these leading physical cues, as well as sterling black academic credentials (including a degree from Howard University), Dolezal was able to avert onlookers from the crucial question of her ancestry, effectively “passing” as an African American woman for a number of years – right until her dramatic unmasking last week.

The most striking element of Dolezal’s case, however, is her refusal to even acknowledge the rules of racecraft in the US. Throughout the interview, Dolezal describes to her racial identity as a purely cognitive phenomenon: a hard-wired psychological trait that led her, as a five year-old, to draw pictures of herself using brown, rather than peach crayon, and, many years later, to be described as transracial. From this point of view, true identity is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the mind of the beheld – a perspective that causes Dolezal to dodge the question of whether she could have had as big an impact as a Caucasian woman, stating: “I guess I haven’t had the opportunity to experience that in those shoes”. In the same vein, Dolezal claims that the need to alter her physical appearance sprung not from her, but from those who had trouble accepting that she – ostensibly a white woman – was truly the mother of her two sons (one adopted, and both African American). It is not Dolezal’s incongruous self-perception that is at fault, but rather the prejudices of those around her.

The interviewer, on the other hand, like most of America, judges Dolezal’s “race” according to the traditional criteria of ancestry and phenotype, to which self-designated identity must take second place. By these standards, Dolezal’s attitudes and actions can only be interpreted as at best delusional, and at worst, deceitful. “Did you always expect the lid would be blown off your story at some point?”, the presenter asks. “When did you start deceiving people and telling them you were black?” The question of Dolezal’s family connexions is also brought under scrutiny – in particular, her desire to surround herself with adopted African American “relatives”. This part of the discussion casts further light upon the limits of social acceptability where non-normative kinship ties are concerned. For instance, the interviewer provocatively questions Dolezal about her sons’ views on her racial identity (“they support the way that I identify and they support me”). However, he outright rejects Dolezal’s claim that she has an African American father, saying, “why point out an African American man and say that is my father when you know your father is a Caucasian man?” Of course, legal and bureaucratic procedures exist to allow individuals to adopt a child in America. But adopting a father?

When asked what she hopes will come out of this discussion, Dolezal declares: “[It’s] really about what it is to be human, and I hope that I can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency, and ultimately empowerment”. The utopian world that Dolezal presents is one in which social categories, relationships, and conventions become fluid to the point of indistinguishability. In such a world, people are free to disown and choose their family and racial category as they please, guided by “intimate connections” and “feelings of identity”, rather than the old metaphors of flesh and blood.

At least one pundit has been quick to pin Dolezal’s crimes on the liberal jibber-jabber of the American left, whose politically-correct rhetoric has brought civilised society to the brink of dissolution. However, the public uproar surrounding her case is a clear indication that Americans today are not living in Rachel’s ruleless society. On the contrary, in the vast majority of cases, identifying as black in the US is not primarily a question of self-determination, personal agency, or empowerment; rather, these are secondary considerations, upheld by individuals to mitigate the daily blow of being categorised, profiled, and discriminated against – all in the blink of an eyelid. Moreover, to voluntarily attempt to shoulder that baggage as an expression of solidarity and identification with the black experience suggests a grievous failure to comprehend the social and historical conditions that have made blackness a non-negotiable state in American society today.

Alas, the rules and paradoxes of racecraft still stand.


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Dear White People… Where Can I Leave My Racial Baggage?

Last weekend I went to the cinema to see Justin Simien’s Dear White People, a hip satire on the theme of student “race” relations, set at a fictional Ivy League university in a “post-racial” America. The film was praised by American critics as sophisticated, incisive and relevant, presenting an array of contradictory characters struggling to find their places as Black students at a historically White institution. The storyline unfurls between two key events: on the one hand, the launch of a new radio show entitled “Dear White People”, intended to educate the college’s majority White population about their everyday racial gaffes (petting Black students’ Afros; dating a Black guy to get back at your parents, etc.); on the other, the announcement of a blackface theme frat party to be held on campus, attended overwhelmingly by White revellers.

Sound a bit far-fetched? Apparently not. Simien was inspired to make the film through his own student experience at a predominantly White university, and in the closing credits to the film, viewers are treated to newspaper clippings of numerous “Black” themed college parties held over just the last few years in different parts of the country. Meanwhile, the “Dear White People” radio campaign echoes a number of recent social media movements led by Black students to highlight daily “micro-aggressions” perpetrated by unthinking or even well-meaning White students.

Perhaps the most successful of these has been the visually arresting I, Too, Am Harvard photo campaign, which began early last year as a spin-off from a campus play, and soon became a trending topic on Twitter. The strength of the campaign (which has since seen the emergence of various sister projects in the US and the UK) has been its clear, visual message. Black students stand head-on for the camera, holding handwritten messages on whiteboards. Some cite ignorant or insensitive comments from fellow (White) students:

“Are you all so fast because you spend so much time running from the cops?”

“You don’t sound black… you sound smart”

“Don’t you wish you were white like the rest of us?”

Others deliver cutting retorts to offensive approaches and off-colour witticisms:

“Please don’t pet my hair… I am not an animal”

“I’m not ‘pulling the race card’. You’re just being racist”

“No, I did not immigrate to receive HIV/AIDS treatment!”

The message of Dear White People and I, Too, Am Harvard is clear: we might talk about the US being a “post-racial” society, but racism is still alive and well in Obama’s America. What’s more, most of the perpetrators of this current, insidious brand of prejudice don’t even seem to realise anything is amiss. Far from it: many of the worst offenders in Dear White People are avid hip hop fans who might conceivably see a blackface party as a tribute to their musical idols, and are cognisant of the current social significance of identity politics to the point of honestly believing that “the hardest thing to be in the American workforce is an educated White guy”.

I applaud Simien’s attempt to approach the subject with humour. Dear White People‘s biting satire lights up the contradictions of a society in which “probably Mexicans” are the only people who still worry about race, yet a straight line can still be drawn between the jokey, “harmless” antics of its White protagonists and the blatant racial injustices that made human zoos and minstrel shows popular forms of entertainment in Europe and America right up until the mid-twentieth century. The implication is that all of these gestures – from hair touching to blacking up – are part of a sliding scale, ending in tangible violence. While protesting college micro-aggressions may seem like small fry in a year that has witnessed the violent deaths of numerous Black men (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott, to name but a few) at the hands of White police officers, we should not overlook the fact that both ends of the scale are rooted in the same American history of racial injustice.

If Dear White People paints a grim picture of the White mentalities found at top American educational institutions, their Black counterparts are not left unscathed either. From the nineteenth-century Sambo, Jack and Nat stereotypes used to characterise Negro “types” in the American South, Simien ironically offers a new range of caricatures, targeted at twenty-first century Blacks searching for a niche in White society. There is Troy, an academic high-flyer who seems ready to risk his perfect credentials to get in with the editors of the college satire magazine (the masterminds behind the blackface party); Coco, who is in denial about her “ghetto” roots, and openly aspires to blend in with the college’s rich White kids; Lionel, a gay nerd who rejects social labels, and consequently is rejected by everyone around him; and Sam, the brains behind “Dear White People”, who overcompensates for her “mixed” parentage by her militant stance, despite secretly dating a White teaching assistant.

For all its clever rhetoric and astute mocking of White disingenuity and Black hypocrisy, Dear White People seems to offer little hope for future conciliation. Each character is trapped by their racial category (which is portrayed as clear cut in practically all cases), to the point where every “cross-racial” friendship or romantic relationship either falls foul of fatal misunderstandings, or turns out to be merely a front, hiding underlying social aspirations or unhealthy racial fetishes. This theme is epitomised by the character of Sam, whose main struggle revolves around her Hobson’s choice of whether to remain loyal to her Black heritage (as dictated by the one drop rule), or to follow her heart – and her penchant for Taylor Swift – and openly date her compassionate, racially-aware White boyfriend. There is no middle ground for Sam, and either option implicates an irreparable betrayal of one “racial” group or the other.

Yet, once again, Simien’s plot does not stray far from the dilemmas and preoccupations of current generations of young Americans. A recent CNN documentary instalment, Who Is Black in America?followed the story of Nayo, a “biracial” teenage poet struggling to define her identity, despite her peers’ constant demands to know who, or what she is. Having grown up with her White father, Nayo expresses her unease at identifying fully as either White or Black, preferring to situate herself somewhere in between. This rejection of racial labels, however, is interpreted by the documentary makers as a sign of Nayo’s pathological reluctance to embrace her Black roots. After numerous creative exercises in which Nayo and her fellow poets are instructed to align themselves with various identity labels, Nayo eventually takes her place among a group of self-identifying Black teenagers, much to the delight and relief of her mentors. In the land of liberty, “racial” abstinence, it seems, is simply not an option.

So, in a society where racial identities are still largely dictated by notions of appearance and descent, but must also be conformed to via cultural codes and linguistic cues, is there any space or mode in which Americans can leave their racial baggage behind? Can Black Americans temporarily cease to be Black, without being accused of “acting White”? Can White Americans ever learn to think and act beyond their subconscious privileges and prejudices? Can “cross-racial” relationships ever exist without raising suspicions of some ulterior motive?

It would be an oversimplification to imagine that American culture and society can be neatly split into two polarised camps. The dividing line has been blurred for some time now by new generations of Americans, hailing from various parts of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, who straddle the historic colour line, introducing new cultural overtones to American understandings of “race”, or rejecting the system outright. Yet, if we imagine that a clear line does exist, then current orthodoxy would suggest that altering White attitudes and behaviours is the key to improving “race” relations in America.

To this effect, Robin DiAngelo has proposed that the first stumbling block to overcome is sensitising White Americans to their own racial status and experiences, allowing them to place themselves within the racial hierarchy that has become ingrained within the very fabric of American society. DiAngelo notes that White Americans are generally insulated from the daily racial stress experienced by their non-White counterparts, and as a result are extremely averse to being made to discuss the presence and consequences of racism in their social environment – a phenomenon she calls “White fragility”. In DiAngelo’s words:

The antidote to white fragility is on-going and life-long, and includes sustained engagement, humility, and education. […] If you are white I urge you to take the first step — let go of your racial certitude and reach for humility.

DiAngelo makes a significant point: in order to challenge the endemic racism that pervades American society, it is important first to recognise its symptoms, and then to understand the role that each of us represents (even if we don’t always actively play it) within the system. This was the aim of I, Too, Am Harvard: to highlight normative expressions of prejudice against Black students, which might otherwise be shrugged off as jokes or gestures of affection. Dear White People takes things one step further, inculpating all White students by default for their presumed daily acts of bad faith.

Yet there is a danger to these blunt approaches. Social and visual media provide powerful tools for protesting injustices of all magnitudes, but they also risk escalating tensions, making any social incident liable to be judged and condemned out of context, with no room for constructive dialogue. For concerned White Americans, the most obvious route to appeasement is censorship: simply avoiding the phrases and behaviours that have been marked as offensive. Others may simply refuse the validity of these complaints, instead seeking vindication through counter-protests. In any event, cultivating a true sense of racial awareness is not as simple as learning when to check your privilege, or memorising a list of faux pas and politically correct terminology in order to steer clear of future breaches of racial etiquette. Furthermore, humility and education alone cannot possibly bring about social conciliation unless they are strengthened by relationships built on love, humour, and patience, that are not constantly hampered by considerations of “race”.

Building these relationships requires something that is, arguably, harder than the work done by I, Too, Am Harvard and Dear White People. It requires a sustained commitment from individuals on both sides of the colour line, to holding difficult conversations face-to-face, and not via hashtagged platitudes; to taking racism seriously, without losing a sense of proportion (or humour); and to trusting others to have the capacity to act and think beyond their “racial” attributes. Perhaps, when all this is achieved, then we can start talking about a “post-racial” America.


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The Divine Comedy of Liberal Good Intentions

This morning I was sent a slice of internet gold.* The story is of a white American couple, desperate to adopt a baby. An opportunity presents itself in a (very) young Asian American couple, offering their newborn son up for adoption. The adoptive parents are overjoyed, and without further ado set about building a family with their new son. Within the first year, they begin to feel that they should make preparations to put their child in touch with his ‘ethnic origins’. Given that they live in a large Chinese American community, they send him for Mandarin lessons; find him an ‘adoptive’ Chinese aunt and uncle; celebrate Chinese festivals; and take him to China every two years on holiday:

We try and be PC as possible and we thought we were doing the right thing.

At seventeen years old, the son is preparing his college applications, and his father digs out his adoption papers. There, jumping out of the document at him, are the surnames “Park” and “Kim”:

For those of you that do not know, those are Korean last names. My son is not Chinese. Not even a little bit.

He’s Korean.

The penny has dropped, and gradually the news starts to sink in. The father, horrified, begins to think back over seventeen years’ worth of blind assumptions, with the truth now staring him in the face:

Now that I look at him, he looks INCREDIBLY Korean in comparassion to all of the photos of Korean men that I have just googled. Very square jaw, less hooded eyes, very broad build. None of this ever crossed my mind.

Too mortified to tell his wife and son, the father makes his confession to the internet, which duly rolls up its sleeves to give him a good pummelling for being, as the writer brands himself, “that dumb liberal white dickhead”.

Distressed, after receiving a wave of negative comments, the father publishes an addendum to his story:

I know this is the internet and I can’t tell people to stop saying such harsh things, but please know I’m a Human and a Dad. It hurts more than I care to admit. I love my son, I’m not a racist.

The great irony is that, despite bending over backwards to be culturally sensitive and to open his son’s horizons to a second language and national heritage – actions that would meet with approval by most parenting standards, and which many would consider highly appropriate for a ‘multi-ethnic’ adoptive family – the father is deemed to be racist when he is revealed to have made an apparently grave category error. ‘Racist’, because he couldn’t tell apart ‘Korean’ and ‘Chinese’ physical characteristics, and instead was guided by the (much more tangible) cultural milieu in which they lived. (By the way, judging people’s cultural background by their physical appearance may also be deeply frowned upon by ‘liberal’ Americans, frustrated by the ignorance of those who ‘make assumptions‘ and ‘get it wrong‘ – proof of the old adages that appearances can be deceiving and you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover).

Fortunately, some readers began to see the funny side, and similar stories started to flood in. As it turns out, America is full of Chinese Americans who look Korean; Irish Americans whose ancestors turned out to be Scottish; Dominicans of Chinese parents who don’t care about their ‘ethnic’ origins; and Americans who wish everyone could just be happy to call themselves Americans, plain and simple.

Most genealogists know that voluntary and involuntary ‘ethnic mix-ups’ have been happening for generations. Family trees are full of people who changed categories to suit the needs of the times: from ‘black’ to ‘white’, from ‘mixed’ to ‘Spanish’… In older times, when ‘ethnic’ heritage was not in such vogue, some people did what they could to downplay or forget their Old World origins, leading to difficulties for their descendants today who are trying to discover ‘who they really are’.

In the same vein, my favourite response to the post deserves a full reprint:

My Mom is really into geneaolgy and has mapped us back a ton of generations. My Grandmother kept telling my mom she was part Native American, and we all believed her because she actually really looked like it. My mom spent years looking for the connection somewhere in her mothers side of the family, and actually thought she had nailed it a few times.

Cut to early 2001 and my Grandmother is in the hospital on her deathbed. She and my mom are in the room alone, and my grandma tells my mom she has something very important to tell her.

GM: “You know how I’m Native American?”

mom thinks she’s finally going to find out where the relation is

GM: “yeah, I was just messing with you because I knew how badly you wanted a complete family history.”

I think that was the last time I heard my Grandma laugh, and it was glorious!

Amidst all the agonising over political correctness and cultural sensitivity, it’s good to know that people still have a sense of humour.

*Thanks to KM for the link.


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What Is ‘Race’?

Last weekend I was asked to give a Community Perspectives talk for Black History Month in Birmingham, entitled Black Beneath the Skin? The idea was to present some themes that intersect with my research, namely genetics, skin colour, and the idea of ‘race’, using Anthony Fabian’s 2008 film Skin as a springboard for discussion. The Q&A session was lively, with questions ranging from the political (“what do you think of the use of recent genetic research to find out if the Egyptian pharaohs were black or white?”) to the philosophical (“what is the societal value of a genetic ‘ancestry’ certificate?”) to the perplexed (“if you are given a ‘Jewish’ percentage on a genetic ‘ancestry’ test, does that mean Jews are a ‘race’?”). Since I began my PhD two years ago, I have gathered enough experience of fielding questions from friends and family to realise that these examples merely brush the surface of the curiosities and confusions that people harbour about new genetic knowledge, human evolutionary history, physical appearance, and the idea of ‘race’.

Possibly the most burning question of the evening was also the most simple: what is ‘race’? I have learnt from asking this very question to volunteers in my own research that this is not just a rhetorical device; many, if not most people are hard pushed to give a confident, straight answer to the question. ‘Race’ is something that we often assume does not need to be defined, either because its meaning and usage seems obvious, or because we find the term flawed, passé, or simply distasteful.

My short answer to the question is that ‘race’ is an idea. For the skeptics who raise an eyebrow at this typical social sciencey abstraction of the issue, calling ‘race’ an idea is not the same as saying “you’re basically imagining things”. Others will recall that the scientists who produced the first draft sequence of the human genome in 2000 declared that genomics proves the non-existence of biological races. But ‘race’ was an idea and a socially created system long before it was being constructed as a biological fact by race scientists, and then dismantled again as a genetic non-reality. To get to the bottom of what ‘race’ means today in different parts of the world, we have to look at how the concept came into being and how it has been used in various regions over the course of the past millennium.

Some historians trace the beginnings of the concept of ‘race’ to medieval Spain and Portugal, at the time of the Inquisition. Throughout the fifteenth century, Jews were the object of persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown, and many decided to convert to Christianity to avoid murder or exile. Some of these conversos continued to practice their faith and customs in secret, while outwardly declaring themselves to be Christian. This posed a problem for the Church: how to tell who was a ‘real’ Christian, and who was a crypto-Jew? To avoid secret infidels infiltrating the church and state offices, when applying for a post in either, individuals were required to show a certificate of limpieza de sangre (blood purity): proof that they had no Jewish or Moorish ancestors in their family tree. Blood was the metaphor used to express the invisible, heritable quality of ‘Jewishness’ or ‘Moorishness’, which tainted individuals in the eyes of the Church, making them potential corrupters and usurpers, who must be weeded out.

The period of the Inquisition, as well as the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, coincided and overlapped with the first arrivals of Europeans in what would later become known as the Americas. Although links of trade and conquest had existed for centuries and more, connecting the Far East with Southern Asia, Africa and Europe, the age of European ocean exploration and colonization was the first time that such geographically distant populations had been brought together in large volumes, over a sustained period of time.

Genetic and archaeological studies over the past fifty years have contributed to our understanding of how our ancient human ancestors gradually populated the earth, in waves of migration and admixture, with long periods of separation over distance. Different climates and physical environments encountered by migrating populations helped ‘select’ genetic variants coding for adaptive physical traits, such as the production of melanin, which gives skin its tone. Physical isolation over thousands of years created restricted gene pools, causing populations to become, in small ways, genetically differentiated from their distant neighbours. Over time, however, new meetings, admixture, and the division of groups spread genetic variants and markers all over the world, creating some genetic dissimilarities between geographically distant populations who had not mated together for many millennia, but also shared genetic variants between populations that, today, are found inhabiting surprisingly distant regions.

Sexual promiscuity was a basic element of life in the colonies for European men, and since no European women travelled to the Americas for up to the first fifty years after contact, the first children of Europeans born in the colonies were the progeny of relationships with indigenous American or, later, enslaved African women. On a genetic level, admixture (defined as mating between two or more genetically differentiated populations) produced certain physical effects: variations in skin tone, hair texture, eye colour, facial morphology. There would also have been some less visible genetic consequences, such as increased resistance to certain diseases, since ‘mixed’ individuals benefitted from the genetic inheritance of two or three parent populations, rather than one.

The physical effects of admixture did not go unnoticed by the colonial authorities: the casta paintings of the Spanish American empire are evidence of a profound fascination with the sheer number of possible ‘crosses’ and ‘hybrids’ that could be (and were being) produced by the sexual mixing of three so obviously distinct populations. But the paintings were not merely intended as a show of curiosity, but rather as a means of establishing a system to name, track and control blood mixture, in the way that family trees were supposed to give proof of blood purity back in Spain and Portugal. The castas were used to solve an administrative issue in the colonies: what should be the legal status of the (often illegitimate) children of European citizens with colonial subjects and the enslaved? Legal status was meant to determine the scope of social mobility that was available to individuals in the colony: who could own land; who could learn to read; who could marry whom; who should be enslaved. Since physical appearance was an unreliable indicator of blood status and parentage, genealogical systems were supposed to ensure that nobody slipped through the colonial net.

Things were dealt with differently, for example, in British North America, where mixing between Europeans and Africans, in particular, was severely censured. The system of hypodescent (commonly known as the one drop rule) was therefore used to determine individuals’ classifications in colonial society. Children took the status of their mother, and since the relations of sexual power in the colonies ensured that most instances of ‘mixing’ occurred between men of British descent and enslaved women of African descent, most ‘mixed’ children were therefore born slaves. Later, during the period of segregation in the American south, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 enshrined the ‘one drop rule’ in law, defining a ‘white’ person as someone who has “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian”. By default, aside from Native Americans, who were given their own measure of ‘blood quantum’, everyone else was classified as ‘black’. This was seen as a convenient way of preserving white ‘blood’ purity – although an unknown number of light-skinned ‘black’ individuals attempted to ‘pass for white’ during times of slavery and segregation, to escape the stigma of their ‘racial’ category.

In both the Spanish and the British cases, ‘race’ referred to imagined, vertical lines of descent connecting individuals to parent populations, which were considered to be clearly different from one another in physical and cultural terms. Not all parent populations were considered equal: the ‘civilized’ Europeans were, evidently, at the top of the hierarchy, with indigenous Americans further down, and ‘savage’, enslaved Africans at the bottom. Some types of blood were more easily purified than others – for example, through generations of mestizaje (mixing), it was thought that indigenous American heritage could be purged by Spanish stock. African ‘blood’, inherited from slaves, was thought to create an indelible stain that would never truly leaving the bloodline, even after all physical traces of ‘mixture’ had disappeared. ‘Race’ was, then, a system of justifying and rationalizing social hierarchies in the distant colonies, and ‘racial’ logic worked differently according to the politics and ideologies of each colonial government – as well as environmental and demographic factors, such as the need for new colonial subjects to populate a territory; the respective proportions of enslaved African men and women brought to the colonies; the economic activity of the colony and the living arrangements of masters, slaves and natives.

Since a person’s parentage determined his or her legal place in society, and therefore various aspects of his or her economic activity, education, social life and career, the idea of ‘race’ began to have a circular effect upon people’s behaviour and the roles they occupied in society. Since ‘race’ – as a conflation of physical appearance and descent – was imagined not as an externally applied system, but rather something borne within a person and imprinted on their body, it began to seem that ‘race’ was the direct cause of these social behaviours and roles. Racial stereotypes abounded, and were often noted by travellers to the colonies: mulattoes are lazy and cunning; Indians are secretive and treacherous; blacks are mournful and unintelligent. The most acute observers, however, were able to see that these generalizations were intimately linked to the individuals’ economic status in the colony and the social opportunities open to them, as well as their treatment at the hands of the elite white classes. Those who managed to escape the typologies defined by their ‘racial’ category were often seen as exceptional, having defied the roles and expectations prescribed to them.

Even after the end of colonial rule and slavery, and well into the twentieth century, some political administrations continued to apply laws to explain race, and to define who was black and who was white within the polity. These laws stemmed from centuries of colonial practice and social and racial orthodoxy, which led ‘race’ not only to be engrained within the popular imagination, but also to become thought of as a natural category. In notably racist societies, such as apartheid South Africa, racial laws became next to superfluous, as they were being reproduced ‘naturally’ generation after generation by citizens who decided to marry within their ‘racial’ group. How did people know who was part of their ‘racial’ group? Well, it was just obvious, as is made clear by this definition of a ‘white’ person under Afrikaner law in the 1960s:

A white person is a person who in appearance obviously is a white person, and who is not generally accepted as a coloured person; or who is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously not a white person.

Fortunately, every so often an exception comes along to challenge the rule. In the US, it was the case of Loving vs. Virginia that exposed the twisted logic that had been used to justify laws against ‘interracial’ marriage for decades in the Jim Crow south. Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and a white man who fell in love and travelled to Washington DC to be wed, were told that state law prevented them from returning to their native Virginia to live together as a married couple. The local judge’s argument that God had created the continents to separate the ‘races’ was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967, causing sixteen states to revoke their ‘interracial’ marriage laws immediately. The Lovings claimed that they had not initially known that a law existed to prevent their marriage in Virginia; while racism and fear kept most blacks and whites apart, to them it was not obvious that two people of different skin tones should not fall in love with one another.

In South Africa the case of Sandra Laing, portrayed in the film Skin, sent tremors through the Afrikaner bureaucracy. In the 1950s, Sandra, a dark-skinned woman, was born to two white, Afrikaner parents, each descended from three generations of white, Afrikaner ancestors. After being expelled from school for being ‘black’, Sandra’s father took her case to the courts to have his daughter reclassified as ‘white’, since Afrikaner rule decreed that people of differing ‘races’ could not cohabit, and nor could families include individuals of different ‘races’. At the time, the field of anthropometry (the measurement of man) was used to make ‘racial’ classifications: cranial measurements, the pencil test, dental comparisons and various other methods were used to determine a person’s ‘racial’ category. Anthropometrically, Sandra was classified, quite clearly, as ‘coloured’. Yet her parents insisted that she was their biological child. A geneticist offered a potential explanation to the conundrum: polygenic inheritance. In theory, the Laing parents could each have inherited genetic variants from native African ancestors far back in their family trees, which, when combined, could produce a child with considerably darker skin than either of the parents.

Henceforth, Afrikaner ‘racial’ law would recognize descent, rather than physical appearance as the determiner of a person’s race. On the other hand, Sandra’s lived experience growing up in South African society led her eventually to elope with a black man, and to ask to be reclassified once more as ‘coloured’, in order to be permitted to live with her own ‘coloured’ children. What was Sandra’s real ‘race’? There is no definitive answer, because the idea of ‘race’ was constantly changing as part of a frantic effort by a racist government to control and censure the genetic side-effects of sex and reproduction in South African society.

Some people confuse this interpretation of ‘race’, as an idea and an imagined social system, as merely a vain attempt to ignore the ‘reality’ of ‘race’ in society. Those people fail to grasp the power of an idea to influence people’s behaviour in such a way as to produce a social ‘reality’. We can observe and study the effects of ‘racial’ logic upon societies today, and history gives us the evidence that a belief in ‘racial’ hierarchies has led to genocides and atrocities sustained over the course of centuries. This still does not make ‘race’ anything more or less than an idea – albeit one that is now so strongly bound to stereotypes of physical appearance, ability and culture, that these factors often seem to be inseparable. But, as the philosopher Alain once said, nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one we have.


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Back to School

Things have been quiet on the blog front recently. This has mainly been for practical reasons: I moved back to Paris from Washington DC at the beginning of the summer, and since then I have been waiting, quite literally for months, for my internet to be connected. As an American friend stated, “[waiting two months for internet] is why Americans hate socialism” – and while I do think socialism has a lot going for it, I’m inclined to agree that, on the internet front, there is definite room for improvement.

Aside from that, I am no longer riding the roller-coaster of fieldwork, and instead have spent the summer shut up indoors, perusing articles and trying to get some thoughts and research onto paper in preparation for the Big Thesis Write-Up. For this reason, my focus has moved away from day-to-day experiences of the peculiarities of ‘race’ relations, colourism and identity politics, and onto current trysts and tussles between the social and molecular sciences about how genetics relates to questions of ‘race’, identity, origins, etc. This has inspired me to split my blog into two sections: the original ‘Anthropology While White’, and the new ‘Crossing Disciplinary Lines’, which will be the home of all things genetics-related from now on.

So it’s back to school for the blog and, as ever, I welcome your comments, critiques, and questions, both in private and in public.

Ironies and Oburonis: Navigating Foreignness in Ghana


Ghana began on the plane.

It was 1am on my connection from Casablanca to Accra, and I was sitting next to a sleepy-eyed toddler and his mother, who alternated in impatient tones between English and her indigenous language as she struggled to buckle up her squirming child. Confident in my usual ability to get a smile out of young children, I beamed down at him as he turned to look curiously up at me. Instead of the shy grin I had anticipated, his face cracked into a frightened grimace and he let out a whine as his lower lip began to wobble. Startled, I looked away, and into my mind popped the recollection of an early 20th-century psychological study that showed white children bursting into tears when brought face-to-face with a black person for the first time. The study was intended to demonstrate that black physiognomies ‘naturally’ provoked reactions of fear and disgust in white individuals, even from an early age – an interpretation that conveniently backed up the researchers’ own racist ideology. While attempting to quash the distasteful reference, I couldn’t help wondering what had brought on the little boy’s reaction: was this his first close encounter with an oburoni? Did his parents, like those of Kunta Kinte in Roots, threaten to call the white man when he was naughty, to steal him away from his home? Or did he just have stomach ache?

As a student of the history of ‘racial’ ideas in the Americas, arriving directly from a fieldwork stint in Washington DC, it was difficult to resist the tendency to view my brief six-day stay in Ghana with the rest of the EUROTAST network through the lens of New World conceptions of ‘race’ and ‘otherness’. As any good anthropologist knows, all social situations are best understood through local frames of reference; yet, in the virtual absence of these, our observations of unfamiliar societies often turn out to give us more insights into the quirks of our own mentality than those of the local culture per se.

The first day at the University of Ghana in Legon was an exercise in trying to fit in – or, to be more precise, in trying to stick out as little as possible for someone who, in physical appearance, dress and gait (not to mention ability to deal with tropical heat), could pass for nothing other than a total foreigner. Wandering aimlessly around the lush green campus, I slowed down to fall into step with the other students, strolling calmly and unhurriedly from bungalow to bungalow, and stole surreptitious glances at the assortment of outfits on show, from brightly coloured wax print dresses, long embroidered tunics and vibrant head wrappers to skinny jeans and plain blouses. For the most part I was politely ignored, save for a compliment from a female student about my leather sandals. I was reminded of the brief exchange a few days later when, in a conversation over breakfast with a visiting Ghanaian professor, the question arose of why foreign students to the university generally fail to integrate socially with the Ghanaian student body. In response, the professor quoted one of his colleagues, who had suggested that foreigners in Ghana dress so strangely in their attempts to deal with the sub-Saharan sun that the Ghanaian students simply cannot bear to be seen with them.

The first cultural test came halfway around my solitary tour of the campus: “Excuse me? Excuse me miss?” Well conditioned by trips to Latin America and the Caribbean to ignore the advances of strange men, I instinctively stiffened and kept walking. “Hi, sorry – excuse me… You were on the plane last night?” I stopped and turned to see a young man, smiling gently, embarrassed: “Erm… You fell on me? Remember?” My mouth dropped open. Indeed. Half-asleep and going round a sharp corner on the shuttle bus I had fallen squarely on this man, practically flattening him. Blushing at the memory, and at the fact that I had automatically assumed he was trying to chat me up, I shook his hand and introduced myself ruefully.

As narcissistic as it feels to compare one’s own perceived attractiveness in different countries, it seems worth remarking on the fact that West Africa is one of the few places I have been where the conjugation of light-skinned+young+slim+female was not merely unattractive to the vast majority of men, but on many occasions did not even register on the scale of sexual interest. My colleague Colleen Morgan has written an insightful piece on the ‘third gender‘ inhabited by white women in the Middle East, which is partly dictated by religious mores, and partly by a certain social inarticulacy in dealing with foreign women embodying roles and attitudes that are at odds with local cultural norms, and with their depictions in the Western media. In Ghana, on the other hand, we merely lacked any of the criteria that would qualify us as attractive – a fact that would seem, on the surface, to be contradicted by the billboards advertising skin ‘illuminating’ creams throughout Accra (although this would not be the first time that media and commercial portrayals of beauty standards have flown in the face of local tastes). A case in point was a trip to the arts market in Accra with two colleagues: a Texan American and a Nigerian British woman. Although we were all treated as oburonis (i.e. wealthy foreigners), the Ghanaian men were clearly fascinated by our confident, beautiful ‘African sister’, whom they lavished with compliments and appreciative sideways glances, while her two pale friends looked on, feeling sweaty and anaemic. On another occasion, a stall holder generously told me and two friends (a Mexican and a New Zealander) that we weren’t bad looking for oburonis, but that we would need to put on a considerable amount of weight to be considered remotely desirable by West African men.

A great deal has been written in the blogosphere on the meaning of the word oburoni: Does it mean ‘white’? Or ‘foreign’ in a broader sense? Does the word have racial undertones, or is it strictly cultural? Is it pejorative, or affectionate? Should we embrace it? Problematise it? Or simply accept it? Six days is too short a time to allow me to go into the sociolinguistic complexities of the term, but it seemed clear that the word was generally used very simply to designate someone who obviously wasn’t from Ghana, as evidenced either by their skin colour, dress sense, accent, or some other marker. The term can apparently even apply to expats returning to their country of birth – which can of course be irksome, since it serves to constantly signal one’s conspicuousness and inability to fit in with the crowd, even when, in our own eyes, we are just the same as everybody else.

In the UK or the US (and perhaps even France), where questions of immigration, cultural assimilation and integration are polemical, this perpetual signalling of foreignness would be viewed as a serious breach of social etiquette. Propriety dictates that we should either treat perceived difference (cultural/ethnic/linguistic) as irrelevant (since the person could easily turn out to be a fellow legal citizen and become offended), or else we should attempt to show an interest in the specifics of a person’s background, to demonstrate our cultural awareness and our openness to bridging the gap, so that the person no longer feels foreign. Not so in places like Brazil – a huge lusophone island in a sea of Spanish-speaking neighbours – where the word gringo is used not only to designate North Americans (as is usually the case in hispanophone America, with a certain overtone of prejudice), but to name anyone who is not Brazilian. Given the country’s endless human diversity, foreignness is not usually read on the skin, but rather in one’s lack of fluency with cultural, social and linguistic codes. As in Ghana, Brazilians were quick to explain that the term was not meant unkindly (they have other words for that), yet it never failed to provoke tension and annoyance in those addressed by it. In this sense, the word acts as a Rorschach test, stimulating our personal insecurities and private interpretations. In West Africa, this can be hardest to deal with for members of the African diaspora, who ‘return’ to their ancestral homeland, to find not only that are they not recognised as African, but that they are equated with whites, the historic oppressors (as discussed in this excellent blog entry).

Most uncomfortable for visitors to Ghana – as to many parts of the world where local economies depend on Western tourism – is how the word oburoni becomes intimately bound to an assumption of personal wealth, and an expectation that your primary function in the country is to expend money at all times. While to an extent true – since for many tourists the success of a trip is measured in the quantity and quality of trinkets brought back to show friends and family – this blunt portrayal is unflattering to say the least, and can be profoundly alienating when even the friendliest of interactions and gestures are brought under suspicion of being just another ploy to help money change hands. This sits uncomfortably with the origins of the word, which etymologically derives from the Akan word boro for ‘horizon’ or ‘overseas’, and appears to have come into usage with the arrival of the first Europeans, leading in turn to centuries of forced migrations, colonial exploitation and economic inequity.

... Life goes on

Today, the continuity of these histories still seems uncomfortably evident at the slave forts on the coast, which are a big attraction for oburoni tourists in search of the memory of the colonial past. While the purpose of these visits is usually to mourn, rather than to laud everything that the castles symbolise, like any other tourist hotspot they are surrounded by stalls and local artisans hoping to profit from visitors to the sites. For the most part this is business as usual for the traders, although when sales are low, tensions can bubble to the surface. As our group piled onto our bus to leave Cape Coast castle, fending off the sellers who were attempting to haggle with us for wooden instruments, or pressing ‘gifts’ of shells and beads into our hands, a man who had unsuccessfully been trying to market his wares, and was being pushed back by our Ghanaian guide, cried out angrily: “I am no white man’s slave!”. As an international research group that studies the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, the terrible irony of the statement was not lost on us.

Such are the contradictions inherent in ‘returning’ as a tourist to sites of colonial activity, memory and atrocity. As the bus drove on and the voices of children calling oburoni! oburoni! faded behind us, my mind travelled back to the sign that greeted me off the plane in Accra – the same word that hangs inside Cape Coast castle, hailing foreign visitors who pass symbolically into the fort through the Door of Return:


Welcome to Ghana.

A joke

Three Mexicans and an Englishwoman walk out of a bar. A guy walks past and asks for a cigarette. He doubles back: ‘No son de aquí ¿verdad?’

‘De dónde eres?’

‘Guatemala. ¿De dónde son?’

A moment’s confusion. Then, in flawless American English, the guy says: ‘You’re not from here. You should go back home’.

The Englishwoman smothers a giggle.

‘Think it’s funny?! Well y’all come to DC and have a great time, but then you don’t know what’s going on at the end of this street, or at the end of that street! Y’all should just fucking go back where you came from!’

No one can believe their ears. Joking, one of the Mexicans begins flexing his (unsubstantial) muscles. The Guatemalan (-American?) puffs out his chest and, slowly and deliberately, removes his jacket, squaring up to the Mexican (who stands some two inches taller than him).

The Guatemalan shoves the Mexican in the chest. ‘You wanna fuck with me?!’

The Englishwoman jumps in: ‘Tranquilo! Calm down. That’s enough’.

The Guatemalan stares. ‘You’re different. I detect an accent. Where are you from?’


‘England! I’ve been there, I know England. You’re different! I’m talking to you now – just you – because I can feel a connection between us, ok? I just hate it when these people come here! They should all just fucking leave’.

More confusion. The Mexican dusts himself down; his friend shouts ‘But I’m from Switzerland!’; and the Englishwoman reflects on whether or not to point out that she too is an immigrant, and hasn’t the foggiest idea of what is going on at the end of the street either. Next thing, two Latinas march over and bustle the Guatemalan into a taxi.

Se rompió una taza y cada quien para su casa.


One night later.

Three Mexicans, an Englishwoman and a Mexican-American walk out of a bar. They chat loudly in Spanish and try in vain to flag down a cab. A few metres away, an American is listening in with interest.

Finally, the American approaches the group. ‘Where are y’all from? I heard y’all speaking in Spanish, and, well, some of my friends are Dominicans and I like listening to them talk and practising my Spanish…’

‘We’re Mexicans’.

‘I’m from Michigan’.

‘I’m English’.

‘Mexicans! Um, I mean, mexicanos, right? Cool!’ He smiles, tentatively. The Mexican-American rolls her eyes and turns her back, pointedly. ‘And what about you – so, you’re from Michigan?’

She turns back: ‘From the University of Michigan. Look, I’m so sick and tired of people asking me what I am. I’m human, ok?’.

He looks taken aback. ‘Oh… right. But Michigan, though… Look, I have a stars tattoo for Detroit’. He displays his forearm.

The atmosphere is as cool as the night air.

‘OK, well, it was nice talking to you. Have a good night’. He turns and walks off, across the street.


Did you get the punchline?

Me neither.


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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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Whiteness Without Complex?

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event called ‘Color Without Complex‘, featuring a public conversation between image activist Michaela Angela Davis and ethnographer and publisher Dr. Yaba Blay. The discussion revolved around Blay’s recent book and accompanying exhibition, (1)ne Drop, which looks at the faces and stories of individuals who identify as black, but do not necessarily fit with common prototypes of blackness in the US. By focusing on light-skinned individuals existing at the very outer periphery of blackness, the project tests the perceptual limitations and the social implications of the one drop rule in today’s post-segregation America – a country in which contemporary notions and benchmarks of ‘race’ are still rooted in cultural and legal traditions established under slavery, colonialism and Jim Crow segregation.

The theme up for debate was colourism, a hot internet topic over the past nine months in particular, and the object of a number of recent documentaries, chat shows and news articles in the US. While social prejudice against people ‘of colour’ – as well as the pathological tendency of the Western media to showcase whiteness not only as the norm, but also as virtually the sole domain of beauty – are perhaps two of the most visible social legacies of colonialism throughout the Atlantic world and beyond, these recent debates are bringing to light skin colour prejudices within the black community. Whereas, historically, light coloured skin was prized and aspired to throughout the Americas as a path to social ascension and a means of escaping the stigma of blackness, in recent decades pan-Africanism and a multitude of black pride initiatives have caused a shift towards celebrating and embracing blackness as embodied by a dark-skinned, African ideal. Meanwhile, in some cases light-skinned blacks have become the target of double-edged prejudice: stigmatised by whites for being black, and ostracised by blacks for apparently aspiring to be white.

‘Color Without Complex’ was set up by Davis and Blay as a healing encounter: an honest discussion that would contrast the assumptions that are made about individuals (in particular, women), based on their skin colour, with the lived experiences of blackness that can only be understood by getting to know people, by hearing and discussing their stories in an environment of trust and love. It was, implicitly and explicitly, a conversation about blackness, for and by ‘sisters’ – women of a range of hues who identify as black.

And yet, I think it is worth mentioning that there was also a significant minority of white women among the audience who turned up to listen to the debate. Looking around the room, I wondered what had brought them there, like me, to listen from the sidelines into a conversation to which we were not party. In the Q&A session at the end, the (white) woman sat in front of me, holding hands tightly with her (black) husband, asked a question about healing through empathy. Some minutes later, a young (white) woman a few rows further down asked the following question:

“How would you defend, or maybe not necessarily defend, but how would you address a woman who is of colour, but appears to look as white as I do? How would you talk to her or address to her what her place is in relation to colourism, for example? How does colourism apply to her, because she looks white but she is a person of colour, and identifies with that?”

The question contains both an insistence (‘I am of colour’) and a plea (‘talk to me; defend me’), which stand contradicted by the speaker’s skin colour. What is a white woman’s place in relation to colourism? In what does being ‘of colour’ consist, if that colour leaves no recognisable physical trace? What can a woman who happens to look white know about the experience of de facto nonwhiteness – which, surely, is the true test of colour?

Underlying the question is a statement of solidarity: I choose to identify with you, even though I cannot prove I am one of you. The speaker is asking for permission to cross the colour line and enter the night’s discussion, although she fears rejection based on the evidence given against her by her own skin. It seems striking to me that she asks these (black) women, apparently so used to talking about issues of colour, for advice on how she should be addressed: what words can be used to explain and alleviate her predicament?

Rather than being particular to the speaker’s situation, I see this question as symptomatic of the lack of vocabulary available to ‘people of whiteness’ who wish to join in debates about colour, race and prejudice in a personal, nonacademic way, after having been so silent, for so long. More importantly, it speaks to the difficulty of talking about these issues ‘while white’, in any forum, without first feeling the need to validate your non-racist credentials while proving the sincerity of your interest and the relevance of your experience. In part, this has been due to the widespread belief by light-skinned individuals and others that whiteness is without complex: white = privilege, end of story. In part, it is the result of a well-meaning adherence to strict standards of political correctness, which culminates in self-censorship as a means of not offending anybody.

Unfortunately, the longer you remain isolated from conversations about race, identity and prejudice, the more likely you are to unwittingly offend the other interlocutors when you rejoin the discussion, through your inability to articulate your own experiences or engage others regarding theirs. Yet, as Blay and Davis have demonstrated, the only way towards reconciliation is through discussion. The great strongpoint of the (1)ne Drop project has been the effort made by Blay to listen to, understand and spread the stories told by the participants in an effort to explain their identity, rather than merely compiling a showcase of the superficial diversity of black experiences. Skin colour does not speak for itself, and so in order to commit to working towards a post-racial society, we must find a way of striking up a conversation, based on trust and compassion, between speakers on both sides of the colour line, in which whiteness, blackness, and everything in between is up for discussion.


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A ‘White’ Anthropologist’s Manifesto, and a Call for Discussion

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’.


Thoughts, questions or constructive criticism about this post? Help turn this monologue into a discussion by leaving a comment (use the speech bubble button next to the title of this post, or write one in the comments box below).

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.