Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Race and the Problem of Identity

Inside Higher Ed has a fascinating interview with Lee Baker, author of a new book Anthropology and the Politics of Culture.  He describes how the disciplines of anthropology and sociology have differed in their treatment of American Indians and Blacks, as well as other immigrant minorities.  He makes the point that this arose because of the very different treatment of these groups by larger society. 

Before World War II, the consumption of a pacified and out-of-the-way Indian in Wild West shows, World’s Fairs, and museums can be juxtaposed with the consumption of a dangerous and in-the-way Negro in blackfaced minstrelsy, professionally promoted lynchings, and buffoon-saturated advertising. World’s Fair organizers routinely rejected requests to erect African American exhibits, and philanthropists flat-out rejected requests to erect a museum to showcase African and African American achievements. While many performers dressed up to play “authentic” renditions of somber Indians, others blackened up to play exaggerated renditions of knee-slapping Negroes, and there was no African American analog to the Campfire Girls and Indian Guides; middle-class white kids never went to camp to dress up to play Sambo.
He goes on to mention how prominent anthropologist Francis Boas was instrumental in the evolution of our concept of race.
Many scholars believed the races were organized in an evolutionary hierarchy that began with savagery and moved through barbarism and ended with Christian Civilization. Franz Boas used the scientific method to demonstrate that races were not organized in a hierarchy, and that cultures should be viewed and understood within their own historical contexts. The notion that the world has multiple cultures and different races that are neither better nor worse, neither advanced nor retarded, can be attributed to the scientific work that Boas began in the 1890s. Although this had a significant long-term impact in terms of challenging the ideas of racial inferiority that served as the basis for Jim Crow segregation, Boas’s research articulated a particular racial politics of culture that provided a compelling argument against racial uplift and cultural assimilation.
Many people often express the view that race, as a term, is outdated..  While I agree that it is indeed a vague and largely non-descriptive term, it still has productive meaning - even if it at the same time has pernicious qualities.  This is because as a term, race can be is used as a false definition - but then as a description of the experience of that false definition, based on specific historical context. 

So Barack Obama can have dark skin, but be raised in white culture, and still be considered black.  But a white kids raised in black culture will always be considered white.  And yet Obama, because of his skin color, had/has been forced into an identity that has been chosen for him.  And yet then in dealing with it, he actively sought out black ethnic forms that were meaningful to him. 

Does this make him any more black?  What does that even mean?  I'm white, and I've certainly sought out black ethnic forms, but I'll never be identified, or self-identify as black.  Is Obama's embrace of black forms any more "authentic" than mine?  He certainly had more external forces pushing him in that direction.  Or, I suppose, one could also say that he had less external forces not pushing him in that direction.

I think all of this goes to the fact that race is such an illusive term.  It has meanings which are both true and untrue, depending on circumstance.  As a cultural description, either at the individual or social level, the concept of "race" is ultimately a fascinating window into the understanding of what culture itself means.   In many ways, culture is a utilitarian mythological device.  We can simply lose ourselves into it.  By following its rhythms and activities, we can feel safe in knowing that there is something constant and true that we can rely on.  Much like a family member or friend, we are able to take it for granted that its narrative will always be there for us, unchanging, not unexpected or disorienting.  In many ways it simply comes down to the best means to an end.  Of course, it is self-perpetuating, and can be as limiting as it is comforting. 

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