Cultural Critique is the New Racism

When Bill O’Reilly can blame “black culture” for the persistence of racial disparities in the US, and Bill Maher can blame “Islamic culture” for the violence of the Middle-East, our cultural anthropologist ears should perk up. We might spend a lot of time in our journals, upper-level classrooms, and conference halls debating the merits of the concept of culture, but, as a discipline founded on its application, we are responsible for cultivating its use in wider discourse and for combatting its misuse for socially and morally detestable ends.

The problem is that, by appealing to culture to account for the problems they see, the Bills and others believe that they have escaped the charge of racism. “Obviously, it isn’t skin color that causes people to behave badly,” they can argue, “it’s culture. And if you suggest that there are racial disparities or any other racially associated problems, then it is YOU who is being racist by perpetuating the belief in race (which is a myth), and thus keeping Black and Brown people from escaping the culture that keeps them from succeeding!” To their minds, culture is the perfect explanation because people can escape their culture – thus we see individuals who do not exhibit the problematic traits or behaviors – and because it can explain the problem of individual failures among their own racial group.

But it is still racism, even if thinly veiled. It is racism because these arguments are used to write off an entire group of people and justify the continuation of racist policies that keep those groups from having a reasonable chance at success. It’s obviously racism, but these talking heads are able to get away with it by the circularity of their logic, and it’s this same circularity that appeals to many middle-class white people who resent their diminishing position in the world and are looking for a way to reassert their authority without appearing overtly racist. Blame the culture, and the superiority of white culture will, once again, prevail.

This is why anthropologists must take a stand against the misuse of the culture concept. It isn’t a new phenomenon – “Black culture” has been blamed for the failures of Black Americans since the days of slavery. In fact, anthropologists themselves have misused the concept of culture in the past to justify the exploitation of people of color around the world. But we hopefully know better now, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the concept of culture cannot be used to perpetuate racism, but only for anti-racist ends.

How do we do it? First, by reminding the public that culture is complex and heterogeneous. There is no culture that maps onto any national, racial, religious, or other ethnic community. There are always cultural differences among these groups, and it is these differences that matter more than the similarities. Second, by emphasizing that culture is only one factor among many many others – social, political, economic, environmental, and so on. Understanding why racial disparities and other circumstances exist requires a full examination of all of the potential causal factors. Culture may be one of them, but it cannot be the only one and is itself contingent on all of those other influences so that cultural change can never be a sufficient solution to these problems.

There are probably many other ways anthropologists can fight racism and the racist misuse of the culture concept. But these two are a good start, and I hope more anthropologists will take up the care for the culture concept once again, rather than simply relegating it to the dustbin of academic discourse.

Social Constructs Kill

For decades, anthropologists have been teaching the line that race, gender, sexuality, and any number of other things are social constructs. It’s an effective pedagogical tool – we get a kick out of it every time a student’s face lights up with realization as we explain the “myth” of race, and the historical conditions on which these ideas are founded. And then the students go out of the classroom a little more enlightened, and ready to wield the whip of social construction against anyone who still clings to a notion of biological determinism.

But a little enlightenment can be a dangerous thing. Without the full background in history, theory, and social reality, these students often go out into the world believing that, since race and gender a social constructions, all we have to do is stop believing in them and they’ll go away. It’s this colorblind and genderblind attitude that allows the system to continue – because you can’t destroy a system simply by not believing in it!

I’ve made the argument before that we need recognize and teach that social constructs are not just false realities, but that they are themselves real – material-semiotic constructions built over time that shape our lives in significant ways. In the wake the repeated police killings of Black people, the ongoing destruction of indigenous culture, and the persistent abuse of women, we need to begin teaching that social constructs kill. They kill not just with bullets in guns – though it is increasingly apparent that they do that too – but also through restricted access to resources, through repeated stress and trauma, through inadequate medical care, through imprisonment, and many other pressures that don’t make it onto the nightly news because they are not dramatic and eventful.

We need to teach this, and to help our students examine the ways that social constructs infuse their own lives. We need to help them recognize the ways that they are often complicit in the killing, so that maybe, when they go out into the world they’ll be equipped not just to dispel myths, but to fight for justice.

What’s an Anthropologist to do?

The past couple of weeks have sparked in me a lot of reflection. After the failure to indict the killers of both Mike Brown and Eric Garner (and the general failure of the US justice system) and as a result of the strange, schizophrenic experience of attending the American Anthropological Association conference and at the same time attempting to support the local protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning and purpose of anthropology – and upward anthropology in particular. I clearly don’t have all of the answers, but I think this is an opportunity for us to build a different kind of anthropology. A different kind of anthropology means one that recognizes its place amongst the people rather than as disinterested observers, or, almost as bad, as radical academic commentators. Our radical academics do not excuse our conservative personal opinions, nor justify our inaction in the face of injustice.

With this in mind, I want to refigure our way of thinking about what it is we do. We wear many hats in the course of our careers, but, at least since the 1980s, writing has been the major focus of the discipline. We are writers, we tell stories, we “give voice,” and so on. But to whom do we write? Largely to ourselves, of course. We struggle to figure out how to write for a “larger audience” or how to “bring anthropology to the public,” but we are trained to write for a particular audience – in many cases, we undergo a decade or more of discipline that trains us to write academic papers for an academic audience and little else. So very often we simply cannot write for anyone else, and, even when we can, writing is a very safe way of addressing injustice – particularly in a world where individuals can pick-and-choose the stories they want to hear. Writing isn’t revolutionary anymore.

So what else do we have to offer? What else can we do? Research. We focus so much on writing these days that we often forget about what it takes to get to the writing – the methods, practices, building rapport, and so on that is required for us to even begin to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, more likely). Research is what we do – what we are all trained to do. And in every methods course, we tell our students that anthropology is unique because for us – unlike other social science disciplines – our bodies are our instruments. We put our bodies out there amongst other bodies, talk to them, work with them, play with them, rest with them, and, at times, fight with them. This, more than writing, is the public – I would even say human – side of anthropology.

Furthermore, this is what we have in common with activists. An activist is – among other things – a person who puts her body out there in the thick of things in order to make a political or social statement, whether it’s occupying a park, blocking traffic on a freeway or major intersection, sitting in a forbidden space, or laying down in silence in a public space to honor the dead and dying bodies left laying on the ground for hours after a confrontation with police. Then there are the more extreme cases like the self-immolations that continue in Tibet and that ignited the Arab Spring. It is the act of putting her body on the line that makes the statement, that draws attention to injustice, and the compels others to act.

This is not to say that research is inherently activist, it is only to draw a connection between research and activism as practices, and to push anthropologists to think of the ways that we might put our bodies in the thick of things amongst the people – not only to collect data in order to write our stories, but to work with others to build a better world. What could research become if it, instead of writing, was the central identifying feature of anthropology instead of writing? What would anthropological activism look like if it was less about our words and our voices and more about our bodies and our actions?