Confronting race in anthropology

Anthropology has a rich history with regards to colonialism and race. The discipline has reflected extensively on how culture and biology interact, in order to arrive at the current knowledge of what race means today. The story of race, and how anthropology has addressed it, still needs work. With this short essay, I want to elucidate a potential alternative in addressing race holistically by tending to the concept of privilege.

“Check yo self before you wreck yo self.” – (Check yo self, Ice Cube 1993)

The social sciences are rich in theoretical approaches that look into privilege and intersectionality. While anthropology has borrowed these terms from its kin disciplines, it has not taken these theories and their respective examinations of privilege into its core, nor have anthropologists incorporated them into everyday academic lives. The same discipline that examines foreign elements, and places ethnocentrism as a core topic within its pedagogy, methodologies, and theories, does not engage race in more complex ways outside of this framework; to engage beyond ethnocentrism is to reflect on how participants are treated, as well as the treatment of our fellow anthropologists.

Privileged practices are the result of othering, and individuals do not need to acknowledge privilege’s systematic advantages to benefit from them. Privilege takes many forms. Yet, given the context and history of anthropology, I will focus on white privilege, as a way to elucidate this confrontation of race with the discipline.

Not much time is spent in classrooms discussing white privilege. We must ask, how do our white anthropology professors engage their own instances of privilege? Black Anthropologist Lynn Bolles’ recently published article dwells on the issues of reflexivity and white privilege in academia, and how black female anthropologists, and their contributions, are rendered invisible (2013). Her article suggests that white privilege (while taught in few instances) is not internalized by those who teach it; the privileged power relations are as pervasive in the home department as they might be in the fieldwork setting. Yet, non-anthropologists seem to ‘school’ us on the matter: Carperter-Song and Whitley (2013), while not anthropologists, used anthropological approaches to reflect on how power and privilege affect their research methods. Their collaboration with an HBCU, and an African-American research population, made them think about how their collaboration could address historically exclusive practices and groups. Theirs is just one example of the potential of our own methods to reflect on white privilege, and to account for the unequal biases in the research methods themselves.

The goal is to understand how privileged anthropology really is

Confronting race means that we need to strive towards an understanding of race as an objective, not as a discrete goal. There is not one discrete goal that achieves an understanding of race and how to address it. Institutions of higher learning struggle to balance and understand race by having discrete goals of diversity within their own ranks.

But anthropology is not engaging enough with the topics regarding race; not much is done beyond addressing the issues raised by those of us who are people of color (POC) and minorities. Confronting race must entail more than merely letting minorities and POC take care of ‘their’ issues of race, while white anthropologists see race as beyond their scope and expertise. White privilege, in this case, is seeing race outside of one’s topic of study, and implying whiteness as the default.

Race needs to be at the core of learning theoretical frameworks and methodology. As of now, race is a special topic to those who study non-whites; that’s when race is suddenly relevant. When the participants (or the researchers) are white, the issue of race is minimal or non-existent.

Confronting anthropology means white anthropologists should examine and be upfront about their privilege; minorities and people of color in anthropology have been vocal about these issues, and yet they must also acknowledge their academic privilege – which already happens in other theoretical frameworks within anthropology (Alcalde 2007; Narayan 1997; Zavella 1997). The work of anthropologists of color (including their participants as minorities) often confront race in more natural ways in the methodology and theory, since they do not take for granted their role in the process. Unfortunately, white privilege suggests and encourages anthropologists of color to be the sole voices representing their own race, as well as others minorities (Bolles 2013). Intersectionality needs to be more prevalent in our discipline, and we need to be more cognizant of it as as more of us do fieldwork ‘home’.

The classical definition of fieldwork has forced anthropologists to think in dichotomies that, by definition, exclude those that study their own ‘culture’; it puts unequal praise on those that study ‘others’ in ‘other’ places. Those who choose to examine their privilege and race, in addition to conducting research within their in-group, stand out too much; they attract too much attention to themselves, disturb the most senior members of the discipline, and create chaos and disorder (Weston 1997). The disturbances of intersectionality and the confrontation of racial issues have to be distanced from arguments that deem them as ‘being political’, since they greatly enrich theory and methods.


Accounting for privilege and race in one’s research must always be a component of the research process. In the same manner that anthropologists of color (and those who study their in-group) are considered part of the research process in such ‘disturbing’ ways that their presence must be accounted for in order to justify their findings, the same must be expected of white anthropologists to account for reflexivity.

“U.S. culture and society, (and) the efforts of decolonizing feminist anthropology, entails doing homework in every field of endeavor, particularly at home, in the office, and at the university” (Bolles 2013:69). Race as a social construct is pervasive enough in US society. Anthropology needs to check its privilege, because its present colorblindness does not foster growth in underrepresented minorities.

Race needs to be part of anthropology from the beginning of the training process, and throughout our careers, much in the same manner that ethnocentrism shapes our knowledge and methodology as an underlying concept in the discipline. Reconfiguring our approach from the beginning of our training, at the undergraduate level and throughout graduate school, has the potential to transform the intersection of race in anthropology. The topic of race, in its broad definition, needs to be re-appropriated so that it is not exclusively identified with politics and political correctness, but as a part of the examination of privilege of the (mostly) white discipline of anthropology in the US. Similarly to those institutional review board statements where we explain why our research is excluding minorities, women, and other understudied groups, we need to start asking anthropologists why their research is thought to be outside the scope of race.


Alcalde, M. Cristina.  2007. Going Home: A Feminist Anthropologist’s Reflections on Dilemmas of Power and Positionality in the Field. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 7(2):143-162.

Bolles, Lynn.  2013. Telling the Story Straight: Black Feminist Intellectual Thought in Anthropology. Transforming Anthropology 21(1):57-71.

Carpenter-Song, Elizabeth, and Whitley, Rob.  2013. Behind the Scenes of a Research and Training Collaboration: Power, Privilege, and the Hidden Transcript of Race. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry:1-19.

Narayan, Kirin.  1997. How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist? In Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life. Lamphere, Louise, Ragoné, Helena, and Zavella, Patricia, eds. Pp. 23-41. New York: Routledge.

Zavella, Patricia.  1997 Feminist Insider Dilemmas. In Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life. Lamphere, Louise, Ragoné, Helena, and Zavella, Patricia, eds. Pp. 42-61. New York: Routledge