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Author: Anneeth Kaur Hundle
Title: Avoiding Race-Avoidance? Anthropologists and Affirmative Action
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Avoiding Race-Avoidance? Anthropologists and Affirmative Action
Anneeth Kaur Hundle

vol. 18, no. 1, 2010
Issue title: Graduate Student Socialization in Anthropology
PDF: Link to full PDF [196kb ]

Avoiding Race-Avoidance? Anthropologists and Affirmative Action

Anneeth Kaur Hundle

Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan

An editorial entitled “Generation O” in The Nation proves illustrative of the particular historical moment we find ourselves in.

The key to Obama’s appeal to young voters may be that he resembles them. In a New York Times essay contest on the state of American college students, Nicholas Handler labeled his generation “Post-Everything”: “post-Cold War, post-industrial, post-baby boom, post-9/11.” Obama himself is a collage of posts. Time magazine recently observed that, like Tiger Woods and Angelina Jolie, Obama has “one of those faces that seem beamed from a post-racial future.” [Currier 2008]

President Barack Obama’s ostensible “post-appeal” with America’s youth signifies yet larger narratives of a postimperial and postcolonial world marked by the roots and routes of diasporas and transnationalism—indeed, the possibilities of a cosmopolitan world unencumbered by parochial and unidimensional conceptions of identity. Discourse, whether academic or journalistic, reveals that “Humanism,” when it comes to race, has transgressed beyond “color lines” to “culture lines.” In this paper, I focus on the “post-racial” moment, with which, as indicated in The Nation quote above, American national discourse is wholly intertwined. I argue that anthropologists have a critical stake in assessing the implications of the post-racial moment in order to update their anti-racist toolkit.

I now turn to another historical moment—one that seems to affirm the strength and totalizing power of post-racialism. On November 7, 2006, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (well known as “Proposal 2” among Michigan voters) passed in the state of Michigan. Constitutionally, MCRI has ended all race-based preferential hiring or admissions in public employment, education, and contracting in the state. [1] The end of affirmative action in Michigan is part of a broader national trend in which civil rights based racial justice work is being systematically overturned with the monetary backing of the conservative right-wing. “Post–civil rights,” therefore, should be added to the litany of “posts.”

My interest in contributing to an issue on graduate socialization in anthropology on issues of race is predicated upon emphasizing that we anthropologists enter an ongoing conversation on race—one that takes place at home, and in our departments. Though the end of affirmative action in Michigan is not an exceptional event, it certainly warrants some lessons worth considering within our discipline. “Graduate student socialization” intrinsically involves practices of inclusion and exclusion in all aspects of graduate education: coursework, teaching, fieldwork, and academic professionalization. Power inequalities within institutional settings that render graduate students vulnerable, compounded with the ethnographer’s focus on the fieldwork process, result in anthropology departments that need not become sites for reflexive critique. Add to this the relative class distinction of graduate students with means to doctoral education and the feminization of anthropology departments across the country—and race in anthropology departments need not become a subject for reflexive critique.

As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, however, witnessing the end of affirmative action placed me in a unique position to reflect, analyze, and act on problems of graduate socialization. In this sense, my department became my field site. I often contemplated issues of racial inclusion and exclusion, querying when, how, and in what spaces discussions of “native anthropologists” or “insider–outsiders” were mobilized or silenced. Was “anthropologist of color” or “minority anthropologist” or “international student” a more legitimate category of politicization than “Chicana” or “South Asian feminist”? Was race a depoliticized concept in anthropology departments? Were anthropologists becoming deracialized? And if so, by what processes did this so-called “racial silencing” occur? Finally, had anthropology gone “post-racial” and if so, why?

It is now clear that the global consolidation of neoliberal capitalism has yielded new processes of racialization and forms of racism. Discursive categories of racialized identity, in turn, derive from neoliberal and postmodern logics of identity formation. American scholars, for instance, have noted that the gains of middle-class blacks have eroded the significance and salience of race as a political category (Gregory 1999). The demise of race as a category for political opposition and mobilization is evidenced by the ways in which the race question plagues American politics. On the one hand, “historical supporters of black struggles now argue that liberals and leftists must put aside the obsessions with race questions, since by aligning themselves with anti-racist reform, they have done little more than alienate a silent majority of Americans and initiate a backlash that has pushed this country on a more or less continuous rightward course” (Singh 2004:215). Clearly, these internal tensions became apparent as African Americans responded to Barack Obama’s candidacy, most notoriously when TV and radio personality Tavis Smiley cautioned listeners about Obama’s ability to “transcend race.” (Smiley ended up leaving the Tom Joyner Morning Show, the most popular black radio broadcast in America; see di Leonardo 2009 and 2007, Sanneh 2008). On the other (conservative right) side, legacies of anti-racism movements such as anti-poverty programs, affirmative action, minority set-aside programs, and voting rights obligations “are the real obstacle to achieving a truly color-blind America as well as the crutches that continue to hinder black boot-strap self-discipline and progress” (Singh 2004:215–16).

Understanding the arguments for these political stances is crucial to the work of anthropologists. Historically, anthropologists have written extensively about race, but their contributions to the study of racism have been more modest. [2] Leith Mullings, for instance, has noted that “many cultural anthropologists, in distancing themselves from the truly barbaric consequences of biological racism, have become ‘race avoidant,’ considering race to be socially constructed, but in the process ignore racism” (2005:670). In this paper, I approach this relationship between anthropology and race from multiple levels of analysis: (1) my experiences organizing and participating in an anthropology diversity initiative in response to the end of affirmative action in Michigan within the department, (2) the institutionalization of national racial discourse within the department, and (3) vis-à-vis “situated knowledges” (Haraway 1991) and other international resources for approaching anthropology and the “race question.” In this last approach, I grapple with constructions of racial identity among the Punjabi Sikh diaspora, studying Africanist perspectives on race and racialization, and my own anti-anti-affirmative action work. These resources for “thinking race” profoundly unsettle normative anthropological racial discourse within departmental contexts.

My aims are also multiple. First, I stress that gender, class and race relations are not to be experienced only in the field or at the level of theory, but also in institutional contexts of graduate education. Second, I highlight conceptualizing the “department” and “the field” as contiguous spatialities for anthropological inquiry. Finally, having been highly influenced by Faye V. Harrison’s edited volume Decolonizing Anthropology, I suggest that a graduate socialization issue in anthropology offers a unique opportunity to continue the project of reinventing not necessarily a post-racial, but a democratic anthropology (Harrison et al. 1997). “Thinking about thinking” need not devolve into postmodern paralysis—it becomes a platform for political engagement instead.

Organizing ADI (Anthropology Diversity Initiative)

“In my first year or two of graduate study, I felt almost invisible and had very little understanding of how to succeed in this type of institution. My cultural and socioeconomic background did little to prepare me for graduate study in anthropology, and subsequently, I often felt incompetent, confused and demoralized. I fear that with the passage of Proposition 2, many graduate students will continue to feel invisible and demoralized unless we, as a department, come together to address issues related to diversity and representation that are equally relevant to faculty, staff, and students.”

Graduate students who became involved in the formation of an activist group called the Anthropology Diversity Initiative (ADI) solicited anonymous testimonials such as the one above from their fellow colleagues in the department. Testimonials became a means by which students could “safely” and confidently articulate their concerns regarding race/ethnicity in the department. They varied in style from outright statements on structural inequalities in graduate study to more narrative-based, phenomenological descriptions of alienation typical in graduate programs. Collecting evidence that described the “on the ground” realities of departmental climate became central to understanding the purpose of our collective activist projects. Ultimately, the goal of the exercise was to make visible those topics of departmental conversation that tended to be silenced.

ADI began as an informal group of 25 graduate students of various racial/ethnic, cultural and class backgrounds who were broadly interested in problems of diversity and representation in the department along multiple lines of inequality. After much debate on the merits and drawback of utilizing what some argue is depoliticized “diversity discourse” in our title, we reached a consensus that “diversity” would allow us the flexibility to address any graduate student issues, as they would arise. As the campaign against affirmative action heightened in Michigan, and conversations surrounding race and the recruitment and mentoring of students of color began to dominate meetings, ADI began to represent an increasing majority of graduate students who identified as being from a minority ethnic group. While the visible presence of minority graduate students within the department does not necessarily equate to radicalized politics, or even an adequate response to anti-affirmative action policies, in the department context, it seemed that the appearance of graduate students of color within ADI seemed to substitute for a wider, more inclusive politicization of the department.

My participation and involvement in the formation of ADI led me to consider the ways in which students in the anthropology program not only experienced affirmative action debates differently, but also the ways in which students of color bore the disproportionate burden of formulating a response to the crisis and communicating to faculty and higher-level administration about issues of concern. When “raciology” or “race talk” became the predominant discourse at group meetings, some students voiced concerns that the group was becoming an exclusive “students of color” group. Others retorted angrily and countered that students of color needed a group precisely because they were unable to discuss “race” in any other forum. These final observations provoke a deeper understanding of the process by which graduate students become politicized in the department, the discursive labor that allows for collective action emerging from either collective or exclusive interests, and the modes of operation of racial silencing.

Activist anthropologists in ADI often found themselves embedded in deeply complex moral, intellectual and ethical quandaries. Academic institutions continue to situate and discipline while activist anthropologists sought to institutionalize themselves in the form of ADI within the very same departmental walls. We utilized the discourse of diversity while recognizing its ambivalent meanings and depoliticizing effects in other political domains. Similarly, we talked “race,” while equivocating between denouncing its reality and arguing for its real social consequences. And we argued for the recruitment of minority students in departments while realizing that the presence of “marked bodies,” no matter how few, allowed for unrestrained claims that seem to encompass “diversity” in the department.

In ADI meetings I often observed that the discussion of affirmative action was limited to a reductive and parochial racialized dimension of power and inequality, trapped within an equally unsatisfying discourse of diversity, or (at worst) countered with an embarrassed silence by many of the initial members of the group. In a sense, it became clear that resisting departmental “racial silencing” by reinforcing racial categories involved capitulating to a racial ideology (raciology) that created boundaries between groups of people. In Against Race, Gilroy observes similar aspects of racialized identity discourse: “[it] ceases to be an ongoing process of self-making and social interaction. It becomes instead a thing to be possessed and displayed. It is a silent sign that closes down the possibility of communication across the gulf between one heavily defended island of particularity and its equally well-fortified neighbors, between one national encampment and others. When identity refers to an indelible mark or code somehow written onto the bodies of its carriers, otherness can only be a threat” (2000:105).

Retreating from racial discourse, however, undermines the political space of race—both ideologically and institutionally. Institutionalizing ADI within the department as a formal student group allowed for a space of expression of problems of identity, and perhaps most importantly, allowed for the creation of new solidarities, friendships, and mentoring relationships across surprising lines of affiliation for many individuals. As institutionalized space, it is our hope that it will reproduce itself and continue to be inflected by the labor of successive cohorts of students. At a recent ADI social event, one women-of-color faculty member confided to me that “graduate students are much more empowered to speak on these issues than faculty members.” Comments of this sort indicate that exclusion and inclusion operate in different ways for individuals at different tiers within the departmental hierarchy. This comment also indicated that many of us wonder whether our participation in elitist institutions makes us complicit with oppressive orders.

Finally, my observations of ADI meetings and social events in the department forced me to consider the performative attempts of these social actors to establish a certain kind of reality that states that race and anthropology matter, in terms of departmental, community, and societal commitment. These performative events engender new thinking and analyses, ones which depart from the institutionally bound order. They function to revitalize that order with a creative vision for a democratic future. Note that political engagement and democratization in anthropology departments does not only occur by anthropologists truly “being at home” with anthropology “at home.” In the case of Michigan Anthropology and anti-affirmative action, bringing graduate student socialization, institutional contexts, and the reproduction of American racial discourse into the ethnographic frame is necessary in order to understand processes of inequality and democratization within the department.

Beyond conflicts between ADI members regarding the ideological weight attributed to “race” in its mission to address graduate student inequalities, other modes of racial silencing present themselves for analysis. The end of affirmative action and departmental activist work allows for a consideration of the production of graduate student subjectivities; I observed the appearance of both “mobilizing anthropologists” and “silent anthropologists” [3] within the department. This binary allows us to tease apart the dynamics involved in democratizing the department. In relation to affirmative action debates, it seemed that “silent anthropologists” refer to those who systematically overlook the politics of “home” in favor of the politics of the “field.” Perhaps “graduate student apathy” has its origins in more than chronic fatigue and being overworked. The lack of critical reflection within anthropology departments is part of a larger failure to see systematic continuities between our field sites and “home” (the department). In this case, the silencing of racial politics and open discussions of affirmative action are part of a mutually reinforcing framework of departmental depoliticization and disempowerment.

Anthropologists and American Racial Ideologies

Studying the depoliticization of race entails understanding the ways in which institutional contexts reproduce specific modalities and forms of knowledge. In Black Is A Country, Nikhil Pal Singh analyzes the epistemic frame of the nation and the contemporary masking of racism in America by describing a “dogmatic vision of national unity” (‘the American people’) that “precludes more complicated histories of national identity”:

Since the 1990s, a form of anti-racism that is seen as equivalent to nationalism has been the rationale for overturning policies and programs once deemed essential to fulfilling an antiracist national agenda. The pretext for reform in one period has become the basis for abandoning it in another. Race now means racism, especially when it is used to define or defend the interests of a minority community. Meanwhile “civil rights” has been appropriated as the slogan of statewide ballot initiatives to end race- and gender-based hiring and college admissions provisions that are said to violate principles of abstract national equality... Consequently we have seen a sweeping rollback of civil-rights era jurisprudence. [2004:10]

Civil rights rollback and other policies such as Clinton-era welfare reform exemplify the ways in which American policy and legal decisions are filtered through the logic of neoliberalism. Neoliberal discipline “vehemently opposes government intervention into the ‘natural’ workings of the marketplace, implicitly reopening an expanded field for the play of ‘private’ racist beliefs and practices” (Singh 2004:11). Singh notes that anti-affirmative action legal decisions “encapsulate a social context in which race remains conceptually available as a tool of elite governance under neoliberalism, and at the same time a wedge issue that effectively limits broader, democratic distributions of social goods” (2004:11).

Moreover, discursive ideologies of racial “colorblindness,” “multiculturalism” and nationalism are yet another twist on the violence of historical amnesia about complex understandings of the production of categories of racial, ethnic, and cultural difference across time and space. As I will briefly discuss in the last section of this paper, scholarship on Afro-Asian identity emphasizes the modes by which South Asian/East Indian identity in America is produced alongside of and constituted by African-American identity. The hegemonic form of national identity that Singh critiques, however, obscures this mode of “South Asian-ness.” More disturbingly, this powerful and simplified framing of minority identity is carried over and into academic institutions. I want to argue that these ideologies are often embodied within anthropology departments, and by well-meaning anthropologists. Many scholars fail to recognize the connections between anthropological knowledge production and the subtle reproduction of ideologies of racialized identity within seminar rooms and other social contexts.

Mainstream American nationalist-racial ideology, whether in its colorblind or liberal multicultural variants, is reproduced in anthropology departments, just like any other institutional framework. The “production” of the anthropologist involves a violent process of (specific forms of) “difference denial”—a process in which one’s identity is dismantled, reconfigured, and rearticulated in academic space and for academic purposes. For example, this new identity must coincide with what the anthropologist of color is expected to study—first-generation children of immigrant parents, like myself, are generally expected to study the country of their ancestor’s origins. This process is considerably heightened in the realm of anthropology, a discipline indexed by its reliance on area studies, [4] the silencing of the history and practice of native anthropology and anthropologists, and the failure to recognize the connection between the US and fieldwork abroad. Finally, the normative production of the anthropologist, in which the anthropologist of color is “simultaneously too important (for the wrong reasons, usually representational) and still not important enough,” is intimately connected to the evisceration of historical political economy in cultural and social analyses in anthropology (di Leonardo 1998). In other words, the American rightward shift, masked by liberal rhetoric, has deep parallels with the powerful and unintended effects of postmodern frameworks that emphasize fragmented, disembodied, and hybrid subjective experience at the expense of the complexity and multiplicity of lived and historical racialized subjectivity.

Consider the aftermath of Proposition 2 in Michigan, the dismal rates of matriculation and retention of students of color in anthropology departments, and the nominally antiracist rise of “colorblind universalism” that has coincided with a dramatic rollback of federal civil rights enforcement. If anthropology departments are undergoing a “racial crisis,” is it possible to create a revitalized space for racial politics in the discipline? Or is it futile to seek a platform of “raciology” (Gilroy 2000)? Might this political platform be used strategically in order to make broader institutional claims for the necessary recruitment and retention of minorities in the discipline of anthropology? A redefined commitment to minority recruitment that acknowledges the stakes involved in losing anthropological knowledge production from the margins? These are precisely the questions that plagued the activist members of ADI.

Several problems arise. First, the effort to articulate a “colored” standpoint on public life—what Jean-Paul Sartre, in his essay Black Orpheus, called “antiracist racism” (1988:296)—has been a characteristic response to the universalizing anti-racism complicit with the non-recognition of blacks (and other forms of racialized difference). We might also identity this as a radical brand of identity politics, which, affiliated with the old Marxist-feminist slogan, “the personal is political,” has come under criticism in the aftermath of the cultural turn and the more poststructural formulations of critical race and feminist theory. [5] On the other hand, Vijay Prashad, writing on identity politics, notes that “many people adhere to the idea that political interests must be based on a single conception of identity (whether of gender, race, class, or sexual orientation). This theory, which operates under the omnibus label ‘identity politics,’ wallows in parochialism and rejects any attempt to formulate universal categories” (Prashad 2001:105).

Prashad also argues that it is the “process of politics which encourages the formation of parochial identities alongside those categories that offer the possibility of finding common ground that would allow us to abolish parochialism in favor of a complex universalism of the future” (Prashad 2001:105). I would argue that ADI succumbed to a similar process of politics, a process that emphasized difference in order to resist American (anthropological) universalism. In a post–9/11 context, the process of expanding American imperialisms involves “the reiteration of exceptional American universalism...central to the making of Americans at both individual and collective levels” (Singh 2004:19). Singh writes,

This story of nationhood must be told over and over, because there is nothing natural about the nation or the fashioning of its predominant civic identities. Nations in this sense are quintessential artifacts of modernity—social creations engineered and lived primarily through the techniques of narration and representation. Intellectual descriptions of national history, identity, and community help resolve a special problem for the liberal-democratic or civic nation: the production and reproduction of a people who recognize themselves as consenting to a common enterprise in advance of the institutional forms that claim their allegiance. [2004:19]

Ideologies of race and ethnicity, therefore, become mobilized in order to mediate the problem of “difference.” According to Singh:

Ethnicity has become a generic marker or symbolic residue of a kind that no longer makes a difference, thus contributing to the transcendent idea of America as a container of only positive and uncomplicated diversities. Race by contrast remains a code for histories of color: legacies of conquest, enslavement, and non-national status that disturb the national peace, whose narratives must thus be silenced within public culture, or hived off from the national story into a separate world of their own... the splitting off of racial history has, in our own time, yielded a kind of national schizophrenia in which racial difference is either shouted down in a chorus of national unanimity (color-blindness), or shunted into zones of institutionalized marginality—the ghetto, the prison, even the ethnic studies program. [2004:42]

Is it possible to imagine an anti-racist anthropology, an anti-racism embodied in anthropological praxis that demystifies the ambiguities of so-called native anthropologists or anthropologists of color? On the one hand, critics of “raciological thinking” such as Paul Gilroy advocate a turn “against race” in order to truly accomplish the goals of an enduring and equitable universal humanism. Gilroy states that there is an absence in “ethical considerations from what used to be anti-racist thinking and action”—in fact, that when spectacles of our identity and differences are made we enable the same tools and devices involved in the violence of fascism. On the other hand, visions for a “meaningful multiculturalism” are often rooted in the political empowerment that categories of difference and identity such as race offer to a minority group.

Vijay Prashad, I believe, provides a partial answer to this quandary in his conceptualization of the “polycultural,” a provisional concept grounded in the valorization and recognition of history rather than notions of diverse multiculturalism, universal assertions of national colorblindness, or fragmented, unbounded, and dislocated diasporic identities. Polyculturalism “assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages” (1998:xii); the role of the anthropologist is not to deny or silence these multiple lineages at the expense of one or another, but to engage, ferociously, with the political world of culture and social life. This “is a painful embrace of the skin and all its contradictions” (1998:xii). In the final sections of this paper, I discuss the confluence of these paradoxical encounters in the emergence of “black Bhangra” and other discourses of black internationalism.

Resources for Re-thinking Race

In my work with ADI and my experiences negotiating racialized identity within the department, I often found that my research interests provided resources for me to understand how I could apply the “polycultural” to my activist work. As a South Asian feminist working in Uganda on both ideological constructions and material implications of “difference” between racialized groups in the post-colonial context, it has become evident to me that the study of Africa and the innovations of black radical thinkers in theorizing racialized identity have the potential to provide all anthropologists with the tools necessary to reimagine an anti-racist anthropology. For instance, Pan-Africanist projects are historically characterized by tensions between the particular and universal, politics and culture, and individual identity, community, and society. They are produced by the onset of capitalist and cultural globalization, and were pursued uniquely by (colonized) racialized subjects. In The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Foucault writes that universal discourses rely on the unstated dimensions of social and historical knowledge and collective representations. Identity discourses (in this case, racialized identity) establish boundaries between their users and audience by reaffirming the dignity of a group and denying outsiders access to certain ways of speaking. [6]

In the interwar period, W.E.B. Du Bois sought to formulate a political agenda that incorporated the “dark races of mankind” and the “teeming millions of Asia and Africa” (Shepperson 1960:1). Du Bois pioneered the legendary Pan-Africanist Conferences, and it was at the 1900 conference in London that he first made the statement, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (Shepperson 1960:307). While Du Bois’s overtly political brand of Pan-Africanism remained dormant until 1914, the outbreak of World War I internationalized the problems of blacks in America and encouraged the interaction and communication of African Americans and French African troops during the war. These global alliances allowed black racialized identity to become a tool for political resistance. At the same time, Du Bois’s The World and Africa (1967) demonstrates the ways in which he transcended parochial/biological interpretations of blackness by analyzing alliances based on shared historical oppression across colonized populations.

Other Pan-Africanist thinkers such as Edward Blyden, Casely Hayford, Marcus Garvey, and George Padmore were involved in the commerce of ideas and politics across the Atlantic. These thinkers, in turn, possessed varying degrees of investments in the idea of the nation-state, in Africa and in biological notions of “blackness.” As George Shepperson notes, from the African-American side, all figures shared a common challenge: to face up to such statements from the Anglo population that, “at the background of every Negro, however, wise, or well educated, or brave, or good, is contemporary Africa which has no collective other nationalities” (1960:300). For the black Western subject, two choices within the European framework of modernity existed: “to recognize that this view was correct and to seek every means to lay a basis for African nationality and collective achievement; or to claim that it was wrong and to demonstrate this by searching into the African past for achievements which the biased eye of the white man had overlooked” (1960:301). In the US, such projects and strategies for dealing with Africa varied considerably: the assimilationist work of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey’s formulation of the United Negro Improvement Association are the most prominent examples. The simultaneous popularization of the study of “the Negro Past,” rooted in the work of scholars such as Arthur Schomberg and Melville Herskovitz, as well as the influence of emerging African cultural nationalisms converged to create an international political and cultural movement based in the metropoles of the West. Pan-Africanist thought reigned, at least until the failure of the Garvey Movement and the onset of the Great Depression forced the attention of African Americans back to national concerns.

In his study of interwar Pan-Africanism in Paris, Gary Wilder offers a different interpretation of the possibilities for black internationalist politics. Focusing primarily on the work of leaders such as Leopold Sedar Senghor, Wilder writes, “the cycle of organization and implosion endemic to Pan-African politics suggests that the combination of internal and external pressures made anti-colonial alliance politics around race very difficult to maintain at this time...the informal and cultural Panafricanism formulated by the négritude students proved to be more stable and enduring—if politically moderate—than the more organized and revolutionary Panafricanism of their politicized elders” (2003:249). West African interwar activists, influenced by the political and cultural work across the Atlantic by black Americans, “were not only concerned with African independence and a common diaspora culture.” Wilder remarks that the activists used “transnational forms of racial identification in order to secure a place within French national society, even as they were identifying with a diasporic community that contained its own political possibilities” (2003:249).

Perhaps then, the most critical intervention that Pan-Africanist thought offers anti-racist anthropological studies is the project of unthinking national history. Scholars such as Du Bois, Senghor, Gilroy and Prashad have all advocated addressing linkages that transcend racial/national/regional boundaries in order to undermine the violence of bounded and uncomplicated conventions of national (racialized) identity. Secondly, Pan-Africanism offers the discipline of anthropology an indispensable historical genealogy for the continuing significance of identity discourses in social life. In her study of négritude in Black Paris, for instance, Benetta Jules-Rosette analyzes the initial premises, debates, tensions, and process of politics negotiated by the négritude students, the anti-négritude movement of the 1970s, and even more recent interpretations of identity discourses and responses to universalism by the new generation of African writers and novelists in Paris. In her work, Jules-Rosette critiques racialized identity discourses but nonetheless errs on the side of highlighting their salience to academic, political, social and cultural aesthetic work. Identity discourses, according to Jules-Rosette, are enunciations of cultural narratives (1998:241). For anthropologists, and in the case of ADI “departmental climate testimonials” at the University of Michigan, they are ethnographic goldmines.

Significantly, négritude and other variations of Pan-Africanist thought have been critiqued for their projections of a false and abstract homogeneity onto the black world (Towa 1971). Jules-Rosette, remarking on the cultural turn, notes that it is now in vogue to “disparage essentialist discourses that reduce identity to biological or psychological traits, to the unconditional interests of a particular group, or to narrow forms of cultural nationalism...particular identities have given way to universal identifications that laud multiculturalism and diversity as their polyphonic expressions (1998:241). And, as Micaela di Leonardo writes, others have actually turned to essentializing forms of identity politics in an effort to resist the fallout of decentered postmodern scholarship (1998). Gilroy comments on this schizophrenic era of race politics—the search for ideal humanism relies on the effacement of particular identities and identity claims, claims that simultaneously become platforms for fascism, totalitarianism, and violence.

Yet, if Pan-Africanist discourses such as négritude leave few practical tools for dealing with the modern world, or if, as some write, it is a discourse that results in “political servitude,” why have assertions, debates, claims, and boundaries for cultural, racial and other forms of particularistic identities and their boundaries not disappeared (Towa 1971)? As the case of affirmative action in the US reveals, identities seem to be even more entrenched and polarized in the modern-day nation-state. [7] In effect, the anthropologist’s anti-racist toolkit must be able to negotiate across the spectrum of race politics, utilizing an array of theoretical, political and personal methodologies.

Black Bhangra: Situating Knowledge

One might outline the convergences and divergences between recent debates on race, the discipline of anthropology, and anti-racist praxis by using anthropological methodology to track the ways in which racialized identity is actually practiced. If we are to take seriously Brent Edwards’ statement that “the common ground of black radicalism is that it is consistently diasporic” (Edwards 2001:4), a shift in focus from the nation-state to internationalist frames of reference might privilege fieldwork methodologies that delineate the conflicts and complications that arise as people move across space and time, transnational boundaries, from private/domestic space to public realms, or from personal and academic investments. The example of England-based “black bhangra” and what I call “remix culture” in the US allow us to consider the relationship between lived experience and an identity discourse such as Afro-Asian politics. Similarly, I use autobiographical experiences from a US city to trace the performance of racialized identity and movements of ideas concerning identity from “home” and “abroad” to the “department” and “field.”

My use of “remix” culture alludes to new global syncretic musical forms with roots in South Asian and Afro-Caribbean diasporas. I reveal Black–Punjabi alliances through the phenomenon of bhangra–hip hop–ragga fusion, which though not Pan-Africanist (in its traditional or organizational sense), may yet signify a lingering form of black radicalism. Using the insights of Pan-Africanist thinkers, I argue for the relevance of identity discourse at a time when race has been subsumed by culture, or at least “gone post-racial.” I also address the Pan-Africanist intervention in traditionally received “regions” or “levels” of analysis, reflecting upon sites of musical collaboration as possible alternatives to bounded research paradigms, categories and conventions. I emphasize Black–Punjabi alliances in order to resist disciplinary (academic) knowledges which consistently erase the more complicated identities and histories of minority anthropologists at the expense of an idealized, non-racialized, and ultimately, non-universal humanism.

Following the decline of Pan-Africanism in the 20th century, as well as the decline of négritudist philosophy in the 1970s, African writers in Europe devised a variety of identity discourses that “resituated their works in modern and postmodern contexts of global issues on the one hand, and emphasized the particular distinctions of their African identities on the other” (Jules-Rosette 1998). In late 80s/early 90s North America, while discourses of “multiculturalism” seemed to temper particularistic identities within universal frameworks of national citizenship, first-generation Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh Punjabi immigrants in the United Kingdom and their children negotiated these tensions by devising new identity discourses that played on the colonial and imperial linkages of British Empire via the evolution of a “hybridized” musical form of traditional music from Punjab. A well-documented phenomenon, this new politicized identity involved the appropriation of “blackness,” and black masculinity. It played on class-based alliances and developed a “new” yet contradictory gender politics that freed South Asian women from restricted mobility—while simultaneously subjected them to new forms of gender and racial oppression. [8]

According to Samita Banerji and Gerd Baumann, bhangra musicians have often pointed out that “Punjabi culture, originating from the crossroads of Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu traditions, has for long been known as a culture of mutual adaptation, cross-over, fusion, and amalgamation in many other domains” (1990:152). The new bhangra “sound,” mixed with hard hip hop beats and reggae, is uniquely rooted in the original culture of the new generation—the children of Indian immigrants to the U.K.—and the collective experiences of social exclusion of East and West Indian immigrants to Britain. In his recent work on the Sikh diaspora, Tony Ballantyne stresses that “any understandings of the recent development of Punjabi expressive traditions and diasporic identities must recognize the importance of encounters with Afro-Caribbean peoples in Europe and in North America” (2006:124).

The radical potential of this sustained engagement of urban Punjabis with “the cultural idioms of the African diaspora” had robust geographical mobility (Ballantyne 2006:124). In 1991, the song “Jugni” by bhangra artist Steve Kapoor (better known as Apache Indian) hit the airwaves and became part of the soundtrack of my life. Apache Indian’s music is the best-known exemplar of “bhangragga” or “bhangramuffin,” a fusion sound of West Indian ragamuffin and the dhol beat drum sound of bhangra. Bhangra, which has undergone complex transformations from the pre-colonial era to modern-day Punjab, is essentially traditional rural folk music that celebrates the harvest, or Baisakhi (the Punjabi new year). Yet “bhangramuffin” is but one genre of the new sound: bhangra, more recently, has fused with other forms of reggae, soul, R&B, hip hop, and rap—even samba music.

Musical play of “bhangra beats,” urged on by the cheap duplication of cassette tape copies, became ubiquitous in North America, and particularly in big cities populated by Punjabis such as the New York/New Jersey area, Vancouver, and Toronto. Played by disc jockeys at wedding celebrations, or blasting out of the cars of young Punjabi mundiyan (rebellious boys—a slang term appropriated by male youth) on Devon Street in Rogers Park, Chicago, the sounds embodied diasporic achievement and cross-cultural solidarity. My growing-up experiences in Chicago were fundamentally tied to the new bhangra sound, so much in fact, that all Punjabi youth attended every possible wedding reception, cultural show, and community event with fervor, lamenting any absence from a social gathering. These parties were the first chance for many of us, too young to attend the new wave of bhangra-club parties in the city, to hear the latest bhangra mixes from the UK. [9] Other avenues of access to the music involved listening to the BBC Asia network, buying dubbed copies from Devon Street, or relying on cousins in London and Birmingham to send us the latest mixes. In addition, dancing at wedding receptions was a remarkable public space in which our Punjabi identity was openly celebrated and acknowledged—instead of the everyday existence that required the painful separation of our private family home life from our public selves. These weddings were often followed by bhangra after-parties in the suburbs for youth who wanted to keep dancing, socialize and date—the music at these parties was a mix of bhangra and hip hop, and were usually attended by mixed crowds of second-generation Pakistanis, Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus, Gujaratis, Filipinos and African Americans. Attending these parties, of course, required the will to confront strong sexual double standards and gender inequalities within South Asian communities. Punjabi women often had to orchestrate elaborate secret plans in order to attend performance spaces that were prohibited by conservative and protective fathers.

Writing about the bhangra phenomenon in 1988, Sabita Banerji observed, “bhangra is not about politics, it is about having a good time, in true, boisterous Punjabi fashion and the ‘message’ to the white community is more or less incidental” (1988:212). Is the study of bhangra, in fact, a depoliticized “cultural studies” endeavor or might there be more to this phenomenon? I argue that it represents both. The more recent popularity of bhanga music (its entry into the “world music” genre of iTunes), marketing and commercialization, and global consumption has dampened its initial messages of radical anti-racism and cross-racial solidarity in the UK. Moreover, model minority discourses that hinge on anti-black racism among the South Asian community are rampant and pervasive in the US. [10]

On the other hand, following Stuart Hall’s reading of “diasporic identities,” it is possible to “view the engagement of bhangra artists and Punjabi youths with Black culture as an act of positioning, a very conscious act that challenges simplistic biological understandings of cultural difference and claimed a very particular location within the racial and political landscape of 1980s Britain” (Ballantyne 2006:135). Moreover, bhangra music’s affiliation with the jat caste of the Punjab, [11] its appropriation of forms of black revolutionary identity and masculinity, and implications for South Asian gender politics have colluded in the production of a unique politics of music. Bhangra music’s continued ability to exist on a separate plane as an unequivocal expression of the British Asian scene, one which resonates with US and Canadian desis, symbolizes its potential for revitalizing political dimensions of racial identity that crosses national paradigms of individual and collective identity. Bhangra just might be one such universal category in which people of various identities and affiliated with various communities are able to craft complex solidarities. These solidarities resist the accepted boundaries of nation, and resist the established political order. [12] Finally, I include this discussion of bhangra in a paper on anthropology and anti-racism in hopes of emphasizing the profoundly international, Afro-Asian politics of racialized identity with which I entered graduate study in anthropology.

Avoiding Race Avoidance

At the expense of a more nuanced analysis of “Black Bhangra,” in this paper, I have chosen instead to privilege my own experiential resources for thinking race—resources rooted in the history of my diaspora community, and resources that I have found useful as I undertake my anthropological research in Africa. By briefly summarizing the ways “blackness” (as identity, cultural and racial discourse) persists in multiple forms and is reinvested in by youth (particularly vis-à-vis cultural production and performance), I emphasize the complexity of racialized identity as I experienced it at home, and the flattening of this complexity into “South Asian” in the department. I have found that Black–Punjabi alliances are persistently downplayed and invalidated at the expense of more “safe” racial/ethnic categories that remain within the bounds of national, and now post–9/11 American national discourse. I have also sought to link the reproduction of “safe” racial/ethnic categories to the crisis of racial discourse and racial silencing within the discipline of anthropology. Like any other institution, the department functions as a disciplinary site of graduate student socialization, and as its subjects, we graduate students locate ourselves in a stream of social inclusions and exclusions. I argue that all too often, these exclusions involve a pervasive silencing of race and racialized identity. In response to anti–affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan, “mobilizing anthropologists” responded by institutionalizing activism within the department. As a member of the Anthropology Diversity Initiative, I found that it was possible for anthropologists to contribute their anti-racist tools not only in the field, but also to the crisis of affirmative action at home. We therefore work to privilege activism and activist research within our anthropological endeavors, reinventing anthropology in practice.

Indeed, democratizing the discipline depends upon recognizing the multiple fields of power in which we conduct our work. In this paper, I argue that we privilege both academic and non-academic knowledges—that we recognize the ways that “situated knowledges” (Haraway 1991) can help to resist new local and global landscapes of racialized inequality, whether they are “post-civil rights,” “post-racial” or other unforeseen challenges that we will undoubtedly face in the Obama political era. Yet we must draw on other resources for anti-racism as well, those that analyze the terrain of national discourses of difference (both racial and cultural) and draw on histories of anti-racist internationalism. This allows us to collectively formulate responses to, analyze, and productively critique neoliberal logics of racism. We then avoid running the risk of succumbing to outdated methodologies. We avoid the terrible misstep of critiquing racist ideologies and the global economic/geopolitical complex that enforces the marginalization and impoverishment of the majority of the world—whilst becoming complicit with similar practices as they manifest at our departments at home.


Many thanks to my committee member Professor Mamadou Diouf, now at the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University in New York City, who taught Panafricanism: Histories of Race, Liberation and Modernity in the Center for African and African-American Studies and History departments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in Fall 2006. This essay is based on a final paper submitted for the seminar.


1. See Gurin et al. (2004) and Perry (2007) for a review of affirmative action policy and higher education in Michigan.

2. The work of anthropologists Franz Boas, Ashley Montague and others was central to challenging the scientific justification of racial segregation. See also the more recent works of Lee Baker (1998), Faye Harrison (1995) and Leonard Lieberman (1997).

3. I borrow the phrase “silent anthropologists” from Didier Fassin (2005).

4. See Jane Guyer on area studies (2004).

5. See di Leonardo (1991), “Introduction: Gender, Culture and Political Economy. Feminist Anthropology in Historical Perspective.”

6. See Foucault (1976). Leopold Sédar Senghor and Sartre, for example, believed négritude to be the antithesis to racial oppression. Frantz Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks (1967) and the Wretched of the Earth (1963), adapted and transformed the Sartrian dialectic of négritude by “moving from a thesis of oppression and alienation to an antithesis of négritude as a reaffirmation of identity and power, and finally to a synthesis of political liberation, as well as personal freedom” (Jules-Rosette 1998:247). Indeed, Fanon managed to merge both individual identity and collective action into a political program.

7. See Sen (2006) for a more recent analysis of nationalism, violence and identity.

8. See Ballyntyne (1998:ch. 4).

9. See Maira (2002) for a discussion of the recent growth of urban bhangra parties.

10. Wyclef Jean’s recent track “Bollywood to Hollywood” on Carnival, Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant, released late 2007, is a notable exception.

11. Precolonial North Indian Brahminnical caste system dictated that jats (agriculturalists) were ranked lower than brahmins (priests) or kshatriyas (warriors)—in this sense, jats were a stigmatized social caste group in the Punjab. In his influential historiography, A History of the Sikhs Volume 1: 1469-1839, Khushwant Singh describes the social identity of jats in the Punjab before Guru Nanak and the rise of Hindu to Sikh and Muslim to Sikh conversions, “the relationship of the Jat village to the state was that of a semi-autonomous unit paying a fixed sum of revenue. Few governments tried to assert more authority, and those which did soon discovered that sending out armed militias against fortified villages was not very profitable...the upper caste Hindu’s denigration of the Jat did not in the least lower the Jat in his own eyes nor elevate the Brahmin or the Kshatriya in his estimation. On the contrary, he assumed a somewhat condescending attitude towards them...the Jat was a born worker and a warrior. He tilled his land with his sword girded around his waist. He fought more battles for the defence of his homestead than the Kshatriya, for unlike the martial Kshatriya the Jat seldom fled from his village when the invaders came...the Punjabi Jat developed an attitude of indifference to worldly possessions and an instinct for gambling with his life against odds” (1999:15).

12. The founding of the radical activist group for Asian and Afro-Caribbean women, Southall Black Sisters, in 1979, is another instance of actualized black internationalist political identity that has became synonymous with Black British Feminism. See Gupta (2003) and also Gilroy (1987:ch. 5) for more discussion on the political contexts, cultural encounters, and social alliances between British Asians and Afro-Caribbeans in Britain.

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