Re: Racism and Anthropology

PamWilson (102253.1572@COMPUSERVE.COM)
Fri, 1 Dec 1995 16:42:41 EST

I've appreciated, and fully agree with, Dick Reichart and Vance Geiger's
insights about the social and cultural construction--and essential
non-essentialism--of the concept of race. I'd like to throw out a related
question, however, which has been problematic to me as I've tried to grapple
with social constructions of race and ethnicity in writing my dissertation,
which deals with public discourses about Native Americans during the 1950s.

We in academia may discuss and debate this issue all we want, but my concern is
the "reality" of the biologically-related concept of race that we find in
non-academic discourses. Of course there are the white racist discourses which
utilize this ideological distinction for their own ideological and political
purposes, and our abhorrence of the effectivity of these discourses is

But what about the relevance of race-as-heredity for groups which are marginal
to the centers of hegemonic power? What about the use of biological
qualifications of race by subordinated cultures as a way to maintain, and
protect, the group's identificatory boundaries?

For example, one need only subscribe to Native-L and Natchat (lists, based in
Native American interests, which deal with issues of indigenous peoples) for a
few days or weeks to find an overwhelming sentiment by Native American
listmembers that, for them, hereditary/biological claim to what we might call
"Indianness" is a central defining factor which validates them. In this society,
blood quantum as a biological basis of "race" is legally institutionalized as a
requirement to be a member of many tribes and to receive certain federal and
state legal benefits. In the Natchat discussions, there is frequent use of blood
percentages as a claim to cultural "rights" and knowledge, and as a validation
of "real" Indianness. In many heated discussions, posters will use this to gain
themselves a position of power in the interchange, and also to belittle the
opinions of those who aren't pereceived as "Indian enough." There is a lot of
talk about biological ancestry which overtly links biological heritage to
cultural heritage (not just tribal, but also in terms of the
Irish/Scottish/Dutch, etc. biological heritages of some of the contributors to
the list).

Obviously, the the claim to a genetic/hereditary distinction among Native
Americans (at least those on the Natchat list) is a mechanism for identity, but
also a mechanism to protect and exclude claims of cultural belonging from those
(generally white Americans) who are seen to be trying to usurp a Native American
identity for whatever reasons. There is a deep cynicism about the postings,
several times a month, from people who have just discovered that they are "part
Indian," so to speak, and ask for help in learning about their heritage. _How
much_ Indian (genetically) seems to be a "real" and culturally salient concept,
which is only complicated by the companion query of _how much Indian_
(culturally) raised with reference to those who are genetically "more Indian"
but who have grown up outside of a tribal culture.

The hotly-debated issue of transcultural/transracial adoptions (generally of
Native American children by white parents, but also of other "racial" crossings)
might be a place to look at Dick Reichart's question: "To illustrate: are there
any anthropological scholars today who would doubt the proposition that a baby
from any part of the world, taken to and brought up in the culture of another
part of the world, would become in every significant _human_ sense a member of
the population which raised it, and not of the genetic population into which it
was born?"

Also, when I was working on a North Carolina reservation, there was a great deal
of racism expressed by tribal members with reference to people who claimed to be
Indian but who were also mixed-race with African-American ancestry. Many of you
are aware that a lot of the social and political problems the Lumbees have had
in getting federal recognition is directly linked to their mixed-race heredity,
which is perceived by other tribes as an indication of their inauthenticity as
real "Indians."

So I guess my point is that racial distinctions are not only top-down mechanisms
of hegemonic control and subjugation, but are also frequently bottom-up
distinctions used as criteria for demarcating and protecting the boundaries of
cultural groups. I'd appreciate any insights any of you might have on these

Pam Wilson
Carlow College