Beyond Fact or Fiction: On the Materiality of Race in Practice

Abstract

What is biological race and how is it made relevant by specific practices? How do we address the materiality of biological race without pigeonholing it? And how do we write about it without reifying race as a singular object? This article engages with biological race not by debunking or trivializing it, but by investigating how it is enacted in practice. Discarding two dominant and mutually exclusive notions, race as fact and race as fiction, I follow a praxiographic approach to present three ethnographic cases that show race is a relational object, one that it is simultaneously factual and fictional. I conclude that fiction needs to be taken more seriously as an inherent part of fact making.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on race, genetics, and material semiotics including Damani Partridge's, "We Were Dancing in the Club, Not on the Berlin Wall: Black Bodies, Street Bureaucrats, and Exclusionary Incorporation into the New Europe," Deepa S. Reddy's "Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research," and Michael Montoya's "Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research." See also the entirety of Issue 28.3, August 2013

See also the Field Note, "Studying Unformed Objects: Reflections on How Ethnographies of Science and Process Take Shape," which includes entries by Britt Dahlberg, Kathleen Stewart, Michelle Murphy, and Amy Moran-Thomas.

About the Author

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Amade M'charek

Amade M’charek is associate professor at the department of Anthropology of the University of Amsterdam, where she also received her Ph.D. She is the joint director of the Research Program of Health, Care, and the Body. M’charek teaches courses on ethnography, race, and anthropological theory. Her Ph.D. research led to her first book The Human Genome Diversity Project: An Ethnography of Scientific Practice. Her current research interests are in forensics, forensic anthropology, and race. She is the PI of "Dutchness in Genes and Genealogy," a project examining how Dutchness is enacted in collaborations between population geneticists, archaeologists, and genealogists. M’charek is also the PI of the project "Sexuality & Diversity in the Making." Her most recent research is on face-making and race-making in forensic identification.

Interview with Amade M'charek

By Stefanie Graeter

July 30th, 2013

Stefanie Graeter: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your career, as well as what led you to the topic of race and the specific analytical approach and content of your article?

Amade M'charek: In my work, from the start I have been inspired by laboratory ethnographies and the anthropology of science because they took scientific practice seriously but also considered it as a cultural practice. The laboratory is not a site of mainstream rationality and simple fact-discovery, but a site of crafting and fact-making. I spent more than two years in population genetic laboratories, studying in a genuine participant-observational way what genetic diversity was made to be in these practices. I was interested in the Human Genome Diversity Project because I wanted to study genetics and identities. But rather than studying the controversies, I sought a “calm environment” in which genetics were “being done” in day-to-day activities. This allowed me to understand the role of technology and method in the “production,” or rather enactments, of biological identities, such as “the individual,” “the ancestor,” “the population,” “sex,” and “race.” I was amazed by the fluidity of these identities in laboratory settings. One could say that from a point of view from outside the lab, quite subversive knowledge was being produced in these “calm areas,” about biological identities that we, outside of the lab, tend to treat as fixed and firmly rooted in biology. After my laboratory ethnography, I started to follow “diversity” around into other sites, such as the clinic or forensic practice. I soon came to realize that “diversity” became too rigid a category to understand the interaction between science and society. It seemed to me that whenever diversity was embraced it often worked to do race and race differences. This really made me shift my focus from diversity to race. What if race is not one singular thing? What if race is made and unmade in many different ways? These kinds of questions beg for a study of race in practice. It is there that one can become surprised by the multitude of things it takes to enact race.

SG: At the start of your article, you write that the praxiographic approach you use has been largely absent in anthropological studies of race. Could you explain a bit more about what you perceived as the limits to previous modes of research and writing on race in anthropology?

AM: Praxiography compares and contrasts nicely with ethnography where the focus is more on human actors and what they say and do. My work is inspired by Science and Technology Studies, especially Actor Network Theory, as well as the work of Donna Haraway. Here not only humans but also non-humans are analyzed as actors, as things with agency. Also, I think, a post-linguistic turn in cultural anthropology should care for the suffix “graphy,” for it helps to denature culture. The language we use, the concepts we invent, and the style we device to describe the world helps to enact it as well. In anthropology, two distinct positions on race seem to be dominant. One says that biological race does not exist; see, for example, the statements of AAA in 1994, 1998. The effect of this position for anthropology has been addressed by anthropologists such as Kamala Visweswaran, who argues that anthropology has embraced culture as an object of study and neglected race and the politics thereof all together. The second position is one that does engage with biological race but does not pose the question, what is race? The presumption is that we know what race is. It often figures as matter of color, “national” identity, or, and most certainly, is tightly linked to racism. Given the unexpected and complex interactions between science and societies and the various “monsters,” or better “nature-culture assemblages” (Donna Haraway, John Law) produced through that interaction, we really need to ask the question, what is race? And how does it shift and change over time and as it moves about? We need to attend to the messy-ness of race, stay with that trouble rather than presuming that we know what race is. This requires ethnographies that study race as a practice. It requires more praxiographies.

SG: At the beginning of your introduction I was struck by the statement, “Race is a relational object.” Why do you use the word “object” in this sense? Your paper seems to suggest that if it is indeed an object, race is a rather unstable and transmutable one. Is it important to refer to race as an “object,” even a relational one, rather than a concept, belief, idea, or category?

AM: There is a very long answer to this question, but I will keep it brief. I speak of race as an object rather than say a category or a mode of classifying/ordering people for two reasons:  1) To steer clear from scholars, especially in sociology, who take racial classifications to be social categories. Racial classifications (for example in the U.S.) are deemed important for assessing e.g. the distribution of wealth or disparities among certain groups of people. The thing is that our social categories are always connected with either contemporary or past biological categories. So, what are we doing when we embrace the language of race as ours?  2) To move away from simple critique, for it is easy to scandalize race and to always equate it with, or see it as an effect of racism. To study race as an object is to see that it does different kinds of jobs. In practices it is made relevant in different ways. Sometimes it is relevant as a “technology,” or a “tool,” of making order, for example in piles of data of patient groups. On other occasions, it is a “theory” of arrived upon racial ideas used as shorthand to make sense of ambiguities in research. And at other occasions it has a kind of “object-ness” about it, for instance when science is about proving the existence of races (for example, in the history of physical anthropology). These are different versions of race. We need to be much more specific about what race is in particular contexts. But there is another level of complexity. The versions of race are neither stable nor singular. They shift and change across practices. Not because they are interpreted differently, but because they are made differently. This is the clue to the relationality of objects, such as race. Now, with the linguistic and reflexive turn in anthropology it had become clear that we need to be decentering the subject of knowledge (the ethnographer so to speak), but this requires that we decenter the object as well. The object is not coherent or pre-given. The object, even a very solid looking kind of object such as “sex” (for example the work of the historian Geertie Mak), is assembled by connecting different kinds of entities. An object such as race is made up of different nature-culture assemblages. We need to take account both of the processes of assembling, as well as of what goes into stitching it together. 

SG: Is this essay part of a larger project on race, and if so, could you give us a sense of what that project looks like and where you are hoping to take it?

AM: Yes, it is. It is part of a larger project that wants to examine the materiality of race in such a way that one does not contribute to its reification and solidification, but opens it up as an object of study. This is also a project that is concerned with the problem that if we reduce race to preconceived ideas, such as color or the language of race and racism, we are overlooking many practices where race gets made and unmade, where race can take different shapes and contents. My work now is really focusing on the field of forensics and technologies of identification, where I focus on the twin process of “face-making” and “race-making.” That is, the giving of a face to an unknown suspect or victim in genetic phenotyping, facial craniology, composite drawing, and “photofit.” The interesting thing is that “face-making” is oriented towards knowing the individual, but this cannot be arrived at without situating the individual into a collective, or population. I am very much interested in how and when this collective becomes racialized. When evidence and technology move across forensic sites from a crime scene to court, for instance, many different versions of individuality and population, and the relation between them get made (statistical, psychological, culturally….). This is an interesting and vital process to follow to understand the dynamics of the categories and politics of race.

SG: Do you hope for this work to have a particular type of political intervention? If so, is it one pertaining to a particular social problematic found in the Netherlands or Western Europe? 

AM:I hope that my work will contribute to putting this tabooed “object” of race on the agenda (in the Netherlands and Europe). Especially in the Netherlands, race is deemed to be nonexistent and talking about it already produces powerful, adverse reactions. At the same time, especially after 9/11 in the Netherlands (as in many other European countries) has become quite a grim place for many foreigners or anybody perceived as non-European. Processes of “othering” go hand in hand with processes of criminalization, which is what makes my focus on the field of forensics so pressing.            

With my focus on technologies, I hope to intervene in debates on the ethical assessments of forensic technologies. First, whereas genetics is the center of many debates, other technologies really go unnoticed. Second, many ethical assessments focus on the rights of the individual (privacy, integrity of the body, informed consent). I want to show that our technologies have normative and political consequences for the collective. For instance, as the mp3-case in my paper shows, a whole migrant population might become suspect and criminalized through the uses of investigative forensic technologies. So not only are the rights of the individual at stake, we should start to think much harder about protecting the rights of groups in light of these forensic technologies. 

SG: Something that I found powerful about your text was that your analysis doesn’t shy away from examining the subtle, and often-unstable ways, that race, and perhaps racism, is enacted through different types of ‘relational’ practices. It seems like a much-needed intervention, especially in the U.S. context of a so-called “post-racial” society, which is making discussions of structural racism increasingly difficult, but extremely necessary. How did you choose the examples you decided to analyze? How, or is, the situation in Europe, where these cases took place, different or similar to what you know of the U.S context?

AM: I think it is vital to pay attention to the subtle, unstable, and slippery modes of race in practice. One reason is that such practices give the analyst much more space to examine race, and similarities and differences in general, in novel ways, rather than reproducing what we already knew (however true that may be). This is the “calm space” that I alluded to above, when referring to my laboratory study. Second, I contend that such subtle modes of doing race are much more widespread than occasions of blunt or hardboiled racism. So there is a political imperative in taking everyday kinds of practices seriously in the study of race. They affect the lives of many more people on a more or less permanent basis. Race and racism are indeed structural, but in much more subtle and fragile ways. We therefore need to invent novel methods and better concepts to capture fragility and its politics.  The cases I selected in this paper are both specific for a European context and more general. But yes, although Europe and the U.S. have a lot in common, also vis-à-vis the politics of race, it is safe to say that there are some differences between them. For example, the issue of race in the U.S. is very much informed by the history of slavery. In Europe, by contrast, the colonial past and the post WWII migration from former colonies is much more salient. In addition, whereas color is a central mode of doing race in the U.S., in Europe color is hardly relevant. Cultural differences, religious differences, national identities are much more prominent in Europe. These differences might become crucial modes of doing race in practice. The cases I examine in my paper contain those elements and show how they are stitched together to enact race. But then of course it does not take much fantasy to imagine these cases taking place in the U.S. and we could venture to analyze them along similar lines as I did here. But usually these kinds of subtle analyses tend to get trivialized. Similarly, attending to ordinary and mundane practices could be put aside as politically trivial, if not apolitical altogether. This is, I would say, because there is a much more established discourse and practice of both racism and anti-racism. It thus frames what is to be thought of as politically relevant or urgent. In that sense we have a bit more of leeway in Europe. 

SG: While reading your article, I couldn’t help but think it through the recent “not-guilty” verdict in the trial against George Zimmerman in Florida, as well as the court’s decision to exclude ‘race,’ and how it factored into the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, throughout the trial. Could you comment on how race, and racial profiling, might be better brought into trials like this? It seems that your work could make an important intervention in such cases.  

AM: I think the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial against George Zimmerman is too complex to do it justice here. It would be very important to see how and when race was actually transported into the court, what versions of race these were, and what kind of work they did. So rather than focusing on the explicit language of “race-is-not-part-of-this-trial,” I would focus on how it actually entered the courtroom. To be sure, I am not only referring to the racial identity of Trayvon Martin. I think if this kind of analysis is to take place, the Zimmerman trial can become an exemplary case from which we could learn how to properly consider race and racial profiling in U.S. trials. This is not to say that there was no blunt racism going on, or a controversial law of “Stand Your Ground,” or equally a rather surprising composition of the jury that one can criticize upfront. But it is important to take a closer look at how racism, and a critique of racism, interfered with legal norms and practices. Unraveling those complex dynamics might give clues about how to better take race into account in a courtroom setting. 

Questions for Classroom Discussions

1. M'charek argues that up until now, critiques of race have divided into two camps: those who study how race becomes a fact and those who study how race is really a fiction. What are the arguments of each of these critiques? What is M'charek's counter argument as to why we must consider race as both a fact and fiction? 

2. What is praxiography? Where can you see it used in each of M'charek's ethnographic examples? Why does she argue for this type of methodology? How do we see race practiced? 

3. In each of M'charek's three examples, how is the line drawn between race as either a fact or a fiction complicated? How, in some cases, did fact become fiction, or vice versa? What does that tell us about the way race is practiced? Can you think of implications that such an analytic might give to other debates or controversies that are either explicitly about race or implicitly racialized? 

Related Readings

Abu El-Haj, Nadia. "The Genetic Reinscription of Race." Annual Review of Anthropology 36(2007): 283–300.

Dunn, Lesley Clarence. What Is Race: Evidence from Scientists. Paris: UNESCO, 1952.

Duster, Troy. "Race and Reification in Science." Science 307(2005): 1050–1051.

Fikes, Kesha. "Ri(gh)tes of Intimacy at Docapesca: Race versus Racism at a Fish Market in Portugal." Du Bois Review 2 (2005): 247–266.

Fullwiley, Duane. "The Molecularization of Race: Institutionalizing Racial Difference in Pharmaco-Genetics Practice." Science as Culture 16 (2007): 1–30.    

Haraway, Donna. The Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Koening, Barbara A., Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, and Sarah S. Richardson, eds. Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

Müller-Wille, Staffan. "Claude Lévi-Strauss on Race, History and Genetics." BioSocieties 5 (2010): 330–347.

Palmié, Stephan. "Genomics, Divination, 'Racecraft.'American Ethnologist 34 (2007): 205–222.

Reardon, Jenny. Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Wade, Peter. Race and Ethnicity in Latin America: Second Edition. 2nd edition. New York: Pluto Press, 2010.

Additional Articles by the Author

M'charek, Amade. "Race, Time and Folded Objects: The HeLa Error." Theory, Culture and Society (in press).

M’charek, Amade, Rob Hagendijk and Wiebe de Vries. "Equal before the Law: On the Machinery of Sameness in Forensic DNA Practice.Science, Technology, and Human Values 38 (2013): 542–565.

M'charek, Amade, Barbara Prainsack and Victor Toom. "Bracketing off population does not advance ethical reflection on EVCs: A reply to Kayser and Schneider." Forensic Science International: Genetics 6 (2011): e16–e17.

M'charek, Amade. "Fragile differences, relational effects: stories about the materiality of race and sex." European Journal of Women's Studies, 17 (2010): 307–322.

M'charek, Amade. "Silent witness, articulate collective: DNA evidence and the inference of visible traits." Bioethics, 22 (2008): 519–528.

M'charek, Amade. The Human Genome Diversity Project: An ethnography of scientific practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

M'charek, Amade. "Technologies of Population: Forensic DNA Testing Practices and the Making of Differences and Similarities." Configurations 8 (2000): 121–158.

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