Tag Archives: race

Racecraft: A Must-Read Book

Laurie and Debbie say:

Laurie found the book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields) through an interview with Barbara Fields conducted by Ta-Nehisi Coates. When she read it, she started exhorting everyone around her to read it, including Debbie. Now, we are both exhorting you to read it. The news is yet again so horrifyingly full of the tragic and unforgivable effects of racism and racecraft: in Ferguson, in New York, in your communities and ours.

racecraft-max_221-f1c6c1580d34a0cbcd634ae9bb25b434Karen and Barbara Fields are sisters. Karen Fields is a sociologist working as an independent scholar and Barbara Fields is a professor of history at Columbia University. They are, to use their preferred term, Afro-American. Their joint analysis of racism and inequality is fresh, compelling, challenging, and paradigm-changing.

The book relies on two underlying premises: first, that although it is commonly agreed that “race” is a social construct, almost none of us take this concept to heart. If we did, we would not use the word “race.” “If the scientific logic is indeed non-racial, the folk classification ought to wither under its influence. To adhere to both old and new is to pick up and put down modern science with shameless promiscuity.”

The second premise is that the concept of “race,” however fictional, is a pillar of American thought. The title word “racecraft” was chosen for its relationship to “witchcraft,” specifically because witchcraft was something scientifically unreal and untrue which nonetheless saturated every aspect of life for many centuries, in many cultures … and then effectively went away in much of the world, forcing an entire rethinking of language, thought, and everyday assumptions. Once you accept a concept such as witchcraft, it becomes part of the unexamined structure of your culture. Africanist scholars habitually “grant the rationality of witchcraft despite its dependence on presuppositions that are demonstrably false according to modern science.” The Fields argue that the same must be done to examine racecraft.

The term race stands for the conception or the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from members of other distinct groups of the same kind but of unequal rank. … Fitting actual humans to any such grid inevitably calls forth the busy repertoire of strange maneuvering that is part of what we call racecraft. The nineteenth-century bio-racists’ ultimately vain search for traits with which to demarcate human groups regularly exhibited such maneuvering. Race is the principal unit and core concept of racism.

Racism refers to the theory and the practice of applying a social, civic, or legal double standard based on ancestry, and to the ideology surrounding such a double standard. … Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes. Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once. Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race, as just defined, so it is important to register their distinctness. The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss. …

Distinct from race and racism, racecraft does not refer to groups or to ideas about groups’ traits, however odd both may appear in close-up. It refers instead to mental terrain and to pervasive belief. Like physical terrain, racecraft exists objectively; it has topographical features that Americans regularly navigate, and we cannot readily stop traversing it. … Do not look for racecraft, therefore, only where it might be said to “belong.” Finally, racecraft is not a euphemistic substitute for racism. It is a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene.

Before this work, the argument “there is no such thing as race” was an argument for “color-blindness,” for using “equality” as a reason to refuse to recognize racism. The Fields, however, reject the concept of race while completely believing in the devastating power of racism. Looking at the concept of “post-racial America,” they say, “Whatever the ‘post’ may mean in ‘post-racial,’ it cannot mean that racism belongs to the past. Post-racial turns out to be — simply — racial, which is to say, racist.” To carry this one step further, simply using the word “race” in daily life is a way of reinforcing and supporting racecraft.

To believe in race, we must believe in racial differences in blood: their kind of blood, our kind of blood.

Understood as kin and as kind, blood inhabits the profoundest layer of mystique that humanity has carried with it from time immemorial. As a natural substance, blood is far older than the mystique, and entirely independent of it. … “The scientifically established universal truth,” declared the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, fuming over the Nazis’ efforts to read the evidence otherwise, “is that all human beings, no matter of what creed or complexion they may be, are of one and the same blood.”

By contrast, metaphorical blood and dispense with the moving parts of natural blood and has always had everything to do with human groups. When nature made room for human society, human beings made room for nature in society. And blood made in society by human beings has properties that nature knows nothing about. It can consecrate and purify: it can also profane and pollute. It can define a community and police the borders thereof. Natural blood never does that sort of thing: it only sustains biological functioning. If it is to perform metaphorical tasks, human beings must carry out those tasks on its behalf.

Barbara Fields, talking about the relationship between racecraft and witchcraft, says:

I have been struck over and over again by such intellectual commonalities … as circular reasoning, prevalence of confirming rituals, barriers to disconfirming factual evidence, self-fulfilling prophecies, multiple and inconsistent causal ideas, and colorfully inventive folk genetics. And to these must be added varieties of more or less legitimized collective action such as gossip, exclusion, scapegoating, and so on, up to and including various forms of coercion (which is to say that the logical and methodological byways of racecraft, like those of witchcraft, are rife with dangers to body as well as to mind). Taken together, such traits constitute a social world whose inhabitants experience (and act on) a marrow-deep certainty that racial differences are real and consequential, whether scientifically demonstrable or not. Obviousness is the hallmark of such a world.

Writing less than two weeks after the acquittal of police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Mike Brown, and the same day as the acquittal of police officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner was completely captured on video, one can hardly deny that racecraft is “rife with dangers to body,” dangers which people who are not the victims of racism do not face.

The Fields are, as you can see, remarkable writers in the realm of theory, but they are also eloquently specific: about details of racism in recent American history, about their grandmother’s experiences, and about how witchcraft and racecraft play out in various everyday lives. Here’s an account they took from sociologist Emile Durkheim about members of the Kangaroo clan in Africa:

A Kangaroo, shown a photograph of himself by anthropological investigators, uses his relationship to his own photograph to illustrate for them his relationship to the kangaroo. “Look who is exactly the same thing as I,” he tells them. “Well! It is the same with the kangaroo.” Durkheim adds that “the Kangaroo was his totem,” which is to say that he traced his descent through membership in a clan with the name “Kangaroo” and was as much like his fellow clansmen as he was like the kangaroo. Such statements must not be taken, Durkheim warns, in their “everyday empirical” sense. The Kangaroos do not resemble the kangaroo, nor do they necessarily resemble one another. Moreover, they do not resemble one another (or differ from White Cockatoos, for instance) in ways that would give both groups internally unifying and mutually exclusive common traits. What makes them alike is the abstract notion of common essence.”

And it is that “abstract notion of common essence,” not in Kangaroo and White Cockatoo clan members, but in you and me and our neighbors, which the Fields are examining, challenging, and destroying. The book is vastly more nuanced, layered, and rich that we can convey here. Even when you find yourself disagreeing with something they say, you will still find it illuminating and find yourself examining the complexities.

Read Racecraft.

Links Return Again

It would be great if this image of Karlesha Thurman had gone viral for better reasons (like because it’s beautiful) …

Karlesha Danae breastfeeding

Thurman posted this photo on the Black Women Do Breastfeed Facebook page. Although she never posted it on Instagram or Twitter, NewsOne reports that Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook went ablaze with men and women, mostly Black, calling her a wide-range of unprintable profanities. (I would need to see some data before I was convinced about “mostly Black.”)

However, Thurman also has some amazing supporters, including Ashley Wright, also quoted in the NewsOne article:

Every time I get a chance, I try to cheer everyone on in that post to get them to see that this is OK, that this is awesome, and we need to support this Mother,” she said. “We just don’t see it often. A lot of people believe that African-American women don’t breastfeed their children because, during slavery, we were wet nurses to the quote unquote White man; therefore, we do not breastfeed. I think that can’t be further from the truth as of right now. I do believe that may have played a part way back then; however, now, I do not see that as a barrier.

I imagine Thurman appreciating this excellent article by Tamara Winfrey Harris:

Strong. Black. Woman.

The words fit together like blue oil, sizzling hot combs, and Sunday afternoon. They embody the idea of African American women as perpetually tough and uniquely indestructible. …

But in a society that finds little to praise in black women, other groups’ appreciation for perceived black female strength can feel like a reductive appreciation. Strength becomes one of few positive adjectives black women can own.


If you ever wondered why the Catholic Church is so opposed to birth control (I know I have), here’s some history which will make you wonder even more.  In 1968, Pope Paul VI convened a commission to examine the Church’s position:

The commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the ban against artificial means of birth control be lifted. …

Unhappy with the direction of the commission, the Vatican packed the last commission meetings with fifteen bishops to formulate the final recommendation to the pope. But even the bishops voted nine to three (three abstained from voting) to change the teaching, concluding that the popes’ previous teaching on birth control were not infallible and that the traditional theological basis for the prohibition of contraception was invalid. They declared that responsible parenthood was an essential part of modern marriage .

Despite the commission’s years of work and theologically unassailable conclusion that the church’s teaching on birth control was neither infallible nor irreversible, Pope Paul VI stunned the world on July 29, 1968, when he reaffirmed the church’s ban on modern contraceptives in Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).

His reason? He based it on a dissenting opinion which said, in part, The Church could not have erred through so many centuries, even though one century, by imposing under serious obligation very grave burdens in the name of Jesus Christ, if Jesus Christ did not actually impose those burdens.”

So, we can’t be wrong because that would mean we had always been wrong. Way to reason!


Surprise! Certain opera reviewers have not outgrown fat-shaming. [NOTE: I should not have said “opera” has not outgrown fat-shaming. That was hyperbole.]

… a pile of weekend reviews arrived from London, courtesy of five older male critics writing about an emerging Irish mezzo-soprano named Tara Erraught. Erraught is singing Octavian in the Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier at the , which opened Saturday night. What is stunningly apparent is just how much a woman’s body matters onstage — way more, if these five critics are to be believed, than her voice, her technique, her musicality or any other quality. …

I find it astounding that across five widely read publications, not a single editor saw fit to go back to the writer and challenge what he had written. Yes, visuals matter — even more now, in the age of live broadcasts — but these critics have seized this as license to forget why anybody shows up at an opera house to begin with.

Neither have the streets of Seattle, as Courtney Meaker relates in an excellent long essay, much of it about why she doesn’t (most of us don’t) respond to street harassment …

Last night, I was walking across a crosswalk while fat and female. Two guys in a white SUV rolled down their window to say. “Hey, cunt. Cunt. Hey. You’re fat. Fat, fat cunt. Fat. Fat. Cunt. ” I didn’t even realize they were talking to me at first. By the time I’d made it past their car, the guy in the passenger seat had rolled down his window to continue yelling at me. Changing it slightly to make it very clear, yes they were talking to me, and yes, they wanted a reaction. I didn’t have one. I was in my time. My time to walk, to think, to decompress after a long day. I just kept walking.

Juliana at Feministing has at least somewhat of an antidote (with lots of great links) …

In the year since [my dad] and I last talked about health and weight, I’ve begun actively seeking out social media that reminds me that I am not alone. Relatively speaking, my body does conform to many normative standards of beauty, but like many of us, I — and people I love — have been trained to believe that it will always fall short. This reaction makes sense when all we have to work with are the narrow standards for an “attractive” or “fit” or “healthy” body that society provides us. We talk a lot about how we need to call out mainstream media for celebrating only thin, white, cis, traditionally feminine women as beautiful and making us hate ourselves. What we don’t hear enough about is where we can find alternatives. If we are going to do the difficult and never-ending work of unlearning normative beauty standards, we have to be as persistent and consistent as mainstream media is with us. Luckily, there are people out there creating media that showcases different bodies wearing different clothing and doing different things than we get to see in mainstream media.


The World Health Organization and the American Medical Association are moving into the 21st century.

Both groups issued similar statements this month: here’s a quote from WHO:

Requiring surgery as a prerequisite for obtaining legal documents is often a coerced sterilization: “Some groups, such as transgender and intersex persons, [have] a long history of discrimination and abuse related to sterilization, which continues to this day. Such violations are reflected, for example, in the various legal and medical requirements, including for sterilization, to which transgender and intersex persons have been subjected in order to obtain birth certificates and other legal documents that match their preferred gender.”

This has no legal standing, but both groups are prestigious, and it should be at least a step in the right direction.


Fashion isn’t exactly body image, but it’s close.

Clothing of the past has a rep for being toxic and/or deadly, but clothing of the present is less examined.

The green of the shimmering silk, now slightly faded, was one of the Victorian era’s most fashionable hues; people, mostly women, wore it even after it was widely known that the arsenic-based dye responsible for the colour could lead to horrible physical suffering and early death.

The article is especially rich because the exhibit curator Elizabeth Semmelhack is both very smart and very informed:

Semmelhack refuses to see fashion extremes and the risks people took to remain in vogue as ridiculous. Not following fashion was equally perilous, she says: “If idealized femininity is about women’s participation in fashion, and if femininity or beauty is the major thing you are judged and valued by, then, if you reject it, trust me, all hell breaks loose.”

It’s impossible to look at the exhibit and not draw contemporary analogies—narrow footwear replaced by vertiginous heels, corsets by sausage-casing Spanx, Dickensian factories by offshore sweatshops. Our forebears were willing to burn for fashion. We’re too evolved for that: We let others burn for us.

The future of clothing is here, and one of the forms it’s taking is this NYU student project where how much of your life you reveal online is reflected in how your dress changes.

​​​​This 3D-Printed Dress Reveals More Skin As You Reveal More Data

Co-creator Xuedi Chen says:

In the physical realm we can deliberately control which portions our bodies are exposed to the world by covering it with clothing. In the digital realm, we have much less control of what personal aspects we share with the services that connect us. In the digital realm we are naked and vulnerable.

By participating in this hyper-connected society while having little to no control of my digital data production, how much of myself do I unknowingly reveal? To what degree does the aggregated metadata collected from me paint an accurate portrait of who I am as a person? What aspects of my individuality are reflected in this portrait?

I love the project and I would like to see a less gendered version, which perhaps Chen and co-creator Pedro Oliviera are working on now.

Most usual sources: Feministe, Feministing, io9, and Shakesville, plus assorted other blogs I read. Thanks to Deena for the opera link, Lizzy for the walking in Seattle link, and Lisa for the historical clothing article.