Ethnographies of Racial Europe

Nitzan Shoshan, El Colegio de México

Review Essay.

Spain Unmoored: Migration, Conversion, and the Politics of Islam,Mikaela H. Rogozen-Soltar (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2017)

Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin,Sareeta Amrute (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)

White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, Gloria Wekker (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)

While there is hardly a dearth of research on racism and the politics of race in Europe, until recently anthropological studies in this field have been relatively scarce. To be sure, Europeanist ethnographers have studied racism in its various iterations for years (Holmes 2000; Arkin 2009; Mandel 2008; Silverstein 2004; Schiffauer 1993). Only of late, however, has a debate framed in continental terms cohered out of the literature in the field. One challenge has been the accessibility of existing research across linguistic divides. At least as important, however, has been the relative dominance of other disciplines and quantitative research agendas that seek to measure racial discrimination and violence and their effects on racialized minorities, or to assess attitudes toward such minorities among European publics (e.g., Ford and Goodwin 2014; European Union 2018; Bayrakli, Hafez, and Siyaset 2018; Brubaker 2017). The emergence of a consolidated anthropological interest in the field of race in Europe therefore arrives as a timely intervention into an important conversation that has been ongoing for some time. Moreover, its contemporary relevance in Europe could not be over-stated.

Anthropological studies of the politics of race in Europe have been emerging especially rapidly in three broad areas. First, and most prolific among the three, has been the fast-growing field of studies about Muslims and Islamophobia in a variety of European contexts (Özyürek 2015; Bowen 2010; Bunzl 2007). The predominance of Islam within research on racism and minorities in Europe faithfully reflects its current centrality within European public spheres, arguably unmatched by any other political concern. Anthropological writings in particular have often drawn on the work of Talal Asad (Asad 2003; Fernando 2014) in order to ask how particular modes of civilizational othering become mobilized against Islam within the context of European secularism. Such questions have become more urgent than ever in light of the meteoric rise of virulently Islamophobic political forces that feed on secularist discourses, cultural essentialization, the so-called war on terror, as well as claims for the ostensibly Judeo-Christian roots of European traditions (Shoshan 2016; Bangstad 2014; Kalmar 2018).

A second strand, which often converges with the first, attends to the lived complexities, tensions, and encounters of the urban everyday in Europe’s big cities, with their characteristic hybridity and mixture between different ethnic and religious groups (Mandel 2008; Arkin 2014; Shoshan 2008; Modest and de Koning 2016; Mepschen 2016; Vollebergh 2016). Scholars working on urban race relations in Europe have examined the spatial configuration of ethnic difference, the challenges of social and cultural integration, the implementation of intercultural programs and policies, gentrification processes in marginalized migrant neighborhoods, as well as preoccupations with the alleged consolidation of so-called immigrant ghettos. Such studies have insisted on the heterogeneity of urban spaces and of the ethnic alterities that inhabit them and contest them, which cannot always be reduced to dichotomies between migrants and autochthonous people, or Muslims and (Christian) Europeans, and indeed are shaped by a variety of intersecting layers of otherness (most notably, perhaps, gender).

A third, interrelated strain of research has placed particular emphasis on Europe’s post-colonial history, showing the indelible relevance of imperialist pasts for understanding contemporary racial politics (Partridge 2012; Silverstein 2004; Stoler 2016). Such studies trace the colonial genealogies of race relations in particular national contexts and in light of the distinct geographical, ethnic, and historical legacies that have defined local landscapes of racial distinctions today. Exploring the deep structures of racism that Europeans inherit from centuries of global expansion, they show how derivative and related forms of racial distinction continue to reproduce themselves today through the racialization of European minorities. The very different colonial histories of European countries as well as the tendency to disavow, minimize, or worse, aggrandize the colonial past have often stood in the way of any unification of such approaches across national boundaries and histories.

The three books at the center of this review touch on all three of these dimensions, though each with its own emphases and priorities, and together they offer a substantive contribution to the growing anthropological literature on race politics in Europe. Rogozen-Soltar’s Spain Unmoored: Migration, Conversion, and the Politics of Islam examines race relations in Granada following religious liberalization after the transition to democracy. Based on research carried out between 2001 and 2011 and especially in 2007-9, Spain Unmoored looks at a variety of sites and spaces—including mosques, shops, streets, immigrant NGOs, civil associations, and private apartments—in order to analyze the relations between Moroccan migrants, Spanish converts to Islam, and Catholic and secular Spaniards. Rogozen-Soltar draws on a rich body of ethnographic data as well as other sources to develop a sophisticated and nuanced narrative.

The book is framed around the paradoxical ambivalence of what are taken to constitute two typical traits of authentic Granadino character: mallafollá, or a certain rudeness and grumpiness toward strangers in particular, and convivencia, suggesting multicultural coexistence and referencing Andalusia’s Muslim past. The paradoxes enshrined in these terms are reiterated across various dimensions of Andalusian society, for example in the interplay of Islamophobia and Islamophilia in local discourses. The introduction provides a helpful review of Granada’s urban history and the resultant spatial configuration of ethnic difference within it, as well as of the history of contemporary Islam in post-Franco Spain, where democratization witnessed both a conversion movement and the arrival of Moroccan migrants. Converts, migrants, and so-called Granadinos (i.e., non-Muslim Spaniards) elaborate and negotiate their relationships under what the author describes as Catholic cultural dominance, and hence under conditions of inequality. A solid literature review lays out the author’s theoretical position and her use of key concepts such as race, Islamophobia, Islamophilia, and unequal multiculturalism, situating them within the history of Spain’s civil war, its transition from dictatorship to democratization, the war on terror, and, most recently, the refugee crisis.

The first two chapters look at the tension between Granada’s much-vaunted history as a space of peaceful inter-religious coexistence, on the one hand, and contemporary Granadinos’ relation to Muslims in their city, on the other. Chapter One asks how Granadinos combine pride in and nostalgia for the historical past with racializing discourses about today’s Muslim minorities. “Granada’s urban materiality,” the author argues, “facilitates its consolidation as a place that is made and unmade by historical memory” (48). As Granadinos fuse Islamophobia with Islamophilia, memory with amnesia, certain parallelisms—a “fellowship of the flawed” (Herzfeld 2005, cited on p.72)—appear between their own position as marginal and underdeveloped within Spain and Europe and the position of Moroccan migrants in their city. The second chapter shifts the focus to how migrants and converts struggle to produce rootedness in Granada under conditions of racism and intolerance that shape their daily lives. Spanish converts in particular, we see, destabilize discourses of belonging. As threats “to a homogeneity that was never established” (83), they trigger existential anxieties among Andalusians while gaining acceptance as fellow Europeans in ways that their migrant coreligionists do not.

The following three chapters explore the relations between Granadinos, migrants, and converts as they play out in the urban everyday of the city. Chapter Three examines the spatial configuration of racialized difference in the city, contrasting the iconic Albayzín quarter (a “Muslim Disneyland”) with the Polígono (a “Moroccan danger zone”), a working class immigrant neighborhood. Looking at “casual racism,” the author traces the intricate play of inclusion and exclusion in which gender, race, and class intertwine, often counter-intuitively, as “each neighborhoods includes and excludes Muslims in spatially inflected ways” (116). The fourth chapter takes up the public performance of religion by migrants and converts, describing how they unevenly confront the politics of the representation of Islam and their struggles for positive publicity. The last chapter analyzes the normative regimes of bodily practices and public sociality that render Muslims as others in Granada and by extension in today’s Europe, attending in particular to embodied racialized difference and gender roles in urban public space. Such norms feed the “liberation narrative” that defines Granadinos’ attitudes to Muslims, creating barriers for the latter’s inclusion in the city while allowing the former to claim Europeanness. Finally, the conclusion reflects on the concept of “unmooring,” as this term suggests how historical anxieties shape relationships between migrants, converts, and Granadinos. With this reflection, Rogozen-Soltar spells out the significance of the study to broader, regional politics of inclusion and exclusion.

Rogozen-Soltar’s central argument runs throughout her careful dissection of racialized and gendered social relations across Granada’s urban fabric. Such relations between Moroccan migrants, Spanish converts, and Catholic and secular Granadinos, she submits, respond to Islam’s ambivalent place in Andalusia, at once authentically rooted in its history and radically external to its dominant Christian culture. Epitomized in the tension between mallafollá and convivencia—both central for Granadinos’ sense of self—this ambivalence casts Muslims in the city as ambiguous signs, spelling both cosmopolitan openness and potential menace. Islam thus evokes at once nostalgia for the Moorish past and fear of the Moroccan present. Such dual significations are palpable in the words of many of Rogozen-Soltar’s interviewees, who stake claims to a glorified past of religious tolerance by essentializing coexistence as an enduring local trait that still defines Granada today while simultaneously voicing anxieties about the city’s contemporary Muslim inhabitants.

Rogozen-Soltar traces how these tensions play out in the cityscape, where they gain form as racialized spatializations of difference that shape everyday encounters. For example, the city’s tourist quarter offers a Disney-fied image of cultural exoticism—picturesque shops and cafes—that is both profitable and compatible with Moorish nostalgia. However, the construction of an actual mosque there triggers public panic and confronts innumerable obstacles, while residential areas where many Muslims actually live become negatively stigmatized as places to be avoided. Daily encounters link up with such racialized geographies, traversing local discourses and interactions through normative expectations of proper sociality, such as forms of dress or food and drinking habits commonly “dubbed the trifecta of ‘pork, wine, and sex’” (202).

The politics of exclusion and inclusion that are shaped by these processes of racialization operate differentially for migrants and for converts, who, far from constituting a single religious community, often come into conflict. To be sure, the conversion movement in Spain has provoked particular anxieties about the “Islamization” of European populations. At the same time, however, because they are not racialized in the same manner, converts can lay claim to Spanish rootedness and belonging in ways that are foreclosed for Moroccans. Their distinct location allows them to represent themselves with greater confidence and authority than migrants can. The story of Islam in Granada is hence also a story of “unequal multiculturalism” marked by hierarchical configurations of difference. Gender cross-cuts these relational hierarchies of essentialized difference, and Muslim women in particular emerge as signs of religious backwardness. Their pious practices are judged to be incompatible with European modernity while their position with respect to Muslim men is represented as inferior and subservient. The male Western fantasy of liberation places them in the “saving slot,” or “savable third-world victims in need of feminist rescue” (216) from a non-white, non-European patriarchy that becomes “solidified as a key signifier of Muslims’ inassimilable nature” (190).

In Granada, as in many other European contexts, the racialization of Muslim migrants as inferior others resonates with their working-class position as well as with their often vulnerable or illicit legal status. As Sareeta Amrute shows in Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin, however, such correspondences are not always straightforward. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2002 and 2004, Amrute’s book examines the life of Indian programmers temporarily employed in German firms in the framework of a special initiative that aimed to address IT labor shortages in the early 2000s. While the book analyzes workspaces and offices, its primary focus is on IT workers’ leisure time, where access was easier to obtain and opportunities for open conversation more plentiful. Complementing her fieldwork with a core group of programmers, Amrute builds on dozens of interviews with other IT workers and employers—Indian, German, or of other nationalities—as well as on evidence gathered from media outlets.

As its title suggests, Encoding Race, Encoding Class develops two interrelated arguments that, in turn, correspond to its two parts. All six of the book’s chapters—equally divided between its first and second parts—can be read as attempts to confront the story of the mysterious disappearance of a programmer with which Amrute opens, and to which she returns in the conclusion. The first three chapters take up the racialization of Indian IT labor in Germany, starting with a close reading of how political cartoons in German media “invest in the Indian IT body the most fundamental changes in the constitution of European political economies” (45). Amrute sensitively explores the key tropes by which such playful representations render Indian bodies as ambivalently positioned in relation to other racialized migrant groups in Germany, while oscillating between the threat and the promise they pose for the future of German workers. Chapter Two reveals the ostensibly “post-racial” IT office as in fact profoundly racialized through the essentialization of Indian IT bodies, differential evaluation criteria, and the division of labor within firms. Given their temporary contracts, vulnerable migration status, and inferior positions in the office, the following chapter describes how Indian programmers experience and respond to the “contradiction between the freedom of code to cross boundaries and their inability to do so” (93). For example, they elaborate strategies—“proprietary freedoms,” in Amrute’s apt term—for appropriating the products of their labor “in unsanctioned ways” (108) and thereby decreasing their substitutability.

The second part of Encoding Race, Encoding Class shifts the focus from the racial politics of cognitive labor to the fashioning of an Indian middle-class life. Linking the historical emergence of Indian middle-classness within the field of technological expertise to the leisure pastimes of her informants, Amrute argues for the possibility of “eros,” or an alternative relationship to cognitive labor that allows for pleasure. Chapter Four reviews how middle class elites have historically been central to the nexus of nation building and technological expertise in India and how the state has mobilized them for projects of national development. The following chapter takes us to the intimate spaces of Indian programmers in Berlin—their kitchens, bedrooms, weekends, or parties—to show how they resist the colonization of life by work and elaborate a politics of leisure as they experiment “with multiple kinds of emergent habitations of a neoliberal modernity” (143). The final chapter broadens the scale of analysis to look at how gifts circulate globally and allow the maintenance of transnational diasporic links by “transforming a surplus of capital into the goods of affection” (171) and at how jokes are mobilized to confront the discontents of cognitive labor.

This bipartite structure loosely reflects the twofold contribution that Amrute offers to recent Marxist theorizations of contemporary labor, and specifically to understandings of the relationship between race and class (more specifically, here, middle-class status). Her examination, in the first part, of the racialization of the Indian IT body concludes that, even in the field of cognitive labor—and to an extent unacknowledged by much scholarly literature—embodied forms of difference and locally significant imaginaries of otherness (still) define and distribute work. Political cartoons in the German public sphere, for example, reveal racial stereotypes in play in representations of IT workers, the persistence of which challenges any conceptualization of the “cognitariat” as disembodied and deterritorialized. Renderings of the Indian body as predisposed to long working hours or repetitiveness, of the Indian mind as uniquely fit for coding, or of Indian character as optimal for certain positions in an office all structure cognitive labor according to racial essentializations, despite its alleged mobility.

The book’s second principal intervention targets theories that warn of the totalizing colonization of life by work under late capitalism. Bringing into relief her substantial ethnographic fieldwork with Indian programmers during non-working hours and drawing on Herbert Marcuse’s and Bifo Berardi’s concept of eros, the author highlights how her interlocutors actively resist the encroachment of their jobs upon their leisure time. Eros, for her, constitutes and enables ways of pursuing and experiencing pleasure that escape the total hold of the sphere of production, while elaborating intimate links with Indian notions of middle-classness. It is “a politics of refusal and of deflection” (6). Here, jogging, picnics, or weekend excursions spell not only the possibility of refusal but also the promise of “a critical utopian project” (149). Despite their inferior employment conditions, Indian programmers defy their designated positions through their engagement in middle-class pleasures.

Encoding Race, Encoding Class and Spain Unmoored draw on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in a fairly well-defined time span in order to illuminate the intersections of race, class, gender, and religion in contemporary Europe from the external perspective of American anthropologists. By contrast, Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race builds on a broader range of evidence and sociohistorical contexts that often refer to the author’s biographical experience as an Afro-Surinamese Dutch academic, examining personal interactions, academic and government settings, mass media, historical archives, digital media, political discourses, and other sources that challenge her compatriots’ routine disavowal of racism. Rather than sustaining a focus on one empirical domain, whether contested city space or a particular labor process, White Innocence assembles a variety of materials to bring into view several distinct dimensions of racism in the Netherlands.

The basic paradox of palpable racism and its stubborn denial motivates Wekker’s journey through postcolonial theory, intersectional gender studies, and the Dutch “cultural archive” where imperialism’s racist residues linger. She opens with a review of quotidian discourses and situations—mothers identified as nannies at playgrounds, racist comments on a popular TV show, a row with police officers that leads to a brief arrest, a novel about an Afro-Surinamese Jewish family in Amsterdam—in which she identifies three reiterating forms of racism: sexualization, inferiorization, and criminalization. However, as the discussion of government programs and academic contexts in the Netherlands in Chapter Two shows, the politics of race operates not only in everyday settings but equally as “the silent and seemingly innocuous discursive patterns at the background and simultaneously at the heart of these bureaucratic organizations” (50). As the author’s long experience in both institutional environments shows, racial and gendered distinctions shape the elaboration and implementation of public policy, the formulation of budgets and distribution of resources, as well as the structural architecture of academic departments, graduate programs, and research agendas, which sharply separate colonies from the metropole and race from gender.

Such racial regimes have long histories. In the following chapter, Wekker questions conventional wisdom about the genealogy of racial categories in the Netherlands through a reading of the case of a prominent Dutch psychoanalyst and three of his patients, assessing the prevalence of racialized images not only within the clinical setting but also outside it, across 1920s Dutch society. The focus then swings back to the present in the next chapter, which interrogates the racial politics of the gay liberation movement—comparing it, unfavorably, to the women’s liberation movement—and of government policy in the field of sexual diversity. In particular, widespread male gay support for Islamophobic, far-right politician Pim Fortuyn betrays the links between the public performance of white male gay desire (in contrast with female and/or non-white desire) and the reproduction of racialized colonial fantasies of sexual domination. Keeping to the here-and-now, the book closes with a discussion of the intense controversies throughout the past decade over the nationally beloved Christmas figure of Zwarte Piet (black Pete), a denigrating, racialized representation of blacks. Wekker analyzes a large quantity of email and mail responses to a critical art exhibition on Zwarte Piet, in order to identify the principal forms taken by defenses of what, drawing on Stuart Hall, she calls “ritualized degradation.”

Taken together, the analyses in White Innocence present more than sufficient evidence—from historical archives, personal experience, popular culture and other sources—showing racism at work in both public life and intimate relationships in the Netherlands to counter the commonplace denial of its role in Dutch political life. Moreover, academic programs and government agencies are revealed to propagate such denials and their invidious effects not only through the discourses of colleagues and friends of the author but equally in the institutional structures in which such discourses circulate. Far from incidental or residual, the politics of race remains central to the operation of these institutions—creating, for instance, differential effects of putatively universal policies along lines of racialized distinction.

Yet, at another level, Wekker is less interested in disproving talk about Dutch society being race-blind, and more in making sense of the very paradox of denial. Accordingly, and as the author appropriately notes, White Innocence is not so much a study of racism as it is an ethnography of “dominant white Dutch self-representation” (1-2); as its title suggests, the book’s primary object is the politics of innocence, not of race, even as the latter remains important throughout the text and, indeed, inseparable from the former. Such innocence cannot be understood as simple lack of knowledge. Rather, it represents an active stance, an “epistemology of ignorance,” a socially situated decision to produce oneself as ignorant with respect to race.

Such claims of ignorance are enabled by the often implicit, latent forms of racialized representations and imaginaries—“an unacknowledged reservoir of knowledge and feelings based on four hundred years of imperial rule” (3)—that inhabit and saturate what Wekker, drawing on Edward Said, describes as the Dutch cultural archive. Against the grain of Dutch historiography (and inspired by other postcolonial scholars), her book rejects the analytical separation of metropole and colonies in historical research. The broad range of sources and empirical materials that it considers therefore are appropriate to the task at hand: teasing out omnipresent sedimentations of racialized stereotypes, whose genealogies stretch across centuries of imperial rule over colonial subjects. This cultural archive reveals Dutch society to be pregnant with imperialist nostalgia, a postcolonial melancholia equally prevalent in other former European empires.

Of the three books reviewed here, then, White Innocence appears particularly designed to intervene forcefully in public debates over race and racism within its field site. Indeed, the reader often senses that Wekker’s principal interlocutor (or, as the case may be, adversary) is specifically the liberal, left-leaning, well-intentioned white Dutch. She targets this bearer of the discourse of innocence and the epistemology of ignorance, repeatedly, with her illustrative anecdotes and detailed case studies. Her political commitment—to shift the terms of the debate on race in the Netherlands, toward greater acknowledgment and a more sophisticated understanding of its intersectional articulations—takes the form of an assault on the advocates of innocence, including in academia, and frequently with their names mentioned. Speaking to her compatriots, Wekker aims to demonstrate, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the prevalence of race as an effective distinction and to lay bare the structures that allow its disavowal.

The book, however, speaks in parallel to a more global readership, advancing arguments of a broader scale and academic nature. The author’s intellectual agenda—inseparable from her political one—insists on the primacy of race as an intersectional axis of difference, side by side with gender and sexuality. (It is notable, in this regard, that issues of class receive relatively little attention in White Innocence, and the handful of instances where they make appearance seem designed to demonstrate their secondary status as compared to race or gender.) Side by side with the careful and detail-rich case for the significance of race as an indispensable analytical category, the book’s other key academic contribution is to be found in the compelling argument that Wekker makes for understanding racial politics through a postcolonial lens. Her manner of weaving together the history of the metropole and that of the colonies exposes their inseparability not only throughout the longue durée of European colonialism but equally in the very contemporary forms of imperial nostalgia and post-colonial melancholia in which they continue to manifest themselves.

By comparison, both Spain Unmoored and Encoding Class, Encoding Race take more traditional scholarly forms, even as both are written in language accessible to the general educated public. Rogozin-Soltar frames her book as a contribution to a broader, regional conversation about the significance of the Mediterranean, and particularly of Mediterranean Europe, as a framework of understanding. Granada’s double marginality as a backward internal other within Spain and in relation to the EU refers at once to its geographical location, to its relative economic position, and to its imagined location within a European modernity. This triple remoteness from the geographical, economic, and ideological centers of Europe resonates with the status of various other locations along the continent’s southern border. Granada shares with those other locations also the extensive and dense networks of circulation and mobility that link southern Europe with Africa and the Middle East. Notwithstanding the racial tensions associated with these particular conditions, Spain Unmoored invites us to reflect on how longstanding intertwinements across the sea may operate as sources of value and pride that can generate and reinforce positive self-understandings for societies on the periphery. Whether in Andalusia or elsewhere, such rich histories of hybridity and cosmopolitan urbanity not only open up paths for deflecting the attribution of marginality and assuaging its attendant inferiority complexes but also offer grounds for conceiving and legitimating modes of inclusion and coexistence in the multicultural present “that [transcend] other frameworks for understanding difference” (54).

At the same time, the racial politics of Islam in Andalusia speak far beyond the Mediterranean; indeed, this book offers a chapter in the larger story of Islam in today’s Europe. The case of Granada is in many ways comparable to the points of contention in other European cities. Across the continent, conflicts about the construction of mosques, public expressions of religiosity and embodied forms of piety, or the emergence of ethnic spatial segregation and immigrant “ghettos,” have all formed part of the troubled encounter of European states and their citizens with Muslim migrants, and have fed into Islamophobic discourses and anti-immigrant, far-right political movements. Granada’s past, no doubt, opens up possibilities for claims of Muslim rootedness in Europe that appear unavailable elsewhere. While the tensions between the Moorish past and the Moroccan present are manifest in both “casual racism” and overt political discourse, history allows a framing of Islam as “at home” in Andalusia. Rogozen-Soltar further advances the scholarship on Islam in Europe by considering both Muslim migrants and converts, successfully analyzing the differential racialization of Islam. In this, she contributes to a growing literature that has elaborated more refined understandings of the complexities and unevenness of Muslims’ presence in today’s Europe (Ghodsee 2010; Özyürek 2015; Fernando 2014).

Not least, Spain Unmoored can be read as a fine urban ethnography that finds its place alongside anthropological literature on the spatialization of difference in cities, on the conflicts and tensions that define it, and on the forms of encounter and sociality to which it gives rise. The author dwells on how Granadinos imagine and elaborate racialized spatializations of their city, and her minute attention to the recursive dynamics of inclusion and exclusion belies commonsensical generalizations about urban space in novel and compelling ways, while offering possibilities for advancing anthropological studies of other urban contexts.

While cityscapes feature in Encoding Race, Encoding Class as well, they appear as scenery for the elaboration of lifestyles or of a “fantasy of what bourgeois life should look like” (153), rather than as objects of analysis per se. To a far greater extent than Wekker or Rogozen-Soltar, Amrute’s principal interlocutors are concerned with labor and class, rather than race – indeed, it is precisely their disregard of race that she questions.  Speaking to contemporary debates in Marxist theory about the nature of labor in late capitalism—in particular, putatively disembodied and de-territorialized cognitive labor—she aims to introduce race as an indispensable analytical dimension.  Working with the two categories of race and class in tandem without prioritizing one over the other allows Amrute to challenge race-blind theories of labor.

Encoding Race, Encoding Class positions itself, then, within recent literature about work under neoliberal regimes of accumulation, which has focused on shifting relationships between work and leisure and on emergent transnational class formations (Berardi 2009; Berlant 2011; Muehlebach 2012). But the book aims to racialize the conversation, or to “center the multiple ways capital is embodied” (14). The case of Indian programmers in Germany makes a powerful counterexample, pushing against common presumptions about the universality, immateriality, and transnationalism of cognitive labor, and in so doing recuperates the embodied and racialized dimensions of work. Far from disembodied IT workers, Amrute shows, it is precisely through their bodies that Indian programmers are assigned a particular place within a regime of labor, both within the office setting and globally. Their racialization, furthermore, answers to local configurations of difference. Put differently, their bodies become meaningful as signs of very specific values only in relation to the libidinal fantasies and xenophobic anxieties current in particular sociohistorical contexts. Thus, within the ostensibly transnational, multicultural IT office, race appears as the return of the repressed, reaffirming a liberal, cosmopolitan self insofar as it signals diversity and inclusion while at the same time regimenting the division of labor unevenly along racial distinctions.

While taking up and challenging debates around the constitution of labor that have focused on disembodiment and immateriality, Amrute’s study also aims to redeem certain middle-class practices of distinction that allow cognitive workers to elaborate critical relations to their racialized exploitation. Encoding Race, Encoding Class targets absolutist arguments about how neoliberal economies of labor colonize life, instead suggesting that, through eros, workers actively resist the incursion of work into leisure. It is here that the European city appears as the paradoxical site that at once introduces Indian IT workers into inferior positions within racialized configurations of embodied difference and offers them spaces for the performance of middle-class pleasure.

Taken together, in light of contemporary political developments, these three books bring something vital to the growing conversation on racial politics in Europe. In its most recent regional election of December 2018—a decade after Rogozen-Soltar completed the core of her fieldwork—Andalusia shocked observers by catapulting, for the first time since Spain’s transition to democracy, the neo-fascist party Vox into its parliament, with an unexpectedly strong showing of thirteen percent of the vote. In Germany’s latest federal election of September 2017, the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) scored over twelve percent of the national vote to become the strongest opposition party and the third strongest overall. In the Netherlands, the recently founded anti-immigration and anti-EU Forum for Democracy won unexpected electoral support in the provincial elections of March 2019 and appeared set to become the largest party in the Dutch senate. Elsewhere in Europe, far-right political forces have enjoyed similar or, in many cases, even significantly better electoral gains in recent years. Everywhere, the politics of race has been central to their campaigns and agendas.

Although they emerge from longstanding research concerns, when viewed against these developments the books reviewed here can hardly be read only as contributions to scholarly debates. Their stories unfold in a Europe (indeed, a world) where deeply disquieting trends overlap. To the extent that majoritarian ideologies appeal to increasingly wider constituencies, racialized minorities emerge at best as less than full citizens, at worse as obstacles to popular democratic sovereignty. Pan-continental discourses of (Judeo-)Christian cultural identities shape a racial politics that targets Muslim minorities (and others racialized as Muslim) as civilizational threats to the West and its supposedly shared values. Chauvinistic, xenophobic and particularistic nationalisms characterized by moral conservatism appear on the rise.

While plentifully evident in their works, the three authors attend to such disturbing currents unevenly (Wekker more so, Rogozen-Soltar almost not at all). Instead of privileging the study of far right parties, populist leaders, or xenophobic movements, they bring into focus the politics of race as it operates in workplaces, academic settings, government offices, public culture artifacts, streets, and cityscapes. Exploring those casual racisms that shape situated interactions and structure everyday race relations in mundane settings such as work or leisure is their principal concern. Their key protagonists are therefore not—or not always—the usual suspects of European racism but rather neighbors, colleagues, bosses, and other ordinary characters who may well profess progressive political commitments, yet emerge as ambivalent in their avowed enthusiasm for the racial diversity of their countries, cities, and jobs.

Such fine-grained ethnographic investigations bring to the surface the contingency of race relations upon deeper, longer-standing, and structural foundations, from the discriminatory design of the legal regimes that govern labor migration or the longue durée of regionalist senses of collective authenticity, to the unspoken and disavowed vastness of a post-colonial cultural archive. They also hold out a warning, namely, that the more explicit, vile, and unapologetic manifestations of racism that are supported on these foundations can hardly be combatted with superficial interventions. It is a warning of great significance to political actors across Europe today, as much as for researchers who have arguably focused too closely on the study of hyper-visible racisms and too little on prevailing, hegemonic regimes of racial relations.

Spain Unmoored, Encoding Race, Encoding Class, and White Innocence should also serve as exemplary reminders of the power of ethnography to draw out the contradictions, ambiguities, heterogeneities, and unevenness of the politics of race. We encounter these ambivalences, for example, as Indian programmers cultivate middle-class, elite pleasures in response to their racially-inferior placement as migrant laborers within German society. We see them, too, as Muslim vendors in Granada’s tourist district participate in staging European orientalist fantasies while simultaneously enabling spaces of inclusion. We gain a sense of their unevenness from the distinctions these political processes help draw between differentially racialized migrants from the former Dutch colonies or between different kinds of Muslims in Spain. Understanding the robustness and appeal of racially-structured political imaginaries in Europe today demands precisely this sort of careful, minute attention. While anthropology may arguably be particularly well-equipped for such an endeavor, it has yet to rise to the challenge, extend its unique insights, and trouble the dominance that other disciplines have consolidated in the field. These books provide a starting place.


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About Leo Coleman

Leo Coleman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York, and the book review editor for the Political and Legal Anthropology Review. He is the author of A Moral Technology: Electrification as Political Ritual in New Delhi (Cornell UP, 2017), and has written about infrastructure, modernist anthropology, urban politics, and architecture in journals including American Ethnologist, Anthropological Quarterly, and Comparative Studies in Society and History.

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