Us and Them in “From Savage to Negro”

May 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Baker explores the historical development of racial constructs and its intersection with the development of the field of anthropology. Not only did early anthropological work reflect existing concepts of racial inferiority, but Baker also argues that its application by politicians and the media promoted racial inequality.

I found Baker’s discussion of World Fairs as one example especially interesting—in particular, the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago in 1893. The White City, as the fair was nicknamed, touted the accomplishments of ‘civilized,’ white America, whereas the Midway across the river was intended as a living ethnological exhibit of the ‘uncivilized’ world. The physical layout of the fair replicated the notions of “us” and “them” already present in society. Though the contrast was clearly intentional, Robert Rydell claims, “the White City and the Midway were not antithetical constructs,” but “two sides of the same coin”(Baker 56).

Rydell’s coin metaphor accurately conveys the way definitions of either “us” or “them” rely on the other—“we” are by definition not “them,” and “they” are by definition not “us.” Part of how we define ourselves is in comparison to others. Whether the groups are racial or national, it seems that part of creating a group identity is first setting the group apart from the rest—creating an “us” and “them.” As Baker discusses, in history, white cultures contribute to a racial group identity by constructing the white “us” and the non-white “them;” in a similar example of nationalist identity, the early English clearly identify the Irish as “them.”

Though Baker discusses Franz Boas’s influence in redirecting the field of anthropology away from the notion of racial inferiority, I think further consideration of whether the construction of such group identities necessitates value judgments would be quite helpful in further understanding the field of anthropology. Given the contemporary social and economic circumstances, did early anthropological studies of the strange cultures of “them,” inevitably produce a hierarchy in which “us” was necessarily better than “them”?


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