‘Constructing Race’ by Tracy Teslow

Tracy Teslow. Constructing Race: The Science of Bodies and Cultures in American Anthropology. xiii + 399pp., bibl., index. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. $129 (hardback), $29.99 (paperback), $24 (e-book)

Historians have argued that racial science and theories of biological determinism disappeared from academia after 1945. Under pressure from forces within academia and without, biological anthropologists turned their attention to population studies while cultural anthropologists produced nuanced studies of non-western cultures. More recently, however, historians of racial science such as Veronika Lipphardt[1] and Alice Conklin[2] have criticized and complicated this teleological narrative and have suggested that it is the result of post-war anthropologists distancing themselves from a disreputable past. Tracy Teslow’s Constructing Race: The Science of Bodies and Cultures in American Anthropology is a crucial contribution to this revisionist historiography. Teslow details the history of American anthropology between 1900 and 1960, which, according to her, has been understudied and misinterpreted. Rather than presenting a smooth success story of the triumph of cultural relativism in anthropology, Constructing Race shows the messiness and complexity of this history.

Indeed, not only were there major debates within the “older” typological understanding of race, Teslow also argues that 20th-century anthropologists understood human variation in both biological essentialist and cultural relativist terms. She demonstrates this “complex intermix” by looking at the works of major anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Harry Shapiro, who not only communicated their ideas within the scientific community, but, as opponents of racism, also reached out to the American public. A second major theme in Constructing Race is the popularization of racial science in American society through museum exhibitions and pamphlets produced by anthropologists. The intermingling of bodies and cultures in these exhibits and leaflets played a crucial role in forming public perceptions of race, according to Teslow. She concludes that this dual understanding of human variation has persisted throughout the 20th century: “although the nature of consensus clearly shifted away from racial essentialism and hereditarian racial typology between 1900 and 1970, this must be seen within a broader historical perspective of the waxing and waning of hereditarian, biologically deterministic, and essentialist views.” (11)

The chapters are organized in a chronological manner and thematically fall in two parts. The first theme focuses on academic understandings of human variation. Teslow demonstrates how the anthropologists under study did not target race as a biological concept, but instead rejected racism and poor science. The book opens with a revisionist account of Boas who has become the main player in the historiographical triumph of cultural relativism. Teslow points out that he did not reject biological race or racial science and was an avid physical anthropologist himself. She discusses his massive anthropometric studies on Native Americans and immigrants and how his conclusions on malleable types had a major influence on younger colleagues in the field, such as Harry Shapiro and Boas’s students at Columbia University, Ruth Benedict and Ashley Montagu. Chapter 5 illustrates how Shapiro recreated Boas’s studies in different locales and how he came to the same conclusion that both biology and culture shaped bodies. The last two chapters center on the two prominent anti-racist anthropologists Benedict and Montagu and their work during and after World War II. Again, Teslow points out that, although they rejected racism, they did not reject biological race, and shows how their work retained notions of older typological and reductionist understandings of human variation. Even Montagu, famous for his work on the UNESCO committee on race and his claim that race was a myth, held on to traditional racial typologies in his Introduction to Physical Anthropology published in 1945.

The most original chapters of Constructing Race focus on museum exhibitions and how anthropologists reworked their scholarly studies to educate the public. As Teslow points out, “exhibition planning is an opportune place to glimpse the much more contested, messy reality of scientific theorizing and consensus building.” (114) These chapters examine different types of sources—personal letters, leaflets, museum plans and reports, as well as images and sculptures—and dig into the practices and discussions on representing human variation. In chapter 3 and 4 the reader meets anthropologists Berthold Laufer and Henry Field who organized the 1933 Races of Mankind exhibition in Chicago’s Field Museum that included 100 life-size bronze sculptures representing racial types. By scrutinizing the discussions between Laufer and Field and analyzing the sculptures and their production, Teslow shows how and why the exhibition became an “uneasy combination” (77) of an older typological, hierarchical approach to human variation and a more novel embrace of human unity.

Especially provocative is the discussion of Benedict’s 1943 “Races of Mankind” pamphlet in chapter 6. This very popular pamphlet was re-created as an exhibition and a video and sparked controversy among some leading white Southerners. While these popular products embraced diversity and cultural relativity in their messages, Teslow shows through a detailed analysis of the images in the pamphlet and exhibition how the visual sources ended up fixing ideas of racial hierarchy and reinforcing “a visual racial logic” (277). By analyzing the complex relationships between popular forms of media and anthropological theories, Teslow demonstrates her skills as both an intellectual and cultural historian and reveals what happened to the anthropological message when scientific arguments were transformed into more accessible forms of media.

Teslow concludes that the persistent intermingling of biology and culture in understanding human variation is at the base of our present-day “double consciousness” (350) about race as both a social construct and a life-shaping reality. By asking “how did race happen?” (352) she reveals the continuities and breaks in twentieth-century anthropology. Most importantly, she argues for the persistence of more traditional views on race, even in the works of the most ardent anti-racist anthropologists of the twentieth century. Her central argument provides a model to understand the works of twentieth-century anthropologists. The chapters also function well on their own and include black-and-white reproductions of the sculptures and images of the exhibits and popular prints. Constructing Race is a must-read for those who study the history of anthropology and race and for scholars interested in the role of visual sources in the history of science and the public.

[1] Veronika Lipphardt, “Isolates and Crosses in Human Population Genetics; or, A Contextualization of German Race Science,Current Anthropology 53, no. S5 (2012): S69–82.

[2] Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850-1950 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).

Iris Clever: contributions / website / irisclever@ucla.edu / Department of History, UCLA

1 Comment

  1. I really appreciated this incisive review and look forward to reading the book, esp. the section on museum work.

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