Race as Embodied Sign: Migrant Workers in Israel and the Inadequacy of the “Social Construction” Frame

MATAN KAMINER, U-M Center for Southeast Asian Studies



Matan Kaminer is a doctoral candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is working on his dissertation, an ethnographic exploration of the conjunction between settler colonialism and global migration work on the farms of Israel’s Arabah region, where the majority of the workforce is made up of migrants from Northeast Thailand (Isaan). He has been active in the Israeli conscientious objectors’ movement, in national and municipal politics and in migrant solidarity work in Israel for the past fifteen years.



The argument that race is a “social construction” with no basis in biological reality enjoys a wide consensus in the scientific community (Stocking 1982; American Anthropological Association 1998) and has become a staple of liberal-arts educations, as instantiated for example in required courses on “race and ethnicity” at the University of Michigan. While social constructionism certainly played a progressive role in the intellectual struggle against biological racism, critical scholars are now asking whether it may not be playing a pernicious role today by deflecting students’ attention away from racialized structural violence which can persist independently of explicitly racist attitudes (hooks 1990, Alcoff 1999, Bonilla-Silva 2003). In Israel, Thai migrants were first brought in to replace Palestinian agricultural workers in the early 1990’s. Since then, an image of the tailandi farmworker as hardworking, deferential and inscrutably alien has been built up in the local imaginary. Building upon fieldwork with migrants in Israel and their employers, I suggest that we understand race as a socially constructed and essentially fallacious sign which, nevertheless, could not persist if differently racialized groups of people were not obliged to live, labor and even love under vastly different conditions – and if they did not bequeath these conditions to their children. By bringing the idiosyncratic form of racialization practiced in Israel into dialogue with theories developed in North and Latin American contexts, I argue that attention to the ways in which embodied conditions reproduce racializing processes is crucial for a globally oriented anti-racist pedagogy.



Full text of talk: Kaminer, 2016