Book Review: Race, Racism and Development – Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice

Image of Cover of Race, Racism and Development book
Race, Racism and Development by Kalpana Wilson

Wilson, K. 2012: Race, Racism and Development – Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice. London: Zed Books. 296pp.  £19.99 paper.  ISBN: 978 1 848 135123 

Race and development are, when considered separately, complex and contentious concepts. Each has been and continues to be discussed, written about and re-defined extensively from a range of both complimentary and contradictory perspectives, theories and frameworks. They both, explicitly at least, occupy separate discursive, theoretical and practical spaces. Kalpana Wilson’s Race, Racism and Development – Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice is the first of its kind to extensively and critically explore the relationship between the two ideas.

Prior to Wilson’s book there have been very few attempts to conceptualise race within the context of development. In 2002 Third World Quarterly  published an article by Sarah White entitled Thinking Race, Thinking Development that sought to “challenge the dominant ‘colour-blind’ stance of development” (White, 2002, p. 407).  For a brief period of time between then and 2006 when a number of articles addressing the same topic appeared in a special edition of Progress in Development Studies it appeared that White’s challenge was gaining momentum. However, this was short lived and the relationship between race and development has received little attention since then. This book is in many ways a body of work written in response to and as a result of the silence on race in development.  If, as White states, that “talking about race in development is like breaking a taboo” (White, 2002, p. 407) then Wilson’s suggestion that the “book should be read as a provocation to further engagement, exploration and elaboration in relation to its themes” (p. 243), is both an attempt at breaking this taboo and call to action for others in the field to do the same.

The two part title of the book (i.e. the first part being ‘Race, Racism and Development’ and the second being its subtitle, Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice) is fitting given that Wilson’s introductory section sets out to introduce and define race, racism and development before moving on to eight chapters that serve as the interrogation.  Two things in particular make Wilson’s introductory section easy to read, even for those who may not be familiar with concepts of race and racism and how it relates to development.  Firstly she begins with a topic that many will be familiar with; the Kony 2012 social media campaign and through this accessible example Wilson is able to demonstrate the construction of race and racial hierarchy and how these interact with development. Secondly, Wilson, an LSE Fellow in Gender Theory, Globalisation and Development has taught the Race, Ethnicity and Development module of Birbeck’s MSc in Development Studies since 2004 and her publications give an indication of her interdisciplinary interests.  This means that despite the book’s recent publication date Wilson has approached the subject with a great deal of knowledge and a long standing history of teaching, exploring and engaging with the issues of race and development.  The evidence of this is in her ability to incorporate and critique a diverse range of sources including Darwin, W.E.B Dubios, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Amartya Sen, Arturo Escobar, Thomas Malthus; Social and Cultural Theorists Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall; African-American feminist bell hooks; and a large number of Diasporan/Global South writers and academics. All of this information is presented in an easy to understand way ensuring that those who are new to any of the concepts are able to gain a sufficient level of understanding of the concept. This makes it a lot easier to engage with the more critical aspects of the book that appear in later chapters.

The foundation of Wilson’s argument builds on views expressed by previous writers on this topic i.e. that race is connected to development. By situating the nexus of this relationship within a specific timeframe; the late eighteenth century, which pre-dates modern development theory and presenting the two concepts as inextricably linked, the book lives up to its claim of wanting to provoke further discussion and engagement.  Whilst there is a sequential and chronological order to the chapter progression within the book, Wilson’s arguments are presented through three key themes which offers the possibility of reading through the book chapters thematically rather than sequentially.  However, this approach is only slightly hampered by the chapter titles which at times make it difficult to determine the thematic links but is mitigated by the introduction which does a good job of highlighting themes within chapters.

Chapter 1 and Chapter 6 both explore the race, racism and development relationship through what Wilson terms her second analytical framework; “the materiality of race” and its relation to “global structures of capital and the process of accumulation” (p. 5).  Of particular interest to academics and students who are interested in development history and its links to colonisation; Chapter 1 successfully overcomes the potential pitfalls of attempting to take on a topic too broad to be contained in one chapter by framing it through the lens of 1857 British colonial rule of India.  In this chapter Wilson makes a strong argument in support of her claim that it was as a result of the combination of the emergence of racial difference and hierarchy influenced by social Darwinism and the violent response by the British to the 1857 uprisings in India that led to the racialisation of people and the structures of capital. Relying on modern day phrases such as the ‘War on Terror’ to describe this historical event allows the reader to transition between this first chapter and the sixth that is dedicated to imperialism and racialised bodies in the 21st century.

Development continues to be caught in a theory/practice binary and Wilson acknowledges this almost as part of the reason why, in her view, she considers the book’s structure unconventional. However, because of her well defined analytical framework she is able to navigate through this dichotomy in a way that benefits the reader. For instance Chapters, 3, 4, 5 and 8, focus on race and racism within development policy with particular emphasis on population control (Chapter 3,); HIV/AIDs policy (Chapter 4); good governance and corruption (Chapter 5) and DfID’s neo-liberalism (Chapter 8) work very well as standalone sections for development practitioners who may not wish to read the more theoretical chapters of the book. Equally however these chapters provide ‘real world’, examples that would be of benefit to any degree course that seeks to demonstrate how race and racism has influenced development policy.

Given the dearth of literature on race and development it is all too easy to label Wilson’s book as groundbreaking simply because she has attempted to do what no-one else has done; i.e. to critically explore the relationship between these two challenging concepts. However, what marks this book as much needed addition to development research and practice can be  found in Chapter 2 and 7, both of which highlight Wilson’s second thematic framework;  “the tendency of discourses of development to appropriate and incorporate critical approaches” (p. 5).  Wilson challenges current thinking in relation to development buzzwords and catchphrases such as ‘agency’ and ‘gender and development’ and through exploration of “positive” representations of development “beneficiaries” by NGOs argues that both of these terms contribute to the racialisation and othering of women in the Global South. Whilst this line of thinking is not entirely new to the field, having first been raised by White (2006); Wilson expands on this theme and brings more examples to the debate. Likewise post-development thinking and other critical approaches to development are presented as either not having done enough to raise the level debate on racism within development or in part contributing to the existing racial hierarchy (Chapter 7).  For anyone who has read the limited material on race and development mentioned in the introduction of this review, Wilson’s critique of these should be a welcome addition. Wilson offers an alternative reading to articles that were once considered groundbreaking but have for too long gone unchallenged and perhaps even unread.  There is however one criticism; despite dedicating an entire chapter (Chapter 2) to visual representation of women in development the book does not include a single picture; instead Wilson points the reader to the relevant website or offers her own interpretation of the images 1

A slight concern, is that those who approach this book expecting definitive answers, may end up disappointed; Wilson’s style has an air of ‘thinking aloud’, especially since she constantly asks questions along the way.  However, Wilson openly admits that the book raises even more questions for her and there is merit in the ‘thinking aloud’ style.  The topic she has attempted to address is not only broad; it has been marked for too long by a silence and an unwillingness or inability to engage.  Had Wilson presented her book as the final word on race, racism and development it may have stifled further debate.  Instead by asking questions she provides a platform for student, academics and practitioners to debate further the themes of the book.  In so doing, Wilson remains true to her first analytical framework that considers race as an idea that is “reanimated and reconfigured through contemporary development discourse” (p. 243), because it means that for as long as development discourse continues to evolve there will be always be room to explore the ever changing conceptualisation of race in relation to development.


White, S., 2002. Thinking Race, Thinking Development. Third World Quarterly, 23(3), pp. 407-19.

White, S., 2006. The “Gender Lens”: A Racial Blinder. Progress in Development Studies, 6(I), pp. 55-67.

Wilson, K., 2011. ‘Race’, Gender and Neoliberalism: changing visual representations in development. Third World Quarterly, 32(2), pp. 315-331.


1 An earlier version of this chapter was published as a journal article and it did include a colour image of one of the campaigns referenced so it is unclear why images are omitted from the book. (Wilson, 2011)


NOTE:  The post below was first submitted in March 2013 as an assessed piece of work for one of the modules that make up the  MSc in Practising Sustainable Development  (ICT4D specialism) that I am currently undertaking on a part-time basis at Royal Holloway, University of London.  It is my first attempt at a book review so please do take this into consideration when reading it.

Agenda for thinking about ‘race’ in development

Professor Uma Kothari’s 2006 paper questions the silence on race in development.


This paper reveals some of the silences about ‘race’ in development ideologies, institutions and practices. It suggests that these mask the perpetuation of a racialized discourse in development, its complicity with broader historical and contemporary racial projects and the effects of ‘race’ on the processes and consequences of development. The paper provides an agenda for understanding development in terms of ‘race’ and identifies three potential areas for further investigation. The first is the continuing legacy of colonial constructions and the persistence of forms of racial difference and hierarchy in development. The second concerns the power of whiteness and specifically how authority, expertise and knowledge become racially symbolized. The third area for further examination is how ‘race’ is disguised through the use of specialized terminology and criteria in accounting for poverty and social exclusion. The paper concludes by suggesting that debates around multiculturalism and anti-racism could inform a shift away from racialized representations and inequalities prevailing in development.

Read the full article

Reference: Kothari, U. “An Agenda for Thinking about ‘Race’ in Development.” Progress in Development Studies 6, no. 1(2006) : 9-23.

Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race

A paper by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

Excerpt from the Introduction

This special issue poses the questions: to what degree are race and technology intertwined? Can race be considered a technology or a form of media—that is, not only a mechanism, but also a practical or industrial art? Could race be not simply an object of representation and portrayal, of knowledge or truth, but also a technique that one uses, even as one is used by it—a carefully crafted, historically inflected system of tools, mediation, or enframing that builds history and identity?

Read the full article [PDF]

Reference Chun, W.H.K.  (2009)  Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race.  Camera Obscura 70, 24(1) pp 7 -35

See also Crowdsourced review at Hastac

Blogging While Brown Conference (21-22 June 2013)

Logo: blogging while brown
Blogging while Brown 2013

The call for ideas deadline may have passed but registration for the 6th annual Blogging while Brown Conference is still open – but the deadline of 1st March 2013 is fast approaching.

About Blogging while Brown

Black bloggers from around the country will be gathering in New York City for the 6th Annual Blogging While Brown Conference. Since its launch in 2008, Blogging While Brown has grown to become the premier blogging conference dedicated to education, collaboration, and innovation among bloggers of color. The conference brings Black social media experts, speakers, and independent content creators together to educate, inspire, and expand their influence in social media and technology.

Highlights from 2012

A draft schedule is available here and for more updates check out the Blogging while Brown blog

A bit more about this blog

This is cross posted from my personal blog:

I am halfway through my MSc in Practising Sustainable Development (ICT4D specialism) and while as part-time student I still have quite a bit of time before I have to start my dissertation; it is hard not to start the thinking process.  For a long time now I have been interested in Critical Race Theory (CRT)  and one of the things I am keen to research is how  CRT can be used as a theoretical approach to Development studies and practice, particularly ICT4D.  I am also interested in the construction of race in the digital age and how technology is challenging and reshaping views on racial identity.

One of my biggest hurdles at the moment is how little research there is on race and development, particularly outside the conventional binaries of racial haves and have-nots.  So I decided to start a stand-alone blog; Race and ICT4D, which at this stage is simple link dumping site, where I post links that cover race, technology and development.  I have for the moment, steered clear of any analysis and commentary though I imagine, that as I develop my own ideas, I will start  to write more critically.   It is quite a struggle because so often I read something – and I immediately want to comment – but that is what my personal blog is for.

The other thing I am struggling with is how to link to restricted access academic papers.  As a student I have full access to these journals but I am well aware that is not the case for everyone else. I find it a bit limiting to reference an article in a blog post knowing that some readers may not be able to access the article.

It is still very much an evolving project and I am sure as I progress I will find solutions to some of the above (and hopefully many other) issues.  What I really hope is that by providing a public space I can, firstly keep track of my sources but most importantly I can begin to engage with others on similar topics.

Please feel free to send me any links, book titles, articles etc.  that you think may be of interest.

(Mis) Appropriation and the Harlem Shake?

Still from YouTube Video
“It’s basically taking what we do and making a joke out of it”

In case you missed it, a new meme of Gangamtuan proportions has been sweeping social media.  The Harlem Shake memestarted by a group of teenagers in Australia, consists of videos

“…[that] last between 30 and 32 seconds and feature an excerpt from the song “Harlem Shake” by electronic musician Baauer. Usually, a video begins with one person (often helmeted or masked) dancing to the song alone for 15 seconds, surrounded by other people not paying attention or unaware of the dancing individual. When the bass drops, the video cuts to the entire crowd doing a crazy convulsive dance for the next 15 seconds.” (Source: Wikipedia)

According to the WSJ, you should either be “A) currently obsessed with, B) sheepishly late to or C) already sick of” the Harlem Shake.  This is based on the WSJ’s “tracking its evolution over three weeks.”  But the Harlem Shake did not start three weeks ago.  The original Harlem Shake dance

“…called the albee, is a dance introduced in 1981 by a Harlem resident named “Al B”. The dance was initially referred to as “albee” after his name, but later became known as the Harlem shake as its prominence grew beyond the neighborhood. The dance became mainstream in 2001 when G. Dep featured the Harlem shake in his music video “Let’s Get It”. ” (Source:  Wikipedia)

A series of interviews with Harlem residents by Shlepp Films, presents an alternative view of this meme.

Maybe the WSJ needs to add another reaction to the Harlem Shake Meme and that is; some of us are reading it as an opportunity to question the interaction between technology, participation, representation and innovation.

This is something that the  Grio has attempted to address in its article entitled ‘The Harlem Shake Meme shows how the Internet overrides race’.  According to the article,

[Critics of the Harlem Shake meme] are right to acknowledge the sordid history of cultural products being seized from, and mass-produced at the expense of, such neighborhoods as Harlem. However, their reaction begs the glaring question of whether the new age Internet lives by their rules of race and cultural categories. The answer to that question is simply no. The Internet produces and will continue to birth cultural phenomena, such as the Harlem Shake meme, that blur the lines of race and culture. (Source: The Grio)

Further reading:

Slate:  Harlem responds to the Harlem Shake Meme

Vulture: 5 videos featuring the original Harlem Shake



The Ethnos Project

Ethnos Project Logo
Ethnos Project

Whilst the Ethnos Project does not explicitly address the issue of race it is a blog that I have found useful in my attempt to draw links between ICT4D and race and is many ways what inspired me to create this blog.




The Ethnos Project is

“a research portal and resource database that explores the cultural impacts of information and communication technologies (ICTs) when used by Indigenous peoples to affect social change sustain and stimulate rapidly disappearing traditions, and improve their quality of life on their own cultural terms.”

Visit the Ethnos Project Site

Online Ads and Racial Bias

Have you ever been arrested? Imagine the question not appearing in the solitude of your thoughts as you read this paper, but appearing explicitly whenever someone queries your name in a search engine. […] Appearing alongside your list of accomplishments is an advertisement implying you may have a criminal record, whether you actually have one or not. Worse, the ads don’t appear for your competitors.  Source

The above is the opening paragraph to Harvard University’s Prof. Latanya Sweeney‘s report on Discrimination in Online Ad Delivery.  According to the report

…names typically associated with black people were more likely to produce ads related to criminal activity.  Source: BBC News

Writing about how the research was conducted, Technology Review reports:

Sweeney gathered this evidence by collecting over 2000 names that were suggestive of race. For example, first names such as Trevon, Lakisha and Darnell suggest the owner is black while names like Laurie, Brendan and Katie suggest the owner is white.

She then entered these plus surnames into and and examined the ads they returned. Most names generated ads for public records. However, black-identifying names turned out to be much more likely than white-identifying names to generate ads that including the word “arrest” (60 per cent versus 48 per cent). Source

Though “there is less than a 0.1% probability” that these findings “can be explained by chance” the report does not explain why this discrimination occurs, partly because this is outside the scope of the research but also because more information about the workings of Google AdSense is required.

Read the full report