In this introduction to the special section on ‘Doing Race in Europe’ we take up the notion of race as an ‘absent presence’ to deal with two related issues. First, we consider the historically contested position of race in the discipline of anthropology. Second, we think through the notion of an ‘absent presence’ conceptually and methodologically so as to develop a relational approach enabling us to analyse race in practice. We take as a point of departure the idea that we cannot know race in advance, and that we therefore need to study how it comes about, and how it is made and unmade in specific situations. We therefore call for renewed ethnographic attention to how race is made absent and present in multiple ways. This special section is the first joint publication of the EASA network for the anthropology of race and ethnicity (ARE).