Taking Anthropology, Introduction

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Jason Antrosio.

[I realize the irony of prominently citing American Anthropologist during the Open Access debates--I do end with a call to support Rex's proposal to read and talk about HAU]

These major waves of anthropology’s critical self-examination were the neo-Marxist, feminist, postmodern, and postcolonial autocritiques between roughly the late 1960s and the end of the 20th century. . . . A careful and balanced history of those sequences of anthropological autocritique still remains to be written, but to my mind, one may argue with some justification that each of these critiques in some ways went too far and that none of them fully achieved what its main advocates originally had in mind.

–Andre Gingrich, Transitions: Notes on Sociocultural Anthropology’s Present and Its Transnational Potential, December 2010:555

Our argument is that anthropology departments have not done well when it comes to decolonizing their own practices around race. This is neither true of all departments nor true all of the time–but is still true all too often.

–Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen and Janis Hutchinson, Anthropology as White Public Space?, December 2011:545


I am hoping in these guest posts to examine episodes of how anthropology gets taken–starting with a follow-up to Kerim’s archive on Jared Diamond, and then tackling the Anthropologie Store, the TV series Community, and other instances where anthropology either gives stuff away or gets hijacked. But I’d also like to write about taking anthropology back, in alliance with what Rex proposes around Hau or Matt suggests about the AAA.

As an introduction, I would like to use the two articles above, from the December 2010 and December 2011 issues of American Anthropologist, to assess anthropology’s current position, to evaluate resources and risks.

Andre Gingrich’s article hit the press just as the AAA science and mission statement issue really earned anthropology some great NY Times coverage. If anyone is working on a “careful and balanced history” of the autocritique, please let me know–in the wake of old wounds and new emotions about science, such accountings became nearly impossible. Bad feelings and suspicion persist, and for those in adjacent disciplines, anthropology can now always be dismissed with some lines about how it is “at war with itself” and “got rid of science.” This only exacerbated the way the autocritique had been misused, as Giovanni Da Col and David Graeber argue in the inaugural issue of HAU:

The anthropological auto-critique of the 1980s was made to serve a purpose for which it was never intended. In fact, anthropology has been since its inception a battle-ground between imperialists and anti-imperialists, just as it remains today. For outsiders, though, it provided a convenient set of simplified tag lines through which it was possible to simply dismiss all anthropological knowledge as inherently Eurocentric and racist, and therefore, as not real knowledge at all. (2011:xi)

This debate also proved how much the tag line postmodernism still serves as a convenient device to lump all opponents. Such lumping ignores how accusations of postmodernism tend to conceal more than they reveal about actual positions, and that there were legitimate critiques of normative science from Marxism and feminism long before–and that did not depend upon–this so-called postmodern critique.

Andre Gingrich could also have hardly known of all the other minor and major assaults in the works for anthropology in 2011, including the backlash from the “F— You Republicans” e-mail as a minor ambush and then the Florida Governor’s declaration of a no-anthropology-needed zone, which together with the heightened threats to educational funding and continued use of “economic crisis” to discipline and informalize academic labor, amounted to a major assault. However, Gingrich did have pertinent and rather prophetic words of advice for navigating these episodes:

Opponents will not remain inactive. In times of crisis, it is not difficult to predict that some forces will emerge that will argue either for an intensification of anthropology’s applied subordination and instrumentalization at the service of other needs and fields or for anthropology’s radical downsizing–or for both, as one step toward its dissolution. (2010:558-559)

Nevertheless, as of December 2011 there were good reasons to be hopeful. In contrast to the December 2010 science-in-anthropology incident, the AAA swiftly responded to Florida Governor Scott; anthropology bloggers like Daniel Lende and students like Charlotte Noble provided round-the-clock coverage and response, coalescing in what seemed to be anthropology’s first-ever rapid action team.

Meanwhile, the Occupy movement dramatically re-framed issues of plutocracy, wealth, and power, with anthropologist David Graeber playing a critical role. As a record number of attendees headed to the AAA annual meetings in Montreal, there were certainly reasons for optimism.

It is in this context that the December 2011 article “Anthropology as White Public Space?” was a particularly painful reminder of incongruities and what anthropology has been unable to accomplish. Anthropology as an academic discipline has generally been more willing to engage in autocritique and to take this further than other disciplines even begin to ponder. Anthropology also claims an anti-racist heritage and position. But though the authors found “some improvement” the overall tenor is that “many of the same exclusionary ideological and structural elements that the Committee on Minorities and Anthropology encountered [in 1973] are still prevalent in many anthropology departments” (2011:546).

This is a must-read article for anthropology. As the 2012 U.S. election season unfolds, vitriol and vicious denials of any kind of bias or structuring along lines of race, class, and gender will undoubtedly intensify. This is no time for anthropology to turn away from these issues.

Can a beleagured discipline simultaneously go through a transition to transnationalism and at the same time “take seriously the points of view of those who are internal others” (Brodkin et al. 2011:555)? I believe these issues can and must be linked and tackled together. But it requires awareness and political will.

Of most immediate relevance, and since I have the honor and privilege of blogging on the most distinguished of anthropology blogs, is how those of us who write and read anthropology blogs might contribute to this realignment. Anthropology blogs could potentially be a transnational hub and a place to embrace anthropologists of color, but I don’t think we are there yet.

Rex’s proposal to read and talk about HAU has real potential to address the kinds of “minimum consensus about transnational quality standards” Andre Gingrich discusses: “I would have great difficulties envisioning future postdocs in anthropology who have never done any fieldwork whatsoever, who speak no other language than their own, and who have never heard or read anything about Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, or Marcel Mauss” (2010:557). HAU precisely asks us to consider ethnographic insights, prominently includes translated works, and brings classic authors and basic texts to our attention.

At the same time, I want to highlight the insights from Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson:

The heart of our conclusion is embarrassingly obvious. It is this: the defamiliarizing insights and analyses generated from vantage points developed by anthropologists of color are better tools for diversifying departmental organization and culture (among other things) than hegemonic ones, and anthropology departments should embrace them instead of marginalizing them. Alternatively put, anthropology has made its mark on understanding cultures by taking seriously the points of view of those it studies. We suggest it needs to take seriously the points of view of those who are internal others to better understand and diversify itself as well as enhance its theoretical robustness. (2011:555)

11 thoughts on “Taking Anthropology, Introduction

  1. Really interesting post, Jason. A deftly articulated juxtaposition of two problems that are certainly worth considering together.

    An orthogonal observation drawn from something I just posted to Adam Fish’s earlier post on hackers and hippies: apropos of this Bloomberg article (http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-02/no-women-on-facebook-board-shows-white-male-influence.html), and the video attached to it, it is rather interesting to me that advocating an anthropology that is not white (and male) dominated public space would be at all controversial or meet with such resistance. One would think it would be obvious that different social locations and subject positions bring (radically, and necessarily so) different perspectives to bear upon the same topic or object of anthropological analysis. 

    Given this, I think one–we, as anthropologists–need to be forthcoming about the profound, and profoundly embodied, investment in power (and privilege) that is in fact the root cause of the ongoing marginalization (especially almost 40 years after the original AAA report on the state of minority anthropologists in the discipline) that Brodkin et al. discuss. Much of the intransigence is a reluctance to give up power (and privilege), especially to those who are not truly viewed as equals and whose life experiences and perspectives are not actually seen as being of equal worth and value (as opposed to of token instrumentality; something discussed at length in the Brodkin et al. article). How would we get to a place where such is not the case, especially when even white male graduates/graduate students in a top-three anthropology graduate program are willing to tell their non-white colleagues “Keep your ‘privilege’ critique at home if you want to be friends”, while lamenting how non-whites supposedly get “jobs and fellowships thrown at them”? 

    If this is the level of fundamental (racist) disrespect we are dealing with (in some departments), it will be quite difficult to convince some (white) anthropologists that “the defamiliarizing insights and analyses generated from vantage points developed by anthropologists of color are better tools for diversifying departmental organization and culture (among other things) than hegemonic ones, and anthropology departments should embrace them instead of marginalizing them” and that Anthropology “needs to take seriously the points of view of those who are internal others to better understand and diversify itself as well as enhance its theoretical robustness. (2011:555)”

    As with Open Access, the issue is power and control–and the deep investments those benefitting from status-quo hierarchies have in maintaining them.

  2. Jason, I can’t help wondering if you are feeling a big sandbagged by the upwelling of response to Rex’s post about HAU, leaving your post largely ignored. To stir things up a bit, allow me to play the aging white male troglodyte and reply to your statement that,

    I want to highlight the insights from Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson ,

    to which I reply, “What insights?” I have, as a precaution, read the piece in question and don’t see any particular insight at all. What I see is plausible evidence that, compared to the situation in 1973, the percentages of minority graduate students, Ph.Ds, and and junior faculty have increased; but that individuals in all of these categories continue to feel seriously put upon, especially when it comes to having extra work associated with “diversity” dumped on them. Then only suggested remedy is that those in charge of departments should pay more attention to the views of those who feel put upon. A reasonable request? Perhaps. Insight? Sorry, but no. This is pretty thin stuff.

    As far as I can make out, the research design restricted sampling to members of minority groups, thus making it impossible to differentiate minority group from non-minority group members of the same rank in the academic hierarchy. From what I read on line and what I know about economic and political pressures now affecting the non-STEM academy as a whole, I would be very surprised if everyone who does not yet have a tenured position and a good share of those who do possess tenure are also feeling put upon, shifting the ground of argument from privilege and lack thereof to who is suffering most, a distinctly weaker position.

    The following anecdotes may add a little perspective. In 1972, just back from Taiwan and still working on my dissertation, I was offered a one-quarter, replacement teaching position at Berkeley, standing in for Jack Potter who was going to be on leave. Shortly after arriving, I passed George Foster in the hall. George stared at me for a moment and said, “I still don’t know what the hell you are doing here.” A bit of further investigation revealed that the department was already feeling the economic pressures signaled by the approaching end of the US baby boom. In a wonderfully ironic comment, one of my collaborators remarked on how nice it was when there was so much money floating around that anyone could do whatever they wanted to do. So the people who studied baboons got along with the people who studied West African folklore or mathematical models of kinship systems. Now my collaborator said, the department was becoming like one of those “closed corporate communities” that George Foster had studied in Mexico, where, if Foster was right, the culture was dominated by “the image of the limited good.” In what had become a zero-sum game competing for shares of a shrinking pie, all of the usual nastiness that Foster predicted was popping up, treasure tales about someone who had just tapped a previously unknown source of funding, witchcraft accusations about people selling out to the powers of evil; factionalism and vendetta were rife. Saying, “If only people would listen and take seriously….” already sounded more than a little weak back then. Hearing it again more than three decades later? I don’t see that we’ve learned a lot in the interim. Insight? I just don’t see it.

    What am I missing here?

  3. Hello to @Discuss White Privilege and @John McCreery: Thank you for your comments.

    One strange thing about blogging is how while composing posts I end up keeping one eye on the developing news, and was ironically citing American Anthropologist at the time McCreery was thinking of a “citation boycott,” and then of course there already has been a bit of a comment stream already about these issues back on the Hackers, Hippies and Silicon Valley post.

    I’m not sure Brodkin et al. would disagree that choosing the word insights for their conclusion may not be precisely correct, as they say it is “embarrassingly obvious.” In an ideal world, I intended to discuss further the prescriptions from both Andre Gingrich and Brodkin et al., with some thoughts about how we might make our blogs and blogrolls more transnational and inclusive. I would point out here that Brodkin et al. do have more specific recommendations, including at the department level, that “departments must hold white faculty equally responsible for improving racial diversity for it to be highly valued” (2011:554) and three recommendations for the AAA, including a staff person dedicated to diversity issues. These recommendations may still be “embarrassingly obvious” but obviously they needed to be stated.

    I maintain this is a must-read article for anthropologists, both because we often assume we have already been through the autocritique, and because we claim an anti-racist heritage going back to Franz Boas. Deconstructing the race-as-biological-determinism argument is part of almost every introductory textbook, but unfortunately this has resulted in a justification of “colorblindness” in the face of what remain very unequal life opportunities shaped by race. I find myself now teaching less about deconstructing race and more about the persistent inequalities organized around racial lines, using Clarence Gravlee’s “How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality” (2009, AJPA).

    I certainly do hear the complexity of these issues, as many anthropologists often feel they have long been in a marginal discipline, perpetually and perhaps increasingly under funding threats. In this sense, although it was important that Brodkin et al. included the American Psychological Association as a “bright light” (2011:549) on these issues, the APA is in a much different position than the AAA.

    At the same time, I’m reminded of an injunction from Andre Gingrich when he insisted that more grant applications incorporate funding for marginalized others. Gingrich recognized how funding is difficult but “one’s own funding shortages are not always a valid reason for opposing research proposals that include funding for partners in postcolonial or other marginalized contexts” (2010:557). Gingrich enjoined: “Anthropologists should not make peace with the status quo” and for anthropologists to “try harder . . . or, in some cases, to start trying period” (2010:557-558).

    Similar comments apply to Brodkin et al. Our perceptions of operating in a beleagured and marginalized discipline do not justify denying and arguing against what Brodkin et al. have to say (and I am *not* targeting this comment at John McCreery, who is reading and reacting). We should not make peace with the status quo, must try harder, and in some cases–and this applies very much to me–start trying period.

  4. I think we need to confront in John McCreery’s comments one of the fundamental reasons that anthropology is and will remain white public space (and John McCreery, I say this with anthropological love; it is a general observation and not an individual attack): profound blindness on the part of most whites to their own racial privilege, and an inability to understand–affectively, phenomenologically, emotionally–what it is like to not be white in the world. After all, there is no getting outside the body one is in: and we need to take this seriously. Embodiment is central, including to the production of ethnographic theory. So this is no small point.

    And the centrality of embodiment, of the body as the first and always social location from which anthropologists comprehend the world, is at the root of John McCreery’s comments above. He has no idea how non-white anthropologists inhabit the world, through their bodies, such that he understands the feelings of frustration and marginalization discussed in the Brodkin et al. article, and so he analogizes to another kind of frustration that is NOT in fact *structurally* equivalent.

    What does this ‘impossibility of being Other/other than’ mean for anthropology? I am posing this question to foreground the following point: racial subject positions other than one’s own can never be known at something other than a distance, there is no ‘going native’–because this is not how race, as a political technology, is structured. And this means something very uncomfortable–fundamentally–for white anthropologists: they cannot in fact ever be experts on the embodied experience of racial Otherness in white-supremacist social spaces. And given that the core premise of anthropology remains, in many respects, an emic understanding of those we study such that the anthropologist can claim unchallenged authority and expertise, the embodied social fact of racial Otherness poses a substantive challenge to the authority of whites who are unused to having their authority (and racial privilege challenged). 

    To be concrete, as a white person in a white supremacist world, how often does one notice the *pattern* of marginalization discussed here: Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Issue Pushes Actresses Of Color Aside (Again!). How does this negatively affect a white person’s life, structurally as well as emotionally? For white anthropologists who do not daily experience this kind of marginalization and devaluation, white public space is just not a lived experience, at the level of embodiment: and so yes, it is easy to say, “Who cares and what’s the big deal?”

    And let’s not forget georaciality: whiteness is privileged *globally*, even if not in all the same ways as in the US.

  5. Thanks for this post Jason, I am glad to see you here on SM!

    “Bad feelings and suspicion persist, and for those in adjacent disciplines, anthropology can now always be dismissed with some lines about how it is ‘at war with itself’ and ‘got rid of science.’”

    This is a really important point for me, and one that was (as you also mention) brought up in the HAU intro as well. The problem here is that some of the histories or arguments from within anthropology are, at times, used to dismiss almost anything and everything that comes from the discipline. Now, there are plenty of legitimate critiques about the history of anthropology, not to mention plenty of current debates within the field, absolutely. So anthropologists have to find ways to engage with and confront these critiques, while ALSO finding ways to address polemic arguments that seek to dismiss anything and everything outright. Not easy to do, but both tasks are pretty important.

    “As the 2012 U.S. election season unfolds, vitriol and vicious denials of any kind of bias or structuring along lines of race, class, and gender will undoubtedly intensify. This is no time for anthropology to turn away from these issues.”

    I agree with this completely, especially considering the complex ways in which race, class, and gender get mobilized for political purposes during these election cycles. For example, many politicians still try to downplay the race-based tensions. Class is another prevalent issue that often gets panned by many pundits and politicians, who want to promote the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth rather than confront the idea that not everyone here in the US is getting a piece of the pie. It’s amazing, especially after the 2008-2009 crash, that these arguments are still being made, but they are.

  6. @Jason

    Pitch-perfect response. I’m on board.

    @DWP

    Epic fail.

    Now, why did I have these two responses?

    First, Jason. To me your response hit just the right tone. You agreed that “insight” wasn’t the right word—disarming my attack. You went on to re-assert the importance of the issue. That a problem is chronic and remains unsolved is no reason to avoid it. Now I get my turn to agree. Then you point out that the article you are defending makes a specific recommendation. If departments are going to preach diversity, they shouldn’t simultaneously be turning diversity programs into new ghettoes. Diversity has to be “our” problem. Pushing it off on “them” is utterly hypocritical. Come to think of it, you are absolutely right.

    Seond, DWP. Sounds a lot to me like a familiar conversation between a teenage daughter and her dad.

    “Dad, you just don’t understand. You can’t understand. You’re not me!”

    “Then why are we having this conversation?”

    How culture is embodied is a serious issue, with all sorts of ramifications. But if it did, in fact, support the claim that I can’t understand you, wouldn’t anthropology, conceived as the project of building mutual understanding between groups of people who lead very different lives be a contradiction in terms? And, if that’s true, isn’t this whole conversation a waste of breath?

  7. @John McCreery, While I thought your response was an epic fail, I showed you enough respect not to say so in my previous comment. But it is interesting that this respect was not reciprocated. And, I am sorry to say, I believe this is one of the hallmarks of white privilege and white entitlement that anthropology will have to address if it is ever going to not be white public space.

    It is interesting that you claim that anthropology is supposed to be “conceived as the project of building mutual understanding between groups of people who lead very different lives”, yet you did not use this definition of anthropology in assessing the merits of the Brodkin et al. article. One of the main points of this article was to allow non-white anthropologists to speak frankly about how and why they feel marginalized within the discipline–because of racism and white privilege and white entitlement, and white blindness to all of these things in the ways that the authors made a point of discussing in “Anthropology as White Public Space?”. Instead, you sidestepped this discussion so as to assert that white anthropologists feelings and experiences of non-racial marginalization are in fact the same as the racial marginalization recounted in the article. No, they are not. And this difference is one of the points that the article was trying to drive home.

    Whites often really do NOT understand or see their own privilege (especially unless it is pointed out to them by non-whites who can take the same racial privilege for granted), and are not in a position–because they are white–to understand what it feels like NOT to be white in a white-dominated and white-privileging environment. And understanding a concept abstractly and academically is not the same as understanding it because it is one’s embodied experience of the world. So yes, I understand perfectly what the stakes are of making such a claim, including for anthropology as a discipline and for ethnographic theory. And this is the very reason that I linked to Tim Wises’s discussion of his own white privilege, in a previous comment in response to the hackers and hippies post. That Tim Wise post was entirely about embodiment, about an understanding of racially subjectivity that is entirely produced through embodiment. No, when your entire life is experienced through a body that is always seen as the racial norm and the racial ideal and you don’t have to think about all the ways in which your race is daily experienced as privilege, you cannot know–at the level of embodiment–what it is like to experience the world as a racial Other. I hardly see why this is such a hard concept to grasp. I cannot understand what it would be like to have been born blind because I was not born blind. Even if I were to become blind now, I would still not understand what it was like to be produced in the world–as a subject–who had been blind from birth. My entire embodied experience of the world would be different, had I been born blind. And the same is true for race. What do you lose in admitting this? Other than the ability to always claim anthropological expertise and authority, and to have to defer to a person who you see as a subordinate? This is a serious question, not a personal attack.

    Let us be honest–especially about why you detest my comments so much–much of what is at stake in white anthropologists having to concede that they may not only have to listen to non-white anthropologists, but actually consider them more authorized to speak, when the latter talk about the experience of not having white privilege is the issue of unchallenged (anthropological) authority: it is the right not just to privilege, but to (continued) racial domination. (and please read Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack for a longer engagement of why I have used the term *domination*). This is why it is so hard for many who have white privilege to allow non-whites to be the experts on what white privilege looks like, because they are outside of it and so are forced to realize what cannot be taken for granted when one is not white: you/they are used not only to not thinking about or daily noticing white privilege, but you/they are also used to constantly being deferred to as authorities/superordinates (by virtue of one’s whiteness alone) and are used to constantly being in a position of racial privilege such that whites are used to being able to dismiss non-whites and their experiences (and here I refer you, again, to Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”).

    You are pissed off (your term from a previous comment about the effect my comments have on you) because what I am saying is a fundamental challenge to your authority as a white man, and there really is not a way for me to sugarcoat the point I am making: for you–or any others who do not want to acknowledge the depth of white privilege in producing them in the world as subjects such that they are often blind to the very ways in which their whiteness actually shapes their **daily** experience of the world, because they just don’t have to be in a non-white body to understand how many things they are daily being allowed to take for granted. As such, it is inevitable that you will find it something other than an ‘epic fail’. Sorry.

    No, you really CAN’T understand what it is not to be white if you are in a white body, because–literally–from the moment you are born you are treated differently, because of the body you have and the racial status ascribed to it. And there’s just no getting around this. Because race is an ascribed status, not an achieved one (unlike culture, though culture is also embodied). Race is NOT culture, however much it is socially and culturally constructed. And this is precisely why there are limits to anthropological understandings to race; such that the anthropological possibilities for understanding the experience of embodied racial difference is not in fact the same as it is for the anthropological understanding of culture and cultural difference. A white baby born in Japan and raised by an ethnically Japanese family can become culturally Japanese and can understand ‘being Japanese’ in a way similar to ethnically Japanese people, but once this white person comes to the US, he or she will not understand what it is like to be treated as a Japanese immigrant who is *racialized* as Japanse, Asian, and not-white. Though both ‘culturally Japanese’, the white and non-white immigrants will have very different racial experiences of the US, experiences that the other will be incapable of having–and thus fully understanding at the level of embodied experience–because of the bodies each inhabits and the different racial ascriptions given to each. (For that matter, even in Japan, given the realities of georaciality and the *global* privileging of whiteness, this white Japanese person is not having the same racial experience of ‘Japanese-ness’. And yes, I understand that there are issues of exclusion for whites in Japan, but there is also an understanding–a deeply embodied and often unconscious understanding, that whiteness IS privileged globally, especially in relation to how media representations from the US circulate abroad.)

    Race is not culture per se. It is an ontological relation produced through power asymmetries that position racially-marked bodies in positions relative to each other, such that one’s experience of the world *as a racial subject* is not determined by what cultural knowledge one has–per se–but by what body one has. As such, two individuals who are ‘culturally similar’ could experience the world in vastly different ways–ways in a fundamental *sense* unknowable to the other–because of the different ways in which their bodies are racially marked. So despite the fact that I am from a small, very-white town in New England and am for all intents and purposes ‘culturally white’ (especially since my parents are immigrants such that I did not grow up in any way ‘culturally black’), I certainly do not experience the world in the same way as my white peers with similar backgrounds. People see us and treat us differently–at times extremely differently–because I am in a body marked as racially Other and which his laden with a host of negative stereotypes that are assumed about me and projected on to me regardless of my actual background and behavior. ‘Cultural whiteness’ does not protect one from racism, or confer white privilege: one still does not get to see people who look like you positively represented everywhere at all times. One is not automatically deferred to, automatically treated as a human being and a person of equal worth and value, one is not automatically assumed to be law-abiding or intellectually capable and competent. One does not simply get to think of oneself as an individual because this is how one is daily treated, given that one is constantly being reminded that one is seen as and assumed to be Other–even when ‘culturally white’.

    Behavior is understood relative to the body one inhabits, regardless of performing ‘cultural whiteness’: and the same exact behavior performed by a racially marked and a racially unmarked body will often NOT be read and understood in the same way. Add to this the fact that I am almost always the only minority in all-white settings such that I can rarely not notice this difference (and not notice that others are noticing this difference), and I clearly am **constantly** experiencing the world in a different way from a ‘culturally-similar’ white individual. Most of what they can take for granted in the social world we inhabit, I cannot. So why would a white person who never has to think about the fact that they are white be a better informant for what it feels like to NOT experience the world through white privilege, than someone who actually does not experience the world through white privilege? As such, how would you be in a position to know–and comment with authority–on what kind of marginalization non-white anthropologists are experiencing, and say that it is equivalent to non-racial/racist forms of marginalization, when you don’t know what the experience of being marginalized as non-white is actually like? Again, being a white male in Japan (or Asia) is not structurally equivalent to being non-white in the US, or any white-supremacist society, so even this form of Otherness is NOT *structurally* equivalent. You can imagine–intellectually and academically–what such a position of racial subordination might feel like, but you can’t know it as an embodied state. I hardly see what is so radical about this statement. So in order to actually understand what it is like to be marginalized in a white supremacist society, you, John McCreery, cannot be the expert and have to defer to those who actually are on the receiving end of the marginalization.

    I did not say you could not understand me. Yes, there are many ways in which you could understand me. But you cannot understand–at the level of embodiment–how I experience the world absent white (and male) privilege: you absolutely cannot be more of an authority on what it feels like to inhabit the world from a position absent white (and male) privilege that your body confers. So what I did say is that we–as anthropologists–should be quite clear about the limitations that embodiment poses for understanding racial positions outside one’s own. And yes, you are right, what I am saying is a radical challenge to at least one core premise of anthropology, and this is exactly what I think we as anthropologists most need to wrestle with in order to be thinking critically about race and what it is–and doe–in relation to embodiment. And I think that what I am saying actually is fairly significant for conceptualizing ethnographic theory. When it comes to race, as embodied position and relational ontology, there is no way to get outside of one’s own racial position, because race is not culture (per se).

    The anthropological understanding of racial difference can only occur by conceding that one actually can’t inhabit a racial position outside one’s own, and thus can’t ever fully know it–as much as one may try to or want to. And this is a position of RADICAL HUMILITY that is actually about acknowledging the limits of empathy. It is also about a profound respect. ‘Understanding’ across race is not about white men like you authoritatively knowing what my experience of the world absent your white and male privilege is, it is about understanding the way in which we experience the world differently–while conceding that you will never be in a position to know what it is like to experience the world as non-white because this is an embodied subject position which you just cannot understand (just as I can’t truly understand what it would be like to inhabit the world as a white male, with all the privilege this entails).

    When you make claims that the marginalization that non-white anthropologists experience is the same as other forms of non-racial (and non-racist) marginalization experienced by white anthropologists, you are claiming that you are actually in a position to know what it feels like to experience racial marginalization as a non-white person in a white-dominated space: but this is just not true. And it is extreme white entitlement to claim so. But this desire to, the practice of speaking for others–especially of white anthropologists speaking for non-whites–is one of the deep and deeply problematic legacies of anthropology, especially given its colonial origins. Twenty-five years after Writing Culture, the ethnographic project–in practice–is still about ‘speaking for’. And I think that anthropology needs to be honest about how this history of ‘speaking for’ (non-whites) produces white public space and an ongoing refusal on the part of many white anthropologists to actually LISTEN to what non-white anthropologists have to say about their own daily experiences of racial marginalization, and the daily forms of racial disrespect they are shown.

    The issue absolutely is about white privilege: who is authorized to speak, who is seen as needing to be spoken for, who will and will not be listened to, who gets to decide what problems are ‘important’, who gets to decide what the experience of racial marginalization in a white-dominated space feels like and whether or not it is equivalent, phenomenologically, to other non-racial forms of marginalization. If anthropology is really still arguing that whites who are not *daily* being FORCED to think about and feel what not having white privilege feels like are going to be the experts on the experience of not having white privilege (including the kinds of marginalization this produces in anthropology), then the discipline is going to continue to be white public space for a very long, long time to come.

  8. @John McCreery – And for the record, your choice of the teenage-daughter simile is racist-sexist infantilization. The speaks volumes about how you regard me–as a subordinate and not an equal. I am not even an adult, just a silly child. That comment has the legacies of colonial anthropology–with its logics of white male domination and child-like racial subalterns written all over it. And this is why you dismiss not only what I say, but what the Brodkin et al. article–and the non-white anthropologists quoted in it–have to say about how we actually experience racial marginalization, and why it is different from the other forms of marginalization that white anthropologists (as you wrote) experience. Some of us always need to be ‘spoken for’, so why bother to listen to what we have to say for ourselves, especially when it means relinquishing one’s authority to speak and to always be deferred to. Silly little girl that I am, what could I really possibly know!

  9. With thanks to all for the additional comments:

    @Discuss White Privilege – Thank you for the important point on embodiment and the limits of analogy. (I’ve also edited the link so the title is more prominent).

    @John McCreery – I believe the phrase “epic fail” is reserved for official actions of the AAA.

    @Ryan – thank you for the welcome, and definitely more to be said as 2012 goes along.

    John began with a bold statement to “play the aging white male troglodyte,” and certainly from that perspective it may be impossible not to see a story of “gradual progress,” both in anthropology and in U.S. society. The narrative of gradual progress is incredibly dominant, shared across blacks and whites, although whites tend to put the progress numbers quite a bit higher.

    However, there are several notes of caution here. I was actually a bit surprised that Brodkin et al. also cited “some improvement” in anthropology, because a case could be made that after an initial heyday, the numbers have not improved. For example, in an endnote to Global Transformations, Michel-Rolph Trouillot provides this information:

    The relationship between anthropology and black Americans has deteriorated greatly since the first generation of black students that Boas attracted to the field. Today the number of Ph.D.s in anthropology climbs much faster than in other fields, with a majority of the diplomas going to women. Yet while we attract increasing numbers of Asians, American Indians, and Latinos (except Puerto Ricans, whose numbers are shamefully small), blacks received a mere 3.5 percent of our doctoral degrees in 1999. The national average for that year for blacks in all fields is 5.9 percent, excluding professional schools. In comparison to peer disciplines, anthropology is clearly becoming less atrractive to blacks. (2003:150-151)

    Truoillot is obviously relying on figures from 1999, but it still seems the evidence in anthropology of “gradual progress” for blacks in anthropology would be at best ambiguous.

    Similar evidence abounds in U.S. society, from persistent black/white health disparities with gaps that do not close, persistent average wealth disparities of black/white households documented as increasing rather than decreasing, black/white employment disparities that actually increase with educational levels rather than decrease, and of course schools that are almost as de facto segregated as before Brown v. Board of Ed. That is, in many statistical measures the evidence of gradual progress is at best ambiguous, at worst showing stagnation or regress.

    I am not sure, however, if I am intending to address the “aging white male troglodyte” demographic. They are probably going to be who they are going to be, and some of them can be easily charmed with a little agreement (going for humor here!). I am probably more concerned about people who came of age after the Civil Rights struggles, and who may “believe their training inoculates them against racism” (Brodkin et al. 2011:546), or that teaching a deconstructivist argument on race is the same as addressing racism.

    In that respect–especially as I age myself and despair for the next generation–I am encouraged by people like Ryan who are working their way through classic anthropological theory and history, yet with an eye on contemporary politics and how to teach this material. A couple more encouraging examples–Better Anthropology by Angela VandenBroek and Race and Consequence: “Reality” and Social Constructs over at the Torso and Oblong blog.

  10. A couple of things to add here:

    Jason wrote:

    “I am probably more concerned about people who came of age after the Civil Rights struggles, and who may ‘believe their training inoculates them against racism’ (Brodkin et al. 2011:546), or that teaching a deconstructivist argument on race is the same as addressing racism.”

    That’s a good point raised in the article. Anthropological training by no means guarantees anything, despite what some folks might think. This applies to issues with racism just as much as it applies to issues of power and class. Despite the fact that many current anthropological programs teach a lot about race, power, and class (among other important issues), these issues persist. Teaching class after class about domination and power, for example, by no means erases clear hierarchies within the discipline itself. So…it’s a good point to keep in mind that deconstruction of an issue may not translate to actual practice.

    Speaking about solutions, the end of the Brodkin et al article talks about steps that can be taken by the AAA. They suggest:

    1) More intensive and systematic data collection by the AAA (to better understand the makeup of its membership and practicing anthropologists as a whole).

    2) Make data/reports that already exist more easily available (e.g. reports about racial minorities, women, and queer anthropologists). The main idea here is that the AAA’s interest in diversity needs to be more front and center on its website.

    3) The addition of a staff position at the AAA whose job is solely focused on diversity.

    For departments, they conclude with the argument that it is critical for them to embrace and take seriously the views/perspectives of the internal others who are part of those departments. This is an argument about respect, but also about taking the time to actually think about and take account of different points of view. An important point, IMO.

    There is one other issue that comes up at the end of the article, and is has to do with getting tenure, promotion, etc. One of the consistent problems, according to Brodkin et al, is that many minority anthropologists who are hired in departments are expected to spend a large chunk of their time helping to encourage and build diversity within their departments and colleges. As some point out, they were often called upon simply because of how they look, and were expected to undertake these tasks…which meant that there was less time to publish and do all of the necessary work to get recognized for promotion. The authors of the article argue that a focus on diversity needs to be the mission of the *entire department*, not just a few minority scholars who are supposed to fill that role. I think that’s a good point they bring up.

    Also, however, I think this speaks to some of the issues going on with “what counts” in getting tenure. Seems to me that if things like promoting diversity and teaching really matter, they should count more in the tenure/promotion process. The fact that certain kinds of service count less also speaks to some of the problems going on.

    Apologies for the long comment. Thanks again for the post, Jason. Lots to think about.

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