Interview: An Anthropologist on Tiger Woods

I had the pleasure of pitching a few questions to Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, about “popular anthropology,” golf, Ishi’s brain, and the right PC sports to play if you’re an anthropologist (its not golf!).

AF: I really liked your book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal. As a golfer and media producer I found the book impossible to put down but as an anthropologist it made me wonder about the future of the discipline.

It might just be my hang-up having just earned my PhD badge but a key concern is the absence of data derived from ethnographic field research. You make passing reference to playing golf with other players and taking notes about the experience on the links but none of that information seemed to explicitly inform your reading of Tiger Woods. The book is primarily an analysis of representation–how race is discussed online, on TV, in tabloids. Again, this makes me think that some form of offline ethnographic research in these cultural industries might have afforded you and your readers access to forms of information not easily accessible. This brings up for me a bunch of questions:

How important is ethnographic field research for the future of the discipline?

OS: For all the many changes over the decades, I think that intense, engaged fieldwork remains the single most distinctive thing about anthropology. I I think and hope it’ll remain just that. I like very much the idea that understanding another way of doing things shouldn’t be a fly-by proposal, but deserves the kind of deep, sustained engagement that only fieldwork can provide. I’m not sure that the actual ethnographies we write – which aren’t always very interesting — do justice to the great time and energy we give to our research, and yet I’m still a believer in the Boasian credo that fieldwork matters.

AF: In what ways can be scholarship be “anthropological” without being “ethnographic”?

OS: Well, anthropology is really just the study of how people live, think, and make their way in the world. Anthropologists certainly have no monopoly over this endeavor, and, in fact, I end up using a lot of writing by journalists, memoirists, and fiction writers in my introduction to anthropology classes. They often do a better job shedding light on the dynamics of culture, politics, and history than we anthropologists do. I can’t think, for example, of a better book about the political economy of work than Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, or about history, culture, and commerice in the Indian Ocean than Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (though one would like to think Ghosh’s training as an anthropologists might have been of aid in his writing). All this work isn’t necessarily ethnographic — though in some cases journalists like Ehrenreich do what we’d think of as fieldwork — and yet it’s deeply anthropological in the sense of its attention to the ebb and flow of life and experience.

AF: Can you comment on the future of offline ethnography in an online world?

OS: I’m not really sure that one can distinguish between off-line and online ethnography any longer. It’s the rare anthropologist that doesn’t in one way or another deal with the internet in their work. And online ethnography always requires attention to the dynamics of power, politics, and symbol in what we used to call the real world.

AF: You’ve provided commentary for ESPN and NPR, how do you distinguish your work as an anthropologist from your work as a journalist?

OS: I don’t think of them as different realms, and the points I try to make when I’m on the air are ones that grow out of my work as an anthropologist. But, certainly, speaking on the radio and, say, at an academic conference demand employing quite different registers and vocabularies. I’ve always liked Donna Haraway’s injunction that we should learn, insofar as it’s possible, to be tricksterish shape-shifters, able to pitch our voice in different ways for different situations.

AF: What is your selection process for your research?

OS: I think you have to pick topics that you really care about it. It’s just too demanding to do years of research and years more of writing about something that you don’t think matters, and that doesn’t engage you at some really profound level (though, of course, we all tend to get sick of our dissertations or latest book by the time we get to the end of them!). It’s very much a post-60s generational thing, but I’ve always been concerned with questions of politics and social change, and in one way or another all of my work has been linked to those issues, even my work on golf with its strange, troubled history as the unofficial pastime of presidents, CEOS, and global business.

AF: How has that selection process changed throughout the course of your career?

OS: Sometimes the odd turns of necessity factor into what we decide to work on. I’ve had six back operations over the past three years, and have two titanium discs in my back courtesy of a Swedish surgeon. As I was bedridden on medical leave for some of this time, I didn’t have the option of going back to Peru or some other more conventional project. So I ended up doing largely online ethnography for a book about Tiger Woods and what his troubles say about sports, race, and sex in America today. My previous book, Ishi’s Brain, also grew from an unexpected turn of things. When I was doing some preliminary research into the story of Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, I stumbled upon old letters showing his brain had been shipped off to the Smithsonian. That led me into writing a book about the story of death and survival in Native California, and the role of anthropology and museums in it all, and the quite extraordinary figure of Ishi himself.

AF: How would you advice a PhD student who came to you and said they wanted to play some golf and eventually write a dissertation based largely on online data about Tigergate?

OS: I’d discourage them. Tenure confers certain luxuries, and writing a book about golf and sex scandal is one of them. But, more broadly, I actually do think that doing some serious, more conventional offline ethnography is still really important in one’s development as an anthropologist, a rite of passage of genuine value. And, though you need always to choose to do your dissertation on something you really care about, there’s also the pragmatics of a down job market. Unless golf studies suddenly is the next big disciplinary thing, an event less likely than the return of the dinosaurs, then writing a dissertation about Tiger is not going to be much of a calling card for a first job.

AF: You are a great writer and clearly interested in popular or potentially popular issues. This book on Tiger and your last book on Ishi exhibit your penchant for taking on scandalous subjects. I see you as one of few anthropologist interested in showing that anthropological books can have a place in airport bookshops potentially alongside the tabloids you write about.

What do you see as the future of popular anthropology?

OS: I’m a little leery of the term “popular anthropology,” which has a Harlequiny ring of pulpy and lightweight. Margaret Mead, unfairly was never really taken as seriously by some in the field precisely because her work seemed too “popular,” or at least to sell too many copies. I’ve actually found it much harder to write in a more readable, trade press voice than to churn out a jargony journal article. When you’re writing for a larger audience, you still need to try to be smart, nuanced, and drawing on theory, and yet you have to do it in a way that keeps the reader turning the pages. I’m not against jargon or specialized publications at all, but we’ve really failed dismally as a discipline in recent decades to produce much work that has mattered beyond the discipline. I’d love us to pay more attention the craft of writing, and how to communicate our ideas to more than the ten readers of this or that specialized journal.

AF: It says on the back of the book that you have a 5 -handicap. How about a 5$ Nassau on the Monday after the next AAA meeting? You give me 2 strokes a side, OK?

OS: You’re on! But I gather you are a former Idaho state high school champion, and I won’t have much of a chance. In any event, we shouldn’t tell anyone at the AAAs we’re going to play, since coming out of the closet as golfers will be damaging to any pc credentials we may wish to retain. Yoga, meditation, swimming, hiking, or maybeultimate frisbee would be more in line with the expected anthropological recreational profile.

AF: You can say that again!

[See a great video-trailer for Orin’s book here: The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal.]

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

14 thoughts on “Interview: An Anthropologist on Tiger Woods

  1. A great, great interview. Especially liked,

    “When you’re writing for a larger audience, you still need to try to be smart, nuanced, and drawing on theory, and yet you have to do it in a way that keeps the reader turning the pages.”

  2. Wow. Given why I first posted as Discuss White Privilege (in response to Adam’s December 2011 Hippies and Hackers post on this site), and given what I just wrote yesterday about who can write about what in anthropology, and the way in which the desire to get a job cum the prestige treadmill structures what junior scholars choose to write dissertations and thus first books about, and given my many previous comments about how and why anthropology is and continues to be ‘white public space’, this interview is a veritable goldmine. Likewise, as the to-be-expected (Black) Feminist Killjoy, I must acknowledge that the white male bonding of this interview, especially at the end, was difficult to read. It was a reminder of many a conversation with other female anthropologists, and female professionals more broadly, about the ways in which (white) men are able to advance their careers through recreational activities–such as playing golf, especially in exclusive and exclusionary country clubs (and let us not forget last year’s media coverage of the Augusta golf club finally accepting female members, of which Condoleeza Rice was one of the two women to be accepted, a subject itself worthy of anthropological investigation)–because of unconscious race/class/color/gender identifications which allow younger male colleagues to be seen as ‘like me’ and/or younger versions of the older (white) men in positions of power, such that the latter wants to help, and is personally invested in helping, the former succeed (whether or not they are conscious of this motivation/dynamic–which is very much about power, privilege, and structural inequalities).

    Especially given what I wrote about Writing Culture not having made anthropologists or anthropology uniformly and ubiquitously ‘self-reflexive’, and given that the 25th anniversary Writing Culture conference was at Duke, and directed by Professor Starn, it is worth highlighting and thinking more critically about the following passages:

    AF: It’s the rare anthropologist that doesn’t in one way or another deal with the internet in their work. And online ethnography always requires attention to the dynamics of power, politics, and symbol in what we used to call the real world…

    It’s very much a post-60s generational thing, but I’ve always been concerned with questions of politics and social change, and in one way or another all of my work has been linked to those issues, even my work on golf with its strange, troubled history as the unofficial pastime of presidents, CEOS, and global business…

    And, though you need always to choose to do your dissertation on something you really care about, there’s also the pragmatics of a down job market. Unless golf studies suddenly is the next big disciplinary thing, an event less likely than the return of the dinosaurs, then writing a dissertation about Tiger is not going to be much of a calling card for a first job…

    AF: It says on the back of the book that you have a 5 -handicap. How about a 5$ Nassau on the Monday after the next AAA meeting? You give me 2 strokes a side, OK?

    OS: You’re on! But I gather you are a former Idaho state high school champion, and I won’t have much of a chance. In any event, we shouldn’t tell anyone at the AAAs we’re going to play, since coming out of the closet as golfers will be damaging to any pc credentials we may wish to retain. Yoga, meditation, swimming, hiking, or maybeultimate frisbee would be more in line with the expected anthropological recreational profile.

    AF: You can say that again!

    I had written a more elegant version of this response when my so-called smart phone decided to erase it, taking along with it most of the energy I had for responding to this interview, so I apologize for the less eloquent response. But it is not an exaggeration to say that responding to this interview has been deeply draining, because it speaks to the psychic, embodied fatigue that one feels being *constantly* reminded that anthropology is continuously and uncritically privileging whiteness, even in the moments when it should most be calling it out–recognizing and re-cognizing it: yes, anthropology as ‘white public space’, yet again.

    The first question the excerpts above raise is: Who (really) gets to ‘study up’ (or sideways’)? And what does this say about power–both within and outside of academic anthropology? It is not lost on me that my subject position, as a dark-skinned black woman, would make for a very different anthropological and ethnographic golf project, as compared to a white male full-professor from Duke. Precisely because golf is one of the favorite pastimes of elite white males: of presidents, and bankers, and CEOs. Especially post-Occupy and amidst all the conversations about academic precarity in/and the corporate neoliberal university, I find it more than odd–and quite telling–that a golf project is not the kind of project that Orin Starn would encourage a graduate student to pursue, or that would get an anthropologist tenure. Especially given how different my experience of the world of golf would be, it is interesting that this is precisely not the terrain that anthropologists (or the gatekeepers for anthropological academic employment and academic success) see as being important and worth encouraging junior scholars to pursue. Why shouldn’t the everyday practices of white and male power/privilege/supremacy be the basis for anthropological, and especially ethnographic, interrogations of power and subjectivity, capitalism and political economy, affect and embodiment, phenomenology, consumption and circulation, race and gender inequalities (and especially of all of these subjects together and in relation to each other)? And why shouldn’t anthropologists–senior anthropologists–be encouraging graduate students to be thinking critically about these concepts, in relation to everyday practices of white/male supremacy all around them (which they participate in) as dissertation projects with which to create anthropological/academic ‘calling cards’?

    Especially given anthropology’s historical implication in colonialism and the ‘scientific racism’ which undergirded the Nazi genocide during World War II, which AAA race statements are a clear and direct response to, I find it hard to see a legitimate reason why a project on Tigerwoods/race/sex/power/privilege would not be encouraged as a pre-tenure, dissertation-worthy project, for anthropologists in general, or for US anthropologists in particular (or anthropology projects in the US), particularly given the country’s post-slavery post-colonial status, and the contemporary and ongoing legacies of racial slavery, racialized dispossession (which Ishi’s fate certainly is an example of), and the one-drop rule of racial taxonomy/ascription, evidenced in the multiple demographic indicators which make clear that the US is not ‘post-racial’. Case in point: http://www.salon.com/2013/01/28/jobs_report_the_slow_uneven_progress_of_equal_opportunity/.

    What is going on with anthropology when a project on Tigergate, racial sexual politics, power and privilege is not seen as a project which a junior scholar should (be encouraged to) pursue as a dissertation and for which one receives tenure in an anthropology department? What does this say about how critically anthropology is willing to interrogate power, especially in relation to the daily practices of white and male supremacy, especially in the US? It is a reminder both of why I had to point out the should-have-been-obvious ways in which Dorien Zandenberg didn’t see whiteness as central to her project on the technospiritualities of Silicon Valley or the practices and subjectivities of her mostly-white, elite California informants (and why I never really got a follow-up response after giving her detailed and specific recommendations on how she and others in her position could keep from marginalizing a racial analysis in projects in which race, and especially whiteness, clearly should not be seen as epiphenomenal). The uncritical whiteness and androcentrism of this interview also speak to why it can be so hard for a black female anthropologist to get support to ‘study up’ and/or ‘sideways’, especially in relation to studying everyday forms of white privilege among elite whites (including anthropologists, anthropology professors) from departments committed to remaining ‘white public space’ who could care less about such projects because they do not see them as ‘smart’ or ‘real anthropology’, or ‘meaningful’, or ‘appopriate’ and the province of anthropologists who are neither white (and male) and post-tenure (and I am not saying that the Duke department is such a department, but there are other departments for which this is the case, sadly).

    So… only some anthropologists can talk about some forms of power in certain ways? Is this really what a post-Writing Culture ‘self-reflexvie’ anthropology looks like–and should look like?

    I am also troubled that Professor Starn, especially given his high profile and NPR-ESPN platform/credentials, is not challenging this status quo, and is instead supporting it, if not de facto endorsing it. There are some very troubling, even if subtle, investments in questionable status hierarchies smuggled into this interview. Why is it important that we know that the rods in one’s back were inserted by a Swedish surgeon? How is this germane to the larger conversation, except as a status-marker which underscores my earlier observation that being an elite white male Duke professor allows Professor Starn to have certain forms of access, and a specific subject position, which clearly informs his ethnographic and anthropological analysis of the world of golf? Similarly, though phrased as kind and sage paternal ‘admonition’ to junior scholars to not do the kind of Tigergate project he did if a junior scholar wants to be employable, his advice is also an endorsement of the current status quo and the prestige treadmill: if you want to end up where I am, you had better play by the rules. In light of my previous comments on coercion and open access, it is worth thinking more critically about this advice. And I am not writing any of this to ‘attack’ Professor Starn, it just happens that this interview illustrates well why I wrote what I have previously written about the inducements not to change the anthropological status quo of ‘closed access': because as I have also previously written, ‘open access’ is not simply about whether or not a journal article is behind a paywall, it is also about what kind of anthropological journals (and books) can even be written in the first place–and by whom.

    Ultimately, this interview reminded me of why (sociocultural) anthropology just makes me very sad most of the time, and of why it is and will continue to be ‘white public space'; and the ways in which it is all too often, and alarmingly, uninterested in and not addressing the rephrased fundament of Yali’s question:
    “to Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz’s interpretation that Yali’s Question was not actually about getting more stuff, but about being recognized as fully human, about being treated with dignity and respect: “Yali and many other Papua New Guineans became preoccupied with the reluctance, if not refusal, of many whites to recognize their full humanness–to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history” (Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots in the Telling of History2010:335).”
    http://www.livinganthropologically.com/2013/01/26/eric-wolf-europe-and-people-without-history/ (So, kudos again to Jason Antrosio for pointing out the importance of Yali’s question.)

    I do not see how (de facto) discouraging junior scholars from pursuing the kind of race/gender/power/privilege-critical anthropological project represented by Ptofessor Starn’s Tigergate book–which certainly could easily be made more ethnographic–is helping to make anthropology either more ‘open access’, ‘self-reflexive’, ‘publicly-oriented’, or ‘inclusive’. Nor do I see how it is encouraging it not to continue engaging in the practices which make it ‘white (male) public space’.

    Yeah, that’s the thing about taking that whole ‘speak truth to power’, ‘post-Writing Culture anthropology should be self-reflexive and power-critical’ PR seriously: it doesn’t really make you ‘likable’, or a ‘nice (black) girl’ who knows her place and doesn’t challenge Very Important Anthropologists. Oops. A little to anarchist, I know. Because, as long as we’re being honest about practices which do (e.g. white men playing golf together) and don’t get one a job and advance one’s academic/anthropology career (being a Black Feminist Killjoy who takes white male anthropologists to task for un-self-critical race, class, and gender privilege), we should be honest and say that unwritten rules around who can and cannot do certain anthropological/ethnographic projects are not simply about a pre- and post-tenure divide, they are also about race/color/gender/sexuality–yes, all the very issues brought up by Tigergate (what a coincidence, and ‘hilarious’ surprise!)–and so we don’t all get to equally think, speak, and write critically about power, privilege, and structural equality. No. And some of us will be harshly disciplined and punished–including via nasty offline emails to put in ‘in place’ for getting ‘uppity’ (and ‘polemical’)–for doing things like discussing white privilege.

    A truly self-reflexive anthropology? Yes, please. But sorry, this interview was not an example of it. More interviewer/interviewee self-reflection on power and privilege needed.

  3. Adam, especially as a “media producer” and an anthropologist teaching in a sociology department, I had hoped* that you would engage and respond to my comment above, and see its direct relevance to the cable news project about which you wrote your dissertation. After all, what are the demographics of cable news networks, especially at the level of upper management and ownership? And what role does golf, for example, play in producing these demographics?

    As I wrote my comment above yesterday, I was thinking not only about the passage below on white men’s position in the labor market (from the same Salon link included above), I was also thinking about Act 2 from this past Saturday’s “This American Life” (at least the episode, a rebroadcast, which aired in the part of the US in which I live) about the experiences of a black Harvard-educated lawyer who went undercover at the Greenwich Country Club, as a busboy, because he couldn’t get in as a member. Yes, this experience was from 1992, but given how recently the Augusta golf club began admitting women, and given that many exclusive country clubs are still highly racially exclusionary (i.e. de facto segregation v. de Jude segregation), the experience is still instructive. More broadly, and even within anthropology (and yes, some anthropology departments too), some of us are still seen–because of our race/color/gender–as subordinates who don’t really deserve to be members of ‘the club’, and/or are seen as those who should be working in subordinate positions (including dynamics like departments which are happy to have (dark-skinned) black women working as secretaries but have never hired a black female professor (especially full professor), though they are certainly large enough and old enough to have done so). So the world of golf and country clubs (including of Old Money and dynastic white privilege, and presently increasing income-inequality and how the top1% has become what it is today; as well as ongoing issues of race/gender/color bias and institutional(ized) inequality and discrimination) is something worth thinking about, including for anthropologists, and certainly in relation to academic studies (including sociological analysis) of labor market stratification and race/gender hierarchies and inequalities, including those which produce both academic anthropology (and the academy more broadly) as well as cable news and print news media as ‘white public space’, and issues of labor market segregation are certainly not unrelated to all the academic precarity and/in the neoliberal corporate debt-ridden university discussions which have recently occurred on this site:

    (1) http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/173/three-kinds-of-deception?act=2
    (Transcript of Act 2 here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/173/transcript)

    (2) “Patterns in employment were often shockingly predictable: “White men are often in positions in management over everyone; white women tend to supervise other women, black men to supervise black men and black women tend to supervise black women,” the authors wrote.”
    http://www.salon.com/2013/01/28/jobs_report_the_slow_uneven_progress_of_equal_opportunity/?mobile.html

    (3) 2007 Media Matters report on lack of major cable news network diversity:
    http://www.commondreams.org/news2007/0507-05.htm

    (Would be nice to see an update on the 2007 Media Matters study, and though Melissa Harris-Perry does have her own show now, there is still the matter of colorism in cable news: http://racerelations.about.com/b/2011/06/30/cnns-don-lemon-anchors-of-color-on-television-are-light-skinned.htm; still sending out the larger message that black women who look like me are disposable, unimportant, and not worth caring about or listening to. So yes, when white male anthropologists like you and Rex are making a point of not responding to my comments so as to engage in the white (male) power play of silencing and/as dismissing/ignoring, I do have to wonder how the media(ted) representations Professor Starn writes about are affecting the old, familiar patterns of lack of disrespect for black people (and women, and especially black women) which the rephrasing of Yali’s question fundamentally addresses.)

    *Actually, and not to be snarky, ‘hope’ is not the correct word: while I would have liked a response, based on previous actions I was not hopeful I would get one. (Just as, sadly, I am never hopeful that I will get a response from Rex, and certainly not hopeful that I would get a respectful response, based on the pattern of his behavior. It is quite obvious to me, and not just to me, that some white male bloggers/anthropologists on this site are deeply invested in pulling the white-male-privilege card out and letting me know that they see me as a stupid black woman who can’t teach them anything and just needs to shut up already. (And if the joy of experiencing this most pleasant reaction was limited to reactions to my ‘discussing white privilege’ on this site!) Rather sad that any anthropologist would be unable to divorce the validity of my comments from the fact that the comments were made by a black woman such anthropologists see as a subordinate who needs to know her place, which they obviously regard as being beneath them. Sadly, this kind of dynamic happens all the time, even in an anthropology which openly professes to be and care about antiracism and egalitarianism writ large. Then there are admirable bloggers on this site like Ryan, who always responds respectfully to what I write (however much I may still annoy him, or not); and Dustin, who is not too proud to apologize if he’s responded with unfair anger and white male privilege; as well as John McCreery who also made a point of apologizing for unfair racist-sexist assumptions, showing what self-reflexivity looks like in actual practice.)

    All of these responses, including response via non-response, are worth thinking about, and are their own answer to your question on the future of the discipline. They also say something about how anthropologists are socialized/professionalized, and what lessons (more) junior scholars are learning from (more) senior scholars: How many aspiring anthropologists, be they undergrads or graduate students, are learning that only some people matter (in anthropology), and are worth treating with the same dignity and respect that you would like to be treated with and expect for yourself? Are they learning that the quality of one’s ideas should be determined by race/gender/title, and not the ideas themselves? And especially since this interview was in relation to a book on Tiger Woods and race (in the US), and borrowing from Professor Starn’s comments in the You Tube piece you linked to about the frightening racial stereotypes which continue to be prevalent in the US (especially once people feel they have licence to see a designated black person as pathological and confirming stereotypes they already harbored), are they having hegemonic media representations of (dark-skinned) black women as unintelligent subordinates to be ignored, laughed at, and ridiculed, reinforced such that they think such behavior in anthropology is normal, acceptable, and appropriate too (i.e. just more of the same, so who cares as ‘we’ all know what a ‘smart’ and valuable anthropologist looks like, and who really matters in and to anthropology)?

    Errington and Gewertz’s reformulation of Yali’s question is worth revisiting so as to rethink the concept of ‘making history’–especially in relation to anthropological silences and silencing practices: ‘making history’ as equal participants to whites is not simply about ‘blacks’ having been equal (if not equally powerful) participants in making the history of the present, but also about ‘blacks’ having an equal chance to write history, and to use history to write about the present–yes, including in anthropology, and such that I do think it is valid to take issue with Professor Starn’s advice in the interview above, and the larger uncritical white male privilege the interview represents. It was this latter valence of ‘making history’–as academic/intellectual/anthropological/ethnographic project, in the present–that I was trying to foreground with my previous comment.

    So no, I did not concern myself with being ‘nice’ in my critique, nor should I have to: because I was neither rude nor disrespectful, just forthright. But the reality of anthropology is that for as much as certain anthropologists speak about wanting to critically interrogate power, they do not really want to critically interrogate some forms of power (and especially not *white power*), and they are deeply committed–however much they are often reluctant to admit it to themselves–to *not* questioning (much less relinquishing) white (male) power from which they benefit, and are deeply offended and enraged when someone like me comes along and fairly points out unquestioned white (male) privilege in their anthropological projects and/or actions and (daily) practices. After all, and as has been written elsewhere about me by Very Important Anthropologists: I am a “small, very dark-skinned [Negro]” who only has “meaningless” things to write and say. No concern with Yali’s question there. However much there should be.

    So it’s alright if you hate me for being That Stupid Black Woman with nothing ‘meaningful’ to say. You won’t hurt my feelings. I care too much about anthropology being truly antiracist to think that people disliking me on such grounds is a reason to feel bad about myself, and I am not genuflecting for the sake of genuflecting because I am supposed to be of the ‘lesser orders’. I am not looking to win Most Favored Negro Status, nor do I think this is what should be expected from people who look like me (by other anthropologists) in order to be treated with basic respect–or have my comments engaged, respectfully. I am just interested in taking Yali’s question seriously, and I thought that anthropology was, too.

    People should think more about why the AAA race statement was first drafted. Because studying anthropology is not just about getting a job (as a tenure-track professor). And I am not too stupid to be unable to understand the link between being able to write off a (dark-skinned) black woman like me as a disposable non-person who doesn’t matter to anthropology, and seeing black people (like me) as always already ‘deathworthy’, and violence-prone, unintelligent, hypersexual, criminally-inclined, pathological subhuman animals. And this, too, is a recursion to Professor Starn’s Tigergate analysis, and certainly to his You Tube comments on the cover picture of Tiger Woods Vanity Fair chose to use for its post-sex-scandal article on the golfer. As a media producer, maybe this will be of interest to you, then.

  4. @DWP,

    I am empathetic to some of the concerns you raise given my upbringing in rural north Florida which shaped my worldview and led me towards anthropology. I am constantly aware of my position in the world as a “white” male. Although most whities think I’m a cornball.

    Now that the space has been made for such discussions, and it has been for some time, what should be the next course of action? How do you propose anthropology de-privilege its ‘while public space’?

    For me, I try to do this in the field (mainly the South Pacific, but also along the Northwest Coast), within the classroom when I teach, as a near-completion PhD candidate, as a writer, as a friend, as a colleague, and as a full-time consultant with a family (I know, the life of junior scholar, right?).

    I ask this sincerely, as I don’t have too much time to write about these issues/engage in online public space, and use my time in the classroom and in my work and day-to-day to tear down such walls/barriers. Or at the very least, illuminate them.

  5. @Lewis: Thanks for your questions. I certainly don’t have all the answers to the ‘white public space’ problem in anthropology (nor elsewhere), nor would I ever claim to. I think AAA recommendations associated with their publications on ‘white public space’ and the state of minority anthropologists is one place to start. But I would also say that the problem persists because there really isn’t that much space to discuss the problem: as Virginia Dominguez, Jason Antrosio and others have observed, most white anthropologists haven’t been very interested in engaging the topic/problem and the Brodkin et al. article.

    Additionally, some people are permitted to discuss this issue in ways that others are not, coincident with extant race/class/gender/color/age/title status hierarchies which continuously result in some people being treated with respect when bringing up topics that others will be angrily shouted down and retaliated against and dismissed for raising. So much of the answer to your question is a matter of simply treating people with basic respect and decency, regardless of these status markers, and anthropologists being more honest with themselves about how they value these status markers and do in fact treat people differently because of them. People need to be more honest about the implicit biases they have, and not react angrily and defensively when these biases are legitimately pointed out. White anthropogists, in general, also need to stop thinking that race isn’t really something that they need to think about, as though they are not racial subjects too, such that they don’t reflexively feel annoyed when a non-white person raises issues of whiteness and racial privilege. And white people need to be more courageous about calling out other white people’s racism, as well as their own. Stop thinking that calling out behavior (either individual or institutional/structural) as racist is in and of itself an attack tantamount to saying, “You are the devil and I hope you die!” You can’t change ‘white public space’ practices that people don’t even want to acknowledge in the first place, after all.

  6. I am just interested in taking Yali’s question seriously, and I thought that anthropology was, too.

    Aaaaaand this is how it starts. In the beginning, the interpretation of ‘Yali’s question’ as about dignity was just one wacky interpretation without a realistic basis. Somehow, it has acquired the patina of truth for some people. Yali was asking explicitly about cargo – how white people have a far more material wealth than Papuans. He wasn’t asking about dignity.

  7. @Al:
    Really? You really think cargo was all he was asking about, as though he wasn’t able to understand the greater implications of having cargo, and the power it brought? How are you thinking about power? Perhaps worth thinking about?

    Just because you don’t agree with this interpretation doesn’t make it a wacky idea.

  8. @Al:
    Or we can just stick to the ‘minimalist’ definition of cargo you’re asserting, and understand cargo as high-ranking, high-status positions in the (global) labor market, and direct my interest in Yali’s question thusly. The part of my comment you excerpted would still apply.

    Anyway, am I not making larger points worth responding to?

  9. The point of the ‘dignity’ interpretation was the idea that Diamond was so inept that he misunderstood the question he was asked. He’s not an anthropologist, you see, so he couldn’t think of cargo as anything other than, well, cargo – power, money, goods. Only anthropologists could see that Yali was actually referring to human dignity, you see.

    It was just another way for anthropologists to try to reassert their academic position as experts on marginalised communities. I do not dispute that discussions of power and its origins are part of the broader project of the social sciences, and that anthropologists have a key role to play in highlighting certain factors. Of course Yali was pointing out that white people have a lot of power along with material wealth, but he wasn’t talking about lack of dignity – just power and material wealth. There is a difference there, and it’s worthwhile to maintain it.

    And yes, you do make some good points. Including this one:

    So much of the answer to your question is a matter of simply treating people with basic respect and decency, regardless of these status markers, and anthropologists being more honest with themselves about how they value these status markers and do in fact treat people differently because of them. People need to be more honest about the implicit biases they have, and not react angrily and defensively when these biases are legitimately pointed out.

  10. @Al: interesting point about anthropologists trying to reassert privilege over marginalized communities. Thanks for the clarification. Much appreciated.

  11. An assertion of privilege or an acknowledgement of helplessness like that of telephone counsellors with nothing material to offer someone who has lost a job or hospice staff who work with the dying: “We can, at least, treat them with dignity”? What if dignity is all we have to offer? May be hypocritical at times, but how many of us will ever follow Christ’s advice to the rich young man: “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor”?

  12. To be clear, I was referring to an assertion of dominance vis-a-vis Jared Diamond, not an assertion of privilege over marginalised communities.

  13. Hi, Al. Wasn’t thinking in particular of your remarks. It just struck me that saying “What they really want is to be treated with dignity” provides an excellent defense mechanism for those of us who can’t or won’t provide the material things that we ourselves enjoy.

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