Tools for Dismantling the Master’s House

This entry is part 7 of 16 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Daniel M. Goldstein

“The master’s tools,” Audre Lorde (1984) famously said, “will never dismantle the master’s house.” Her statement was a provocation to Western feminists to question their own racism and homophobia, to examine the “terror and loathing of any difference that lives” inside each of us. “What does it mean,” she asked, “when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”

Zodwa Radebe expresses a similar sentiment, using similar language, in her recent Savage Minds post, in which she dismisses the possibility of decolonizing anthropology. Radebe states that “it is absurd to think that anthropology can be used as a tool to decolonise because it was used to colonise.”

All of which raises the question: What are these “tools”? What can they be used to make, or to unmake? And by whom?

To back up even further, what does it mean to decolonize anthropology? It means, as Lorde suggests, that we scrutinize our insides, what lies at the very core of ourselves as individuals and as a discipline, and bring it out into the light of day. Yes, anthropology was a tool of colonialism, and anthropologists have struggled with the burden of that fact ever since. But have we really had the courage to examine the enduring coloniality of our practice?

Anthropology, like other disciplines within the academy, was forged in the crucible of Western modernity. As a Eurocentered project of rationality and colonial domination, modernity, Quijano (2010) observes, established the European as the only possible “subject,” the only one capable of knowing; all others, being inferior by nature to the European, could only be the “object” of his (sic) knowledge. The modern anthropological project – part of a much larger project of modern science – entailed rendering all that was different and other to the European knowable to the West. Thus the core relation in ethnographic fieldwork was one of knowing subject to knowable object. As Quijano (2010: 28) notes, this relation “blocked, therefore, every relation of communication, of interchange of knowledge and of modes of producing knowledge between the cultures, since the paradigm implies that between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ there can be but a relation of externality.” Ironically, it also contributes to a sort of intellectual blindness, an arrogance that comes from being the observer, the one who acquires knowledge and therefore knows.

From this beginning emerged the “tools” of anthropology, the instruments anthropology uses to produce knowledge of its objects. These include the familiar apparatuses of ethnographic inquiry, including such basic and apparently neutral instruments as participant observation and informal interviewing. These are the tools we use for knowing. With them, we crack open the oysters of other people’s lives and harvest the rich goo within. We bring it back to our university, the factory wherein we deploy further tools – what we call “theory” – to process raw materials from abroad and render them suitable for Western consumption.

So, contra Radebe, I don’t think it at all absurd to imagine a decolonized anthropology. Decolonizing means to excavate the colonial logics that underlie our perspectives and continuing practices. It means searching for new ways of thinking and doing that disrupt the subject/object dualism on which our discipline was founded, and that transform the methodology that traditionally accompanies that orientation. I don’t think this means burying anthropology. It means repurposing our disciplinary tools towards the liberation of the oppressed and marginalized, along the lines that Faye Harrison has suggested, in this blog and elsewhere, even if that repurposing requires us to set aside a “purely” academic agenda.

The goal of my research with undocumented immigrants in New Jersey was not to decolonize anthropology. Like any anthropologist, I had framed an intellectual project that I set out to investigate. My aim was to understand the situation confronting undocumented workers in a context of securitized immigration and, more specifically, the kinds of bodily harms that they encounter on the job. I approached the research from an activist standpoint, and hoped that my project could contribute to local struggles against workplace abuse. Toward that end, I worked closely with a local workers center/immigrant-rights advocacy organization, through which I gained access to the community and contributed my efforts as a volunteer. There, I met two women – I’ll call them L. and M. – both of them undocumented, both activists for immigrants’ rights. I hired them to be my “research assistants,” and taught them the methods of ethnographic research. Their role, I believed at the outset, was to help me to collect data by interviewing members of the local community about the experience of working under a regime of securitized immigration.

But L. and M. were not content simply to collect data. While respectful of my academic goals, their principal concern was advancing their struggle against marginalization and abuse – to tear down, if you will, the “master’s house” of North American capitalism, which is underwritten by the labor of undocumented workers even as it consumes their bodies and denies them their legal rights. M. herself had experienced a devastating work accident for which she had never received compensation, and was deeply committed to this fight. Unaware of anthropology’s colonial past, unconcerned with its lingering coloniality, L. and M. immediately recognized the tools of ethnography as instruments for their own self discovery and the mobilization of others. They began to explore its possibilities.

This was not “participatory” or “collaborative” research as it is usually understood. Even as they worked on my project, writing fieldnotes and recording interviews for later analysis, L. and M. embarked on their own project of resistance and education. They used the information they gained from informal conversations and semi-structured interviews as a resource to make more forceful arguments in defense of immigrant workers’ rights. They turned every fieldwork encounter into a pedagogical moment, explaining to their interviewees what they had learned about the physical abuses undocumented workers suffer on the job, helping them to feel less alone in their pain. They taught their informants that, contrary to expectations, injured workers without papers in fact have recourse under U.S. law to demand redress from exploitative employers, and they offered them resources to pursue a course of action. They used the contacts they made through fieldwork to recruit members to their organization, and to rally people for marches, meetings, and bake sales. From their experience came theory – L. and M., I learned, had their own ideas about what causes work accidents, and about what it means to be undocumented in the U.S. These ideas continued to take shape as the research unfolded.

Marching against deportations on International Workers’ Day, May 1, 2013. Photo: Carolina Alonso-Bejarano.
Marching against deportations on International Workers’ Day, May 1, 2013. Photo: Carolina Alonso-Bejarano.

This evolution of the project, and of L. and M.’s role in it, was not something I had planned or anticipated. I considered myself an activist and my work an example of “activist anthropology.” But L. and M. transcended the anthropological project entirely. They didn’t need “anthropology” per se – theirs was not a disciplinary project, its goals were anything but academic. Instead, they deployed the instruments of ethnography to advance a cause of social justice. Their theories and methods, together with my own, are the subjects of a book we are now co-authoring, under the working title Decolonizing Anthropology with Undocumented Americans.

So, with all due respect, I disagree with Audre Lorde – I think the master’s tools can be used to dismantle the master’s house. It’s just a question of who is doing the dismantling, and what they are erecting in its place. L. and M. taught me that anthropology – despite its roots in the Western project of colonial modernity/rationality and its history of collaboration with exploitative instruments of state and capital – can nevertheless provide the tools of liberation for marginalized communities.

As professional anthropologists, we can contribute only if we are willing to subordinate our own goals to those of our friends and co-conspirators in the field, to make our disciplinary tools available to them for their own projects of transformation. We must also open ourselves to their methods and theories about their own experiences, both to better understand the world and to engage it for the benefit of all. This can teach us humility, helping us to learn not just about others but, as Jones and Jenkins (2008) suggest, to learn from others. This mutuality is key to the decolonizing approach. It can relieve us of our habitual arrogance as the ones who know, broadening what Lorde called the “parameters of change” and taking steps toward undoing our inherited coloniality.

References Cited

Jones, Alison, with Kuni Jenkins. 2008. Rethinking Collaboration: Working the Indigene-Colonizer Hyphen. In Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, pp. 471-486. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lorde, Audre. 1984 [2007]. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, pp. 110-114. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.

Quijano, Aníbal. 2010. Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. In Globalization and the Decolonial Option, eds. Walter D. Mignolo and Arturo Escobar, pp. 22-32. London and New York: Routledge.



Daniel M. Goldstein is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of three monographs: The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia (Duke University Press, 2004); Outlawed: Between Security and Rights in a Bolivian City (Duke, 2012); and Owners of the Sidewalk: Security and Survival in the Informal City (Duke, 2016). He is the co-editor (with Enrique D. Arias) of the collection Violent Democracies in Latin America. A political and legal anthropologist, Prof. Goldstein specializes in the anthropology of security; his current research examines undocumented workers’ vulnerabilities and responses in a context of securitized migration in the United States.

Series Navigation<< A Decolonial Turn in Anthropology? A View from the PacificDecolonizing Anthropology Textbook Covers >>

Decolonizing Anthropology is a series edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. To read the introductory essay to the series and see the list of contributors, please follow this link:

One thought on “Tools for Dismantling the Master’s House

  1. As professional anthropologists, we can contribute only if we are willing to subordinate our own goals to those of our friends and co-conspirators in the field, to make our disciplinary tools available to them for their own projects of transformation. We must also open ourselves to their methods and theories about their own experiences, both to better understand the world and to engage it for the benefit of all.

    There is a certain irony here, noting how “professional” anthropologists who work with “marginalized” communities are finally coming around to a position that has long been obvious to practicing anthropologists who work in business and other organizational settings. Noblesse oblige is practical necessity when the natives are paying the bills.

Comments are closed.