Rethinking Pedagogy of Race in Anthropology, Part 2

[Continuing from Part 1]

Thinking about my experience of teaching race, I feel that I fell short when it came to conveying to my students what “race” has meant historically, and how white America has produced various racial divides by weighing which group of color is better or worse than the others. I didn’t think about articulating the two seemingly conflicting facts about race – 1) the biological/genetic explanation of “racial” differences is unsound and thus should be rejected, at the same time; 2) we must not deny the social realities where people of color have lived with their “racial” categories/identities. Inevitably, when I say “we’re all Homo sapiens” to someone who doesn’t have a good grasp of racial history, what gets tossed out of the window are the differences among us humans, not to mention the long social processes through which powerful oppressors have assigned detrimental social meanings to these differences.

As late Sidney Mintz always asserted, the discipline of anthropology needs to be grounded in history. If anthropologists are to claim to be experts on race – and teach about it – I argue that they should also be able to teach larger histories of racism. After all, the collective experiences specific to different groups of color are different symptoms of the same problem. As Scot Nakagawa insists, for example, the liberation of African Americans is intimately tied with the liberation of all other people of color in the United States. Understanding larger racial histories can help us all see how these different symptoms have been created, not to mention how white supremacy has been produced within broader racial hierarchies. In this way, it can become unacceptable to be coy or disingenuous about the fact that white supremacy has been the law of the country, which also has shaped minds and perceptions about people of color. Understanding larger racial histories can help build solidarity among all people of color for anti-racism. We need more conversations, like “Building a Culture of Solidarity,” “Latino and Asian American Solidarity,” “How Multiracial Alliances Help End Discrimination,” and “How Black, Latino, and Muslim College Students Organized to Stop Trump’s Rally in Chicago.”

Critics of anti-racism efforts often portray people of color as “complainers” because things are, they claim, much better than the Jim Crow era or the period prior to the 1965 Immigration Act. They argue that diversity has been accomplished despite vehement disagreement coming from people of color. White sympathizers and allies for people of color jump in to advocate for more diversity, inclusion, and integration. But what do these words really mean? How often do in-depth conversations about these concepts occur in classrooms, faculty meetings, or on college campuses in general? Is “diversity” accomplished once there are more people of color? How would one respond to the sentiment that diversity is mere tokenism because it has become just numbers? Who needs to be included and integrated into whom? How are these terms and concepts really productive for anti-racism efforts? These questions are an integral part of didactic discourses of race. But without understanding the larger history of racism, such questions cannot be fully appreciated and digested.

But do students have to major in Latin American Studies to learn Latino/a history, African American Studies to learn African American history, or Asian American Studies to learn Asian American history? Or are there ways in which students can have the opportunity to learn these histories altogether? Can anthropology implement such interdisciplinary historical discourses into its introductory college courses? How can anthropology contribute more to didactic conversations about race in higher education? Or is it all too much to ask of anthropology?

It was more than 50 years ago when Malcolm X famously professed: “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and put it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull the knife.” Much work on anti-racism has been done by many anthropologists, like George Armelagos, Lee Baker, Jonathan Marks, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and name a few. With its extensive project “Race: Are We So Different?,” The American Anthropological Association also has made a contribution to these efforts. But the knife hasn’t been even pulled all the way out. If there are critical tasks that anthropology can do for the real progress in larger anti-racism efforts, pedagogy of race in anthropology needs to be redesigned – perhaps, anthropologists need to take up the Anthropology Rebranding Project’s endeavor to bridge the gap between the general public and anthropology (see its recent work “Rebranding Anthropology Textbooks” or “Decolonizing Anthropology Textbook Covers”). And more concerted push toward rebranding the discipline in classrooms can help us rethink anthropology’s roles in the current US racial climate and its pedagogy of race.

Takami is a medical interpreter and Co-founder of Coalition of Anthropology Students of Color (coalitionascolor.org). You can reach her via @tsd1888 on Twitter.