Anthropology Students of Color

When I was an anthropology graduate student, I often found myself in an ambiguous place as someone who isn’t white. I swallowed my words, one too many times, about “race” issues in didactic discussions and any departmental occasions, because I felt that I wasn’t “colored” enough to express my disagreement with the rest of the mostly white room.

I knew I wasn’t white, but I knew I was “Asian,” as society has plentifully reminded me all along. I have belonged to this category ever since I came to the U.S. 20 years ago. Besides all the name-calling targeting Asians, I have received absurd treatments in public places. I was called “that,” as in “where did you get that?” which a random white dude asked my white male friend while pointing his finger at me. Restaurant servers sometimes seem to have difficulty approaching me, as they lock their eyes onto my husband (who is white) while taking our orders or explaining their specials. And let me just verify that I don’t I look spectacularly eccentric or weird to drive people away. But such incidents happen, as if I were some mute and visible oddity, because, let’s be honest, I do look Asian.

It’s not that I was pretending to be white and trying to work my way from the ambiguous place to whiteness, while sitting through those graduate school conversations about race. I was already aware that describing myself as “non-white” itself is deeply problematic because it conforms with the idea that “white” is the standard bearer of our social world. But my silence in the discussions of race for me was, in part, a product of the positioning of Asian Americans as the “least” oppressed in the racial hierarchy according to dominant discourses of race. Ironically, my voiceless existence would put me right back in the stereotypes of Asian women: quiet and subservient.

But I also suspect that my silence had something to do with graduate training in anthropology.

We all are, as anthropologists, trained to remain objective. We are taught not to use “I” in our writings. Objectivity is critical for understanding and analyzing the social phenomena we study. Even when anthropologists themselves are personally entangled in anthropological topics of investigation, we have the tendency to insist on maintaining objectivity. But is the practice of objectivity always applicable to those who are part of groups with less power than, say, white straight male anthropologists are? Race is one of the most salient anthropological inquiries. And students of color, through their personal experiences, have much to offer not only in our theoretical conversations but also in our self-reflexivity as a discipline with the commitment for contributing to the greater society.

Of course, my claim here is much indebted to feminist critique of scientific objectivity. But I wasn’t entirely connecting the dots between this theoretical body of work and my personal experience as an anthropology graduate student at the time when I was scratching my head while reading feminist theorists like Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, and Alyson Wylie. I was simply too busy dissecting intricate and nuanced ways in which they differ from one another about what is science, what is knowledge in science, whose perspectives count as knowledge in science, and how to reconcile the power difference between the privileged and the marginalized within and beyond science. And yet, it was perhaps one of the pivotal moments when I began questioning my identity dissonance between inside and outside anthropology, and what to do with my silent visibility as an Asian woman in academic discussions about race.

We can also never forget black feminist intellectual wisdom about marginalization of individuals at the intersection of gender, race, and class hierarchies. The intersectional approach adds an important layer to feminist critique of scientific objectivity, allowing us to ask, “What if the anthropologist herself was a part of the marginalized group?” Responses to this question can be found throughout an edited volume “Feminist Activist Ethnography: Counterpoints to Neoliberal in North America” (2013), but I find Iris López’s poignant account particularly close to home:

When I was a graduate student, there was a disconnect between myself, a woman of color with a working-class background, and some professors who embraced objectivity in anthropological research to justify their position of power and privilege as objective scientists. I did not agree with the idea that I could not be objective because I was working with my own community; I did not subscribe to that narrow definition of objectivity and I did what I felt was legitimate research. My goal was to do activist research that was relevant to poor communities. I wanted to use my research skills to provide data that would empower them and help them improve their lives (157).

The jarring reality is this: Despite the fact that feminist scholars have been voicing their critiques of scientific objectivity for decades, López’s sentiment remains not only relevant, but necessary today. In addition to all of this, if any anthropologists believe that the realm of anthropology is somehow immune to racism, that would be total romanticization of anthropology. After all, the legacy of anthropology’s role in the production of white supremacy is still firmly with us today –  as Karen Brodkin professes, anthropology continues to be a white space.

When anthropology students step over the threshold into their professional field, they bring a bag full of their own life experiences. White students have been crossing the threshold with unquestioned privileges. A part of the privileges is to be able to sit in a white filled room and have “white guilt” conversations. Such confessional conversations have hidden mechanisms beneficial to whites – comforting each other for their past racist behaviors and setting up the post-confession phase where they can feel relieved by assuring themselves that they aren’t racists.

But when anthropology students of color cross the threshold, their bags full of struggles for change somehow get rarely unpacked. At least, that’s how I felt when I went to graduate school, even though I kept the hope that anthropology would help me unpack my bag.

I hated to be silently visible in those conversations about racism. I should have had the strength to crawl out of the ambiguous place as an Asian woman and make myself audible in our didactic conversations about racism. And anthropology shouldn’t be silencing the voices of students of color in the names of scientific objectivity.

I’m by no means claiming that I can understand what other people of color experience on a daily basis. But I do see what white people can’t see. I notice what white people don’t notice. I know, too, that the business of “speaking up” about racial issues gets complicated for people of color, when there is only one person (or a few people) of color in the room. Some of them may feel reluctant to speak up because they don’t want to be the representatives for other people of color. And others may simply be giving up on speaking up because they are too weary of handling the dilemma between “not upsetting white colleagues in the room” and “being true to anti-racism efforts and speaking up despite potential repercussions from the white colleagues.” Can you do both? – you may ask. It’s easier said than done. When people of color take a risk of upsetting white colleagues by speaking up and it doesn’t go well, they often get accused of being unprofessional and uncongenial.

But here is what doesn’t make sense: while students of color experience the pain from racial microaggressions every day, they also have to carefully make sure not to upset white colleagues in those rare conversations about racism??

Regardless of all this, didactic discussions of race and daily departmental routines go on in anthropology graduate programs. If you’re a student of color, speak up, even if you happen to be the only one in the room. If you’re a white student/professor, listen to you colleagues of color, and more importantly, keep your white privileges in check by asking yourself these questions –  Are you taking the anti-racist “coat” on and off for your convenience? Are you expressing your anti-racist stance because of your true commitment to anti-racism or because of your secret desire to look like an enlightened person?

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.

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