Category Archives: Blog post

Chicago’s “Trigger Warning” Letter Is very un-Chicago

Jay Ellison’s recent letter on trigger warnings made the rounds of social media late last week, and this week the story continues to circulate. It’s a topic that hits close to home for me. I have two degrees (MA and Ph.D.) from Chicago. As a student, I worked part time in the Social Sciences and Humanities division and full time in Physical Sciences, punching down cross connects in building basements and visiting faculty offices to explain what ‘the web’ was. I sang the Sunday service in Rockefeller chapel, was married at Hillel, and had the reception at Ida Noyes (long story). At one point when I was writing up my Ph.D., working part time, and serving as the Starr Lecturer in anthropology, I joked that I was student, staff, faculty, and alum — simultaneously. I’ve been told that my latest book is featured on the front table of the Seminary Coop. What could be more Chicago then that?

That said, there are many people more connected to the university than I am. I am just an alum. But I still feel connected to my alma mater. That’s why I’m writing this letter to argue that Ellison’s letter is on the wrong side of this issue in general, and in violation of our university’s long-held academic values in particular.

In some sense, Ellison’s letter has little to do with Chicago itself. A newcomer to the university, Ellison is a full-time administrator with no faculty appointment (as far as I can tell) and, worse of all, has a Ph.D. from Harvard: A light-weight, blue-blooded institution which all true Chicago grads recognize as far more concerned with maintaining its cultural capital than letting scientia crescat and vita excolatur (of course, it could be worse — he could be from Yale). Continue reading

“That” Moment of Clarity

Over dinner at a cozy beachfront restaurant in Florida, my dear friend from Costa Rica sadly talked about the devastating Orlando shooting that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others on a Latin theme night at the gay nightclub Pulse on June 12. As our conversation continued, she became more exasperated and eventually bewailed, “But these are my people!” For her, she went on, the heartbreak from the tragedy was the moment when she intensely felt her identity as a gay Latina for the first time. It was the moment she started to feel the strong impulse to stand up with other gay Latinx.

Another dear friend of mine Veronica Miranda, who started the organization “Coalition of Anthropology Students of Color” with me, once told me that it wasn’t until she left California for an anthropology graduate program in a staunchly conservative state when she became politicized. As she told me, “I never considered myself a person of color until I moved here and went to school here.” It was the moment when she came to the fuller sense of her identity as a Latina anthropologist. It was also the beginning of her advocacy for anthropology students of color.

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We’re Hiring a Social Media Intern!

DEADLINE FOR APPLICATIONS: SEPTEMBER 10, 2016.

We’re hiring! Are anthropology blogs and news part of your daily intake of internet media? Are you Twitter/Facebook/Instagram savvy? Then we’re looking for you!

Savage Minds is currently looking for a Social Media Intern.

The responsibilities of the Social Media Intern include sharing new and topical anthropology blog articles, anthropology-related and anthropology-relevant news articles, journal abstracts, memes, photos, etc. through our social media outlets (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), while maintaining a sort of social media voice or personality for Savage Minds (e.g. a sense of humor).

Ideally, the Social Media Intern already consumes of these sorts of media and has the spare time to fit in the sharing part. Undergraduates and recent graduates are highly encouraged to apply. (Speaking from experience, I did my internship with Savage Minds in my time between finishing my BA and starting my PhD.)

Unfortunately the job does not pay (money), but social capital is almost guaranteed (only valid with those that are impressed by an affiliation with Savage Minds). Savage Minds is willing to provide letters of recommendation after six months of service. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, after 12 months of service, the Social Media Intern has the opportunity to become a full-time writer for Savage Minds (which is what I did).

Applicants should email me (richard.powis@gmail.com) with a short paragraph about who you are and why you’re qualified, a recent CV, and links to your social media accounts.

DEADLINE FOR APPLICATIONS: SEPTEMBER 10, 2016.

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.

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Paul Friedrich, Dennis Tedlock, and Generational Change in Anthropology

(update: I incorrectly spelled  ‘Tedlock’ in the title of this post when it first went lived. This has now been corrected. Apologies.) 

It seems like I’ve been writing a lot of obituaries lately. Between Elizabeth Colson, Edie Turner, and Anthony Wallace and Raymond Smith, I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the past. Now, in close succession, we have also lost Paul Friedrich and Dennis Tedlock. It’s sad to record these passings, but I take some consolation in the fact that the people we remember have been so productive and matter so much to the people who mourn them — the world is richer for them having been in it. But in remembering these two today, I also want to talk briefly about how our discipline is changing, and what these demographic shifts might signal for anthropology’s future.

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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.”

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What does it mean to decolonize anthropology in Canada?

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Zoe Todd

I have an ambivalent relationship to Anthropology. And an even more ambivalent relationship to the idea of decolonizing it.

I work in Canada. I am from Treaty Six Territory in central Alberta, from a city that bears the nehiyawewin (Plains Cree, Y Dialect) name amiskwaciwâskahikan. I am Métis on my dad’s side of my family, with roots that stretch back to Métis communities throughout present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. I offer this introduction so that you can place who I am, who I am related to, and which territories I am bound to through movement, stories and time. I do so in order to ensure that readers and interlocutors can locate my knowledge in its own complex relationality to the places that I and my ancestors come from and moved through. I also provide this information to foreground the focus of my piece, which is a meditation on the visceral decolonization of the academy – and anthropology—here in Canada.

I had planned to write a post about the challenges of bringing Black and Indigenous scholarship into the classroom and into our published work in Canada, a country convinced of its moral standing and human rights excellence, yet which is regularly and wilfully blind to its vexing colonial violence. But a young nehiyaw (Cree) man, twenty-two year old Colten Boushie from the Red Pheasant First Nation, was shot and killed on a prairie farm in Saskatchewan last week after he and his friends sought help for a flat tire. And everything I think about this weekend as I write this post keeps coming back to this horrific death, and the inter-related realities of Black and Indigenous death at the hands of police and settlers, and the erasure of Black and Indigenous scholarship here in the lands within which we teach anthropology across Canada (and across the border in the United States). And I keep thinking about the logics and structures of academia as ‘white public space’ (Brodkin et al 2011) which produce narratives that normalize and even obscure the life and death of racialized peoples in favour of an undeniably white canon that resuscitates and re-animates white bodies into our classrooms ad nauseum (as Sara Ahmed so succinctly describes here). Continue reading

Anthropology and Organisational Change: Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect

Panda? No, I’m a Dog!

Classification and world making are the core concerns of anthropology. In- groups and out- groups, borders and boundaries  are the frameworks of  social and political order.  Sorting Things Out, as Bowker and Star put it,  or the social practice of classification is essential for  understanding how all kinds of organisations function in the contemporary world. It  can also provide a platform from which to change them.

Gillian Tett, an anthropologist and Financial Times journalist, makes this claim forcefully in her recent book. The Silo Effect. Why Every Organisation Needs to Disrupt Itself to Survive explores what happens when institutions become too entrenched in their own worlds to be able to see what lies outside them. Closed, self referential networks where socially constructed truths prevail and established ways of doing things are never challenged amount to silos which stifle innovation, limit adaptiveness and lead to organisational failure. Continue reading

Rethinking Pedagogy of Race in Anthropology, Part 1

Every time I see articles/essays about racial issues on media news, I often read through the comments posted from other readers to see what folks out there are thinking, and I occasionally get into heated debates with random online strangers. Some people may find it pointless to engage in conversations with bigoted individuals they don’t even know. But as I read more comments, I came to notice a pattern where the same rhetoric is repeatedly and pervasively used to dismiss racist incidents. And these strangers have no reservation in spattering around their reactions, as they call people of color oversensitive, whiners, over-reactionary, and reverse racists. They tell people of color, “Stop blaming white people for your own problems, focus more on assimilation, and get over the past!”

Who in the world taught these people about race and the history of racism??

Anyone teaching “race” would agree that it’s one of the toughest topics to teach. Looking back on the days when I taught introductory anthropology courses several years ago, I can still vividly remember the sense of dread while putting my lecture together. The university was in a relatively liberal pocket in the middle of a staunchly conservative state. The fact that the majority of the classes were filled with in-state conservative students shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Still, it felt like I was going to a Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of white Republican relatives – except that I had no choice. I had to go in there and talk about the social construction of racial categories and its devastating consequences.

My lectures on race began with a quick look at humans at the genetic/biological level. I felt that it was a necessary start for challenging the faulty biological basis of race before ushering the students into the most critical point – the social construction of racial categories. Subsequently I emphasized that we all belong to a species called H. sapiens, which is a single, highly variable species inhabiting the entire globe but has no biological subspecies or races.

What ironically resonates with this academic/scientific discourse however is the current perpetual colorblind narrative – “We are all humans, and so I don’t see any color and I don’t see you as a person of color! We need to abandon all racial categories!” This utopian post-racial sentiment profoundly dismisses the multiple histories of people of color in the U.S., as well as the histories of their struggles, sufferings, and courageous battles against oppressive white supremacy.

It’s not that my lectures on race completely left out the history of racism, as I briefly went over how racial categories and their given meanings came from white European colonialism and how they continue to be the root of contemporary racist climate. But with the limited amount of time allowed for the particular lectures, I spent too little time on the racial history, and ultimately perpetuated the colorblind post-racial rhetoric.

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Anthropology outside Anthropology, Part 2

You can find Part 1 here.

My patients sometimes present me with an opportunity to reflect on anthropological literature through our brief and yet candid conversations. By rule, we medical interpreters are not supposed to be friends with clients (both patients and providers), and thus we limit the amount of private time with them. Again, our fundamental responsibilities are to be a communication conduit, invisible and detached from the emotional exchanges between patients and medical professionals. It keeps us out of potential trouble, such as being asked for medical advice or personal assistance outside clinical settings (violation of HIPAA and Code of Ethics). Every time a patient asks me about her/his treatments, I have to tell her/him, “Let’s ask the doctor about it,” even if I know how I want to answer.

But when I accompany patients under long-term invasive treatments, we often end up with alone time. In such instances, I make sure that our conversation topics remain neutral and non-medical. And yet, we often develop a rapport, telling funny stories and laughing together. As I spend more time with them, some of the patients begin to confide in me about their struggles with their illnesses.

One of them, for instance, asked for my opinion on whether or not to wear a wig to cover up hair loss from chemotherapy. According to her, cancer patients in her home country typically prefer keeping their illnesses secret from people outside their families. Since her social network was mostly insulated within the community where the people speak only her native language, she was naturally inclined to follow the same trend. At the same time, crossing paths with her fellow cancer patients who were without wigs in the clinics led her to the realization that things were a bit different beyond her community. Still, she felt that going wigless would be like advertising her illness.

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Vale Elizabeth Colson

When Elizabeth Colson passed last month at the age of 99, anthropology lost one of its preeminent figures. Colson was a unique figure in many ways: She straddled the English and American anthropological traditions, rose to prominent positions of authority at a time when anthropology was still largely a men’s club, and exhibited a devotion to her research that few can match: According the Facebook post I was able to find confirming her death (thanks Hylton), Colson died and was buried in Africa.

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Epistemologies of Equilibrium Must Fall: Thinking beyond the many turns in Anthropology

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Nokuthula Hlabangane

“Modernity will never again, up to the present, ask existentially or philosophically for the right to dominate the periphery. Rather, the right to domination will be imposed as the nature of things and will underpin all modern philosophy.” (emphasis in original; Dussel, 2014: 32-33)

To divorce anthropology from the overall project of modernity would be disingenuous. Anthropology is an integral part of the arsenal that effected the us/them hierarchical dichotomy, the negative repercussions of which continue to haunt the geo-politics of our time. There is thus no question as to the need to decolonise the discipline. The question remains whether it is at all possible to decolonise the discipline, which some argue is more mired in coloniality than not. Exceptionalising anthropology as the unique colonising force in the human sciences misses the point. The sight of the colonising project of the human sciences, and the sciences in general, should not be lost even as we count the tally of the destruction that anthropology singularly wrought.  To be sure, we, in Africa who purport an Africanist, decolonial outlook, are viscerally aware of this destruction. We, who were trained in the discipline learnt, along the way, to come to it with gaping wounds, understanding fully well our untenable position as participants in a discipline that continues to cause so much pain, mainly because of its inability to engage in deep introspection. Our perhaps unrealistic hope is that we are awakened from the complicit role that we inevitably play by standing by its prescripts.

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Anthropology outside Anthropology, Part 1

“I’m an anthropologist by training and I work as a medical interpreter.” When I tell this to people from anthropology backgrounds, I often receive sympathetic groans from them, as if I fell out of anthropology heaven, wasting my graduate training. It certainly felt that way when I left academic anthropology. However, my medical interpreter job proved me wrong.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely thrilled about this job when the offer came to me at first. Having read numerous scholarly critiques of biomedical institutions during my studies in medical anthropology, I felt that I would be engulfed by biomedicine and end up working on the “wrong side” of the powerful (biomedicine)-powerless (patients) equation.

Anyone who has studied medical anthropology should be familiar with the canonical work in critical assessments of biomedicine (or Western medicine) by Arthur Kleinman, Byron Good, Margaret Lock, etc (for practical advice on working within biomedicine, see Kleiman’s essay “Anthropology in Clinic”). They warn us of the authoritative power of biomedical knowledge, which is so extensive that it permeates as legitimate cultural norms, values, and morals through our everyday lives. Specifically relating to my current job, some scholars caution about the negative consequences of medical interpreters in patients’ health outcomes: the interpreter as information gatekeeper and provider proxy (Hsieh and Kramer 2012), the interpreter as a covert co-diagnostician and institutional gatekeeper (Davidson 2001), and the interpreter as an ineffective mediator for meaningful clinical communications (Leanza, Bolvin, and Rosenberg 2010).

Despite my skepticism, the medical interpreter job hasn’t bulldozed over my principles as an anthropologist. And I credit this positive result to the medical interpreter certification program, as well as my training in anthropology. The interpreter training was carefully crafted to encourage prospective interpreters to learn how to focus strictly on being communication conduits between providers and patients, while also developing the ability to assess when to become a patient’s advocate. The instructor of this training program made us practice juggling these roles in various hypothetical scenarios over and over again.

Being detail-oriented, which I acquired from my ethnographic research as a part of the training in anthropology, helps me fulfill these medical interpreter roles as well. We interpreters are the eyes and ears of these complex medical situations, vigilantly attending to facial expressions of the provider and the patient and any words and sounds uttered by them. What our eyes and ears catch is instant data, so to speak, in order for us to identify miscommunications, distrusts, and disagreements between both sides of the equation. In this way, we can quickly step out of the communication conduit role and jump back in to help attenuate conflicts and tensions.

One unexpected benefit from my training in anthropology came to light through writing up mandatory post-appointment reports. My interpreter agency often commends me for my meticulous reports. Writing these reports certainly brings back some of the memories from my ethnographic research – Flashback: I’m sitting in my car at a gas station a couple of blocks away from one of my research sites and madly scribbling down every little detail I saw and heard during a long event where I just did participant-observation. I can later type this all up into a coherent story as a part of research data that will be coded and analyzed after the completion of the research.

Sure, writing post-appointment reports isn’t as complicated as typing up fieldnotes. But all of the words I jot down while interpreting my clients become something like the notes I took during my participant-observation, as I type them up into a post-appointment report – sometimes on my phone as soon as I get back to my car in the hospital parking lot. I honestly would have never thought that ethnographic research skills would be useful at a job outside anthropology.

To see Part 2, click here.

Journey between Two Languages

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Asmeret Ghebreigziabiher Mehari

As a non-native learner and speaker of Amharic, English, and Swahili, I have taken several journeys between these languages and my mother tongue, Tigrinya. Considering geopolitical domination and subordination, the passages between Amharic and Tigrinya or Swahili and Tigrinya are fewer than between English and Tigrinya. However, all crossings have similar purposes: to improve my comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing skills of these languages. In writing this post, I have taken a journey that merges Tigrinya and English in the service of two critical questions: 1) what role would a journey between two languages play in the process of thinking and writing about decolonizing archaeology?  2) What would the traveler feel and experience?

This journey took a few days to begin answering these two questions, but the first two days make the foundation of this and any future journeys.

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Ramadan Diaries: Week Three

[Note: Ramadan is long over, but due to some technical difficulties, our weekly entries were interrupted. With this entry on not fasting during Ramadan, we pick up where we left off.] 

Ramadan Diaries takes you into the Ramadan experience of two students of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, Oguz Alyanak and Dick Powis. They will be fasting amongst Muslims in two Francophone contexts, Strasbourg, France and Dakar, Senegal, respectively. By sharing brief notes on the fasting experience, the aim is to provide a reflexive account of participant observation as it is undertaken by two scholars with distinct backgrounds and field sites. This is the fourth entry in the series, you can read the Introduction, Week One, and Week Two here. 

Oguz Alyanak: Last week, I took the overnight bus from Strasbourg to Paris to attend a two-day conference. The six-hour bus trip, on Wednesday (to Paris) and Friday (back to Strasbourg), started at midnight. I boarded the bus less than two hours after breaking fast, and skipped my last meal of the day (sahur) because I fell asleep during both legs of the trip. So far, fasting has not been physically demanding. However, I was not sure whether my body would handle it while attending a conference tired and sleep-deprived. Hence, for the first time, I thought about skipping. The idea led me to think of my Ramadan experience, and particularly of its purpose, and what I made of it as part of my fieldwork. Continue reading