Around the Web Digest- August 21

Hi everyone! Hope your first days of class are going well! (If your first week of class is not going as well as you hope…may I suggest becoming a farmer?)

Here are some readings for the week!

Donald Trump loves to spread the gospel of American exceptionalism, however much of his goods are manufactured outside of the U.S. Jakarta Post publishes a photo essay about the irony of producing political souvenirs in Indonesia.

NPR interviews McGill University anthropologist Gretchen Bakke about her book The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Electricity Habit and how the U.S. is failing to embrace new energy infrastructure.

As a rare book collection from occupied East Jerusalem moves to West Jerusalem, archaeologists and activists worry about the political ramifications of moving Palestinian artifacts.

As the U.S. National Parks gears up for their first centennial, the racist history surrounding the National Parks has come into light. From the hunting grounds of wealthy white men and the displacement of indigenous groups in the name of conservation.

University of Chicago has caused much controversy surrounding their denouncement of “safe spaces”. Many have espoused the necessity of safe spaces for teaching students who experienced trauma. However, the question remains who is safe in these “safe spaces”?


Local Chicago activist Charles Alexander Preston

See you all next week!

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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Around the Web Digest- August 14

Hey everyone! Hope you are enjoying the last few days of summer before the academic grind starts for another year. Here are your readings for the week.

Akemi Johnson details the contested and racialized history of the term hapa in Hawaii. Identity, colonialism, immigration, and cultural appropriation all coalesce into what it means or does not mean to be hapa.

For those interested in gender and medical anthropology,  Buzzfeed reports on why some transgender activists in Japan are pushing to keep “gender identity disorder” among their psychiatric professionals.

Picking your own produce straight from the field may sound like a fun day for the family, but not the families of farmworkers who work in dangerous conditions and for low wages every other day of the year.

Multispecies ethnographers can enjoy the interplay of oysters, climate change, and sea farmers in Connecticut cough Anna Tsing? cough

What do you do when gentrification comes from within your own community? Citylab analyzes “gentefication” within Latino neighborhoods and the conflicts between keeping cultural heritage and displacing low-income residents.


See you next week!

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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A seat at the bar: Issues of race and class in the world of specialty coffee

For the third installment of the anthropologies food issue, we have an essay from William Cotter and Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson.* –R.A.

From a Caffeinated Elite to Average Joes

If you’re in academia, you probably have a very close relationship with coffee. For most Americans, coffee feels like a necessary part of our day, crucial to our higher-order cognitive functioning. Coffee has been a staple in American households and workplaces for over 100 years, and coffee as a commodity is one of the most widely traded and profitable items on the international market (Pendergrast 1999). In early 19th century, coffee served as a strong index for the elite classes of American society. It was expensive, often challenging to obtain, and was consumed primarily within prestigious social circles. However, the increasing reach of white European imperialism and the fine-tuning of the mechanisms of colonial trade and exploitation led to such resources becoming accessible to a wider range of consumers. In less than a century, the notion of coffee as a beverage consumed in the drawing rooms of the upper crust eroded. Coffee instead became a ubiquitous fixture of the American working class, tied to notions of cheery productivity and the booming prosperity of the American labor force (Jimenez 1995).

Figure 1
Source: Mitch O’Connell.

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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?

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

Archiving for the longue durée (Tools we use)

Do you backup? Good. But not good enough.

First, lets talk about backup. A good backup strategy should be regular, redundant, and involve multiple locations. Regular, so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you backed up your data the day, week, or month before you accidentally spill your soup on your keyboard. It should be redundant, so that if your backup drive was shorted out by the same thunderstorm that destroyed your computer you still have another copy. And it should involve multiple locations so that if a fire burns down your house there is still a copy of your most important stuff at your parent’s house.

There are lots of ways to make sure you meet these basic requirements. My solution involves:

I feel pretty good about this system. It may not be perfect, but it meets the minimal requirements I listed above. However, it isn’t good enough for me, and it might not be good enough for you either… 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

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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Please Don’t Shoot the Fact-Checker

Anthropologists seeking to communicate their research to general audiences are likely to work with fact-checkers. Here’s some advice on how to handle the process if you’ve been interviewed by a reporter.

I write a lot of emails that make me seem much less educated than I am. Why? I often work as a professional fact-checker.

In this capacity, it’s my responsibility to confirm the accuracy of the words someone else has written. I’m not conducting original research; I’m making sure that another writer got their facts right.

This usually entails contacting the experts the author chose to interview and asking them a series of questions to determine whether or not the wealth of information they provided to the author was adequately distilled into a handful of words. I frequently do this by rewriting the author’s article into a series of “yes” or “no” questions.

Years ago, I was fact-checking for a glossy magazine and wrote an email to a well-respected biological anthropologist who had been quoted in the story I was working on. I asked: “Did marriage evolve so that we can find someone to fall in love with, in order to reproduce?” I’d read enough Gayle Rubin to answer this question from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist. I had to remind myself that, as a fact-checker, my job was not to challenge the statement the scholar had made. My responsibility was to confirm that these were words this media-savvy scholar would have spoken. She answered with a simple “yes.”
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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.