Hackers, Hippies, and the Techno-Spiritualities of Silicon Valley

I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dutch anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen (PhD, Anthropology, Leiden University) in Sweden in October at an ESF Research Conference and learning about her fascinating research into the convergence of new age spirituality and new media discourses in and around Silicon Valley. I loved the idea of a Dutch anthropologist studying me and my friends in the eco-chic Burning Man hipster scene so I asked her to riff off of a few questions for this blog. Zandbergen talked about liminality, technoscience, the California ideology, ‘multiplicit style,’ secularization, studying sideways, liberalism, internet culture, ‘pronoia’, open-endedness, emergence, the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous self, the confluence of hackers and hippies in San Francisco, the usual…

(AF) What is New Edge and how did you conduct your fieldwork?

(DZ) The term New Edge fuses the notions ‘New Age’ and ‘edgy’, as in ‘edgy technologies’. In the late 1980s, founder of the ‘cyberpunk’ magazine Mondo 2000, Ken Goffman, used the term to refer both to the overlaps and the incompatibilities between the spiritual worldview of ‘New Agers’ and the ‘geeky’ worldview of the scientists and hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Such interactions were articulated in the overlapping scenes of Virtual Reality development, electronic dance, computer hacking and cyberpunk fiction. I borrowed the term New Edge to study the genealogy of cultural cross-overs between – simply put – the ‘hippies’ and the ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area, beginning with the 1960s and tracing it to the current (2008) moment.

The overlaps that I traced are related to one general idea popular within New Age as well as within hacker circles and relating to current transhumanist notions. This is the idea that humanity is involved in a process of ‘self-evolution’, leading to a future moment when all ‘intelligence’ in the world fuses into one holistic entity. Among others, this notion translates into practices whereby people seek to sensitize their bodies, making it ‘all-sensing’ and ‘all-knowing’ by means of high-tech and/or by practices such as meditation or ecstatic-dance. This idea is also married to a neoliberal image of the autonomous, individual self, who needs to ‘realize’ its true natural self by escaping social conditioning.

There are quite a few moments and places constituted both by hippies and hackers, where they celebrate a kind of common adherence to these ideas and practices. Examples are Virtual Worlds conferences, the Mondo 2000 magazine, the electronic dance scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s, psychedelic events such as the Mindstates conferences and the contemporary Burning Man festival. These ‘New Edge environments’ are perfect places where it can be studied how secular thinking is both a modern ideology as well as a social fact: here we can see how the secularist idea that technology and science are inherently incompatible with spirituality, mysticism or magic is contested. At the same time we can witness here how notions of secularization are still informing modes of distinction-making: the very ways in which hippies and hackers identify themselves to be different from each other, occurs in large part in reference to the alleged incompatibility between the spheres of ‘religion’ and ‘technoscience’. While enchanted by the open-ended ways of thinking of New Age, geeks here are just as much distancing themselves from the “wishy-washyness”, the alleged vagueness of New Age. Similarly, those identifying with the New Age discourse, distance themselves from the images of disembodiment, celebration of technological superiority and over-rationality attached to geek-hood.

In my dissertation, I explore such kinds of compatibilities and tensions at various levels. My research for this comprised a period of 12 months, spent in between 2005 and 2008, in the San Francisco Bay Area, while going from scene to scene, place to place and tracing overlaps in people, metaphors, ideas, practices, objects and styles in between the ‘hippie’ and the ‘hacker’ spheres that I here identified.

So, why is New Edge so prevalent in California?

This is a kind of question that has bugged me for a long time and I am open to all kinds of suggestions into the answer. What I am finding the most plausible answer at the moment – and this turns your question a bit on its head – is that New Edge may in fact be a celebration of California.

I can only say this granting that what makes New Edge unique is not necessarily the fact that it allies the ‘rational’ world of science and technology development with the mystical spheres of spirituality and religion. Such alliances can be found all over the globe. Instead, what is characteristic about New Edge, I believe, is the way that it manifests this alliance through its radical performative style and this may be what makes New Edge characteristically Californian. If you have been to Burning Man, and if we take Burning Man as one of the homelands of New Edge, you probably understand what I mean. The clothes, the art-cars, the music, the buildings, the rituals at Burning Man are all aspects of a performance of a way of being that is ‘authentic’, ‘flexible’, deliberately confusing and unconcerned with hegemonic cultural norms. In a larger sense, we can here see the performance of a radical notion of ‘open-endedness’ in terms of what we can do with our bodies, with our minds, with other people, with our material environment and with technology. In my dissertation there are some examples of this celebration of ‘multiplicit style’. Ironic language; the deliberate contrasting of colors, ideas and ways of being; and the celebration of confusion and chaos are all part of it.

In terms of ideas, this performance associates with neoliberalism, which is prevalent in many other places of the world. Yet, in terms of style, it self-consciously identifies, I believe, with (the image of) California. This observation is partially informed by the fact that my New Edge interviewees were manifesting a strong self-consciousness about being Californian, or being located in California, and particularly about knowing what this means in terms of lifestyle, aesthetics and ‘ways of being’ – cacophonous, optimistic, stylistically ‘loose’ – which was often juxtaposed against ways of being in other parts of the world and of the USA in particular. For instance, Jane Metcalfe, co-founder of Wired Magazine, when she arrived in California in the early 1990s, read the alleged open-mindedness of Californians into the colorful, bright, and crazy style of the buildings and the clothes of the people. And so did Mitch Kapor – developer of Lotus 1-2-3 and associated with many other organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation – explain to me the difference between the corporate worlds on the East and the West Coast by pointing to people in Californian offices wearing Hawaiian shirts. I believe that New Edge culture is firmly rooting itself in, and celebrating as such, California by exploiting this association between California and stylistic cacophony to its extremes. Just as the 1960s hippies of California used a particular style of being, of building, of dressing and talking to distinguish themselves from their notion of mainstream America, so are New Edge Californians embracing this style still to distinguish themselves from the ‘conditioned rest of the world’. Of course, this style is also strongly global in its aspirations and has gone global in many ways, which complicates your question yet again.

Your anthropological project is about the confluence of technological and spiritual imaginations. There is little discussion of political and economic power as part of the equation. Why is that and what would your theory look like if you had included power?

I see New Edge as a discourse that travels through and across different kinds of socio-economic and political niches. And being a discourse, New Edge is not something that defines, in any fixed sense, someone’s identity. Just bringing this back to Burning Man, for instance, people go there from different kinds of backgrounds. This is so in economic sense: some participants are millionaires and are funding for entire camps while others save up all year to be able to “come home”. For one camp leader that I met, going to Burning Man was a tremendous financial sacrifice – that she was more than happy to make – since she was in such debt that she had started living in a shed in her backyard while renting out her own house. Within the larger New Edge sphere, there is also relative diversity in terms of political philosophy. Some of my interviewees were quite outspokenly libertarians, others were very much opposed to libertarianism and celebrating social democratic values. The New Edge discourse has the capacity to unite such differences. It does so in its explicit rejection of political debate and its outward refusal to validate formal status roles and in its emphasis on the body, on style and on human consciousness. As such – just as the 1960s hippies did – New Edge quite deliberately manifests itself in non-political terms.

Perhaps because the core of my dissertation is concerned with a discussion of New Edge contested understandings of consciousness, nature, evolution, style, and the body, it may seem not to involve a discussion of politics and socio-economics. It would be good to make this more explicit in further work, but there is quite a lot of implicit attention in my work for the power-politics underneath this New Edge negation of politics. For instance, I give the a-historical self-imaginary of New Edge a history; I root the transcendental aspirations of New Edge in actual physical bodies; I show the material conditions that enable a place like Burning Man to be experienced in non-political, naturalistic ways and I am critical of self-narratives that are explicitly dismissing discussions of socio-economics. For instance, in a newspaper article published after Burning Man 2005, when Hurricane Katrina had hit and some burners had set off to the East Coast to help clear up the mess, the writer was arguing that burners were specifically predisposed to being able to do this work, where official government failed. This was so, he wrote, because burners had understood the “bedrock value of water, diesel, and serviceable tools.” He argued that Burning Man was all about learning such values and becoming self-reliant beings, making burners predisposed to “lead” when the larger socio-economic system collapses. Of course, “water, diesel and serviceable tools” are not values but material goods. Along with the free time that these burners had at their disposal to go to the disaster area, and with the technologies and kinds of jobs that allowed them to work from a distance, these material goods are quite characteristic of the privileged position that these burners are having within the socio-economic system they seek to replace. I have been similarly critical towards the New Edge ideology of radical open-endedness, its celebration of fluidity and of boundary-crossing, arguing how these notions of flexibility are quite gendered and exclusive of people who are socio-economically ‘stuck’ in the bodies and in their material circumstances.

So, in these ways I did bring in discussions of power into the equation, yet, I didn’t feel the need to extend this into a critique of New Edge. This is so in the first place because I have been mainly concerned with understanding New Edge living, and secondly because there is much of this type of self-criticism within New Edge circles as well. To draw a parallel, there is much critique, both from the political right and the left, regarding the alleged ‘hypocrisy’ of Occupy protesters since the system they are trying to transcend is simultaneously giving them the resources to protest. Occupiers are often aware of this paradox themselves, yet it is not stopping them to try and change the system. Similarly, there is a lot of such ‘double-consciousness’ going on within New Edge circles and rather than critique it, I see it as something that is so characteristic of reflexive societies today that it is extremely worth-while to study it ethnographically – in non-normative ways.

Some of your key interviewees are cultural writers just like you. Some anthropologists have discussed the lateral, horizontal, or interface ethnography when the anthropologist and informant share an equal power-field, discursive community, and skill set. What do your methods or research tell us about the ethnographic project not studying up or down but sideways?

Yes, all my interviewees were in fact habitually thinking with me, interested in meta-perspectives, in connections between different kinds of ideas, and some of them – Erik Davis and Ken Goffman most notably – are, indeed professional writers. Furthermore, most of my interviewees had also formally studied, read or been implicitly informed by anthropological literature and anthropological concepts. This was testified by the off-hand way in which the notion of ‘liminality’, or the concept of the ‘homo ludens’ was used to describe the nature of the Burning Man festival and of how people were here behaving. Also, documentaries and books were constantly produced within this cultural environment that dealt with the exact same convergences that I was seeking to study. At one point, I began to take photographs of the many impressively filled bookshelves of my interviewees as a way of visualizing this self-reflexivity.

One of the ways that I dealt with my ‘schizophrenic position’ being a researcher in a highly self-reflexive field, was by becoming alert to the differences in the ways that we handled theoretic, reflexive concepts. I saw it as one of my tasks to make these distinctions explicit. For instance, I noticed that when using the idea of liminality when talking about a place like Burning Man, my interviewees did not so much use it in the Turnerian sense of going through a period of chaos to become part of the structures of society afterwards. Instead, they were striving for a sense of permanent liminality, for a permanent detachment from structure. Anthropology, in this way, in fact became a kind of ‘New Age science’ (Hanegraaff 1996) – i.e. a scientific legitimation for quite mystical ideas.

In general, what my research tells me about the ethnographic project of ‘studying sideways’, first, is that the types of questions one asks as an ethnographer, as well as the types of relationships one builds and the type of insights one gains are quite different from what ‘classical anthropology’ is generally considered to be. Secondly, I believe that there is by far not enough attention to this in the larger academic anthropological sphere, nor for the ethnographic phenomenon of self-reflexivity in general. Most anthropological studies still take for granted that it is the anthropologist who is reflective and that the ‘respondents’ are not at all aware of what they do. This implicit notion, for instance, has led some ethnographers to conceptualize Burning Man as a religious space, where people experience true authenticity – through dance for instance – and where they are genuinely free from the consumer-oriented, artificial, rationalistic larger western society. Yet, what is not accounted for in such studies is not only that there is much consumption, artificiality and rationalistic ideology going on in and around Burning Man, but also that many burners are quite self-conscious about this. For instance, burners generally realize quite well that Burning Man is an artificial environment that may quite well enable the experience of extraordinary things that have a mystical, natural feel to it. This ‘double consciousness’, I believe, requires not so much a “willing suspense of disbelief”, but as Michael Saler (2004) recently wrote about the ironic imagination, a habit of mind that allows people to “willingly believe with the double-minded awareness that they are engaging in pretence.” When, as a researcher, you take into account also such kinds of reflexivity, and the ironic imagination in particular, you ask different – and in my opinion more interesting – questions about the cultural complexity of today’s post-industrial societies – about how people negotiate different kinds of frameworks and perspectives that are logically and knowingly incompatible.

A final comment I would like to make about ‘studying sideways’ is that this notion runs the risk of covering up the cultural complexity of today’s world. The notion suggests that there is some kind of plane that is shared by particular kinds of people, who can move ‘sideways’ to have a peek into each other’s affairs. Yet, much of my research in reflexive communities – both in California as well as in the hacker scenes of the Netherlands – still felt like treading on unfamiliar territory. At times it was clear that I shared much socio-economic and intellectual background with my interviewees. At other moments such similarities appeared only superficial and much interpretative and translative work needed to be done to bridge the many subtle ways in which we experienced and conceptualized the world differently.

A number of anthropologists studying digital culture, Biella Coleman and Chris Kelty among them, argue that many manifestations of computer culture can be traced back to classical liberal theory and an emphasis on individuality, freedom of expression, etc. Can you square your research with this ontogenesis?

Yes certainly. In fact, I believe it is this liberal aspect through which computer culture and New Age are related. The emphasis on ‘freedom’ and particularly on ‘liberation’, as well as on the expressive self and the self-evolving and self-realizing human individual, are themes that account in large part for the sympathies between the ‘hippies’ and ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area. These notions translate, for instance, into the celebration of technology as art, of technology creators as artists and into rituals that seek to ‘decondition’ human beings (as well as technology).

Yet, this understanding that New Edge has liberal grounding is only anthropologically meaningful if we understand liberalism here in a broad sense, as similarly understood also by Coleman (and no doubt also by Kelty). Whereas Steven Levy’s notion of the Hacker Ethic, as defined in his 1984 book Hackers, suggests for instance that hacker culture is liberal, this ethic rarely translates into one uniform mode of behavior or political attitude among hackers. As I learned from my research, and as Peter Samson, one of the hackers that Levy wrote about, told me, some hackers translate the notion of freedom into a radical libertarian ideology, whereas for others their engagement with computer technology ties in with their sense of social responsibility. This may be related to the experience of being the creator of a system that users don’t understand the technicalities of. Or it may come from having to agree, socially, on a set of ethics and rules of conduct within computer systems. I think ‘computer culture’, if there is such a thing, is characterized by an interesting tension between these two aspects – a sense of individual freedom and expression and of social responsibility. Such tensions most certainly characterize debates within this New Edge cultural sphere.

One of my observations, for instance, regarded the implementation of the ideal of Doing It Yourself at Burning Man. In self-reflective narratives, Burning Man seems to be all about Doing It Yourself, about creating your own reality ‘from scratch’, quite independent from the cultural notions and social constraints of the larger society. Yet, alongside this fantasy of individual autonomy, both in hacker culture and in New Age scenes, there is also a kind of opposite longing – a longing to fuse, to become one with some kind of larger environment. To put it bluntly, for hackers this is the intelligence of computer networks and for New Agers this is the wisdom of the universe. Yet, this longing for self-transcendence and fusion is often frustrated in the context of everyday life: the people I studied don’t generally find themselves living in systems that they trust. This may be due to the understanding that computer networks are controlled by (opaque) corporations and government agencies and that corporate and ideological hegemonic interests conspire with contemporary media technologies to ‘distort’ people’s ideas about reality and about who is to be trusted. This is why and how an environment such as Burning Man is important for my interviewees. It offers an environment of trust. Here one can give oneself over to a larger environment – to the hallucinogenic substances, the artworks, the food offered, the dances, the light-shows – that is created by people that are known or that can be known potentially. A sense of paranoia, experienced in the context of everyday life, is here transformed into a sense of ‘pronoia’. This term was first coined in the context of raves and refers to the notion that the universe conspires to give you exactly that what you need. Both paranoia and pronoia are rooted in the awareness of being part of and controlled by a larger system, yet, paranoia comes from having to depend on a system that cannot be trusted and pronoia comes from giving oneself over to a system that is trusted. This divide informs much of the social embeddedness of the liberal belief in individual autonomy. This is the case at least in the context of New Edge but I think also in the context of hacker culture more generally.

Your work is mainly about a period of time between 2005-2008. This culture moves fast. If you were to continue this specific project where would you go and what would you do?

While you are right in the sense that technocultural development moves fast, I am quite interested in studying certain continuities within the technocultural landscape of post-industrial societies since the 1960s. What I’d love to continue doing, for instance, is to focus on the historically developed cultural tensions that I observed in this New Edge environment, and to see how these tensions intersect with the kind of technocultural negotiations that are taking place in the Netherlands today – and probably in other places as well.

For instance, one tension that I find characteristic of the New Edge environment is what I just discussed: on the one hand, there is a lot of commentary and experiential testimony of the notion that people today are becoming more and more part of opaque, complex, incomprehensible corporate and technological networks. At the same time, what remains firmly standing in this environment is the ideal of the autonomous self-possessed human individual – expressed in the ideologies of Doing It Yourself, Creating Your Own Reality and the notion that it is possible to use these otherwise complex technologies to have some kind of transparent access to Reality. I think you could say that two different notions of what technology is, are here converging: on the one hand technology is conceived of as an enveloping system. On the other hand it is seen as a tool that one can use to realize one’s individual desires.

This is one tension that I am now seeking to study in the context of technocultural negotiations in the Netherlands today: within New Edge, as well as in the larger context of technology innovation in the Netherlands, the artistic sphere has played a large role in fostering the notion of technology being inherently and ultimately flexible, complex and unexpected in its outcomes. Various tech-art institutions in the Netherlands have been wedded to this notion, and have co-operated with hackers and artists to study the flexibility of technology, to push it to its limits and to solicit unexpected results – the ideals of multiplicity, open-endedness and emergence, are quite important here, and wedded also to the idea that, ultimately, what it means to be human is open-ended. Some of these artistic institutions have received government subsidies for their explorations, sometimes in combination with corporate or private investment. Yet, recently in the Netherlands, a cultural atmosphere has emerged that is extremely hostile towards art, and towards any kind of practice that does not straightforwardly produce a tangible profit-making product. This negative atmosphere is intensified by parties now in parliament that have successfully pushed for extreme budget-cuts, targeting specifically art institutions. So, currently, only institutions that are capable of producing concrete, profit-making products as part of their technological explorations, paradoxically, remain eligible for subsidy.

In this context, the institutions that I am seeking to study are having to intensify their negotiation of two technological frameworks that are different and conflicting in the ontological sense: on the one hand, the notion that technology is open-ended, and on the other hand, the notion that technology is a tool, used to solve identifiable problems, catering to the demands of the markets and able, in this way, to generate profit and to justify its own existence. An overarching question that I have, while seeking to study these ontological and institutional negotiations between different understandings of technology, is regarding the political, material and socio-economic bases for the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous, DIY individual – since I believe it is this ideal that is present in both ontological frameworks and that may reveal their common basis – and that may reveal what both accounts leave out of the equation.

And yes, this research does not involve a study of Virtual Reality software but addresses any kind of technology that is now attracting the attention of artists, hackers and corporations – most significantly being new forms of energy-generation tools, new kinds of sensor-based mobile technologies, and bio-nanotechnologies.

In December 2010 Zandbergen finished her PhD dissertation, “New Edge: Technology and Spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area,” on the dynamic relationship between new forms of spirituality and politics on the one hand, and digital technologies on the other, as shaped in the past 30 years in Silicon Valley, California. A book chapter was recently published, “Silicon Valley New Age: the co-constitution of the digital and the sacred” in Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital. She elaborated on her dissertation in a recent post, “Combining Extreme Distrust and Spastic Bursts of Blind FaithWhat New Edge Culture has to say about Todays Schizophrenic Information Society.” Previously she has taught the course “Anthropology of the Information Society” at the University of Leiden. She is presently a Postdoctoral scholar at the University of Leiden in “The Future is Elsewhere” program. 

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

77 thoughts on “Hackers, Hippies, and the Techno-Spiritualities of Silicon Valley

  1. I find myself wondering to what degree OWS might be seen as a New Edge phenomenon, thinking, in particular, of radical rejection of authority structures as well as the performance style.

  2. good discussion …

    suffers from being too academic, and hence rather behind the times as far as a real “new edge” …

    really needs to understand the “spiritual” forces at play, and the transformation of consciousness that is cause, more than effect.

  3. McCreery #OWS has little of the techno-utopianism of New Edge, we are based in practice with an almost actionist skepticism of the dreamy disembodied libertarian worlds envisioned by New Edgers. There is alot of the communal pronoia in the general assemblies and marches.

    Gregory, I feel Dorien gets that the consciousness of liberalism in its many empowering forms drives the manifestations of New Edge.

  4. McCreery: I indeed think that a lot of what is informing New Edge is also informing the OWS, among others anti-authoritarianism, DIY practices, and perhaps particularly for the West-Coast Occupy movements a particular performative style – I find your comment on that interesting, I have been noting quite some stylistic differences between Occupy Amsterdam and what I have seen from Occupy SF or LA. (my colleague Marianne Maeckelbergh is actually studying the various Occupy movements, including regional differences). Yet, these cultural orientations (DIY, anti-authoritarianism, etc.) are also informing many other kinds of practices the world over and particularly in the global North – i.e. networked technology development, ecovillages, New Age spirituality etc. What I have called New Edge comprises a particular way in which these (neo)liberal orientations are (ironically) related to the mystical elements of New Age, which is something different from saying that OWS is New Edge.

    Adam in reply to Gregory: yups, get that 🙂 Yet, Gregory, I don’t like to speak in terms of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ here..

  5. From a theoretical perspective, I find all this fascinating. When I had students, I used to teach them that cultural phenomena are like the wedding dress described as “Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.” I underlined “blue,” which I read as a reminder that there is always something that someone is unhappy about. That is where the motivation for innovation and borrowing comes from. The takeaway is that I always assume that there are similarities as well as differences and see the task of ethnography as sorting them out.

  6. Given the repeated invocations of “double consciousness”, it is noteworthy that this very long and otherwise detailed discussion does not explicitly foreground and analyze the role hegemonic whiteness, white privilege, and the normativized white body occupy/play in relation to New Age, hippiness, and hackerdom: especially since the term “double consciousness” is associated with W.E.B.DuBois, and I could not help but think of the ways in which a white Dutch anthropologist/body would–however unconsciously–be understood and read as familiar and non-alien by many of those who are being identified as New Edge and were this Dutch anthropologist’s informants, such that such a white anthropologist/body would thus able to study hippy-hacker communities in a way that a non-white anthropologist, especially if black (and dark-skinned), would not–even if this non-white anthropologist were American. 

    Perceived similarity–including unconscious race/gender identifications and biases–are also part of the story of studying ‘sideways’, and thus should be part of this discussion: especially given recent discussions of how Silicon Valley is not the pure meritocracy it purports to be such that whiteness and maleness become integral to mentoring, funding, and promotion of tech entrepreneurs and their ventures, as well as hiring and career advancement more generally. There is a hierarchy of **perceived** similarity and difference which produces the very same ‘hegemonic norms’ New Edge purports to reject, despite individuals conscious intentions.

    Moreover, one cannot discuss the embodied practices of New Edge–particularly in relation to public nudity, including in spaces like Burning Man–without discussing the racialized relation ontologies of bodies (i.e. the body as relational ontology) and the ways in which white bodies, and their nudity, are constructed, perceived, and understood in relation to hypersexualized, hypervisible non-white bodies (especially black bodies, against which they are constructed as being most different). In the European (and specifically German) context, anthropologist Uli Linke has written about (nudity and) this racialized embodied difference.

    I am pointing out this evacuation of race (i.e. explicit discussion of the role of normative whiteness and white bodies and their race/gender-specific experiences and modes of embodiment, especially in relation to New Edge) because it is a recurring blindspot in anthropological discussions of embodiment, neoliberal subjectivities and subjectifying processes, power and social relations, including on this site. Moreover, it is a noteworthy occlusion/exclusion in the context of the above discussion given the mention of Hurricane Katrina, an event that foreground America’s ongoing racial caste system/racial stratification, especially in the commentary of CNN Wolf Blitzer’s discussion of those left behind in the Superdome as “so poor, so *dark*.” (Emphasis in the original, not added by me.)

    So while I enjoyed the above discussion, I also hope it will be a first step to thinking more critically about how whiteness and white privilege–and blindness to it (i.e. ‘sanctioned ignorance’)–inform both New Edge and the production, discussion, reception, and circulation of anthropological scholarship.

    “The clothes, the art-cars, the music, the buildings, the rituals at Burning Man are all aspects of a performance of a way of being that is ‘authentic’, ‘flexible’, deliberately confusing and unconcerned with hegemonic cultural norms. ”

    One needs to think more critically about the extent to which whiteness and white bodies themselves are a ‘hegemonic norm’ of both concern, and a lack thereof (i.e.white privilege and its disavowal), to/within New Edge and the forms of embodiment/embodied experience it values and valorizes–both consciously and unconsciously. So yes, double consciousness indeed. Especially in relations to ‘studying sideways’ in a racially-stratified New Edge, California, US, and world.

    No racist anthropology, intentionally or not.

  7. Mariam, You are correct, we’ve failed to address how racial semiotics have played into Dorien’s access and the constitution of the New Edge culture at large. Artificial boundaries are drawn around research subjects and little blog posts like. Ethnographers must focus on a few manageable research questions to the exclusion of other issues. Race in Silicon Valley, Burning Man, and techno-spiritual culture of San Francisco is an under investigated issue. Not theoretically but practically, methodologically, how do you think we could go about collecting data on race in our research domains? How could you help practically in this project? I for one would love your collaboration.

  8. Hi Mariam,

    Thanks for your critical comments.

    As with every outspoken inclusivist, liberal, allegedly “open” cultural movement – from the hippies of the 1960s to the Open Source and New Edge phenomena of today – there are always long-standing mechanisms of exclusion being reproduced. I agree that these should be made explicit in anthropological studies and it hasn’t been discussed specifically in this blog post. In my dissertation on this I discuss in more detail how New Edge reproduces some of the hegemonic values it purports to criticize, and I did so with particular attention to gender. Having spent quite some time as a female in the tech-world, gender developed into one of the specific sensitivities I bring with me into the field. Yet, my main question concerned the relationship between New Age and high-tech and the most work that I put into my dissertation had to do with 1) nuancing/breaking down long-standing notions that spirituality and tech are incompatible and 2) make insightful how they combine in everyday life in the context of New Edge. With this being my focus, even my discussion of gender doesn’t occupy much space. And though the whiteness of an event like Burning Man didn’t escape me, race has only been mentioned briefly in my work, when trying to understand the appeal of New Edge for my respondents: I briefly mention how an Afro-American and a gay respondent *themselves* feel that the rave community breaks hegemonic hierarchies down.

    So, like Adam I was going to ask you: if you consider anthropological work that doesn’t discuss race in specific ‘racist anthropology’, how would you imagine non-racist anthropology to look like? How would you take your observations about racial exclusion a step further? What kind of research would be necessary to address this in a way that you find more satisfying?

  9. To answer Dorien’s question, which I have really taken time to think about: I think one needs to look at the AA article linked to above, and think about why APA is doing a better job of addressing (its) institutional racism (and sexism) issues. And here I do think methodology is being influenced by theory. There is an entire school/strong tradition of social psychology research on prejudice, implicit bias, and aversive racism (i.e. non-conscious forms of racism and bias which occurs even when people are convinced they don’t have racist beliefs and motivations, such that they still make racially-biased decisions and engage in racially-biased actions) that would make it possible for APA to less frequently run into the ‘but I didn’t intend to be racist so don’t tell me that I was’ practices/resistance/denial/disavowal discussed in ‘Anthropology as White Public Space?’.

    Despite all its talk about self-reflexivity, anthropology and anthropologists are not very self-reflexive when it comes to race, racism, and the **daily practices**/institutional and cultural norms and forms which make (white) racial privilege possible. And if one is not confronting the concept of implicit bias, aversive racism, and the (Durkheimian) social fact that racism occurs despite good intentions, then one is going to produce anthropological scholarship in which white anthropologists feel like they don’t have to think about race and (their) whiteness, and add race in ‘after the fact’ because they understand race/racial analysis as epiphenomenal, instead of as constitutive to their entire anthropological project precisely because not having to notice and think about race–at every turn, especially because of how (negatively) people treat/react to you, whether they consciously intend to or not–is itself all about a racialized/raced experience of the world: it is a racial subjectivity and a racial identity, even in the same moment that one may feel and claim that one does not (have) a (white) racial identity. The ability to feel like one does not need to think about race/being white and to feel that one does not have a racial identity/identify as white IS white racial identity: precisely because it is a function (and I am not make a functionalist argument per se) of racial privilege and living in a world, a web of social relations, in which some people never/rarely have to think about ‘race’ (if they don’t want to) because they–their actions, motivations, bodies–are considered the norm and not marked as racially Other. So if a white anthropologist gets to the end of his or her project and hasn’t written about race, and notices that his/her primarily white informants weren’t talking about it and thinking about it either, then this should be the very beginning of one’s analysis: especially in a country like the US where race structures and (over)determines so much, the very (social) fact that people–both anthropologists and non-anthropologists–think otherwise should be a starting point for anthropological discussion and for anthropological instruction, especially at the level of graduate education. 

    Classes on how the daily practices of white supremacy structure one’s entire worldview such that one is thinking about race even when one thinks one isn’t thinking about race need to be taught. Classes specifically interrogating white privilege and whiteness need to be taught: and to this end, a blog like Sociological Images, which constantly highlights and challenges normative, taken-for-granted assumptions–and the privilege they (re)present and (re) produce–is a model of the kind of analysis which should be foundational to anthropological practice and scholarship, especially if anthropologists want to be substantively self-reflexive. Classes on implicit bias and aversive racism need to be foundational to anthropological training, especially at the graduate level. Reading and discussing articles like the Cynthia Feliciano et al. article linked to below should be mandatory, as a way to get anthropologists (and others) to really understand what concepts like implicit bias, aversive racism, and racial/white privilege mean and look like (and are manifested/enacted–daily–despite people’s self-professed beliefs and espoused intentions); because this is what real self-reflexivity in relation to (one’s) race, racism, and privilege looks like: http://paa2008.princeton.edu/download.aspx?submissionId=80046

    Anthropology sites, including Savage Minds, need to do a better job of interrogating the daily practices that produce and privilege whiteness and racial privilege. They need to be better able to discuss racism and white privilege without shutting down topics because white anthropologists are feeling uncomfortable having to think about their own whiteness and white privilege. Many of the topics discussed on sites like Jezebel, Racialicious, We are Respectable Negroes, and Sociological Images, to give a few examples, should also be discussed here. And given the recent comments by Andrew Sullivan defending The Bell Curve, and the recent derogatory comments by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum about black people (as well as the racist comments previously published in Ron Paul’s newsletters), it strikes me as noteworthy that none of this is really being discussed here, or on many other blogs written by well-known anthropologists. Given how much ‘the white racial frame’ and ‘dog whistle racism’ are factoring into the 2012 presidential election, the dearth of anthropological commentary and analysis is revealing. 

    Concepts like ‘the white racial frame’ and ‘dog whistle racism’ should be familiar to–and widely discussed–by anthropologists: especially when living and working in a white-supremacist country. And the very term ‘white supremacy’ should be critically interrogated widely enough so as to not have most anthropologists thinking that I am referring to right-wing groups like the KKK and Aryan Nation. Going back to Socioogical Images, anthropologists should recognize (and re-cognize) the myriad ways in which this country is (in sociological fact) a country structured through, by, and around white norms and white people: from residential segregation to advertising to electoral politics to dating and marriage practices (and preferences).

    That’s all, for now.

  10. Just to clarify so as to make sure my previous comment is not understood as polemic, and to make clear how it directly relates to Dorien’s work in/on and in relation to Silicon Valley, my previous comment is discussing the ways in which anthropologists can be aware of and thinking critically about (their own) whiteness and how, as Mitch Kapor has miself written, Silicon Valley becomes a ‘mirror-tocracy instead of a meritocracy’. So my comments were both a project-specific response, and a general suggestion for how to train anthropologists to think about whiteness and why it matter.

    The following article, which I previously sent Adam, links to Kapor’s ‘mirror-tocracy’ comments.

  11. Discuss White Privilege, you are on point and hit it on the nail. Thank you for such along and thought provoking analysis . This adds an incredibly important facet to this dialogue.

  12. I meant ‘a long’, not ‘along.’

    Your comments were not polemical at all to me, but quite necessary. I see how it connects to Dorien’s work, but thanks for clarifying it for others who may not have critical race literacy and/or are unable to see interconnectedness.

  13. Given the non-response to my *directly* answering Adam’s and Dorien’s questions, I have to wonder if they were sincerely asked. There seems to be an aversion to really, substantively engaging the issues of structural, institutional, and unconscious racism–and white privilege–raise by “Anthropology as White Public Space?”. Savage Minds authors consistently refuse to mention or engage the article. Why?

    Especially given the following article on racial exclusion and white privilege in relation to Hollywood/LA and media/representation, I have to wonder why anthropologists who openly espouse a commitment to antiracism and social justice won’t engage the Brodkin et al. article (or my answers above): http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/01/black_oscar_snubs.html. 

    We, as anthropologists, should be able to think critically–and discuss honestly and openly–the daily practices of white supremacy, and how we are implicated in and reproduce them.

    Silence, ignoring, and dismissal is itself about white power and white privilege–because one does not have to care about racism one is benefitting from, and can simply ignore those cast(e) as racial subordinates (who are never truly treated as equals).

    And if my comments elicit(ed) anger, it is worth thinking about this *anthropologically* too. After all, as Catherine Lutz wrote in Unnatural Sentiments: emotions are an index of social relation(s), not simply an internal individual state.

  14. @Discuss White Privilege

    What you say is entirely true. It has, alas, been said too often before. The message is stale. The tone is strident. Given that anthropologists study all sorts of stuff and as individuals have lots of other, to them, more pressing issues to worry about, yet another rant with the same content in the same irritating tone. Why, omitting moralizing rhetoric, would you expect anyone to listen?

    I’m not saying this as a put down. I am asking you pragmatically, as someone who has had a long career in advertising, how you expect to get your message across. Blaming the audience? That’s absolutely counterproductive.

    I think of Martin Luther King and ask myself why he has a monument in Washington and Huey Newton doesn’t. Martin appealed to all of us, evoking values we shared, encouraging us to dream big dreams. Huey got hung up on black power and became as much a cartoon as an Irish ward heeler in South Boston. Rage, guns, Panthers=Rage, guns, IRA, basically the same shtick. Equally weak at the end of the day. You might want to think about that.

  15. It is interesting how you chose to speak for all anthropologists in saying that anthropologists have more important subjects to study. And this is exactly why anthropology continues to be white public space. Perhaps for you, because you are benefitting from white supremacy, the topic does not seem more important. Your comment is shockingly power-evacuated, and as a result, I sufficiently anthropological.

  16. I am sorry, John McCreery, but your comments–and tone–are incredibly racist and condescending. You find my tone strident and my comments irritating because of your own biases–however unconscious of the you maybe–about irrationally-angry, hypersensitive black people. Nowhere in my comments do I come close to making statements that are in fact angry, I simply am direct and engaging the same issues raised in th AA article on anthropology as white public space. As I tried to write before, your comment is insufficiently anthropological for its lack of concern with social relations and power asymmetries, especially given my explicit address to an anthropological *we*. Moreover, the issue is thinking critically–and anthropologically, not marketing. After all, do anthropologists say the following to their informants?: sorry, I can’t think critically about that (statement) because it makes me uncomfortable and was not well-marketed to me?

  17. @Discuss White Privilege

    I most assuredly do not speak for all anthropologists. I observe, however, that among those I know off or online, white privilege is not currently a hot button issue. In this respect, what you say seems entirely correct. My question is why in the world you think it should be? Given the enormous variety of things that people study these days, on the one hand, and the worries about jobs, tenure, and the future of academia that everyone seems to talk about these days, isn’t it a little naive to expect that a call to remount the barricades to fight white privilege will attract a lot of interest?

    Or, looking at the question from another perspective, is it white privilege that is truly the burning issue of the day or the 99% versus 1% business that drives OWS? Is using angry accusations in an effort to move a bunch of largely white liberals to breast-beating self-criticism an effective political act? If you think so, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

  18. @Discuss White Privilege

    One last thought. Remember what that arch-bastard Republican pollster but maybe the smartest propagandist since Joseph Goebbels, Frank Luntz says, “It’s what they hear that counts. Not what you intended to say.”

    Suppose that I were what you claim I am, in thrall to subconscious racist attitudes and assumptions. How, precisely, is your analysis and the way you present it supposed to be changing that?

  19. @John McCreery: Again, your comment is not sufficiently anthropological. You are not analyzing or addressing the power relations that make these people–both white–arbiters of what’s ‘important’. Or should I say, ‘Important’–capital I? (And yes, I do mean *capital*–financial, social, cultural, symbolic. Again, the issue is power and social relations.)

    Additionally, the Occupy movement is not separate from any of the issues of structural racism I have raised. Do you know the historical origin of the term Wall Street? 

    One cannot talk about the housing-market collapse or foreclosure crisis without discussing predatory lending that both first and disproportionately targeted Blacks and Latinos. What are the race/gender demographics of the 1%, or of the CEO/top executives–or Silicon Valley (executives), to relate this directly back to the post which started this comment stream–and why? So the issue of *structural and institutional* racism IS important, fundamental to, and imbricated in the very topics you anointed the ‘important’ topics of the moment.

    Furthermore, given how racism actually *kills* people and shortens their lives of people–for millions in the US, and billions globally–I think it’s a pretty important topic. And certainly not one anthropologists should be marginalizing.

    And as for how people hear what I have to say, I think we should all be more honest about the extent to which the interpretation is actually not about how I package–or repackage–my message; the issue is about the fact most (white) people not wanting to hear any analysis of white privilege at all, and especially not from a black person and a black woman. So the issue most certainly is ‘packaging’: I come in the wrong ‘pagkage’ to be listened to with respect, to be listened to at all, to be seen as authorized to speak (especially about racism), and to be heard without being saddled with a host of racist-sexist stereotypes about Angry Black People/Angry Black Women.  And given that these are issues directly related to OWS and the financial struggles of the ‘99%’, and issues affecting President Obama and the First Lady, I think what I have said is in fact–in sociological and historical fact–important, and certainly subject matter anthropology should be engaging and thinking critically about.




  20. “Wall Street and slavery are connected in other ways. Wall Street got its name because of a physical wall built there along the river to protect New York City from invasion. Slave labor built the wall and much of the city. Slave auctions were held at the foot of Wall Street when ships carrying enslaved Africans arrived.”

  21. @Discuss White Privilege

    OK, let’s do it. Let’s have a full blown discussion of white privilege. Let’s talk about power, too.

    I suggest that the correlation of whiteness and privilege is breaking down and that any adequate theory of “white” privilege and power in America has to explain outliers like

    Franklin Raines – Budget Director in the Clinton Administration, later CEO of Fannie Mae

    Colin Powell -Chairman of the Joint Chiefs , Secretary of State

    Eugene Robinson – Puliitzer Prize winning journalist, frequently invited to comment on news events on MSNBC.

    Henry Gates – Literary critic, educator, scholar, full professor at Harvard

    Herman Cain – Entrepreneur, Republican Presidential Candidate

    Oprah Winfrey – Arguably the most powerful woman in America, certainly among the most influential.

    Barack Obama – That guy. The one I’ll be backing for a second term as POTUS.

    Please bear in mind that I am old enough to have graduated from a segregated high school. An uncle was undersecretary of agriculture in the Nixon administration. When my cousin Ann graduated from her finishing school in Georgia, Senator Richard Russell, then Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee showed up to give the graduation address. I suspect that I read Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma before you were born. White privilege? I know a bit about that from first-hand experience.

    Ball’s in your court. Tell me something I didn’t know decades ago.

  22. @john McCreery: the list you have given is precisely NOT a full-blown discussion of white privilege. In fact, it is just the opposite. And given that you resorted to this list, it does not even seem that you understand or know the definition of white privilege as it is used in race-critical studies (or critical race scholarship, critical legal studies). Giving the names of a few individuals–many of whom directly benefitted from government-mandated affirmative action programs (as Colin Powell himself acknowledges of his own career) does not mean that whiteness is not and does not continue to be a *structural* privilege.

    It is quite clear from your response–which was again condescending–that you view me as a subordinate who really can’t teach you anything. Yes, I am certainly younger than you, but I hardly think this is why you are so resistant to concede that perhaps you don’t know what you are talking about.

  23. @john McCreery: perhaps if you stopped focusing on what you think you already knew ‘decades ago’, you would remember that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested in July 2009. Bringing the issue of continuing white privilege (and its ongoing denial) and structural racism (including racial profiling) front-and-center.

  24. Right, as if structural inequality will be solved by two individuals having one photo-op lunch with the president. Tahoe thinks that an Occupy protester and the Chairman of Citibank having lunch with Obama will solve economic inequality that results in the ‘99%’?
    Rhetorical question, at this point.

  25. Once again an excellent post followed by an intriguing exchange of comments. One comment that struck me as odd was Mr. McCreery’s actual list. It seemed like a set up for an easy and unavoidable refutation, but maybe I’m reading too much into it.

    The question that immediately sprang to mind as I viewed the list was, “what about the other percentage of African Americans that are not multi-millionaires, politicians, influential people?” Certainly, it could be argued that the basis of a critique against White privilege rests on a comparable list (with “whites” of course) however, this view would overlook the socio-historical nuances imbedded in systematic structural inequalities hinted at (and further fleshed out) by Discuss White Privilege.
    In any event,the quality of information exchanged between commentators is notable and worthy of mention.

    P.S. Discuss White Privilege, Your comments are thought-provoking! I wanna thank you for sharing the information you have in your possession–I found myself a week ago reading the White Public Space essay prior to seminar.

  26. @T’arha.

    The difference between us is that I am old enough to remember when none of the people on that list would have achieved elite status for one simple reason: They are all black. White privilege was absolute; whites and blacks were different castes, blacks sat in the back of the bus, drank from blacks-only water fountains, used blacks-only restrooms, went to black-only schools. Then a lot of changes occurred. Martin Luther King led a crusade that recruited and embraced white as well as black supporters. My high school, segregated until the year I graduated, was about 50% kids from military families. When the Department of Defense said integrate or lose your impacted area funding, racism wasn’t nearly as strong as the almighty dollar.

    You know, and I know, that America is not a utopia. Structural violence is real. Children who grow up in ghettoes and go to ghetto schools are trapped in situations that restrict their opportunities, leave them ill-equipped to compete, and, yes, shorten their lives. Those who escape are rare. What has happened, however, is that the end of legally sanctioned white privilege has allowed members of the black middle class (there has always been one) to send their kids to elite schools and pursue careers at the highest levels.

    Thus the point I am making. Privilege is real, and it helps a lot if you live in nice neighborhoods, go great schools, have parents who can pay for special classes and travel opportunities. The question I have is whether the concept of “white” privilege is either theoretically or politically useful in a world where the one color that really counts is green.

    I remember reading about how the British Raj ruled India, playing castes against each other to keep potential rebels and revolutionaries divided. I wonder if black or Hispanic people who suffer from structural violence because they are shunted off into ghettoes and jobs that other people don’t want don’t have more in common with white rednecks who, yes, are racist as hell—what else do they have to cling to?—than affluent folk of all sorts of colors who aren’t about to put our comforts at risk for people who insist that we are so different from them, the gap is too big to be crossed. Sure, you can rattle our cages, even make us feel guilty for a minute or two. How that is going to be effective politics, I simply do not understand.

  27. @john McCreery
    You should actually read the links I included in my comments. They make clear–especially the one from the Berkeley Blog–that the only color that matters is NOT green, and that most racial bias occurs absent conscious ‘choice’ and conscious intent. And this is why the concept of white privilege is important. Racial bias affects afuent blacks and Hispanics too. See the work of John Dovidio on *aversive racism*, as well as Rodolfo Mendoza Denton: to start. And then read the recent Pro Publica report on how presidential pardons heavily favor whites. Study after study confirms, statistically, that bias exist–and favors whites–despite people believing or openly professing not to be racist, to be colorblind. Structural inequality is not simply a matter of class, it is also a matter of race.

    People have unconscious and implicit biases. And this is why you have branded me and my comments ‘strident’ and ‘militant’ and continue to make ahistorical and factually innacurate claims about Martin Luther King (again, actually read the Jason Antrosio link I included from Living Anthropologically). You keep claiming–erroneously, and in a fashion consonant with antiblack stereotypes and not based on what I have actually written–that I am making claims I am not making: I am not trying to ‘guilt’ white people, I am not advancing a ‘black power’ agenda, I am not a ‘disadvantaged’ black person from an impoverished background. And I am very much critiquing whiteness in the way that Dr. King did: structurally. I am more than happy to work in coalition with white people to dismantle white supremacy, structural inequalities, and yes, white privilege.

  28. @John McCreery – Additionally, from your comments it does not seem like you have actually read the AA article “Anthropology as White Public Space?”. You are engaging in several of the problematic behaviors discussed therein, making assumptions not borne out by what people of color have to say for themselves about how they experience race–and racism.  Trying talking to Tim Wise, who is a white antiracism activist, about why he thinks acknowledging white privilege is important. He writes prolifically on the subject, and the daily experience and benefits of whiteness.

  29. @ T’arhe – glad you found my comments thought-provoking. Thank you.

    That’s what I’m trying to do: provoke critical thinking and substantive anthropological self-reflexivity.

  30. I shouldn’t allow myself to be drawn into this thread again. But seriously, when you write,

    That’s what I’m trying to do: provoke critical thinking and substantive anthropological self-reflexivity.

    what material outcome are you seeking?

    Some years ago, when I was International Vice Chair of Democrats Abroad, a friend asked why Bill Clinton hadn’t appointed an anthropologist to his presidential commission on race. I observed that if you counted every American anthropologist as a potential vote, the constituency in question amounts at best to a small town. Also, anthropologists, like other liberals, tend to be cheap when it comes to donations. No votes, no money to speak of. Mistaking the preoccupations of our tribe for something of major significance is, unless you’re prepared to reach out and, as Paul Wellstone put it, “Mobilize, energize, organize,” is a losing proposition. And endless ad hominem is not a good way to win friends and influence people.

    Now I really will go away. Best of luck.

  31. @John McCreery – It is interesting that you never actually engaged any of the links or articles I mentioned. How is merely arguing from one’s opinion an anthropological proposition, how does it make for good anthropological scholarship? Last year Duke had a 25th anniversary conference for Writing Culture: your responses raise interesting questions about just how self-reflexive anthropologists truly are and are willing to be, especially in relation to thinking critically about their racial privilege. And so my goals are the same as the goals of the authors of “Anthropology as White Public Space?” in this regard. 

    It is interesting how, once again, you sidestepped an engagement with that article. I repeatedly referred to actual scholarship and sociological studies in my comments, not simply my opinion. It cannot be said that you did the same. And this entitlement to only argue from your opinion while prioritizing the worldview of whites/white anthropologists is noteworthy: especially in light of the AA article “Anthropology as White Public Space?” If you read the article why not just say so? And if you’d read the article, why make the arguments you did about none of what I had to say being ‘important’? More rhetorical questions, of course.

  32. For John McCreery, from Tim Wise at timwise.org:
    “See, that’s what race means, even now, and that is what (among so many other things) gives the lie to all claims of post-raciality made by those who refuse to feel what people of color are all too willing to tell them, if only they could hear. That some must contend with almost daily reminders that they are perpetual outsiders, perpetual suspects, perpetually in need of proving their belonging — indeed their very humanity — while others need not concern themselves with such things, leaves the latter with an edge, however subtle, and the former with a weighty and pernicious hindrance, the consequences of which cannot be overstated. To know that one can not only drive without subjecting oneself to presumptions that one is less-than, but also apply for jobs or loans while knowing the same, or raise one’s hand in class, hoping to demonstrate one’s brilliance to the teacher, similarly secure in the knowledge that that teacher will not ever see the hand as belonging to a walking, talking stereotype of incapacity matters. In a society as fully in thrall to bloodthirsty competition as ours, such an edge can make all the difference. It frees up cognitive space for problem solving rather than worry, and for confidence rather than self-doubt.
    That advantage — one might even say, privilege — of being seen first as an individual rather than as the member of a defective and problematic group, can even be the difference between life and death. And here I am not merely referring to the way in which so many people of color have been killed by police who saw their cell phones, keys, or merely black skin as evidence of danger and shot first, only to ask questions never. Here I am referring to the way that black and brown folks who are fortunate enough not to go the way of Sean Bell, or Amadou Diallo or so many others, nonetheless have their lives shortened by the racialized stresses that flow from life lived as a problem.
    Years of research about which most have no awareness — because it doesn’t make the news — tells us that the daily coping with racialization, which people of color learn to do from an early age, but which whites rarely if ever experience, leaves scars. It contributes to the excess release of stress hormones in the black and brown body, causing something called allostatic load — a reference to the short-circuiting of the body’s natural defenses against anxiety-producing events and traumas. That allostatic load then corresponds to higher blood pressure, higher rates of heart disease, and early death. The research has found that even affluent black folks have higher markers for allostatic load than poor whites, despite the real stresses that the latter contend with each day.
    In a nation that was even remotely interested in becoming “post-racial,” let alone one that was well on its way to being there, one would imagine that issues like this — like the lives of millions of Americans, compromised by racial injustice — might register on the radar screens of all persons seeking to be president. That it might register in the discussions about health and health care, or criminal justice. That it might at least rate as highly on the measures of political importance as, say, cutting the capital gains tax or colonizing the moon.
    But it doesn’t. It never has. And unless and until we stand up and demand otherwise, it never will.”

    Your comments to me have been deeply condescending and deeply and troubling racist. And this is not an ad hominem attack, it is an admission of how troubling it has been to read you continue to say you are not willing to think critically about how white privilege continues to affect others because it is not negatively affecting *you*.

  33. @Tim

    What do you mean by ‘”unwilling to thnk critically”? I ask because it appears that we have different views of what that might mean. To me thinking critically isn’t claiming academic authority and pointing to studies that support my ideas. It’s that old-fashioned business of looking for evidence that challenges my ideas and asking how those ideas might have to change in light of that evidence. Brushy evidence aside because it doesn’t agree with my presuppositions? That’s not critical thinking. It’s cherry picking and hand waving.

    So, am I aware of the role white privilege has played in my life? Yes, indeed I am. Do I think racial profiling is a bad thing? Yes, indeed, I do. Is it worse than massacres in Darfur and the Congo? Is the issue more pressing than doing something for the people in northeast Japan whose homes and lives were swept away by the earthquake and tsunami last March? Should I worry more about it than the fact that if the sea rises a couple of feet, 50 million people in Bangladesh are going to be under water? The list goes on and on. I have only so much time and energy. Your cause is just. You haven’t persuaded me that it is so much more important than any anything else that I should focus on it alone.

    To you, it’s the most important the in the world. I get that. What you haven’t done yet is make it the most important in mine. Why? I’ll give you a clue. You’ve made it your issue. Remember Martin Luther King. He made it our issue. Us privileged white folk, we could be part of the movement, too.

  34. I thank you Mr.McCreery for sharing your personal lived experience and professional insights. It is possible that there are various differences between us, but I’d also bet that there are also similarities. Who knows? The age difference between us is a given. I’m only 30 yrs of age. I appreciate the connection you made between your age and the issue at hand–having lived during segregation. Having shared a bit about yourself, I believe it is only proper to do likewise. so as not to remain an anonymous poster. I’m an Anthropology student, former resident of various cities within Los Angeles County (areas plagued with unemployment crime, drugs,gangs etc). I am also a P’urhepecha. What this means is that in an academic institution such as the one I currently attend, I’ve experienced, witnessed, overcame levels of violence and hardship unknown to the bulk of other white classmates. Yes, I wrote “white” classmates, simply because the vast majority of classmates I’ve had have been “white”. What that also means is that whether I am in the U.S, Mexico, or S. America, I am fully conscious of my identity as an original inhabitant of these lands. For example, last summer I traveled to Venezuela to speak with another Indian group on the eastern end of that nation, but encountered the worst discrimination from the local nonindigenous population. The local Indians brought to my attention the problems they faced as they interact with the nonindigenous peoples in the area. They also realized that I myself was met with the same disdain as they were for being Indian. I realize it is one thing to be P’urhepecha, and another to make it known that I am a P’urhepecha immersed in colonial contexts. But in a way both are political statements. I also get that my people and others have had our lands systematically taken, our lives systematically controlled (I speak two colonial languages, Spanish being the other). This colonial process is all I have known, I have lived it in the flesh. My children also live it.

    It is in the ways I described above that whether or not I was born the same year you were or that of my children a constant remains. This is for certain because I have spoken to elderly P’urhe about such matters.

    Regarding the issue as focused strictly on the U.S academic and nonacademic scene. You are correct in asserting that within the contemporary system some (“nonwhite”) people can become multi-millionaires, influential etc. as opposed to back in the times of “legally sanctioned white privilege”. But is not Discuss White Privilege’s point that focusing our attention exclusively on one form of systematic discrimination may lead us to ignore other forms of systematic (formal,informal, institutional, ideological) discrimination (which may create “white privilege”)?

    For example, Iets say I define discrimination and/or privilege soley as X. I do so during a time in society that X is legally institutionalized and prevalent. As time progresses X loses its legality. Therefor, X is gone, so with it all discrimination and/or privilege.


  35. I thank you T’arhe for sharing your experience. Allow me to confess that until I read your message and ran a Google search I had no idea what “P’urhepecha” meant. Let me say at once that, apart from having lived long enough to offer eyewitness testimony to times now long past, I put no great store in being older per se. If I know one indisputable fact about the world today it is that it is far too large and complex for any of us to know more than a minuscule fraction of what there is to know. You know what you know. I know what I know. The question is whether we can share and learn from each other. In our case, I am sure that we can.

    Re “Discuss White Privilege’s point that focusing our attention exclusively on one form of systematic discrimination may lead us to ignore other forms of systematic (formal,informal, institutional, ideological) discrimination,” I can only say that of course we should consider all forms of systematic discrimination. When a bank redlines a neighborhood, when employers refuse to hire qualified employees on the base of race alone, when life expectancies are shorter because a diet includes too much Fast Food Nation, when someone of one race cannot feel comfortable in a bar, restaurant, or classroom where members of another race are in the majority—none of these are good things. Understanding why they happen and working to eliminate them is a good thing. I’m all for it.

    I am, however, aware of how easily we reify concepts like “white privilege” and lose track of the fact that what it means has varied a good deal from one place and historical moment to another. I say “concepts like ‘white privilege'” deliberately. Owning black slaves used to be a white privilege. No more. Going to all white schools used to be a white privilege. No more. Being less likely to be pulled over by a cop who finds your behavior suspicious. Yes, that’s still white privilege. Being a white liberal and still finding it awkward to form friendships untainted by that elephant in the room we call race. I don’t know what you’d call it, but privilege isn’t the word. So the problem isn’t just one of examining all the forms that white privilege might take. It’s also taking seriously the possibility that white privilege isn’t always and everywhere the same thing and a universal explanation for everything bad about the world. It’s looking for common ground, recognizing where change for the better has occurred, and thinking about how to continue that change in a positive direction. That’s my two cents.

    But, coming back to T’arhe. You have given us the outlines of what must be an extraordinary story. You are 30 and have overcome violence and hardship to become what you are now, a mother, an anthropology student, someone who is able to travel to South America. How did you do that? I’d like to get to know you better.

  36. @T’arhe – thank you for remembering what my point was in first commenting on this post:
    “But is not Discuss White Privilege’s point that focusing our attention exclusively on one form of systematic discrimination may lead us to ignore other forms of systematic (formal,informal, institutional, ideological) discrimination (which may create “white privilege”)?”

    For me, as someone who studies whiteness in the US, John McCreery’s continual misreading of my comments has been noteworthy. It has also been unsurprising. It is the common pattern of resistance cum denial and anger that occurs when whites are directly asked to confront their privilege, in the present, and to think about and acknowledge daily forms of white supremacy and structural racism: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/05/22/957012/-White-Privilege-Diary-Series-1-White-Feminist-Privilege-in-Organizations. 

    I knew I would be attacked, and even said as much in one of my early comments on this post to Adam. So John McCreery’s attacking and condescending response to my comments were unsurprising. I was also not surprised that stereotypes of ‘angry’, ‘militant’ blacks were used against me and read into my comments when I was hardly advocating a ‘black power’ agenda or saying that we, as anthropologists, should discuss white privilege to the exclusion of everything else: (1)http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/black-women-love-and-loathing/35678 (2) http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2011/04/16/white-mens-hostility-to-black-women-a-deeper-look/. 

    Nowhere in my comments did I ever say that discussing white privilege should be the only or most important topic. But it is interesting, anthropologically, that I was continually accused of both. Such is the power or stereotype and implicit bias, after all.

    I asked that white privilege be discussed for very concrete reasons, and showed how not thinking about whiteness in relation to Dorien’s work on Silicon Valley and New Age allowed for substantive blindspots in analysis. I made it quite clear that I was asking for the discussion of white privilege in anthropology because its constant omission creates the ‘white public space’ discussed in the Brodkin et al. AA article and produces scholarship that is insufficiently self-reflexive and doesn’t acknowledge the biases anthropologists bring to and are including in their research/analysis/ethnography, especially in a place like the Bay Area/Silicon Valley where people like tech entrepreneur and Mozilla founder Mitch  Kapoor are themselves talking about the role of race/whiteness (and maleness) in making Silicon Valley a ‘mirror-tocracy’ and not a meritocracy. My comments on implicit bias and aversive racism directly relate to the production of such a ‘mirror-tocracy’. And so do John McCreery’s: whether or not it was his (conscious) intention, and despite his professed claims of being liberal and antiracist; he still filtered my comments through racist militant Angry Black Woman stereotype; I was still addressed with disrespect rooted in racism and sexism, as so often happens to women when we speak and are dismissed because of our gender, even if the man being dismissive is unaware of the sexist behavior in which he is engaging. And this is exactly how a ‘mirror-tocracy’ is created in Silicon Valley, and ‘white public space’ is created in anthropology: people have race and gender biases (and other biases as well) that color, pun intended, their daily interactions with others, their expectations for the behavior of ‘women’ or ‘blacks’ or ‘Indians’. There are racialized and gendered expectations for how individuals and groups should behave, and people are judged within those perameters. Would my comments have been read the same way–as “strident” “black power” “polemic”–if I were not known to be both black and female? 

    Given how much anthropological analysis, discussion of ‘culture’ has hinged on acknowledging the unconscious and unspoken rules, expectations, motivations, and categories/categorizations people have, why is anything I have written so radical? I think all I have really said is that anthropologists need to more self-reflexive and thinking more critically about how race and racial privilege shapes and informs anthropological practice and scholarship. And given how many times I have made clear that most of what I have said has also been said in the AA article “Anthropology as White Public Space?”, it is interesting–anthropologically–that my comments were attacked (predictably) via racist-sexist stereotyping and racist-sexist disrespect. And given what I wrote, before John McCreery jumped into the fray, about white anthropologists wanting to dismiss this discussion because it makes them angry and uncomfortable to have to really confront how they continue to be privileged by whiteness, this comment stream has been most instructive. Especially to those already studying whiteness and thinking critically about why white privilege is so often denied.  


  37. Regarding the following John McCreery comment: “It’s also taking seriously the possibility that white privilege isn’t always and everywhere the same thing and a universal explanation for everything bad about the world.”

    It truly boggles my mind that this is the take-away for some people who have read my comments, as I have never written anything even close to this. Such a reading is only possible when one’s reading of my comments is already inflected by profoundly racist (and sexist) stereotypes about ‘angry’ black people/women. 

    Saying that white privilege is ubiquitous–as Peggy McIntosh, who is herself white, does here (http://ted.coe.wayne.edu/ele3600/mcintosh.html)–is not equivalent to saying it is responsible for everything bad in the world. And I would never make such a ridiculously facile and reductive argument.

    Again, why constantly accuse me of making arguments that I am clearly not making? A rhetorical question.

    Please, do not accuse me of things I am not saying. And please do not respond to this message if you don’t actually know what I am referring to when I use the term “white privilege”. This is why I have directly linked to a definition that makes clear what I am and am not talking about. If one doesn’t want to read the information linked to, that is fine. But then one should not also accuse me of making claims I am not making because one doesn’t actually know what I am talking about and how I am defining the term “white privilege”. 

  38. @DWP

    This truly is my last comment on this thread. Could you, just possibly, be doing a little leaping to conclusions yourself? When you write that my reading of your comments is infected by racist stereotypes of angry black people, black women, in particular, have you stopped to consider other possibilities? Could it have something to do with my having lived for the last thirty years in Japan? Could it have something to do with an anger management problem of my own? I confess to having a black Irish temper. I frighten myself when it explodes. Whatever the cause, I find current American conversational habits, which I see more fully embodied in Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party than in any black woman I know thoroughly obnoxious.

    But let’s put that aside. Assume that I were the sort of person who would dismiss what you have to say because of prejudices about “angry black women.” How is insisting that you have been misread in a, I describe only what I hear the way I hear it, huffy, defensive tone going to change that prejudice?

    Please take a moment to sit back and reflect on the difference in my response to what you have writtend and to T’arhe’s most recent message. You piss me off. She’s instantly got me on her side. Funny thing is, I know how she did it.

    Training to work on a telephone crisis line, I was taught how to do feedback. Always start with something positive, never say “You….” Never accuse….. Accept ownership of what you say and acknowledge how people have heard it…..

    It may sound sneaky and manipulative. It is heard as warm and affirming and, damn, it works like a charm. T’arhe’s has just given us a great example.

    In a more theoretical vein, allow me to recommend the work of Virginia Satir, the author of The Art of Verbal Self Defense. There is nothing in what Satir says that will change the substance of what you have to say. There’s a lot that may be helpful in getting your points across and winning the support you need if your cause is to be successful.

    Live brightly and with beauty.

  39. @John McCreery – Thank you for the book recommendation, and I found what you said about telephone crisis training illuminating.

    As for what you referred to as my ‘huffy’ tone: there are two reasons for this. First, rude email I personally received in my response to my first three comments, comments which I tried to make as conciliatory as possible. After this email hostility however, I definitely was put on the defensive. Second, I used to be much more conciliatory, but it became the opening for some white male anthropologists (and one racist abuser in particular) to bully me. In fact, the principle bully was explicit about the fact that he had targeted me for bullying precisely because he saw me as a weak woman and ease target for his abuse precisely because I was an exceedingly nice and deferential person who always went out of my to try not to offend people. I now make a point of standing up for myself so as not to again be bullied. This more recent bullying was my second encounter with extreme racist bullying; the first was in my all-white high school were I was bullied by white male classmates who called themselves PWS–an acronym for Power to White Supremacy. Oh yes, good times.

    So perhaps my tone, and interest in discussing white privilege and the daily practices of white supremacy (big and small, conscious and unconscious, implicit and explicit) is more clear.

    All the best to you.

  40. @DWP

    Thanks for being so understanding. For what it’s worth, most of my white male classmates in high school were pretty much A**holes, too, especially as seen from the perspective of a fat, short-sighted, socially inept bookworm who was definitely not part of the in-crowd and compensated by developing his own totally obnoxious “I am smarter than you” style of argumentation—one that still creeps up on me more than I like to admit.

    My thinking about discrimination has also been heavily influenced by my daughter, who was brought to Japan at age four and survived two years in Japanese kindergarten and three years in Japanese public school before we were able to switch her to an international school. The kindergarten and first two years of public school were fine. Her teachers were supportive and her classmates as yet uninfected by the bullying she encountered in the third grade. The third grade was hell, with a nearly psychotic martinet of a teacher and little boys who were finding it fun to pick on the weird foreign kid.

    Oddly enough, when she graduated from international school and her parents suggested that she should go to school in the States, she won herself an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, where, while women were first admitted in 1976, they were still only 12% of the entering class, and many of the men admitted didn’t think it was right for women to be there at all. The 12% thing was really tough. It wasn’t just that women were a minority. Given the Academy’s organization by class and company, there were only two rooms for women in each company area. Where men who didn’t get along with their roommates could usually arrange a switch, women in the same situation had no where to go and had to suck it up. Given that the women who become midshipmen are rarely shrinking violets, problems with other women were a lot tougher to resolve than problems with men.

    An important moment for my daughter occurred the summer after her graduation, when she was on temporary assigned duty at the Pentagon. It was the summer of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, and she found herself debating with a male Lt. Commander (three ranks senior to the Ensign she was). He said that what had happened was clearly fraternization, a violation of the chain of command; to which she replied, “Bullshit, sir. It’s a clear case of consenting adults…” She didn’t run into trouble with the man. She was, however, called on the carpet by a woman Lieutenant who had overheard the conversation.

    She told me that, reflecting on this incident, she realized how different her own position in the military was from that of the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant became an officer through an ROTC program at a civilian university. She entered the Navy when women were confined to staff duties, prohibited from command and combat roles. Women in her generation had coped by turning themselves into asexual imitations of the men with whom they worked. In contrast, she was an Academy graduate, a “ring knocker” on a fast-track career path. By the time she entered the Navy most restrictions on women’s roles had been lifted. She could be a line officer, take command, be assigned combat roles. Sure, some of the men at the Academy were SOBs; but the institutional support was solid. She and other women in her generation knew that in uniform they would have to perform 120% to get in the faces who blamed their promotions on special treatment for women; but when out of uniform they could still be women. (My wife later remarked that in Georgetown clubs the only way to tell the difference between female midshipmen and other 20-something singles was posture. That military bearing thing.) Women like her had no trouble dealing with men or with male superiors or engaging in a salty arguments with them. The Lieutenant, trapped in her own past, wasn’t able to go there and deeply disturbed when my daughter did.

    I’m so proud of my daughter. She’s taught me so much about what it is to be strong. I wish all of us could be more like her.

  41. “There’s been a lot of excitement surrounding Facebook’s IPO filing this week, but here’s a little Facebook news that’s not as exciting: There are zero women on its board of directors. In fact, it’s all rich white guys—not terribly representative of the wide open world Facebook claims to represent.”

    A concrete example of why I raised the question of white privilege in Silicon Valley (and New Edge, the Bay Area; more broadly). Given the Valley’s demographics, it is definitely worth thinking about and analyzing (ethnographically), as fundamental and constitutive. It is not a social phenomenon that is ‘just happening’: it is an object to be explained.

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