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 am late to thread.

    McCreery’s critique of white privilege by listeing exceptional black Americans (yes, exceptional) is an opening to talk about two things. First, structural repressions do not have to manifest as a rigid caste system that keeps black and white divided. We can take a Foucauldian understanding of structure as that which appears to be the transcendent rule (the sort people like Garfinkel vehemently critiqued) but that which is the emergence of capillary power — the micro power, the interpsychological, the interactional, depending on your theoretical predilection. Then it becomes totally sensible that racism, in influencing microinteractions, would not absolutely oppress everyone of a marked, supposedly inferior race. Instead, it would would inflect interactions in unpredictable ways, but ways we would expect in aggregate to result in more black people getting screwed in America than white people. Sociologists will show images of overalpping population curves — I’ve seen it for gender — to explain that though the average woman makes less than the average man, many women make more than many men. It doesn’t mean that gender oppression doesn’t still happen. But it means that other factors also influence outcomes.

    This brings me to a crucial concept from feminist analysis: intersectionality. 20 years ago, maybe more, Kimberle Crenshaw explained how race, class, and gender analysis cannot assume the absolute hierarchy that John McCreery claims has been disrupted by his extraordinary black people list. People sit at the intersection of multiple race, gender, and class identities. A black woman, being both marked in America by her race and her gender, will suffer different kinds of microaggressions and injuries than will either a white woman or a black man. In Dorian’s work, how does a black woman burner experience the scene as compared to a black man burner? What about Asian American woman, particularly in the hypersexualized “non-confirming” fashions of burning man? Talking about an Afro-American’s and gay man’s belonging is no substitute for looking at how race and gender constitute the norms and practices of your site.

    The questions Discuss White Privilege brings up are CRUICIAL for studies of these cultures that claim rigor in the long run. I’m disturbed by the response to crituqes like hers that are of the form “Well, what would you do? How would you fix it?” This is a lazy punt I see all the time in design and entrepreneurial communities — critiquing that which they don’t know how to engage by turning it into the other person’s moral failing to present a vision of change. When the problem the critic is pointing to is so pervasive, overlapping shaped by different institutions, habits, and discourses, the very question of “what would you change? how would you fix it?” is the wrong question. We’ve seen in this thread that part of fixing it involves changing the underestanding of the very people asking these questions. It is also a question that tends to come from people who are very politically and economically resourceful, able to both imagine changes and then have the voice and ability to shift practices to materialize those changes as singular agents.

    A different response could have been, “You know what? You make a good point. Let’s talk about what it would mean to take this seriously in our scholarship.” Then the respondent becomes something more than McCreery’s consumer-citizen, needing to be advertsied to to get him or her to question their practices — a media manipulation rather than political engagement.

    Then the respondent may also admit to themselves something I’m encountering in my reseach. Race (and gender) analysis can be really difficult when we’re talking about dog whistle racism, or when we’re tlaking about how race and class intersect to structure participation in domains. It is hard to write about because it rarely reveals itself in explicit terms, only in a few side comments here and there. The anthropologist is placed in the position of having to speculate about exclusion with few smoking guns — things that rarely leave a trace in transcripts or fieldnotes, but maybe in the ethnographer’s gut.

    I’ve seen anthropologists I love and respect get asked about how gender, race, and class structure the fields they write on. I’ve seen them punt the question, saying that’s out of scope, that’s the next project. It must get exhausting. But the fact is that this is a dead-end response. Let’s brainstorm about how we might meaningfully examine these things rather than writing them off immediately as “oh, THAT question.” That is what it would mean to stretch beyond the habits of privilege.

  2. @Race and gender…..

    You make a lot of good points here. And if you think that I think that race is a dead issue in America, you are sorely mistaken. Nor do I assume the absolute hierarchy so elegantly analyzed by Kimberle Crenshaw. My animus, such as it is, is directed at the tiresome repetition of the same critical points in the same now utterly mannered rhetorical style. This business of hiding behind portentous pseudonyms and citing the revered theorists to whom everyone is supposed to kowtow, in a tone both bitter and precious—that is what puts me off. Being put off in this way makes me wonder how those who express themselves in this style expect to influence anyone but the choir to whom they usually preach. My job is to influence people, I can claim some expertise here, and I tell you straight, this is not the way to do it.

  3. John McCreery, your characterization of legitimate frustration of being on the receiving end of daily racism/sexism/colorism as little more than bitterness is yet another example of the racist and sexist disrespect you continuously display in your comments such that people like me raise the issue of discussing white (and male, and othe forms of) privilege in the first place. You make these comments because you have been socialized not only to ignore your privilege, but to deploy it *abusively*. As Rex stated in a different post, you make disrespectful comments. It is really disturbing how invested you are in being abusive–especially to me–in your comments: even when responding to something posted by someone else. 

  4. @DWP

    Is it not possible, even just once, for you to avoid pointless ad hominem attacks? If I or others hear bitterness, we hear bitterness. You cannot change that by making the bitterness an occasion for stereotypical labeling that is, in its own way, as offensive as saying “All N got rhythm.” Why do you choose to alienate allies instead of building support for your cause?

    Lord knows it is hard to be at best half-accepted, to be shunted into a ghetto in the place you seek acceptance, and to see your rewards dismissed as due only to special treatment. But as far as I can make out, judging from my own experience as a gaijin (outsider) employee of a Japanese ad agency and my daughter’s experience as a woman at the still very macho U.S. Naval Academy, complaining about it doesn’t help. The only thing that does is demonstrating that you can outwork and outperform the insiders to whom you are being compared. Demonstrate value and you will be valued. Complain that you aren’t properly respected and you never will be.

  5. @John McCreey, with this comment you have, again, demonstrated that you are not thinking critically enough about white privilege and scarcely understand how gender inequality and racial inequality are NOT in fact the same. Wow, the state of anthropology–linguistic anthropology included–is in a sad state if your level of *anthropological* analysis is as facile as ‘people hear what they hear’: hello, ALL difference is *perceived*; language, culture, power, history–so no, people do NOT just hear what they hear. Your perception of bitterness is intimately connected to your white and male privilege, and blindness to it. And given georaciality and the *global* hegemony of whiteness, it is a sad comment–especially in relation to a lack of anthropological analysis–that you would equate the ‘outsider’ status of being a white male in Japan with the outside status of being black (and female) in the US. Ridiculous. Moreover, and as current attacks in Obama make manifest, outperforming whites does NOT in innovulate blacks from racist attacks–or keep them from being racially profiled, discriminated against. 

    So much (intellectual) dishonesty. Ridiculous. And for the record, those who make a point of referring to legitimate critiques of structural inequality as simple ‘bitterness’ should refrain from carping about ‘ad hominem attacks’: the proverbial pot calling the proverbial kettle black, and all that. So yes, you make a point of being abusive in your white male privilege. And no, this is not an ad ad hominem attack: it is an anthropological analysis.

  6. John, as an increasingly irritated observer of this conversation I really think the rhetorical tack you’ve chosen here is inappropriate. You’ve continually dismissed DWP’s comments as ad hominem, bitter, the same old thing you’ve heard a thousand times, etc while constantly returning to the same theme and insisting that her message be tailored to your very specific taste. You’ve assumed that YOU are the audience and that your personal reaction is what should dictate the terms of debate. You invoke MLK – do you really think that he was such a slick marketer that his message didn’t grate on the ears of huge numbers of people? Frankly, to this “consumer” DWP’s message is more effective than yours – and I suspect to other the same is true. So where does that leave us? You invoke the language of marketing and communicating with some wider public to criticize DWP’s language, assuming that you yourself are “the public.” I think that’s an illustration of what DWP has been pointing out all along. Why don’t you acknowledge DWP’s feelings, which she’s not only expressed as her personal feelings but also documented and tried to tie into larger conversations in anthropology? Doesn’t it “count” for something that DWP is hearing racial privilege in your dismissal of what she says?

  7. The other/first responses to this post are not appearing. I believe they may need to be reposted.

  8. @DWP:

    If you look at the bottom of the page, right above the “Trackbacks & Pingbacks” title, there should be a link that says “Older Comments.” Just click there to see all of the rest of the comments. If it’s not working, let us know.



  9. @hior

    I am not insisting that DWP’s remarks be tailored to my particular taste. Her remarks are her own, and I have no authority to demand changes in them. I am noting as an interested observer and a professional propagandist that her rhetoric is unlikely to be useful to her cause and her dismissal of others’ experience as having anything to do with understanding the problems she encounters as a black woman is more likely to alienate potential supporters than mobilize them to empathize and take action to correct the very real problems that distress her.

    Do you think that it really helps her cause to insist that she and other black women are uniquely aggrieved and to make accusations of lack of critical thinking while referencing ideas that were fresh decades ago but now sound more like dogmatic theology than new insight?

  10. @hior: You are right to identify John McCreery’s rhetorical approach to my responses as inappropriate, because this is what it is. It is also, I am sorry to say, intentional racist-sexist abuse and disrespect directed at me because he knows that I am a black woman–and has clearly revealed his racist-sexist biases of black people in general (i.e. as ‘angry’ and ‘militant’ complainers whining about racism that doesn’t really exist, and can be easily overcome by just ‘working harder’)–and because he knows, like Satoshi Kanazawa, that one can always take easy, racist-sexist shots at black women like me so as to assert one’s racial and gender privilege. You can engage in this abuse and disrespect–publicly as well as privately–given the low regard in which black women, as a group, held–regardless of how hard we work or how intelligent and academically accomplished we are. John McCreery is not going to consider my feelings for the same reasons that Satoshi Kanazawa didn’t bother to consider black women’s feelings prior to posting his racist screed on Psychology Today: one does not consider the feelings of those one does not *fundamentally* consider/regard/see equals–versus subordinates to be ‘put in place’–nor does one show such people genuine and substantive respect. And this is why John McCreery, like many others (especially white males), does not bother to engage the *substance* of anything I write and the links I have repeatedly provided to clearly refute *demonstrably false* claims he is making (such as the Vivek Wadha Berkeley Blog post which discusses how even clearly well-qualified, if not over-qualified, black women struggle to get hired and funded in Silicon Valley, demonstrating that the problem is *structural* racism/sexism and not a failure to work hard and not whine about a lack of respect. Also, this post, which specifically contrasts racial opportunity inside and outside the Army: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2012/02/29/the-army-of-black-liberation/). But John McCreery is not here to learn anything *from me*, because he already has his predetermined ideas of who I am and what kind of black person I am and who is and is not positioned–and intellectually capable–of instructing him: I am just here, for him, as the black whipping post (historical allusions both understood and intended) and the proverbial straw woman, so as to engage in the kind of race avoidance and white privilege denial discussed in the “Anthropology as White Public Space?” article.

    I find it most interesting that John McCreery–especially given his professed commitment, via his comments, to not being racist–did *not respond to Antonio’s recent comments to this Savage Minds post about the aforementioned Satoshi Kanazawa: /2011/05/16/why-are-evolutionary-psychologists-less-intelligent-than-other-mammals/#comment-719311. This is an instructive silence/ non-response for several reasons. First, because John McCreery is such a prolific respondent and comments on almost every post: at least once, if not multiple times. So I do have to wonder why he chose not to comment on this post, in response to Antonio’s clearly racist and certainly *retrograde* comments (ie. Antonio’s arguments can fairly be characterized as ‘we’ve heard this kind of racial/racist argument before, you are not telling us anything new’, and as a rehash and recirculation of older racist tropes of racial hierarchy and racial inferiority/superiority–you know, the kind of ‘old school racism’ official AAA antiracism statements were/are supposed to repudiate, right… ). So this raises the second reason John McCreery’s silence on this post is striking and instructive (to me, especially as a whiteness scholar): it is quite interesting that he did not respond to Antonio’s ‘retrograde’ comments though he (John McCreery) has repeatedly called me out for ‘not saying anything new’ and saying ‘what we’ve already heard for decades’. Well, I guess that ‘retrograde’ arguments are alright so long as the respondent is not black (and female), and is being virulently racist: then you can peddle ‘the same tired arguments’ as much as you want, no? Antonio’s racial stereotyping is perfectly acceptable, my identifying practices of everyday white supremacy and gender inequality–which gets glossed, inaccurately, as me being racist and stereotyping–are, however, the bridge too far! And off to the anthropological ‘dark side’ (pun not intended) we go (with all my ‘tired’, ‘retrograde’ ‘whining’ about the racism and sexism black women face *because we are black women*).

    The third reason John McCreery’s silence on Antonio’s comments is instructive: because the Satoshi Kanazawa post on *black women* is exactly the kind of black-women-specific attack/racist-sexism that John McCreery dismissed as being a problem, and then used to belittle me as a black woman who he has made clear (to you and others) he is not going to listen to or show respect. Oh yes, the irony… I am chortling right now: you know, the ‘funny because it’s not actually funny’ cackle.

    And finally, point four: John McCreery’s non-response to Antonio’s comment is instructive because it raises the issue of why black people/women like me continue to make the same ‘not new’ arguments that John McCreery complains he has been hearing ‘for decades’: we keep saying ‘the same thing’ because we continue to be subjected to the same ‘not new’ racism–the same old racism, every day–both via the explicit racism of Antonio’s retrograde comments, and the implicit racism of John McCreery’s abusive, dismissive disrespect.

    This entire situation, both John McCreery’s racist-sexist pattern of disrespect/dismissal/contempt for me, as well as Race and Gender Cannot Be A Supplement’s comments, remind me of something David Graeber said in his recent Boston Review article: there is a hierarchy in the academy of who can say (and theorize) what (http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.1/david_graeber_debt_economics_occupy_wall_street_part2.php). Sadly, for John McCreery and many, many others (including many anthropologists, many reading this site) a black woman, like me, is regarded as a person not authorized to speak to them as an (intellectual) equal, especially not on the subject of white (male) privilege. Or, as a different white male graduate of the Berkeley department (i.e. not John McCreery) wrote about the position of/for black women in the academy: “Keep your ‘privilege’ critique home if you want to be friends.” So yes, I am quite clear on why John McCreery does not like me (as he himself admitted in a previous comment when he wrote that I piss him off). Oh well, guess we aren’t going to be friends. Especially not when ‘being friends’ means both acceding to the fact that anthropology is ‘white public space’, and being quiet about why this is the case.

    And with this said, i would suggest that you brace yourself for more annoyance, as we both know that I will, again, be attacked.

    At least John McCreery has the guts to be public about his racist-sexist disrespect for me. Many other people are showing me the same racist-sexist disrespect, but are doing so privately and covertly (i.e. via private emails attacks).

    @Ryan, thank you for pointing out the Older Comments link.

  11. @Race and Gender Cannot Be a Supplement: I agree entirely with your concluding paragraph:
    “I’ve seen anthropologists I love and respect get asked about how gender, race, and class structure the fields they write on. I’ve seen them punt the question, saying that’s out of scope, that’s the next project. It must get exhausting. But the fact is that this is a dead-end response. Let’s brainstorm about how we might meaningfully examine these things rather than writing them off immediately as “oh, THAT question.” That is what it would mean to stretch beyond the habits of privilege.”

    And I would add the following: especially in light of the Writing Culture 25 Years Later conference that took place this past fall, I can only wonder how many participants of that conference–including the key luminaries/speakers–and how many of the aforementioned ‘anthropologists you love’, have been reading this post, these comments and have not spoken up? Including people who explicitly do work on race in the US. The issue is not just punting THAT question when directly asked it, it is also all the professed anti-racist anthropologists who sit silently by when they should be speaking up publicly and are well aware that they are witnessing the very kind of dubiously-deployed privilege, structural inequality that you eloquently discussed in your comment–the gut feeling of which you wrote.

    I think it is really interesting to look at the key words for the article “Anthropology as White Public Space”, and to think about the extent to which *race avoidance*–especially via silence, not speaking up, rationalizing why one does not need to speak out about racism, sexism, other forms of discrimination one knows is occurring–is one of the key forms of capillary power and manifestations of privilege and structural inequality.

    We can have a Foucaultian critique of this silence, or run it through Bourdieu’s work on forms of capital. But in this instance I prefer to invoke Elie Wiesel: “”We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
    People–especially anthropologists–should should not pretend that punting THAT question is not without significant (structural) consequences, and does not reproduce the very structured inequality they are refusing to engage in their work by punting THAT question.

    Here are the key words for the article: racism and anthropology;
    racial division of labor; diversity; race avoidance; white public space


  12. This is confusing. DWP articulates her concerns and position incredibly well. She has named her social location (black + female in the USA), is obviously clear and conscious of what this means, has NAMED it as her ontological framework…. So, I am trying to understand why John is just really dismissive and also seems confident that he knows what is BEST for a black racialized female subject in the USA, in terms of discussing and dealing with racism and whiteness? There are several canons out there that, through rigorous scholarship, wholly support the legitimacy of what DWP is saying. Critical Race Feminism. Black Feminisms. Decolonial theory. Works of Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin. Edward Bonilla-Silva.George Yancy. WEB DuBois. Roland Barthes.

    DWP, I think it’s amazing how much time you’ve obviously spent discussing this and researching this but I think it may be going unheard or ignored by certain ears. I like your writing and thinking and am wondering if you have your own blog that I can continue to follow. Thanks for all of the interesting links! I feel and know what exactly it is that you have been saying and dealing with. And as a doctoral researcher who has spent years looking at the connecting themes of the collectivity of black females in the USA, racialized-sexism, sexist-racism, normative whiteness does and continues to significantly affect their lives, their work, how they are treated, etc.

    The implications of race and whiteness in Silicon Valley doesn’t surprise me. I received my Masters degree in Educational Technologies at an Ivy League institution a while ago. I was the only black female and despite how scholarly my work was, there was an aversion to wanting to discuss the implications of race and normative whiteness within educational technologies. Everyone seemed to be there in the program ‘simply for the technology.’ Access to it, how it was thought of, who was funded to do technology and why, etc., were not being thought of within the framework of race and whiteness. Years later, my “whining” is becoming “legitimate” scholarship as more and more educational technology scholars are raising the types of questions you have, in regard to how race and whiteness operate within Silicon Valley and other technology sites in the USA.

  13. Thank you for the kind and generous support, EBW. As for the website: it is now defunct, though I plan on blogging again at some point in the future.

    Also, I have to call out John McCreery’s underhanded racist dig for what it is, and point out how people let it slide: “All N got rhythm”. Really, my saying that a specific white male–based on a specific pattern of behavior that I and others have complained about for very specific reasons–is abusively deploying white male privilege is stereotyping and equivalent to saying “All N got rhythm”??? Wow, sorry, but not only do I have to call out John McCreery for that insidious piece of (dog whistle) racism–and yes, what a great way to call me a Nigger without just coming out and saying it–I have to call out the Savage Minds crew for not calling that one out. Epic RACE FAIL.

    Or, in a more colloquial register: WTF?

    Wow, if people–especially (white) anthropologists reading this site–think that my critical race theory and feminist anthropological critiques of John McCreery’s behavior are equivalent to saying that ‘all N have rhythm’, then anthropology is truly in a sad, sad place in 2012–not just for the state of minority anthropologists; and it is a sad comment on how anthropology (and this site) is not only ‘white public space’, but *white-supremacist* public space. Says a lot about the normalization of antiblack racism, to the point where ‘casual racism’, dog-whistle racism goes unchecked. Race fail, Savage Minds. Race fail.

    So yes, I noticed this little gem of infrared racism, and I noticed all the non-responses to it. Patterns, patterns. Just like the number of respondents to posts about Open Access–which many anthropologists feel/see as affecting them–is part of a pattern of race avoidance and racial division of labor, too. You comment on that which you feel deeply invested in and see as directly affecting you. So if you have the privilege of being white and not constantly having to think about and notice race/your racial privilege–because you are not daily/constantly on the receiving end of racial animus, racial dehumanization, racial discrimination, racial domination, racial brutalization–then, yes, it is easy to feel that race doesn’t really affect you, your life, and so this is not a comment thread for you to have to care about or participate it. Racial division of labor, and race avoidance. And how we get a situation of anthropology as ‘white public space’ wherein white anthropologists are always getting asked THAT question–because they didn’t ask it in their research/project–and have no problem continuously punting it.

    Patterns, patterns, patterns.

    And structural and symbolic and epistemic violence, as well as the violence of everyday life.

    So yes, John McCreery, totally underhanded antiblack racism. And this too says a lot about why you saw no reason to respond to Antonio’s comments defending Satoshi Kanazawa. (And yes, yes, I know, it was not intentional. Because that’s always the excuse these days when a person gets called out for racist behavior. And anthropology is going to define racism as intentional animus, then this, too, is another sad comment on contemporary anthropology: especially for a discipline that has made a place for itself by showing the myriad ways in which human beings and their behavior(s)/actions/social relations are structured and regulated by motivations of which individuals are often largely unconscious. How convenient that when it comes to racism and sexism, though, all this gets thrown out the window in favor of “i did nothing wrong because I didn’t ‘intend’ to).

  14. Dear Educated Black Woman,

    What makes you think that I claim to know what is best for Discuss White Privilege? I certainly don’t. In my view, what is best for her is something that she has to decide for herself. All I can do is offer feedback on what I hear, which, I have noted repeatedly may not be what she wants to say.

    What makes either of you think that a white man cannot draw on his own experience to gain some insight into the problems that black women face? Pushed to its logical extreme, this argument renders the anthropological project, attempting to understand other lives in other places absurd. At the same time, it has a huge political downside. Persuade me that my life has nothing to do with yours, and why should I or anyone else who isn’t a black woman care about what you say?

    Oddly enough, I have recently read Kimberlé Crenshawe’s Stanford Law Review Article — I say “oddly enough” because the article was suggested to me by a Norwegian feminist I encountered on OAC. Thus, while I still regard “intersectionality” as an abominable term, I can see that it points to a real problem. If, one the one hand, you have a feminist movement that ignores a black woman’s being black and a black civil rights movement that is focused on the problems of black men and ignores the black woman’s being a woman, the issues specific to being both black and a woman fall through the cracks. I get that. But how should that problem be addressed?

    I offer a cynical but real hypothesis for your consideration. When the US and global economy were booming and lots of new academic and other jobs were being created, it was no big deal for people in power to morally justified claims of being oppressed or neglected by allocating surplus to co-opt critics and open the doors a bit to those willing to play their games. With the US and global economy in recession, jobs scarce, and lots of people struggling to get by, let alone get ahead, there is both less surplus to allocate and less tolerance for even morally justified claims presented in what is heard in —however wrong the listener is — a strident, judgmental tone. I am not saying that tone is unjustified. I am saying that as a rhetorical tactic, it never worked all that well, and today may be totally unproductive.

    What alternatives are there? That’s not an easy question to answer. Shutting up and submitting to fate is neither a desirable nor a viable option. Me? I am old and sentimental enough to think that when Martin Luther King said, “We shall overcome,” his “We” was bigger than any racial, gender or ethnic category. Yes, he wound up dead. Revolutions make martyrs and vice-versa. But the movement he started is still of historic significance. Might be worth thinking about.

  15. Erratum: The third line in the fourth paragraph of the previous message should read,

    “it was no big deal for people in power to respond to morally justified “

  16. Thank the lord we have DWP to save anthropology departments from all those undercover racists!

  17. Thank the lord we have Bill to avoid discussing structural racism in anthropology so it can continue to be ‘white public space’.

  18. Bill, what was the point of your comment, other than to be rude, racist, dismissive, belittling, and disrespectful?

  19. John McCreery, neither EBW nor I are saying that your life has nothing to do with ours. (Quite the opposite in fact: white and male privilege is predicated upon non-white and female disadvantage/subordination/domination.) And this is one of the major manifestations of white (and male) privilege and race avoidance: not truly listening to what racial ‘subordinates’ (especially when female) say so as to dismiss their points by claiming the ‘subordinates’ have made claims they have not in fact made. 

    Saying that you, as a white man, should not be ‘speaking for’ and as the ‘expert’ for racial subjects whose subject position and racialized experience you not only do not share but also do not actually understand–and are not actually making an effort to educate yourself about, by actually listening to (and not dismissing) the experiences of racism/sexism you are blind to because they are not your daily reality–is not the same as saying that your life has nothing to do with ours.

    I think we need to be honest about how much of the racist disrespect–as also identified by recent comments from Vincent M. Diaz is a structural and methodological result of the practice of anthropology. Many white anthropologists are attracted to anthropology because it allows them to speak for non-white others after ‘going native’. Critical race theory and white privilege acknowledgement of the kind discussed on unfaircampaign.org is completely antithetical to this kind of anthropological project–which continues to remain foundational to the practice of anthropology. I am being showered with abuse because my comments make certain people angry for rejecting the proposition that they can be the experts of non-white experiences of the world: and no, this is not the same as saying that one can’t educate oneself about one’s own privilege or how non-white subjects experience their racial positionalities. But stop trying to dominate conversations by claiming expertise you don’t in fact have and can NEVER get via firsthand experience (i.e. ‘going native’). Stop speaking from a position of privilege while denying this is what it is. Stop expecting more respect than you are willing to give others, and demanding it because one has been socialized–since birth–to feel entitled to greater respect and deference because one is male and/or white. Listen to what people like me and EBW actually have to say without presuming to know better and to know more.

    Anthropology is officially supposed to be committed to antiracism, so be committed to *antiracism*: not race avoidance and white privilege denial and being verbally abuse so you can feel you have put ‘subordinates’ who have not agreed with you ‘in their place’. Because none of this is antiracist, and in the end it does not make for good anthropological scholarship (why encourage having serious blindspots antithetical to analytical rigor, as pointed about by Race and Gender Cannot Be Supplements?), and instead normalize and encourage abuse and make anthropology the ‘white public space’ discussed in the Brodkin et al. article.

  20. Dear DWP,

    I am old (I will turn 68 this year). My academic career consists of a first job, failure to get tenure (not surprising given how clueless, self-centered, and tactless I was), and several years teaching seminars on advertising and marketing in Japan as an adjunct lecturer at a Japanese university (I have lived in Japan for 32 years). Since I am an independent scholar, who is not dependent on academia for his livelihood, I enjoy the luxury of treating anthropology as a serious hobby. As a hobbyist free of career-related concerns, I am in a position to speak my mind bluntly, and I do. One the the things I detest most is people who draw conclusions about other people based on gross stereotypes. That animus applies to all of those who push ethnically or racially defined agendas—regardless of whether their politics are left, right or over the moon. I can still hear a case worth making when I read someone like Kimberle Crenshawe or hear someone here, I forget who it was, observe that minority anthropologists are the ones who get stuck with addressing diversity issues and dealing with minority students—an extra burden they absolutely don’t need. Were I in a position to do something about that sort of problem, I would.

    Be that as it may be. We have, I believe, reached an impasse. I leave this debate with a couple of paragraphs from the acknowledgements to my book on Japanese consumer behavior. My life and times were such that they three men I acknowledge in this remarks were all men, none of them black. But the attitudes they embodied so well are those I try to emulate, not always very successfully.

    This book is dedicated to the memories of three men: Victor Turner, Tio Se-lian, and Kimoto Kazuhiko.

    The first was an anthropologist whose teaching is inscribed in the shape of this book. He taught me that an anthropologist works with three kinds of data, things observed (here the Lifestyle Times, the internal newsletter produced by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living that provides much of this book’s content), the native exegesis (represented here by the conversations with HILL researchers interleaved between the chapters), and the economic and demographic background that cultural analysis neglects at its peril.

    The second was a Grand Master of Daoist Magic who allowed a fledgling fieldworker to become his disciple and, by trotting him the length and breadth of Taiwan, made it perfectly clear how much goes on in modern, urban Asian societies that escapes the boundaries of the villages and neighbourhoods in which anthropologists usually work.

    The third was a Senior Creative Director who hired a hapless scholar and turned him, with much labour, into a copywriter unable to tolerate stereotypes of the kind this book attacks.
    Looking back what I see in all three is a willingness to listen, a passion for detail, a flair for the dramatic, and a breadth of humanity that transcends the places and moments in which we met. I am proud to call them my mentors and to try, however poorly, to follow their example.

  21. I am unable to post an image of a racist gorilla poster which directly addresses what I wrote in my previous comment. I will send it to members of the Savage Minds team for posting. It is an important image because it is of a deeply racist–though ‘well-intenioned’–poster that went up in the Berkeley Anthropology department last year, and makes clear the stakes of thinking that non-white others, and blacks especially, need to be ‘spoken for’ and are incapable of speaking for themselves. The events surrounding the poster also speak to the larger issues of racism, race avoidance, and anthropology as ‘white public space’ that I have been bringing up: and I think it is a way for John MCCreery and others ‘to get’ what I am actually saying. 

    Instead of dealing with why the poster was problematic (e.g. 

    http://www.theroot.com/views/lighter-skin-shorter-prison-term), and confronting the racism/racial blindness that made the poster’s creation and being put up–uncritically–*in an anthropology department* possible, the department quickly took it down and covered up the outrage over the incident/pretended it never happened. This desire to cover up (another) embarrassing example of antiblack racism and racist insensitivity in the department–instead of making it a ‘teachable moment’ to ensure the practice of a genuinely antiracist anthropology which does not encourage ‘white public space’, directly illustrates the problematic legacy of an anthropology that has historically ‘spoken for’ non-whites and in many ways continues to encourage this ‘speaking for’ (and not listening to). The inability of most of the department’s white professors not to notice how offensive this racist gorilla poster was, prior to a black anthropologist pointing it out, is why I keep stressing that anthropology needs to discuss white privilege–and not angrily dismiss and avoid such discussions. White anthropologists should take seriously the extent to which their privilege can blind them to what should be obvious racism to be publicly repudiated, in the name of AAA’s official antiracism statements.

  22. On OAC, I have posted a note titled “My new friend, Chris.” Chris is white, male, a small businessman in his fifties. Why in the world should his story be relevant here? Keith Hart has given me permission to cross-post a comment that, to me at least, bears very strongly on our debates about racism.


    This post interested me when I first saw it, John, but I was spending a week with my family in the Swiss mountains. It goes very deep for me and I don’t really know where to stop. First, my doctoral research was based on accumulating some 70 life histories of individuals like Chris in Ghana. It never occurred to me to present my material in any other way. But later I engaged with development economists and came up with more abstract propositions like the informal economy. Between the wars, Manchester University had the only British economic history department devoted to German methods focusing on individual business case studies. After the war both the Germans and the British bought into American social science with dubious results.

    I was brought up in Manchester to eschew classification as a matter of principle. Don’t think you know who someone is by the label — Jew, Catholic, Irish, whatever, I was told. Judge him on the basis of how he treats you as an individal. Probably the single most powerful text I know is the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:

    Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

    For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

    But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

    When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

    For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

    And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

    I think of this as an ethnographer’s charter. Most of the time we are trapped in a sort of everyday racism, thinking we know people on a superficial basis. But just think what it would be like if we encountered them as they really are!

    πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη, the last coming to us through Latin as caritas, a superhuman love of humanity as equals, something to aspire to and indispensible to good fieldwork!

    Of course words abstract from particulars and we would be hard up without language. But I do feel that lazy reliance on objectified cultural categories is a contemporary disease. Look at the abuses of profiling or the stultifying manufacture of consumer classes. Bureaucracy would be impossible without all this and in principle bureaucracy is a good thing. But…

    I hate being typecast and I don’t like an ethnographic method that relies on grouping people into classes for purposes of analysis. That’s why I look to German intellectual history from the late 18th to the early 20th century. It schooled Boas, Kroeber, Lowie and their brilliant successors in American cultural anthropology. Something has gone badly wrong since then and it isn’t anthropologists who are even mainly to blame.


    When I asked Keith’s permission to cross-post his comment, he generously replied as follows.


    Sure, John. I don’t like the permission culture either, but it was nice of you to ask.

    I mustn’t run away again, but the key is in that much-quoted, but not well understood sentence: For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. For me this means: racism is the opaque mirror of our own twisted insecurities which we project onto others using the colour of their skin, for example, as a substitute for knowing them. How much better to get to know them as human beings, starting out from the premise that they are fundamentally like us as well as infinitely varied.

    When I started out as an anthropologist, I lived with poor black people in a slum with a criminal culture. I soon found out that if I didn’t escape from the us/them stereotypes (I was a white, rich, overeducated kid and very lonely), I would be dead, figuratively and maybe even really. Connecting personally at a human level was a necessity and that’s what I think the best fieldwork is.

    Oh and I always wanted to be a truck driver, to be up there steering that massive machine, oiling the wheels of commerce, on the road, runnin’ down a dream. But I never got out of school.


  23. @DWP

    The previous message is not intended to distract from the importance of the case you describe in your last message. I do wish that you had begun your comments with that poster you mention. If I had read something along the lines of,

    “Something really disturbing happened at Berkley last year. In the Berkeley anthropology department someone put up a deeply racist–though ‘well-intenioned’–poster. That it was deeply racist was not noticed until a black anthropologist pointed out the racism. As a black woman anthropologist, I found this particularly disturbing. It reminds me of how strongly racism lingers, even in places, Berkeley and an anthropology department, where it should have been long gone.”

    Notice what I’ve done here. I have personalized your story and used the setting to amplify its impact. I’m hooked and pretty sure (the professional propagandist is speaking) that others would be, too.

    Follow up with those two articles to which you provided links and conclude with a strong appeal to make discussion of lingering racism and the white privilege that supports it an urgent priority for anthropologists everywhere. I would instantly have been on board. I expect that many others here would also have responded more empathetically.

    in my own case, why did I respond as I usually do when I feel that someone is not only trying to lay a guilt-trip on me but is also asserting, in effect, that I should give up whatever I am doing to focus on their concerns? Sure, there could be some latent racism there. But it’s the same response that leads me in bad-tempered moments to snap at my grandkids or sagacious spouse, whom I love very much.

    Another bad habit is, of course, giving unwanted advice.

  24. Certainly relevant to my first post, in response to Dorien’s work (and interested that my feedback to Dorien’s questions were never responded to by Dorien after she directly queried me; once again raising the issues of silencing and marginalization of scholars of color raised by “Anthropology as White Public Space?” and follow-ups/responses to it), and an ongoing reminder of why I kept posting as Discuss White Privilege after responding to this post: 
    “Also more than a little unreal, in Silicon Valley terms, is the homogeneity of the six-member principal cast, which is generally attractive — one woman is a former Milwaukee Bucks dancer — and entirely white; Asians and blacks appear around the edges as friends, bosses and hair and makeup women.”

    Clearly, whiteness–and its privileges–matters in both Hollywood and Silicon Valley, just as I pointed out above. And it matters however much many, many anthropologists would rather not ‘discuss white privilege’.

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