The New York Times on Chagnon

I received this link via the e-anth listserv and thought I would pass it along.  This piece in the NY Times gives a pretty good overview of some of the controversies and debates that have surrounded the career of Napoleon Chagnon.  Here’s the intro:

Among the hazards Napoleon Chagnon encountered in the Venezuelan jungle were a jaguar that would have mauled him had it not become confused by his mosquito net and a 15-foot anaconda that lunged from a stream over which he bent to drink. There were also hairy black spiders, rats that clambered up and down his hammock ropes and a trio of Yanomami tribesmen who tried to smash his skull with an ax while he slept. (The men abandoned their plan when they realized that Chagnon, a light sleeper, kept a loaded shotgun within arm’s reach.) These are impressive adversaries — “Indiana Jones had nothing on me,” is how Chagnon puts it — but by far his most tenacious foes have been members of his own profession.

At 74, Chagnon may be this country’s best-known living anthropologist; he is certainly its most maligned. His monograph, “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” which has sold nearly a million copies since it was first published in 1968, established him as a serious scientist in the swashbuckling mode — “I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!” — but it also embroiled him in controversy.

I heard various takes on Chagnon throughout my anthropological training.  I read his book about the “Yanomamo” in some of my very first classes at community college, and then as the years went on I heard about the debates, the fights, the controversies.  When I first heard his name I had no idea he was such a controversial figure.  But then, a lot of thing[s] that I first heard about in my early anthropology courses became a bit more “complicated” along the way.  It’s interesting to me that this author calls Chagnon the best-known living anthropologist.  Maybe he is.  I guess it depends on who you ask though–and where you ask.  Anyway, this NY Times piece is an interesting overview of some of these histories, and it’s worth reading.  Read the rest here.

UPDATE 2/20/13: A lot of folks posted some great resources and links in the comment thread.  I thought I’d update the post and put them up here to make things a little more accessible.  As Jason Antrosio said, this story definitely needs some serious contextualization.  Let me know if you have other links/sources and I will add them here.

1. Elizabeth Povinelli’s review of Chagnon’s new book.

2. Response to the NY Times piece by AAA president Leith Mullings.

3. Jon Marks on Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon.

4. Sociobalderdash, and the Yanomami? Part II by Ken Weiss.

5. Meet Joe Science by Jonathan Marks.

6. Marshall Sahlins on Chagnon’s research.

7. What the press is saying about Napoleon Chagnon (Louis Proyect)

8. The Weird Irony at the Heart of the Napoleon Chagnon Affair (John Horgan @Scientific American)


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

37 thoughts on “The New York Times on Chagnon

  1. As someone who started studying anthropology after the Chagnon controversy, its something I’ve always known was important but never really had the time to learn the ins and outs of. Is this an accurate overview?

  2. In our intro grad course Seminar in Ethnography we read Yanomamo and a couple of the follow up books that refuted Chagnon and called him insensitive and a liar and whatnot. It was an interesting and fun process.

    Also went through the Captain Cook deal in Hawaii and all the differing ethnographies covering his conquering of Hawaii. And a few others, Rigoberta Menchu was one.

    Yanomamo was the kinda stuff that got me into anthropology. Nowadays you can’t really go and do a comprehensive ethnography, and be able to fit into the graduate structure, and receive funding, etc. It is so much about theory and specialization. At least in my experience.

    I think the Chagnon haters are much a do about nothing. He did stuff that no one had ever done before, so if he made some mistakes, exaggerated, or was insensitive, it just needs to be taken into account, as with reading any dated document.

  3. @justaguy:

    I think it gives a decent overview of the situation. It also helps that’s it’s coming from someone outside of academic anthropology, IMO. Granted, it’s a bit spiced up here and there. But it gives you the gist of the story, and mentions some sources if you want to look further. Some of these histories within anthropology get really polarized, and folks can get pretty worked up when they all start going to their respective corners. Anyway, for me this is also interesting to read to see how the story gets told in more mainstream outlets.

    FYI here is the current AAA president’s reaction to the NYT piece:

    Not sure what I think about that response though.

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. @Keith:
    “I think the Chagnon haters are much a do about nothing. He did stuff that no one had ever done before, so if he made some mistakes, exaggerated, or was insensitive, it just needs to be taken into account, as with reading any dated document.”

    Oh yes, the white man’s burden. Chagnon was just an anthropological trailblazer doing what no (white male) anthropologists had done before him. And who cares if he engaged in abuses which actually result(ed) in suffering via ongoing dehumanization, or death, as the lives of ‘those (non-white) people’ really aren’t that important anyway, right?

    Yes, very easy to write off Chagnon’s behavior as much ado about nothing when you have the privilege of not being on the receiving end of the suffering and dehumanization such anthropology produces.

    This page was already linked to as a pingback to Chris Kelty’s Leisure Class post (, but it certainly bears reposting in light of the comment above, especially so as to foreground this high lighted link:

    Oh, but who cares about racist abuse that’s not happening to you right? Especially when one is making one’s living off speaking for and over non-white savages/primitives/racial Others. Let’s just cut straight to the point and directly say only some lives matter, and white lives matter more. It’s more honest, and being said indirectly anyway (so let’s just be direct about it).

  5. Interesting reading, but it doesn’t do justice to the brilliance of Bruce Albert’s empirical criticism on Chagnon’s ethnography. After learning about Amerindian societies, one could care less about Chagnon lack of pro-indigenous political action but look into the fact that, apparently he never understood Yanomami’s complex kinship relations appropriately…

  6. Haha, Discuss White Privilege. Ok.

    I don’t remember the abuses of Chagnon in this case. I just think that he would probably admit to some of his wrongs looking back on it.

    But I am so far removed from having read any of this, that I am just going on memory of the class in which we discussed it.

    You are obviously a troll, accusing me of not valuing white lives? What kind of KKK shit do you think this is. You are crazy and have no idea troll.

    [Consider this warning #1. FYI, here is a reminder about our comments policy at Savage Minds–please note the part about being constructive: /comments-policy/ SM Staff]

  7. Ok, folks, just a gentle reminder here: I am all for disagreement and debate, but once the thread goes into personal accusations or attacks, the party is over. Stick to the issues.


  8. Sorry Ryan, but not good moderation, though I know your response was an attempt at being ‘even-handed’. Keith displays actual trolling behavior (though perhaps Rex would like to invite Biella Coleman to directly comment on his response, in light of her actual work on trolling). Moreover, and as has already been discussed in Adonia’s “Fly-on-the-wall or Troll” post, on this very site, I am clearly not a troll.

    Keith’s comments display a stunning level if ignorance, racist vitriol, gendered violence, and male entitlement. At best my comment was tinged with sarcasm, in the vein of a Jon Marks post like “Diamonds and Clubs”. I certainly was not making a personal attack on Keith, though I was legitimately pointing out the casual privilege, white (male) entitlement and white supremacy embedded in his flippant ‘much ado about nothing’ dismissal, while directly linking it to a post on how such behavior represents a larger, more problematic strain of racism in US Anthropology which is very much rooted in a belief–however implicit and ‘unintended’ and dysconscious–that some lives (and yes, white lives) matter more than others, and that (US) anthropology is deeply imbricated in and formed by (neo)colonialism practices of ‘speaking for’ exotic, savage and primitive non-white Others.

    Honestly, Keith’s KKK response is just ridiculous racist abuse: an act of violence and abuse for its own sake. Yes, it was intended as full-on abuse and a personal attack, nothing else. And given the fact that Keith himself conceded that he was not responding to the content of either of the NY Times articles, or else he would have had an actual idea as to specifics about the kind of abuse that I was referencing such that I posted the comment that I did, why did he feel so entitled to unleash such rage and ignorance?

    Really, I am a troll here to ‘pull some KKK shit’? I can only say that Keith needs to educate himself not only on what constitutes actual trolling, and what constitutes actual white supremacy–and no, it is not simply the behavior of card-carrying members of groups like the KKK. It is also the kind of racist vitriol and entitled anger on display in his response, because how dare I not ‘know my place’ and call out the racism structuring both of his responses!

    Please, do not fall into the easy trap of false equivalence and equate my response with racist vitriol that was clearly intended as abuse for its own sake.

  9. For the record: The ‘you’ in my first comment was actually not referencing Keith specifically. It is unfortunate this was not clear. It can be changed to ‘one’. I stand by my comment, especially with such an edit.

  10. @DWP:

    I’m not falling for anything, don’t worry. The subject of this thread is Napoleon Chagnon–and the controversies that surround his work and career. There is plenty to talk about without falling into personal attacks and flame wars. If we stick to the point of the post, all is well. If folks can’t do that, I will just close the thread. So let’s get back to the issues at hand. Thanks.

  11. Ryan, as I have already explained, I was not engaged in a personal attack. I made my comment precisely so as to stick to the point of the post and the question of why Chagnon’s unethical behavior should matter and not be dismissed as ‘past behavior’ only limited to the Bad Ol’ Days of Anthropology.

  12. I agree with @DWP–that’s an over-the-top response to her comment.

    Chagnon was working within a by then well-worn tradition of anthropological fieldwork. My question is why he ever thought–as Ken Weiss’s post demonstrates–that a group of people practicing slash-and-burn horticulture with steel axes were some sort of window into human nature or even human evolutionary history. Did he miss the “Man the Hunter” conference with Richard Lee, Marshall Sahlins, et al.?

  13. A very public apology to Ryan for calling him out for poor moderation. I only now saw his bracketed comment to Keith.

    @Jason. Thank you. Your profound and genuine decency and ‘ethics of care’ is exemplary and inspiring, as always. Much appreciated.

  14. I apologize as I did not realize that I was breaking the commenting rules and I will certainly keep that in mind.

    But when ‘DWP’ addresses me with @keith and then says ‘you have the privilege of not being on the receiving end of the suffering and dehumanization such anthropology produces’ I assumed he was referring to me personally. And then continues ‘Oh, but who cares about racist abuse that’s not happening to you right? Especially when one is making one’s living off speaking for and over non-white savages/primitives/racial Others. Let’s just cut straight to the point and directly say only some lives matter, and white lives matter more. It’s more honest, and being said indirectly anyway (so let’s just be direct about it).’

    It may have helped if he said ‘one’ as he mentions. But as they are, I took great offense. That and the fact he says my response was racist. So that is why I replied so flippantly.

    I obviously realize and acknowledge that Chagnon and others made mistakes in both practice and theory. But I and others have learned from them, and do not plan to make the same mistakes whether in research or in analysis. Certainly, interfering and possibly worsening a measles outbreak is the most serious accusation. As is orchestrating infighting, etc. I think that is a major offense. One of my major goals in any ethnographic endeavor is to not influence the ethnography. But calling the Yanomamo “hideous and filthy” is not that big of an offense to me, and a sign of the times. People were ethnocentric back then.

    Part of the reason I am not pursuing a PhD is that within the academy people are over-sensitive and not pragmatic. Especially with modern indigenous cultures like the Mayan in Central America which I have studied, I chose to think that they have their own agency and opinions, and not simply victims of western globalization, or “white privilege.” If you want to call that “ignorance, racist vitriol, gendered violence, and male entitlement” then so be it.

    Though globalization certainly plays a part and leads to inequalities, it is all relative.

    This is my first time to comment here, so interesting to see such a spirited discussion.

  15. Suggested reading, Marshall Sahlins on Chagnon’s research:

    Chagnon was kicked out of Venezuela by the government, local academics and the Yanomami. It would do well for some people, particularly in the US, to learn why, rather than assume or suggest, as the NY Times article does, that he was in any sense unfairly maligned.

  16. @Jessica-thanks for posting the article by Sahlins. I think his ideas of military strategy and American power as part of the background context are very accurate

  17. Keith, I am a bit perplexed as to how you thought your ‘KKK shit’ vitriol could ever be acceptable, especially on an anthropology blog. I am also surprised, sincerely, that you are calling out others as oversensitive given your own disproportionate response to a comment. I am dismayed that you write that an ethnographer can keep from influencing his/her ethnography, and to read you write that disparaging the Yanomami as “hideous and filthy” is no big deal. Because even as you claim to have learned from Chagnon’s mistakes your comments belie the opposite.

    Racism is not simply about conscious intention and saying that because one has decided not to be racist one’s actions will not be racist.

    You are still lapsing into behavior that falls into the very mindset I took to task with my first comment: not getting past your own white male US privilege to think about why decisions about the effects of and motivations for referring to the Yanomami as “hideous and filthy” should not be reduced to whether or not *you* see such disparagement, and the matrix of inequality, abuse, and dehumanization in which it is enmeshed, as unimportant because it is no big deal to you, and does not negatively affect your life.

    It returns us to the claim that Leith Mullings make in her AAA President’s response, which Ryan links to in his original post: that the Chagnon controversy has spurred anthropologists to constantly question anthropological ethics. Perhaps not so much, it would seem.

    And for the record, I am not a he. And yes, this too informs my perspective and why I call out certain forms of abuse as gendered violence and male entitlement. Concepts which I think are also worth thinking about in relation to Chagnon’s unethical behavior and abusive, exploitative, racist, and I-refuse-to-apologize-even-when-I-have-been-wrong brand of (US) anthropology. Because, no, some of the most flawed and unethical aspects of Chagnon’s anthropological practices are neither limited to Chagnon, or to the past.

  18. Yes call it gendered violence, white privilege, whatever. I fully understand and agree that western ideas have framed non-westernized people in negative ways. You are doing the exact same thing with the so-called privileged whites.

    I actually live in a world where “Racism IS about conscious intention and saying that because one has decided not to be racist one’s actions will not be racist.” I fully acknowledge my ‘white priveledge’ and know what it has afforded me.

    I just choose not to subjugate women or indigenous peoples to academic theories which actually subordinate them to the privileged whites. I choose to think that these disenfranchised people have their own agency to counter these thoughts and actions of western society and academia.

    I actually have read Chagnon, Tierny, and Sahlins, but should reread if I am going to continue in a specific discussion of Chagnon.

  19. Oh I hope my html works! It seems that in the past few days there has been two other communications presented by the AAA, which seem to be in reaction to the news-space that Chagnon has been able to garner recently. Ryan posted Leith Mullings’s response above. But even before that there was a post criticizing Eakin’s (at NYTimes) portrayal of the AAA as suffering from perpetual in-fighting.

    This piece argues that both Science (and I think it should be with a capital S here) and Advocacy (I’m a fan of parallelism) are at the heart of Anthropology., on the AAA website there is a press release echoing the same material, but stressing the organization’s long term goals and also the recent What is Anthropology? publication. found it interesting that both posts cite the AAA’s Race Project, which I believe Jason Antrosio brought to our attention recently, as an example of the anthropological tradition of combining Science and Advocacy.

    I also noticed though, that as DWP has mentioned, there is not an explicit mention of the issue of racism found within the discipline itself. This is truly unfortunate (being a white male, I have once or twice actually been quite dismayed by particularly racist comments about non-white anthropologists made to me by other white male anthropologists, who I did actually respect at one time), but I hope perhaps within the Race: Are We So Different? publication perhaps this is more fully addressed? I have yet to read a copy…I don’t suppose the AAA plans to release it under a Creative Commons License? I suspect that it is no coincidence, though, that the AAA is exhibiting this particular project to counter the recent press which portrays American Anthropology in a less then harmonious light, and if I may digress a bit, I would like to explain why I think the AAA is absolutely correct in using this strategy. Over the past few months a fairly heated debate has broken out between a group of anthro and archy students at Harvard and the publication of Economics paper which, to boil it down, uses genome data to answer the question: Why are some countries rich and some poor?The article was recently published in the American Journal of Economics, but you can find a copy of the working paper here.An official response was recently published in Current Anthropology, which is (Yeah!!) free for download!And there was even a response from the original authors as well.For those who really want to get into this, Science had their take (gated…naturally) as did Nature (not gated!).

    There has been significant debate over at Jason Collins’ blog, Evolving Economics (and here). There is quite a bit more discussion over at Andrew Gelman’s Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science (yep that really is the name of a blog 😉 and I have a lot of respect for Jade d’Alpoim Guedes for seriously engaging with many of these debates (although it helps that I consider her a friend as well). I feel a bit guilty here, as I discovered the debate late and didn’t get a chance to post my own thoughts and critiques of the article. All you’ll need to do is read the abstract of the original article and the critique at CA to the get the idea. But the heart of the paper rests on the assumption that:

    “higher (genetic) diversity generates social benefits by enhancing society’s productivity through efficiency gains via  complementarities across different productive traits, by increasing society’s resilience against negative productivity shocks, and by fostering society’s adaptability to a change in the technological environment. Higher diversity also generates social costs, however, by increasing the likelihood of miscoordination and distrust between interacting agents and by inhibiting the emergence and sustainability of cooperative behavior in society (Appendix H).”

    And this “logic” is backed up by only two citations (yes, two!)…naturally, E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology. With 1500 A.D. as a proxy, we see higher genetic diversity in Homo sapiens sapiens in Africa, very little in the Americas, the perfect mix in Eurasia…and Voila! this explains 16% of the economic disparity (GDP/capita) that we see in the globe today. Coming from an Econ background, I was actually confused as to why this article was even published, particularly in AJOE.Of course, Wilson was never actually able to document that logic was valid in a human context (as Sahlin’s expertly articulated in The Use and Abuse of Biology) but Chagnon tried. And, contrary to the Times article, in many circles it is generally accepted that Chagnon failed to validate Wilson’s theory, as well articulated again by Sahlins in the piece Rebecca sent.

    It is crucially important (and scientifically valid) to point out the flaws in arguments of this nature, but it is equally important to bring to light the ethical conundrum such “knowledge” may induce. As Guedes et al. rightly point out:”By claiming a causal link between the degree of genetic heterogeneity and economic development, their thesis could be interpreted to suggest that increasing or decreasing a nation’s genetic (or ethnic) diversity would promote prosperity. Ultimately, this can provide fodder to those looking to justify policies ranging from mistreatment of immigrants to ethnic cleansing (especially by groups with real political power, e.g., Golden Dawn in Greece).”I am all for practicing good science (this time with the little s) and I am glad to see that the AAA agrees…in some cases I am even uneasy when I am told by some anthropologists that all of our research must be activist in nature. But in no way would I be blinded by the practice of good science to the point that I would ignore the possible ethical and political repercussions of our research. I think that most anthropologists would agree.Many other disciplines may not agree with this mindset.

    One colleague in reaction to the “Out of Africa Thesis” said, “they just need to be educated about why they are wrong, both factually and ethically.” This is essentially right and I believe that is what the AAA is doing by exhibiting their Race Project to show that anthropology is not just about Science, but also about actively striving for a better society by being politically active and ethically vigilant. Yet, we can do more. For those of us who wish to engage beyond our discipline, “educating” does not necessarily need to be our single goal, but rather to study and learn from the discipline; to point out flaws using their own disciplinary logic (the less ad hominem arguments the better in the case of many disciplines outside anthropology) and explaining how an anthropological perspective may even improve their state of the art concepts.

    Ironically enough, the Out of Africa paper was written in response and as a critique of Jared Diamond’s work, particularly Guns, Germs and Steel, which has also been critiqued thoroughly enough here at Savage Minds…but I don’t think this is what those critics had in mind (P.S. for E-Anth readers Diamond+Chagnon=cats…that Jim Veteto is a funny guy :-). Additionally, when we find excellent examples of sound science, profound theorizing or just advocacy beyond Anthropology proper, it also only seems fair to consider creative ways to integrate it into our own repertoire, particularly when it unveils inconsistency and unethical treatment in our own work.

    [Edwin: I added some paragraph breaks to clean up the formatting a bit–RA]

  20. Jason,

    I question Mann’s assertive that slash-and-burn “was a product of European axes”. although 1491 is a terrific book it misses some points about Amazonian agriculture. While its true that the Yanomami and other Amazonians depend on their steel axes to practice slash-and-burn agriculture, other techniques might have been used before colonization. People have been considering that they could “ring” the trees, therefore killing them over time. It is clear that the steel axes and colonists extreme dependence on cassava/fariña changed the crops patterns. You can infer through ethnographic and archaeological data that corn and other kinds of roots (ie Maranta arundinacea) other than manioc were also prevalent before colonization and mostly consumed as fermented drinks and baked starch. Since cassava was easy to store and transport, its production was largely stimulated by the European and Neo-american colonists.

    Thanks for the incredible links you posted on this thread. It is really amazing to see Chagnon’s work being contested by other biological anthropologists, therefore ending this pathetic idea that the whole criticism of his work was held because of the theoretical approach.

  21. A key part from the “Diamonds and Clubs” piece by Jon Marks:

    “A journalist named Emily Eakin writes a puff piece on Napoleon Chagnon, whose memoir is being published soon. Chagnon is renowned in anthropology as the counter-example of good fieldwork. This is the anthropologist who worked with the Yanomamo, got them angry at one another (by broadly violating their taboos about names of dead relatives in order to collect his genealogical information), armed them (with machetes), and then reified the ensuing violence in his monograph “The Fierce People” – removing history, politics, and his own field methods from his analysis of their violence. It was a great undergraduate read, but it isn’t taken very seriously as scholarship. Why? Because he removed history, politics, and his own field methods from his analysis of their violence.

    Pay close attention to the last sentence…

  22. Was this a public fact?

    “I was still working on my review of Darkness when I received emails from five prominent scholars: Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser. Although each wrote separately, the emails were obviously coordinated. All had learned (none said exactly how, although I suspected via a friend of mine with whom I discussed my review) that I was reviewing Darkness for the Times. Warning that a positive review might ruin my career, the group urged me either to denounce Darkness or to withdraw as a reviewer.”

    So Tim Ingold was right about “The poverty of selectionism”…

  23. @Cortacabezas, thank you for the elaboration on Mann and the axes. I made a longer reply to a similar issue on my blog–it isn’t that Mann is saying Amazonian groups were incapable of felling trees or practiced no slash-and-burning, as they may have had quite sophisticated horticultural techniques. But as you note, the axes do encourage certain kinds of techniques and crop mixes.

  24. Thanks. Anyway, you are right. Despite the small details the main point in Mann’s argument stands: there is nothing “pristine” about the Yanomami or any other Amerindian group.

    On the other hand I’m still intrigued by how Mann’s review try to fit Chagnon’s criticism in an opposition between “traditional ethnographers” and “political advocates”. Both Bruce Albert’s and Darrell Posey’s ethnographies are and “traditional” methodologically speaking: rigorous data collection and “classic” anthropological description.

  25. I don’t think that Eakin’s piece was that puffy. After all, this is not the sort of thing that will burnish Chagnon’s reputation:

    “Chagnon strides into the middle of a shabono in a loincloth and faded high tops and strikes a warrior pose — a bearded Tarzan aping his subjects, to their audible delight.”

  26. @Edwin:
    Re: “I also noticed though, that as DWP has mentioned, there is not an explicit mention of the issue of racism found within the discipline itself. This is truly unfortunate (being a white male, I have once or twice actually been quite dismayed by particularly racist comments about non-white anthropologists made to me by other white male anthropologists, who I did actually respect at one time), but I hope perhaps within the Race: Are We So Different? publication perhaps this is more fully addressed?”

    I think you are making a very important point here, and it definitely speaks to the *continuing salience* of Chagnon’s work (and the ‘who cares what he did to those less-important non-white people’ sentiment) and the ways in which there actually has *not* been a change in anthropological ethics, contrary to claims by current AAA president Leith Mullings. And here I think we need to think about AAA as an institution and corporate entity, not simply as an anthropology ‘association’. Leith Mullings statement is a *PR statement*. Moreover, we need to realize the ways in which the presidencies of Leith Mullings and Virginia Dominguez should not be oversold as indices of the lack of racism in US anthropology, just as Barack Obama as US President does not mean that the US is ‘post-racial’ and that racial and economic inequality are not actually worsening. Obama promised ‘hope and change’, and yet he has continued and extended many of the most repressive Bush-era civil liberties violations. So PR and public statements of a commitment to progressive ideals don’t automatically translate into action and implementation of those ideals. In this context anthropologists should think more seriously about Leith Mullings claims about the effects of Chagnon’s work on contemporary anthropological practice and ethics–especially when many (especially older white) anthropologists have deep racial biases (which they would of course deny and not admit to publicly), and when many see non-whites/blacks like me as those to be studied, those who are supposed to be the *objects* of anthropological study, and those who will never truly be seen as intellectual equals such that when we speak up to point out racism in the discipline and the actions of our fellow (white) anthropologists we will be met with racist abuse (yes, included from celebrity anthropology professors) by those who feel entitled to ‘put us in our place’, by whatever racially abusive means necessary–be it ‘KKK shit’ vitriol, or character assassination in which it is claimed we are violent ghetto criminals, all because, as one high-profile archaeologist put in writing, “that person has no respect for boundaries” (i.e. that f*cking n*gger doesn’t know her place so we’ll make sure she pays for ‘making us look bad’ for speaking publicly about racist bullying and public email attacks we have been trying to cover up since our department was under external review for national graduate program rankings). So yes, what are the ‘boundaries’ of what should be considered acceptable anthropological practice, anthropological ethics, and has Chagnon’s behavior really altered the anthropological landscape as much as Leith Mullings asserts?

    What people claim publicly (for PR purposes, ‘brand management’) and what they are actually doing (or not doing) privately, out of the public eye (especially as a powerful individual or institution which can cover up wrongdoing, especially through the institution’s lawyers), are two very different things. I do not know Leith Mullings at all and I am sure she is a very nice woman, so nothing I have to say here is a personal attack on her, but I do think we need to speak honestly about the real, and deep, racism in (US) anthropology, why it exists, **and why it continues** (including because even when anthropologists are well-documented to have engaged in truly heinous forms of racism and racist abuse, their behavior is overlooked and covered up, including by AAA presidents and executive committee members who don’t censure either individuals or departments).

    No, it would not be good PR for AAA, or anthropology as a discipline, if AAA and Leith Mullings had to acknowledge that a certain top-rated department has *serious* antiblack racism problems, with *multiple* professors having engaged in (and still presently engaged in) shocking and *repeated* acts of antiblack racism and unethical behavior (including falsely accusing an innocent black student of a crime so as to cover up their own racism, negligence in stopping racist-sexist bullying they knew about before it metastasized to a public email attack, and unethical behavior in recommending a known racist-sexist bully, who used the department’s graduate student listserve for public bullying *hundreds* of people were witness to, for teaching jobs–including an *antiracism* post-doc–behavior which shows a truly stunning of disrespect in line with the ‘oh, who cares about those stupid non-white people, (our) white lives are more important’ sentiment I called out before in the all-too-easy dismissal of Chagnon’s abuses and unethical behavior).

    We have to seriously question what anthropologists and AAA (and Leith Mullings as its president) has truly learned post-Chagnon about ‘anthropological ethics’ when one of the primary perpetrators of this ongoing *racial terrorism* (because let us not mince words to conceal what kind of racially violent–and vile–behavior this kind of retaliation is: terrorizing innocent people via racial profiling and the intentional deployment of the most ugly stereotypes about dark-skinned black people) is now an **AAA section president**, despite writing clearly racist emails in which she made clear that she fully supported racial profiling an innocent black person, as revenge, for speaking out about the public email bullying and how the department had conspired to cover it up and retaliate against the student for legitimately speaking out against heinous antiblack racism that no anthropologist should either be supporting, making excuses for, or engaging in–especially as actively falsely accusing innocent black people of crimes they have clearly not committed by actively deploying racist stereotypes of dark-skinned black people as dangerous threats who should be assumed to be violent ghetto criminals is clearly a serious breach of anthropological ethics, to say the least. As is doubling-down on the retaliation once the student has proof from the police that the student is innocent and being falsely accused of actions the person has never engaged in, but certain racist white professors–and especially a current AAA section head–are so enraged at having their clearly antiblack behavior exposed, that they further retaliate by claiming that they are being victimized by a crazy and violent black person who is ‘harassing’ them (i.e. speaking up to ask not to be racially stereotyped and falsely accused of crime–which is clearly the behavior of crazy, violence-prone, and ‘unreasonable’ “very dark-skinned” black people, of course); with the aforementioned AAA section head writing that everything the student has to write about why it is wrong to racially stereotype people is “meaningless”–despite the student’s “meaningless” writings precisely recapitulating points made by “Anthropology as White Public Space?”, Kerim’s recent SM post on profiling in India and the US, and Reversed Gaze (the recent ethnography on racism in US anthropology).

    In short, the disparaging comments you made reference to are not an anomaly: for some departments they are the departmental climate and ethos, **directed from the top down–in writing**–while publicly disavowed . So if we want to speak truthfully about how Chagnon’s anthropological practices have (not) re-oriented anthropological ethics–which is a primary thrust of Leith Mullings official AAA response to the NY Times article on Chagnon and his memoir–we, as anthropologists, will have to be a lot more honest about the ongoing and very deep racism in anthropology, the way in which some people are still always seen as–and ultimately, treated as–‘those people’, whose lives are less important, if important at all, and who it is acceptable to abuse–especially so white (male) anthropologists can advance their careers, with impunity.

    As I have said elsewhere on this site and previously, and as the Chagnon controversy continues to make clear: we are not post-racial, and why are some white scholars so invested in ‘post-human’ studies when many of us–including the Yanomami who can still be called “hideous and filthy” without some white (male) anthropologists thinking it’s ‘a big deal’–are still struggling just to be seen as both human beings of equal worth and value and human beings at all (not some evolutionary throwback or sub-species more closely related to chimps and gorillas such that we deserve to be smeared as violent savages/primitives from either tropical or ‘urban jungles’).

    But what would I know, after two of the nation’s top archaeologists, from one of the world’s famous department’s have made clear that I am just a “meaningless” “frightening” “disruptive” “loud/argumentative” “very dark-skinned South African” who should be subjected to police brutality and racial profiling simply for posting comments like this. If this is what is considered good anthropological ethics post-Chagnon, then what have anthropologists truly learned from him?

  27. @DWP I am truly sorry for what has happened to you. Know that you are not alone. I have a good friend who has suffered a similar situation, but it is not my place to relate it here. But what I have learned from him (and actually from your posts as well) is that racism within society and the institution is not only personal, although because of it’s violent and alienating nature it always feels extremely personal. It is also an evil deeply rooted socially created process and it will take specific *social* action to up-root. Certainly the AAA response is a PR event, but I hope that it is a step in the right direction. I believe that we, as an institution and a discipline (and as human beings), have learned from Chagnon’s mistakes but indeed there still is a long way to go. Also I know that deep down, your post is not meant simply as an attack towards this PR event, but rather is intended to stimulate the social action needed to prevent this kind of abuse in the future within our own institutions. So I do hope that you will continue to let your voice be heard and I especially look forward to hearing your ideas about how to solve the problem.

  28. Thanks, Edwin. Anthropologists like you can and do make a difference. Very sorry to hear about your friend.

    I have many things to say in response to your response, but just time for a few right now. First, as you surmised, my comments are indeed aimed at getting people to recognize and change(their) racist behavior, not attacking people or institutions. So no, my comments about AAA are not about attacking AAA, just asking that people actually practice the antiracism they are preaching to others.

    Second, people have tried very hard to silence me, by any means, no matter how dishonest, racist, unethical, illegal, or unconstitutional. Literally. But I am not going to be silent: because, seriously, if you as an individual and as a department are so deeply and unrepentantly racist, sexist, and abusive that you actually think falsely accusing black people of crimes they have clearly not committed is an acceptable strategy for covering up your individual racism/sexism and departmental ‘white public space’ issues, then something is very wrong with both your personal and anthropological ethics, and the latter is certainly worthy of public discussion and attention for the ways in which such racism and abuse (and its normalization) clearly contradict the antiracism and anthropological ethics AAA publicly and officially claims anthropologists should be guided by and should adhere to, so…

    I ‘refuse the silence’. I borrow the term from the website of the same name, which I neither speak for nor have ever commented on, but think is a brilliant idea–and turn of phrase–for directly addressing the institutional/academic dynamics that have made it possible for anthropologists who should know better–especially because they are “the big names in anthropology”–to see me and treat me as ‘just another stupid and disposable n*gger’ ( who needs to be silent and silenced, and ‘spoken for’ like the gorillas mentioned in last year’s “A Plea for Anthropology” post.

    So yes, I do hope that the renewed focus on Chagnon will result in real anthropological ‘soul searching’ on how and why we should treat other human beings as human beings like ourselves. Because I can hardly imagine that Napoleon Chagnon would want to be treated with the fundamental lack of respect he treated the Yanomami, or that the professors who have smeared me with every vile stereotype of black pathology would want to be on the receiving end of such racist violence and character assination, or that the (white) anthropologists who sit back and say racist abuse is no big deal and not worth speaking out against would appreciate being on the receiving end of apathy and collective silence were they the racial Others being vilified and dehumanized–instead of taken as the normative human being/body/subject in relation to which all behavior and beauty ideals should be judged.

    And lastly, for the time being, I think it is noteworthy that Leith Mullings’ response turned so heavily on media representations, and fictionalized white male ones at that: Indiana Jones and Fred Flinstone, both cartoonish in their respective ways. Media representations matter greatly, to and for anthropology and anthropologists. It is not just the proverbial Joe or Jane Public who understands or imagines a ‘real’ anthropologist/archaeologist as a white male (enter Napoleon Chagnon). And even when anthropologist–‘real’ anthropologist–is not assumed to be male it is still too often assumed to be white and/or white-oriented. Women who look like me get cast as maids in The Help, or as ‘crackheads’, or stereotypical Angry Black Woman who ‘gets ghetto’ on people and is ‘loud’ and wags her finger while circling her neck. I don’t expect much from Hollywood when it comes to accurate or multi-dimensional, complex, and substantively empathetic representations of women who look like me, but I do expect better from anthropologists–especially AAA section heads and members of President Obama’s cultural advisory committee. You (especially as an anthropologist who has served as department chair and equity adviser) should be using something more than racist Hollywood stereotypes and casting proclivities to evaluate my behavior, motivations, background, and skin color (which actually is not “very dark-skinned” by real-world standards, especially globally; nor am I “South African”–but, you know, ‘Africa is a country’, to enlist another race-critical website, and so long as the department did not use the word “black” they could get get away with saying they weren’t being racist, and we all know this is what counts–not actually not being racist). But when you fundamentally see–and judge–others as “hideous and filthy” quasi-human beings, what does it matter, right? So yes, as a non-American researcher said about the racial terrorism used against me, truly horrifying that anthropologists would actually encourage vicious antiblack racism and racial stereotyping.

    No, I am certainly not as light as Leith Mullings, and as Harry Reid reminded us about Obama’s electability, light skin matters for white/American acceptance of blacks. Because, no I am not the mental picture people–anthropologists included–have in their heads when they hear the words anthropologist, Yale graduate, person from small-town Connecticut. So yes, those media representations matter, quite a lot. Chagnon and Tarzan movies you say? Yes, some of us are still struggling to be seen as human–just by other anthropologists–and not silly, stupid, violent jungle savages with “meaningless” things to say…

  29. @Discuss White Privilege

    Starting with your handle to the last word, I completely agree with your comments. I’m sorry that you have had to undergo such terrifying abuse. Anthropologists are supposed to engage with issues of power, race, gender, and the deeply-rooted effects of colonialism (or so I hope), but apparently the way most department heads and tenured professors are white males (with corresponding abuses of power across racial and gendered lines) is above scrutiny. I take your story very seriously!

    Thanks so much for the recommendation of Mwenda Ntarangwi’s book, I already forwarded it to friends.

    You mention Leith Mullings a lot which is interesting as I just got done reading a 2005 article by her: It’s
    “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology” in the Annual Review of Anthropology. So she has done more than just write this AAA response. In fact, as far as I can tell from google/academic searches, it is one of the only major articles out there linking antiracism and anthropology. (Please let me know if you don’t have access.)

    I also just read bell hooks’ essay on her experience at an academic conference at which she tried to express her deep emotional reaction to the way the event’s entire organization reflected white supremacy and patriarchy. It’s from years ago, but it’s as true as ever, unfortunately, called “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination” and it’s in the books Black Looks: Race and Representation. Here is an excerpt:
    Watch out for more severe white privilege in the comments.

    I think it is reflective of anthropology as well.

    I’m very glad you shared your experiences and opened up this space to talk about these issues that DO very much link to the same controversies surrounding Chagnon.

  30. Kat, thank you for your response. I am glad that you feel I have opened up a space to discuss these issues, and glad that you see them as directly relevant to critiques of Chagnon and anthropological ethics. Opening up a space to speak about these things has been a long, hard-fought battle (case in point: see the censoring of the comments for the “DDR or Receivership?” post on this site), and it’s certainly not done–or just about me making an effort. So, I’m glad that people like you and Edwin are also speaking out to open this space further, and I hope your response encourages more people to rethink the racial terror within anthropology (and the academy) and to speak out against it, instead of just paying lip service to ‘antiracism’ and ‘anthropological ethics’. One of the things I always find interesting about this site is who comments on what, and how: the patterns of (some people) never engaging discussions of racist/sexist practices in which they may be engaged, though they always have plenty to say about other topics. It is an observation/pattern very much about anthropological ethics (and anthropological Others), and related to the bell hooks excerpt you linked to, as well as to observations by people like Jason Antrosio on the (non)responses of white anthropologists to “Anthropology as White Public Space?” and the 2010 AAA minority report (especially in contrast to their deep investments in discussing about ‘open access’ and ‘academic precarity’ … Open access (to the academy) for whom? Academic precarity (via racial and gendered violence) for whom? Or not.).

    I am aware of the 2005 Leith Mullings article, as well as the bell hooks chapter (have the book), but thanks for mentioning both–because other people need to be aware of them too–and thanks for offering to grant me access to the Mullings article if I didn’t have access to it. Tremendously kind and fundamentally decent. If only all were.

    It is funny that you should mention bell hooks, and that article in particular, because covering up a DOCUMENTED years-long pattern of inappropriate racist comments (including a group of students mocking me for ‘reading too much bell hooks’: “that’s the kind of presentation you get when you read too much bell hooks”) and racist-sexist bullying against me by MULTIPLE students was one of the primary reasons […] wanted the DDR post censored to cover up a climate of racism and racist-sexist bullying (including two deeply resentful white male advisees of […]’s, including one who *studies the police*–a hilarious irony given Kerim’s recent post on this site on profiling in the US and India–telling me that because I went to Yale I am an over-privileged black woman who does not suffer “real racism” and/such that being a black woman with a Yale degree trumps their white male privilege because they ‘only’ went to state schools so I need to “keep your ‘privilege’ critique at home if you want to be friends” and “go back to your condo, and whining about your trillion-dollar education, and your petty rumination of why your life sucks”–all sent to me IN WRITING such that it is not a figment of my crazy Angry Black Woman imagination because I am “a mentally ill woman”; the advisee who studies the police also twice, over the course of several years, and in front of witnesses the first time, made a point of directly referencing […]’s work so as to let me know that, with my Yale degree especially, there is no difference between being ‘pink’ and being black).

    In what was a deeply unethical act which became a crucial link in racially terrorizing me for telling the truth about serious and ongoing hostile climate violations, a white male professor was allowed to lie and cover up the truth such that anthropologists/anthropology professors could lie, as they continue to do to this day, to say I am just a violence-prone and stupid black woman who makes frivolous complaints about racism which have “no merit” and that I am only complaining about a ‘personal dispute’ with “one former-student”. Covering up the truth of racial terrorism, and the racial terror of which hooks writes, is one of the reasons that it was so important for […] to come make false statements in the “Receivership or DDR?” post, especially so as to have no mention of public email bullying via a departmental listserve, by one of his dissertation advisees, censored–especially when the person was on the job market and did not want the truth of his DOCUMENTED behavior coming up in a Google search of his name, which the department did not want either because it raised serious issues of ANTHROPOLOGICAL ETHICS as to why a known racist-sexist bully was still being recommended by professors for teaching jobs, especially when they and he were doing so by falsely accusing an innocent black person of a crime so as to tell anthropologists and academics at other universities to hire the man anyway an not listen to ‘that stupid, crazy, violent, slutty black woman from the ghetto’. When professors in an anthropology department know this is the lie a documented public bully is using to get academic jobs, and they are supporting these tactics–especially so as to maintain individual, departmental, and university prestige–what is going on?

    Racial terror? Definitely.

    Anthropological ethics? Certainly not.

    It is too easy to pile on to attack Napoleon Chagnon so as to say that he represents bad anthropological ethics but all is fine with the discipline’s anthropological ethics otherwise. It is also incredibly dishonest, especially in light of the 2005 Leith Mullings article, especially in an article which mentions Jim Kim as World Bank president, especially given his role in covering up wrongdoing on his campus, while Dartmouth president (see Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone article on hazing at Dartmouth, from March/April 2012)–and his participation in helping to smear me for questioning how a documented racist-sexist bully ended up being recommended for a racial justice project on his campus.

    I do not think a lot of people really want to have an honest conversation about anthropological ethics and why Chagnon’s unethical behavior may not be such an outlier after all.

    Refuse the silence. Even if they try to use this woman to intimidate you into being silent:

  31. Thanks everyone for your comments. While the issues being raised here at the end of the comment thread are indeed important, the discussion is straying away from the subject of the original post. Therefore, I am going to close down this thread.

    However, I think the issues of race and racism as they pertain to anthropology need to be critically rethought, discussed, and examined. So, in the name of creating an open space to do just that, I am going to start another thread, starting with a discussion about the 2005 paper by Leith Mullings mentioned above. I just downloaded the article, so I will read it asap and start a new thread pronto.

    Now, in anticipation of the next thread, we need to set some ground rules, because these issues can get personal, political, and contentious. I want to encourage thoughtful debate and discussion about these important issues. Again, challenging comments, disagreements, and differences of opinion are welcome here at Savage Minds. But we all need to work together to keep the comments section an open, fair, productive space for all readers. So here are some of the ground rules:

    1. Absolutely no personal attacks or accusations. If you post a comment that gets personal, or makes a personal accusation, it will be deleted. As they say on the comments policy over at Racialicious: “Don’t make personal attacks. If you’re not smart enough to win an argument without resorting to calling someone fat, stupid, crazy, or whatever, maybe you should work on your rhetorical skills.”

    2. Stay on topic. Again, some good advice from Racialicious: “Don’t respond to a post or comment by saying ‘why don’t you focus on some real issues like the war/starving children in Africa/police brutality/etc.'” If you do not like the subjects covered on this site, or a particular post, please feel free to go elsewhere. Going off-topic will not be tolerated.

    3. If there are comments that you feel are inappropriate, DO NOT post a comment complaining about it. Either flag the comment as inappropriate or send me an email. Comments complaining about other comments may be removed from the thread.

    4. Do not feed the trolls. If someone is baiting you or trying to lead you into a fight, do not respond.

    5. Keep your comments civil, constructive, and respectful. That’s the best way to move forward.

    So, let’s start with the article by Mullings. If you have it, read it, then join the discussion here. I will post the new thread soon.



    FYI: Please review our comments policy here:


    And check the comments policy at Racialicious here for some more good advice:

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