“The Most Wonderful Shade of Brown”

Anthropologists are good at critiquing other anthropologists and themselves. We have a lot to be guilty about and we do a good job of pointing that out. The politics of anthropology, and the politics of the politics of anthropology are a major part of what we do. In fact, we’re so good at doing it that I think at times we forget what we have actually done wrong. We spend more time reading dismissals of our ancestors than we do the ancestors themselves.

One of my most memorable moments in graduate school was when Fredrik Barth — who I have a lot of respect for — came to give a talk to our department. The highlight for me was when he was describing how much he enjoyed spending time with people in Papua New Guinea during his fieldwork there. They were, he said, friendly and “the most wonderful shade of brown.” I think he was trying to be provocative and he succeeded — there was an audible gasp from the brown anthropologists in the room, as well as from pretty much everyone else.

And then there is Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf.

A friend of mine recently turned me on to this interview with him from Alan MacFarlane’s massive series of oral histories of anthropology. It’s worth a listen, since his fieldwork experiences seem completely INSANE to me and probably will to you too. His luck at going on a punitive expedition in northeastern India. His assurance to MacFarlane that burning down a village is not a big deal because ‘it was only made out of grass and bamboo’. The looting of human remains. And, probably my favorite, when MacFarlane asks CvF-H to rate the beauty of the different groups he’s studied with and CvH-F says that one group was not attractive because they were ‘darker’.

I’m not sure what to make of CvH-F’s career. He personally doesn’t seem like a bad person. But his career… what are we to make of it? is it a lesson in how far we’ve come, ethically, and anthropologists? Is it a lesson in how far we have to go? Am I wrong in thinking there’s something ethically problematic in accompanying government patrols in which villages are destroyed? 

I have no idea. I just personally feel like we will not be able to move forward as a discipline unless we understand our past. The deeper we understand it, the better. Rethinking our canon includes expanding it to include people like St. Clair Drake, as well as continuing to read about CvH-F. But mostly, listening to this interview my overall thought was: there are some things that are so INSANE your first thought is: blog first, ask questions later.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on ““The Most Wonderful Shade of Brown”

  1. Rex, thanks for the pointer to St. Clair Drake. Have just read the Wikipedia entry and am stunned that I hadn’t heard of him before.

    As for CvH-F, shouldn’t we say that while we may never forgive or forget, our prime directive is to understand what he thought he was doing and the context in which he was doing it?

  2. Alternative title: Anthropology That Makes You Cringe. There’s historical context and then there’s….well….parts of the discipline’s past that are really difficult to come to terms with no matter what context one applies…

  3. I didn’t know St. Clair Drake was anthropologist until I read African American Pioneers in Anthropology edited by Ira E Harrison and Faye V Harrison.

  4. @rex. i remember that barth visit. he also said something about fieldwork that remains with me. he said that he had been advising a student who wanted to work on national identity (remember what a hot topic that was in the 1990s just before everyone started in on globalization?) and said something like “you will go [to a city in certain nation state] and apprentice yourself to a cobbler and spend all day with him making shoes. for months, you will feel that you are not learning anything about national identity. then one day he will say something about people in [name of another national unit here] in relationship to the price of leather. then you will learn about national identity.” this remark on how one does fieldwork still informs my work.

    in keeping with the theme of this post, as a melanin deprived resident on the southeast coast of taiwan i can tell you that “most wonderful shade of brown” cuts two ways. in the field, people are always making jokes about how ridiculous it is that i turn pink within 30 minutes of exposure. the politics of anthropology has paid far too little attention, imho, to our own vulnerability and to the ways that those with whom we work exert both formal and informal power over the course of our research

  5. You know what? I’m glad people like those mentioned exist in our discipline. ‘Political correctness is killing anthropology’. There can be no progress without occasional mistakes to learn from.

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