Anthropology: It’s still white public space–An interview with Karen Brodkin (Part I)

The following is an interview with Karen Brodkin, Professor Emeritus in the UCLA anthropology Department.

Ryan Anderson:  You co-wrote an article back in 2011 with Sandra Morgen and Janis Hutchinson about anthropology as “white public space” (AWPS).  What’s your assessment of the state of anthropology three years later?  If you could add an “update” to this article, what would it be?

Karen Brodkin: The short answer is that anthropology is still white public space, especially in the consistently different ways that white and racialized minority anthropologists see race and racism in anthropology departments and universities. This is my reading of results of the 2013 online survey of the AAA membership (more on that in a minute). What I’ll do here is summarize the findings of the article, and then survey findings that buttress, complicate or contradict them.

AWPS was based on a survey of about 100 anthropologists of color about how they experienced anthropology. We used “white public space,” to sum up attitudes and organizational patterns that told anthropologists of color that they and their ideas were not real anthropology.

The 2013 survey (referred to hereafter as TFRR) was developed by the Task force on Race and Racism appointed by AAA president Leith Mullings (full disclosure, Raymond Codrington and I were its co-chairs). More than 15% of the membership, 1500 people, mostly white, took it. Half were faculty. We reported findings to the AAA Exec Board June 2014.

What follows is my personal take. We analyzed a LOT more data that I’m not dealing with here. There’s even more data still in this survey that we did not have time to analyze. I feel strongly that the survey database should be made available to anthropologists, and that we should use it as an opportunity to engage in a deeper conversation about race/ism in the discipline.

AWPS’s conclusions are below in bold italics, followed by information from TFRR that expands on each point.

  1. Anthropology departments collectively enact mainstream forms of race avoidance by not seeing racism, and by refusing to acknowledge that race matters in its practices. White anthropologists think their departments and universities are serious and effective in racial diversity efforts; that grievance procedures work; that their departments and schools took advantage of diversity incentives for minority students and that the overall racial climate is good. Racialized minorities disagree on all counts. The survey also asked two similar, multi-part questions about fairness in departmental relations. One question made no reference to race; the other asked explicitly about racial equity. We did the same thing with multipart questions about departmental support for advancement and promotion. On the general questions white faculty and students saw more fairness than did racialized minorities. And when the questions were phrased as about racial fairness, those differences were even sharper. Interesting contrast: practitioners’ perceptions of their workplace relations and racial equity and support did not differ by race, so maybe it’s something specific to the atmosphere of anthropology departments/academe?
  2. Departments marginalize the work and theoretical perspectives generated by scholars of color. White faculty and students thought that their required courses were quite inclusive of works by and theoretical perspectives developed by scholars of color, while racialized minorities thought there was little real inclusion.
  3. White anthropologists see ethnic studies as incompatible with anthropology, and don’t see the study of race as a legitimate topic for anthropology. White anthropologists don’t seem to know much about race. Proportionately fewer whites than racialized minorities reported knowing the scholarship about race, conducting research on racial ethnic issues, or teaching courses on race issues (many faculty neither taught nor conducted such research). Differences between white and racialized minority departmental homes also suggests that anthropology devalues the study of race: White anthropology faculty are clustered in anthropology and departments with anthropology as part of their title, while racialized minority faculty are more likely to be in ethnic or gender studies departments and in departments without anthropology in their title.
  4. Expecting faculty of color to be responsible for diversity duty while encouraging their white colleagues to develop their own research and not held equally responsible. We didn’t find any differences between white and racialized minority faculty in publications, or course loads. The committee work differences were by rank more than race in that higher ranked faculty did more committee work and taught more graduate courses. But we didn’t ask about specifically diversity committee work. Nevertheless, racialized minority faculty did engage in more service and community projects than white; and racialized minority tenure track faculty at all ranks had more racialized minority advisees than whites at the same rank.

AWPS found signs of: a significant rise of anthropology faculty of color in the 1980s; stagnation in the 1990s; and a revolving door for a limited number of minority faculty positions within anthropology departments. But TFRR is a snapshot of 2013 so can’t speak to those points, but it did give us some miscellaneous information on the state of departments that I think suggest differential racial treatment.

Among tenure track faculty:

  • Whites are less likely than racialized minorities to be in departments whose students, faculty and chairs are other than white. Outside diverse departments (and we don’t know how many of these there are because for confidentiality we didn’t ask for respondents’ schools) racialized minorities are also numerical minorities.
  • Racialized minority faculty are younger and more female than white, have fewer years since PhD, and have been in their departments a shorter time than white. They are concentrated at the assistant and associate ranks, but the women are less likely than men to be at associate rank.
  • Full professors are mainly white males. White women are less likely to be full professors. White men have more years since their PhD and they have also been in their current department for more years than racialized minority full professors. But anthropology has had a growing majority of women PhDs since at least 1986 which suggests that white women should prevail in the most senior ranks, except they don’t.

The situation of temporary faculty had some surprises:

  • Regardless of race, they are not new PhDs; they received their degrees an average of 10.3 years ago.
  • Women make up a larger percentage of the temporary faculty than of the tenure track faculty.
  • White faculty teach more courses per academic year and teach more core courses than racialized minority temporary faculty or tenure track faculty of both race groups.

This last has racially discriminatory implications. In contrast to tenure track faculty, for whom a lower course load is an advantage, for temporary faculty, who are paid by the course, this imbalance suggests that white temporary faculty may be receiving priority in course assignments, for more courses and for core and introductory courses.

The final race-related surprise is about students and practitioners
around support for writing and publication.

  • Against a cross-race background of equal mentoring, racialized minority students reported less faculty mentoring than whites in developing their research proposals and preparing their research for publication.
  • Racialized minority practicing anthropologists were less likely than white to have had co-writing research and technical reports as part of their professional development; and were less likely than whites to have writing research or technical reports as part of their work duties. However, racialized minorities had more support for research travel and research assistance than whites.

There are also indications of gender by race differences that need checking out: Women in general have been a majority of anthropology PhDs for almost 30 years. Shouldn’t this give women (of both racial groups?) a proportional slice of senior positions by now? Yet it looks like women of color are tenured less than their male counterparts. And that white women, get tenure but not promotion to full professor equally to their male counterparts.

Part II of this interview is here.


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.

3 thoughts on “Anthropology: It’s still white public space–An interview with Karen Brodkin (Part I)

  1. For the reasons discussed in the link below, we also need to disaggregate the term “people of color” and discuss not just ‘racism’, but also (and more specifically) colorism and anti-Black racism:

    Not all racial groups are treated equally within anthropology’s White public space, nor all members of a racial group. White supremacy and anti-Black racism mean that some groups are seen and treated as smarter and more acceptable, while others receive far harsher and hostile treatment and are seen as less intelligent (which is a serious obstacle to being seen and treated fairly as a scholar), despite the official ‘we’re all equal’ AAA race statement. We need to be honest about how much anthropologists have and enact the same anti-Black racial biases that exist outside anthropology, even as they/we insist we are anti-racist and instruct others not to be racist and see (dark-skinned) Black people as inferior, less intelligent, more violent, and more hypersexual. More often than not, anthropologists do not practice they antiracism they speak.

    The Berkeley department is a department worth looking at in understanding why the terms ‘people of color’ and ‘racism’ need to be more critically interrogated in relation to this discussion, as well as the term ‘racial diversity’ (as well as ‘diversity’). Yes, Berkeley has multiple non-White tenured and tenure-track professors. But from what racial group(s)? There are some very obvious patterns of exclusion, which have been going on for more than a decade and especially since the death of John Ogbu (which is ironic since Ogbu study racial stratification and minority education/exclusion). So, while Berkeley may be ‘inclusive’ for some people of color, it is extremely hostile and exclusive for others, as the 11/6/13 East Bay Express cover story “Why Are Black Students Avoiding UC Berkeley?” makes clear, as well as the recent article by professor Leigh Raiford on the fiftieth anniversary Berkeley campus celebration of the Free Speech Movement (which Kerim should be able to provide a link to, as it appeared in the New Inquiry’s “Sunday Reading” a few weeks back; not just my hobby horse, then).

    Some people are actually making the racism/racial exclusion/White public space problems worse by using Berkeley as the example of a ‘diverse’ department. Diverse for whom, and why? I have heard people say they can’t believe Berkeley could have hostile racial and sexual climate problems because ‘it is known for being so progressive’ and has several non-White professors (again, from what racial group(s)?). I have also heard White anthropologists engaged in shockingly abuse behavior use the presence of a non-White primary/dissertation adviser as ‘proof’ they can’t be racist. Apoplexy-inducing intellectual dishonesty or an apoplexy-inducing lack of race-critical thinking skills? Either way, both speak to why anthropology is and continues to be ‘white public space’.

  2. I’ve been curious for some time now about diversity issues within archaeology, and the other sub-fields. The SAA has recently created a diversity committee, but have much further to go than the AAA for addressing racism and exclusion. In archaeological circles, sometimes it feels pretty lonely for people of color. I get the sense that many archaeologists want to help and include people of color who are from countries in which they conduct research, who may not even identify as minorities because they’re quite privileged in their home countries. But what about people from under-represented groups who’ve lived marginalized lives in the U.S.? Who’s experiences have been shaped by exclusion at every level, from their undergraduate work to higher levels within the discipline. In archaeology, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about women taking hold and moving up in the ranks. What about women of color? Sometimes it seems that if you include a white woman (in a job search, on a committee, as an admitted graduate student, etc), the diversity box can be checked. But is that really enough? I find it hard to even articulate my beefs with the discipline and climate in academia. While I appreciate the efforts of Brodkin et al and others to address the issue, the impact of their study isn’t felt in the sub-fields, at least archaeology.

  3. Ryan, kudos for this interview. Apropos of the issues of Intersectionality raised by Margaret and myself in relation to the concerns of women of color as the intersection of race/color/gender, is it possible to do a follow-up series with Kate Clancy or her co-authors, to think through how the sexual harassment issues they raise intersect with this conversation on anthropology as White public space?

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