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

This is the second part of my interview with Karen Brodkin.  Part I is here.

Ryan Anderson: All of this has me wondering how this is happening in US anthropology. As a discipline, we have this sort of pride that comes with our Boasian legacy of anti-racism. But your work seems to indicate that something is terribly amiss. Despite all of our rhetoric about anti-racism, it turns out we have some serious internal problems when it comes to race and diversity. In your view, how has this happened and why do we tell ourselves such a different story?

Karen Brodkin: In its institutional profile, anthropology is not much different from other white-majority institutions, and like them, we also think we’re doing better than especially non-white anthropologists think we are. I’ve used “white public space” to highlight the different views that white and racialized minority anthropologists have about anthropology’s racial climate. But knowing that only raises two more questions. What are the specific practices and narratives that have led anthropologists of color give the discipline’s racial climate low marks over some 40 years? And, what are the positive changes anthropologists have been making within their departments and scholarly networks? Both these efforts and conversations about them need a bigger public profile within the discipline.

I think that the story about our Boasian anti-racist legacy is one of the (many) things we need to change. As you indicate, it’s part of what makes many of us think we’re doing well. It is also part of what attracts scholars of color to anthropology, even if they subsequently may become disappointed.

The story I learned eons ago, and that I also taught made Boas an exemplar of anthropology’s anti-racist potential, either as PR for the discipline or as encouragement to engage in social justice scholarship, depending on the teller. It was a story of Boas and his students as activists and scholars who challenged prevailing ideas that races were unequal and that white social supremacy was a natural and inevitable outcome of superior biology. Key points were that race, language and culture varied independently; that biology was changeable; that Africa had great kingdoms; and that there was no inherent or inevitable inferiority of black Americans or any other racialized group.

All that was true and good, but, as Lee Baker has shown, Boas had some serious limitations in his own era, and they loom even larger in today’s context. In their own time Boasians ignored the political economy of race and the sociocultural organization of African American communities. Political and economic oppression of black Americans was the “self-evident” confirmation of white supremacy. With 20-20 hindsight it’s easy to see how big that omission was. Nevertheless, the political economy of American racism was very much part of the analysis of progressive scholarship in Boas’ time. W.E.B. DuBois, whom Boas knew and worked with, and anthropologists like Alison Davis, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, contemporaries of Boas’ students, were publishing politically and economically-informed analyses of Black America and of African American cultural communities.

Nevertheless, these scholars and the kind of socially critical analysis they generated about race/ism weren’t in the anthropological canon I learned, and I’m guessing they still aren’t. By ignoring this work, Boasians arguably established a pattern of marginalizing the study of race and racism—that it’s somehow not real anthropology–that persists today. That their view of culture in general didn’t include political economy is also a weakness. Marginalizing the study of rac/ism in the U.S. was in part a casualty of a larger exclusion of political economy. Anthropology ceded such things to sociology. Still, British social anthropology, and later, even Marx, made happy homes in U.S. anthropology. Less so the study of race and racism.

Racism is a shape shifter, and while Boasian anti-racism countered the white racist narratives of its time, today’s racism isn’t the racism of pre-civil rights eras. We’ve inherited three weaknesses from genuflecting to Boasians as anti-racist ancestors instead of analyzing their contributions in historical perspective.

First, as Lee Baker shows in “The Color-Blind Bind,” the political right wing has embraced anthropology’s signature contribution that race is not a biological concept to argue for erasing race from the civic vocabulary; if there are no races, there can be no racism. How do we as anthropologists counter that logic?

Second, there’s a hole in our traditional Boasian story. DuBois, St.Clair Drake, Cayton, and Alison Davis gave birth to a powerful stream of anti-racist social science scholarship, but I don’t think it’s widely embraced as part of our canon. Seldom are these scholars included as apical ancestors, even though we make disciplinary exceptions for Durkheim, Weber and more recently Marx.

Third, both Boasian and British colonial anthropology have left an exoticist legacy, which disparaged studying “us.” Boasians tended to treat Native Americans as cultural and ahistorical “others,” and African Americans as a biological race but otherwise culturally the same as whites. Happily dying, such traditions lived on well in the 1980s and ‘90s, and I suspect are alive still among some of us old folks. If anthropology’s reason for being is to understand society & culture, how trustworthy are we at understanding either in places we know not so well, if we assume incompetence at reflective analysis of our home places?

So what’s the point of this long meditation on Boas? I think that it’s just one (very small) example of the kinds of critical reflections we need to make on our disciplinary taken-for-granted cultural practices and narratives. We also need to move from reflection to changing the Boasian narrative and expanding the anthropological canon to include DuBois, Drake, Davis and Cayton as theoretical pioneers. Doing so would be one step in placing the study of race squarely inside the anthropological mainstream.


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.

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

  1. So what’s the point of this long meditation on Boas? I think that it’s just one (very small) example of the kinds of critical reflections we need to make on our disciplinary taken-for-granted cultural practices and narratives. We also need to move from reflection to changing the Boasian narrative and expanding the anthropological canon to include DuBois, Drake, Davis and Cayton as theoretical pioneers. Doing so would be one step in placing the study of race squarely inside the anthropological mainstream.

    I have no quarrel with this argument. It is certainly valid, as far as it goes. But let me ask two uncomfortable questions.

    When we include Dubois, Drake, Davis and Cayton as theoretical pioneers, who do we exclude? Even at the graduate level, courses on anthropological theory present what is, in effect, a series of cartoons. The reason is clear. There is no time for anything else. To read the full corpus of a Boas or Malinowski, let alone a Weber or Marx, is impossible. To read even a single seminal work and explore in depth its relation to the context in which it was written is hard to imagine. Even with the usual selection of at most a dozen notable figures, what we teach and learn are caricatures. Add four more and all that will be left is the roughest of rough sketches. Who, then, will we replace? That leads to the next question.
    How do we justify their replacement? Here we need an argument with comparative scope. What do Dubois, Drake, Davis and Cayton bring to anthropological theory besides drawing attention to racism. After all, when it comes to drawing attention to racism, it is hard to imagine any anthropologist doing a better job than Chris Rock or John Stewart. And why should these four be added to a canon that already excludes such giants as Umesao Tadao in Japan and Fei Xiaotong in China? Is American anthropology the only anthropology that contributes to universal understanding? The only source of credible theory?

  2. Perhaps we shouldn’t think of the teaching and training of anthropologists as a zero sum game. Revising traditional approaches is good and necessary, and I think Dr. Brodkin makes a good argument that we need to be more inclusive. But, there are time constraints. There’s only so much any one person can read. And, even going back 100 years to the beginnings of formal anthropology in this country, there was already quite a bit of scholarship being produced. How do we master those, and keep up with the massive and growing amount of scholarship produced since then? We can’t. And that means someone will always be left out. But I’m wondering why we focus so much on single individuals as hero figures. Rather than teaching one person’s contribution, perhaps we can teach the contributions made through debates (which will include many individuals). Rather than teaching historiography of anthropology as a series of stories of the most prominent or popular anthropologists of their time, a focus on disciplinary (and thus more collective) moves may allow us to be more inclusive. At the same time an important intervention must be made to include voices of color if anthropology will cease to be a white space.


  3. Thanks for the post. The points are needed. The insistence on the teachings of our ancestors (who dismissed the likes of James Mooney) is tedious. If anything, anthropology needs to be taken to the streets, to see if anyone cares. ‘The thought of Franz Boas’ from 90 years ago is about as helpful about contemporary problems of race as would be ‘the thought of Dr Ruth Westheimer’ from 40 years ago to any contemporary teenager concerned with matters of sexuality.

  4. there is a certain illogic here that I fail to follow: radical from the right tell us that if there are no races, there cannot be racism, so how do w counter that criticism. BUT that is the whole point racism as a purely cultural positing biological psychological or moral inferiority vs superiority construct is a lie to rationalize misuse abuse and exploitation of others and it cannot be justified in any way. denial of racism is just another objectively false and hatefilled self serving lie. chauvinism is chauvinism and cannot be justified. it is always self serving, false and unjust.

  5. There’s only so much any one person can read. And, even going back 100 years to the beginnings of formal anthropology in this country, there was already quite a bit of scholarship being produced. How do we master those, and keep up with the massive and growing amount of scholarship produced since then?

    The answer is simple. We can’t. No one of us will ever master the exploding volume of new material in any subsdiscipline of anthropology, let alone the field as a whole. But perhaps the idea that mastery is possible, derived from the days of classical education when thorough knowledge of a still small set of books made anyone who had that knowledge an educated person, is a notion that needs rethinking.

    In Culture and Cognition (1955), A. Irving Hallowell observes that for people to live and work together they don’t have to share everything that any of them knows. For a group to survive, it suffices if there is enough overlap between their mental models of what is going on for them to coordinate their activities. The critical question in accounting for group survival is what has to be included in that overlap.

    Consider anthropologists as the group in question. Fifty years ago, the number of anthropologists was small, and there was enough agreement on the major works in the field that most anthropologists were broadly familiar with them. If that agreement exists at all, it has been reduced to cartoon versions of a few famous names. We all genuflect toward Durkheim, Weber and Marx. Some of us are old enough that allusions to Claude Levi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner or Mary Douglas still evoke a partially shared understanding of what anthropology is about. Notice, however, that once famous names like Ward Goodenough and Dell Hymes are rarely, if ever, mentioned. My allusion to Hallowell is is, I suspect, well beyond the historical horizon of most of my younger colleagues here. And I haven”t mentioned at all any of the physical anthropologists or archeologists whose names were once familiar to me. This is not accidental. It is a symptom of the times in which we live.

    Creating a canon and deciding who belong in it are critical questions for any academic discipline. Reading everyone is plainly out of the question. Who to read is a deeply political issue in the strict sense of the term. Without some consensus, “anthropology” ceases to be a meaningful term, and debates over what anthropologists should or shouldn’t do become inconsequential.

    Racism is real. Racism is a deeply rooted cancer in the American body politic. Those of us who are US citizens and see a more perfect union as one from which racism is eliminated have a deep and serious obligation to engage in relevant political action.

    Do anthropologists have something to contribute that goes beyond what Boas already noted, that a child of any race raised from infancy in Paris will speak and act French and that the same child raised from infancy in Beijing will speak and act northern Chinese? When we carry on about structural violence or political economy, are we saying anything that isn’t already said as well by numerous non-anthropologists? As Claire Peller used to say in the Wendy’s commercial, “Where’s the beef?”

  6. that a child in france is french is not the sum and substance of Boaz. It is not the recognition of culture but his work on what culture is that makes Boaz significant. Durkheim shows that religion is social. But how do social facts effect cultural facts. and how do cultural facts effect social facts. Boaz made clear that culture is independent of society. natural selection was the foundation of biology as a science.

    Anthropologists went to study simpler societies not just because of exoticism and romanticism.Margaret Meade went to Samoa because on her own without computers data bases google searches etc. she could all on her own observe significant facts of human nature. Goodale on her own rediscovered mother in law bestowal in the Torres Straits completely transforming our understanding of women in decision making in Australian society overthrowing a century of white male European projections of patriarchy. Sociology on its own a la Durkheim simply does not have the tools to tell us what one anthropologist could see on their own. Just like anthropological participant observation of chimpanzees by one person on her own in the Gombe Reserve transformed our understanding of just how fundamental culture, personhood, empathy, individuation, ethics, love and cooperation are in higher primates other than humans. as well as other mammals and birds. no longer are we confined to Skinner boxes.

    Our understanding of culture in mammals and birds, personhood, empathy, sexual orientation, learning, consciousness, decision making now is immeasurably different from what was received wisdom when I was a graduate student 40 plus years nearly a half a century ago.

    Anthropology today continues to make significant fundamental contributions to our understanding of our universe and our place in it and what we are. Not in isolation but in collaboration with other disciplines. Anthropology has a significant capability to organize information from a a whole spectrum of science into a unified theoretical framework.

  7. Anthropology can give us understanding for racism. How does racism function. What does it contribute. We know that cultures break. We know that social movements occur as cultures are reformulated to conform to new social facts. Anthropology can uncover the social mechanisms that create racist ideology and racist feelings. It can directly contribute solutions, strategies for better social life IMHO.

  8. Then let us assemble the evidence of what anthropologists contribute to discussions of race, inequality, and a whole bunch of pressing concerns. Where could we (collectively) create a master bibliography of literature that deals with these issues, and that is inclusive? Rather than one person hoping to get it all, let’s all assemble what we know to be important and see what we come up with. Such a master bibliography (ideally an annotated one) could serve as a resource to help us all wade through the literature, old and new. If my contributions to such a list leave things out, someone else’s contributions may fill in those gaps. Does such a resource already exist? A wiki of some sort? Perhaps the AAA should take this on as an initiative.
    I didn’t even know about Alison Davis, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton until I read this post. From the comments, I know now of Hallowell and Goodenough. I imagine my fellow anthropologists can fill in all sorts of gaps for me, and me for them.

  9. “Confidence without evidence…”

    Look, I’m not going to play the game, John. You’re doing a lot of protesting about this particular issue lately, and it’s not my job in life to engage in an endless ping pong game with someone who clearly just wants to keep playing the “devil’s advocate.” The contrarian position is all fine and dandy, except when it’s not. The evidence is out there and I have mentioned many of the people who I think are doing good work on the issue of race and racism in anthropology. Gravlee’s 2009 article about how “race becomes biology” is still one of the best pieces I have read in the last few years that talks about the shortcomings of anthropology’s whole “race is a social construction” line.

    Michel Rolf Trouillot’s writings about the “Savage Slot” are another good place to start. There’s so much. Dr. Brodkin has also mentioned several more. The “well we can’t possibly read all of these people or fit them in the canon” protest is not a response that I am willing to take seriously. Sorry.

  10. Ryan, I am not at all interested in ping-pong, a.k.a., Punch-and-Judy debates. If you say to me there are anthropologists doing good work on racism, I have to agree. The examples you cite are good ones. What I haven’t seen yet is anything that moves the public debate over racism beyond Boas. I see a lot of preaching to the anthropological choir in a way that leads primarily to a feeling of helpless rage, combined with symbolic gestures that, while nice as far as they go, are unlikely to have much political effect once the 24-hour news cycle takes another turn. That bothers me.

    It also bothers me that we talk about Boas but talk in a way that suggests ignorance of Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), a book that had a major effect on the debate, or Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978), which demonstrates with a simple mathematical model that hatred isn’t necessary for segregation to occur. All it takes is a small preference for living with people of your own kind and a parallel dislike for living in a place where your kind is in the minority.

    I have twice in my life been involved in serious political action, once as a member of SDS and the Anti-Vietnam War movement, once much later as an active support of Howard Dean’s race for the Presidency. I often think about how one movement succeeded — at least to the extent of forcing LBJ’s decision not to run for a second term as President — while the other failed. There was one very good reason why the Anti-Vietnam War movement became an effective mass movement. Millions of middle-class boys and their parents, friends and lovers were disturbed by the very real possibility that their boys would be drafted and wind up dead or crippled for life. The draft wasn’t a perfect solution; there were ways to get out of it. I did. Dick Cheney did. But it sure did have the effect of making the war up close and personal for a whole lot of people. The Dean campaign demonstrated the power of the Internet as an organizing tool; but, as my friend Jerry Bowles observed, it also demonstrated that at the time that campaign occurred Internet users were still only 13% of the electorate. Then I think about the 10,000 anthropologists who gathered for the AAA in Washington. I don’t know what percentage of them participated in the die-in (and I wish I’d been there for that). What I do know is that 10,000 voters is peanuts in political calculations, and left-liberal academics are notorious tightwads when it comes to making political donations. That poses a serious dilemma. We can look for partners to form a united front with sufficient scale to be effective. We can have something new and effective to say about altering material conditions that sustain racism. Or we can go on talking to each other and telling each other how smart we are and isn’t the world just awful. I don’t like that last option at all.

Comments are closed.