Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology, Pt. 2

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Takami Delisle. Tak currently works as a medical interpreter for Japanese patients and helps run an organization for anthropology students of color. You can read the first installment of this piece here. She also has her own blog. If you’re interested, please contact her through Twitter @tsd1888.


Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology

by Takami Delisle

Looking back on those years when I was perpetually in fear of disappointing my professors, I realize that’s when I began to question the whole point of anthropology. I wasn’t alone; there have been many discussions out there about what anthropology can teach us, what we can do with it, and what anthropological knowledge means (e.g., Anthropologies, Issue 1, and Ryan’s open thread on who owns anthropology). Among them I encountered a handful of anthropologists questioning the validity of academic anthropology. I felt vindicated – I too am in disbelief of academic anthropology, because what it seems to be doing is producing its own kind of species of “anthropologists,” claiming that they are the only real, true, and legitimate anthropologists. If the goal of anthropology is to better understand humankind and help make the world an equitable place, now would be a good time for these academic anthropologists to take a good look in their own backyard. Those who are leading the next generations of anthropologists have to learn not to take themselves too seriously, not to be arrogant. They owe mentorship and respect to their students, the future generations of anthropologists, before claiming how righteous, intellectual, and special they are.

For this, I argue here that academic anthropologists are in dire need of critical evaluation. They must not become or practice what they critique. They must not fall into the delusion of believing that anthropology is a post-racist/sexist discipline. They can’t keep claiming to not be racists or sexists without taking the time to understand their own privileges. As Faye Harrison firmly asserts in her AAA report “Racism in Academy” (2012), academic anthropologists must confront anthropology’s exceptionalism, which is “the common claim that anthropologists make that the discipline is intrinsically multicultural and nonracist because of its cross-cultural orientation and its Boasian tradition of intellectual racism” (17). In reality, as Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson astutely highlight in their report “Anthropology as White Public Space?” (2011), academic anthropologists “have not done well when it comes to decolonizing their own practices around race … the racial division of academic labor and race-avoidant workplace discourses are key constituents of anthropology departments as white public space” (545).

One of the strikingly familiar results in the report is how often anthropology students and faculty of minority become responsible for “diversity duty.” Not surprisingly, one of the few minority faculty in my second graduate program represented the department in the university-wide “diversity” committee, which was supposedly to promote diversity in the whole university community. What would be the benefit of having such a committee, if a representative from every department is a minority and a bunch of nonwhites get together discussing diversity? Aren’t minorities more than well aware of the importance of diversity, and aren’t the white folks the ones who need to be included in these discussions?

In the end, “students and faculty of color are often hyper-visible as tokens of institutional political correctness but invisible as scholars in their work settings” (Brodkin et al 2011:551). Race-avoidant discourses were prevalent in my second anthropology department. I lost my personal “affirmative action” battle to my white advisor. The department gave no guidance and support to nonwhite graduate students in teaching the topic of racial issues to the mostly white students, who often frustratingly threw dagger-like angry stares at me – some of them even called me “anti-white.” The department gave me no place to express my experiences as a racial minority. I once voiced my concern about why I – as a racial minority – felt forced to suppress my thoughts on racism in our seminars. All the white faces swiftly turned to me with acrimonious glares. The white professor simply carried on, and it was the cue for my classmates to move on as well, without responding to my concern. Just like white professors, white students didn’t want to get involved in conversations about racial issues within our department. Yet they were all eager to discuss race as a theoretical, distant, anthropological topic.

The authoritative academic anthropologists who run departments can become the panopticon, transforming their community into a microcosmic biopolitical society. They do this, ironically, while using these concepts as tools for social analysis and critique. Graduate students in my second department practically had no say in departmental policies, even collectively in the name of our graduate student association. As such, the notes taken by a student representative during the faculty meetings were severely censored by the faculty. Students spent so much time trying to figure out many unwritten, intangible rules; they were constantly riding an emotional roller coaster of panic, thrill, distress, ecstasy, and despair. But they took those rules as they were, even those seemingly unreasonable ones, while quietly complaining among themselves. And they worked hard to follow the rules, often policed each other, and competed with each other under the rules. Some of them even took a great deal of pride in fulfilling the rules, as any positive comments from the professors made students totally high. If anyone challenged the rules, hostility flared up within the students, who were divided by the not-so-subtle color line. After all, students simply did what they were told to do. Just like Michel Foucault described “biopolitical” societies, authoritative power is conditioned into the consciousness and bodies of the population (graduate students). Those rules are a form of power (or “biopower”) that “regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, and rearticulating it … every individual embraces and reactivates of his or her accord,” as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt put it in their book “Empire” (2000:23-24). The beauty of anthropological inquiry and knowledge gets lost in this.

I am not getting into every detail of my experience in the department here, but towards the end of my career there, I just felt so bullied. I could feel that the program was destroying me – it depressed me, controlled my life, and emotionally tortured me. The only good thing I had in the department was my good friend there, who happened to be another minority student and shared many struggles with me. My husband wanted me to pull the plug way before I realized I should have. But the big turning point was a meeting with my advisor to discuss my leave of absence. “You’ve already asked for delaying your progress three times,” she declared in the beginning of the meeting. I felt so angry that I could feel my heartbeat in my face. Yes, the “three times” part was absolutely correct, but no, the “you’ve asked for it” part was unequivocally wrong. The first time was when one of my dissertation committee members left for another institution, as I was nearing the time for my proposal defense. She loved my project. She was the only one who patiently helped me go through the writing process. But some of the materials in my project were outside of the expertise of her replacement, who of course pushed my project into her direction.

Soon enough, I was rewriting my entire proposal. The second “delay” was when another committee member just quit, out of the blue, with no clear explanation, just a few weeks before my qualifying exam. Her replacement wanted me to add more materials on my exam bibliographies, almost a dozen books, which made it impossible to prepare for the exam within such a short amount of time. The third time was when Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami happened. I had to go home abruptly, knowing that the whole disaster devastated my sister-in-law’s family in Fukushima and my mom’s relatives up in the north. So, let me ask again. Did I ask for delaying my progress under these circumstances? Are they all my fault? I dare anyone say yes.

And I eventually did leave the program with full of guilt, self-blame, and shame. My therapist once asked me, “Do you really want to go back to the burning airplane? It injured you so badly, but just because you spent so much time, energy, and money to get on it, you’d want to get back on that burning airplane, knowing you will get injured more?” “It’s not that simple,” I bluntly responded. “I know, but I want you to think about it,” he shot back. The metaphor turned out to be quite effective. One day I said to myself that it was the time for me to learn to be gentle and merciful to myself. So the recovery process began, and oddly enough, anthropological knowledge has helped me through all of this.

Some people may say that my passion for anthropology wasn’t strong enough to put my personal difficulties aside and still pursue the degree. Others may say that I wasn’t intelligent enough to complete the program after all. And still others may tell me to stop being so much of an idealist and accept the reality: everyone is a hypocrite, teaching something while practicing the opposite. But at least I am not engulfed in the biopolitical, institutionalized world of anthropology. I didn’t let it take over me. I am getting myself back. I get to be me again. I would rather live my life with anthropology in my pocket than live my life trying not to drown in the middle of a massive ocean of anthropology.

To those who are out there thinking about going to graduate school for an anthropology degree – Be wise and selective about the culture of the anthropology department you want to be a part of, especially if you’re a minority student. You need to know about your prospective advisor, talk to current and former students, and figure out how/whether the department as a whole is engaged in communications about its own gender and racial issues. Doing all this is that important because it will determine the course of your life for the following 7 to 10 years. And if you make it to the end, stay humble and worldly, be true to anthropology.

To those who are happily doing their graduate studies in anthropology: Remember, complacency with the status quo can be your worst enemy. Keep in mind that people with more power are less aware of the power relationship than people with less power are. And,

…. practice what [you] preach … to do the same with those [you] see as a part of [your] own culture (department) – particularly if they may see themselves as part of ‘the Other’ themselves. To not do so is hypocrisy. To do so creates real understanding, acceptance, and diversity in a department (Brodkin et al 2011:546).

To those who had limited choices of graduate programs and are finding yourself burned out in academic anthropology because of your department’s oppressive power structure – If you’re looking for advice, I’m afraid I cannot offer any, except that it’s worthwhile identifying and communicating with faculty and fellow graduate students with willing ears. But I’m not the one who stuck around to finish the PhD. All I can say is that I still love anthropology, and I still call myself an anthropologist, whether some of the academic anthropologists like it or not. I don’t think I have ever lost my appreciation for anthropology, even in the midst of the craziness at my second graduate program. I simply couldn’t take the authoritative academic anthropology, and I didn’t want to use it as a vehicle to do anthropology any more. If I had stayed there longer, I could have started to dislike anthropology. In retrospect, I left academic anthropology to preserve my passion for anthropology, and I think it worked for me. But I cannot tell others like myself to do the same.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

2 thoughts on “Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology, Pt. 2

  1. Tak, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. As I (a white woman) work to complete my PhD and prepare for a career as an academic anthropologist, it is these experiences that I want to keep in the forefront of my mind as I reflect critically on the kind of teacher, mentor, researcher, and colleague I want to be. Your intelligence and bravery are reflected here and I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from them.

  2. Thank you Megan for your encouraging words. Your comment certainly helps me believe that there are many wonderful academic anthropologists out there, leading the next generations of anthropologists to a better anthropology. Thanks again!

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