Decolonizing Anthropology: A Conversation with Faye V. Harrison, Part II

This entry is part 3 of 20 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

On March 3, 2016, three anthropologists at the University of Colorado–Carole McGranahan, Kaifa Roland, and Bianca C. Williams–sat down with Faye V. Harrison, distinguished professor of African-American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to talk about decolonizing anthropology then and now. We share now a lightly edited transcript of our videotaped conversation: this is Part II of the conversation; Part I is here.

Left to right: Kaifa Roland, Faye Harrison, Bianca Williams, Carole McGranahan
Left to right: Kaifa Roland, Faye Harrison, Bianca Williams, Carole McGranahan


KAIFA ROLAND: [Continuing the conversation from Part I]…..Carole, I think you had a question related to that, to who the community of anthropologists are.

CAROLE MCGRANAHAN. Sure, what I’m most prompted by here is in some ways a two-part question. The first part is that anthropology has for a long time been responsive to what’s happening on the ground. We tell our students that when you go to the field, your project’s going to change, because you need to see what’s going on in the moment and what matters to the people. So there’s the way that we’ve become responsive in terms of both the objects and the subjects of our research, and then there’s the way structurally we’ve become responsive to what’s happening on the ground in the discipline. To what you’re talking about now, Faye, that the AAA and other institutions have been trying, maybe lip-service at times, but at other times some real, hard, blood, sweat and tears effort to try and institute some changes. You are someone who has tried to create changes in the discipline beyond the AAA. You are one of the few American anthropologists, as we sit here all of us are anthropologists in the US, but you are the president of the IUAES, the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, a name which doesn’t roll off the tongue easily—

FAYE HARRISON. It doesn’t, but you did wonderfully! [Laughs]

CAROLE MCGRANAHAN. But you’re someone who is right now at a point in your career where you’re going around and talking to anthropologists in lots of different countries. What do we need to be learning from that in this decolonizing moment?

FAYE HARRISON. Well, one thing that you brought up earlier, is that you know, in that essay that conceptually frames the Decolonizing Anthropology volume, I had a sense that we need to be talking to and taking seriously with intellectuals, not just anthropologists, from the Global South. At that time, many politically conscious and active folk of color sometimes also used “third world” metaphorically to mean us. We are in the belly of the beast; we are third world. We know, what, twenty generations removed sometimes, that some of our ancestors did come from what today or then would have been the third world, what today we call the Global South. So we articulated and imagined that solidarity, and that comparability with our counterparts in other parts of the world. I had a sense that we need to be more inclusive, because anthropology should not be the western study of the rest of the world, which is basically what its history has been. It should be more of democratized conversation, with everyone having a chance to make a contribution.

The IUAES gave me an opportunity to go to global arenas and platforms to hear what anthropologists all over the world were doing. I started in 1993, and here it is 2016, so it’s been a while. As in the AAA and the ABA I started at the bottom, doing whatever needed to be done. At the AAA, I was on this commission, this standing committee, and I served on the board at two different times. With the IUAES, I started at the commission level and I ended up on the executive committee and now I am president. This has made me more aware of the importance to take seriously what Arturo Escobar and Gustavo Lins Ribeiro talk about in their World Anthropologies book. In a sense, the discourse says there are many, many traditions: national, regional, even international traditions of anthropologies, apart from the British, the French, and the US. US anthropology and the AAA is the largest, the most powerful, influential, and resourceful. We may complain about the AAA, that we don’t have enough money or other complaints, but compared to everybody else, the AAA has lots of resources.

We need to be cognizant of the dangers of what I would call an epistemological imperialism, what some people in the world do call epistemological apartheid. In 2010, UNESCO and the International Social Science Council published a World Social Sciences Report on “Knowledge Divides.” This is a big collection with contributors from all over the world. It shows that there are global disparities, structurally, epistemologically, that create these knowledge divides. North Atlantic Metropolitan Anthropologies have the lion’s share of resources, institutional clout, and the funding agencies, which means that they get to define what the agenda is. They get to define what is world class, and worthy of publication. They get to decide who’s going be on their team. And so that leaves out much of the world. It puts them at a disadvantage, even if they manage to do very sophisticated, theoretically informed work.

To what extent are we or our students aware of the work of scholars outside of this elite? Unless, those people end up being part of what I call the Transnational Academic Elite, which means they can work anywhere, it’s likely we don’t read them. When they work at the Sorbonne, at Oxford, at Harvard, then their work is visible. You can see disproportionately that an elite of intellectuals (not the rank-and-file) from certain parts of the Global South have access to those global circuits and those pipelines of mobility. And even if they stay at home, their ideas can be circulated, and some of them are treated as theory. We’re not surprised by an Indian name, for example. But how many African anthropologists do we treat on par with that?

We have Achille Mbembe, who’s not an anthropologist but everybody’s reading him although I think sometimes when you see him cited, it’s a perfunctory ritual, it’s not really engaging his ideas. It’s often an engagement of Jean and John Comaroff’s interpretation of him. So I’ve become more sensitive to these disparities, and the extent to which I myself replicate them by default, and need to learn to overcome that I find many people, when I travel to China, when I travel to India, the things they’re reading are very often the same things that we deem important in North America.

At the beginning of my presidency, an IUAES conference was organized in a country in the Global South. They had some money, a little bit of money, to have some international keynotes. The initial list of potential speakers looked like the same list that could be generated anywhere within the Western or Northern academy, because of asymmetrical flows in anthropological knowledge that advantage a Northern hemispheric canon and also because scholars in the Global South may also be hungry for validation within their institutions and within the wider international community. One way to get that validation is to take advantage of the academic capital of the stars at an Ivy League university, for example. US anthropology has such incredible influence that in order to demonstrate and prove that scholars from the South are worthy of a fellowship, a visiting fellowship, or to publish in certain journals, they have to be able to perform North American anthropology, namely US and British anthropology, perhaps seasoned with a bit of French social theory. I’ve been disappointed sometimes going places where I’m looking for something other than this, but you don’t necessarily get it. Instead you get American anthropology or British anthropology in a different accent.

We have millennia of intellectual traditions all over the world, and yet we aren’t having the pluriversal discussions we should be having. I think about the irony that scholars who call for anthropology’s decolonization, like myself, who call for this “take the Global South’s perspectives” seriously, are sometimes people who are situated as “outsiders within” or as “insiders” within the North, because we are privileged enough to make that claim, to have enough time to think and rehearse ideas so we can come up with the perfect articulation of that. That’s not the everyday, status quo of most of our colleagues in Africa, for instance. Where there are very few university positions. If you go to the universities, at least some of them, they don’t have books, you just see vacant shelves. Lecturers or academic staff frequently have to have a day job plus another job. They work for development agencies, and they have to give the development agencies what they want, which is usually not a sophisticated, multi-layered piece of critical analysis. They want some data, a report and so people are trained to fit within that sort of environment. I recommended a Kenyan anthropologist for something and the response was “her work is not theoretical enough.” Well, given the conditions under which she worked of course not. But, sometimes if you read something closely you can see that, yeah, there is some interesting, implicit theory here that you can encourage that colleague to bring to the explicit surface.

CAROLE MCGRANAHAN. I think you’re right. We only want to be challenged in certain ways perhaps, but not in some of these other ways. Bianca, you had some questions that relate to all of this.

BIANCA WILLIAMS: In discussions about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, we hear organizers, thinkers, commentators using language such as “disruption,” “protest,” “resistance,” and “rebellion,” to describe the multiple strategies people are using to create change and decolonize spaces. Depending on one’s location—the U.S., South Africa, Cuba, or Brazil, for example—these words may invoke connected, yet distinct histories of racialized oppression and movement-building. My question is two-fold: From your perspective, what three important lessons can those participating in BLM learn from previous periods of disruption, resistance, and uprising? And what role, if any, do you see technology and digital activism play in helping BLM overcome some of the difficulties and obstacles that these earlier movements had while attempting to be locally-specific and globally connected?

FAYE HARRISON: A couple things come to mind. First, there are obstacles and limitations to the movement process and outcomes because of masculinist politics within earlier eras of the Black Freedom Movement. Closely related are obstacles and limits presented by heteronormativity, whether reflected in the movement leadership and rank-and-file participation of male or female activists.

Second, we have the challenges of understanding and developing enough of a united front on the nature of the systemic oppression that Black people live with and against. There have been ideological/political differences and tensions stemming from the divergences between reformists and revolutionists or radical transformationists as poles of a sociopolitical continuum. There is the challenge of effectively operationalizing intersectional understandings of race, class, gender, and sexuality into implementable strategies and tactics. There were earlier tensions between integrationists, separatists and revolutionaries, between conservatives, nationalists and Marxists. In light of these complexities and contradictions in our history, there’s a need for careful strategic thinking on building a constituency or constituencies of support for BLM and developing the capacity to reach them and draw support from them. How do we appeal to the widest possible range of the sociopolitical and ideological continuum that exists among Black folk and their potential allies?

Third, there are dangers of radical movements being neutralized, coopted, or violently repressed when it appears they are making inroads and achieving some measure of success. This is a lesson from many social movements around the world and the developmental cycles they undergo from crisis to routinization of victories, if victories of some scale are achieved at all. Lessons on cooptation can be learned from the Civil Rights era and the post-civil rights era. Also there is a danger of movements being repressed, as in the case of Post-Abolition Movement Reconstruction backlash via white terrorism and the case of Black Power/ Black Panthers being targeted for elimination by COINTELPRO. We must consider how to avoid or prepare for similar obstacles along the way toward the realization of Freedom and Full Humanity. We must be prepared for insidious and flagrant weapons of the powerful.

And finally, one more stream of thought, the challenges of building transnational and diasporic solidarities in light of structural and power disparities, along with cultural and linguistic differences, that exist across the North and South hemispheres and national boundaries. Figuring out how to decenter US-centeredness even among Black folks, given the superpower/imperial status of the USA in the world is a major feat. Also, it’s a challenge to figure out when, in fact, convergences genuinely arise between US and other national or regional expressions of Blackness and Black politics versus when expressions and framings congeal in good part from the impact of US hegemony. These issues are important because ultimately matters of economic, ecological, and political oppression are global in scope, necessitating transnationally-coordinated strategies for dismantling and building a world otherwise. Lessons from the past include some Western-based Pan-Africanists’ bias against the African masses whose relationship to “civilization,” and often Christian conversion, was problematized through hegemonic thought-frames. This point was instantiated in the research that my colleague Krystal Smalls, an anthropological linguist, is doing in Liberia and the Liberian diaspora, whose history is shaped by the repatriation of the ancestors of Americo-Liberians. The social thought of those 19th century Black settlers, under US colonial sponsorship, was influenced by the colonial racist discourse that promoted civilizing the savage. We’ve come a long way from then, but there are still ethnic, national and color hierarchies among Black people that can potentially get in the way of building solidarity and a sense of common cause.

All of this is, I think, relevant to Black Lives Matter now.

BIANCA WILLIAMS: Yes, these are very useful insights and histories we can learn from. Black Lives Matter and previous global movements have taught us several things, including these two lessons: (1) Disruption, protest, resistance, and rebellion are necessary in order to decolonize spaces and institutions; and (2) Black/African diasporic women often play pivotal leadership roles in these successful strategies. However, when one thinks about long-term, structural change in academic spaces, especially universities and professional organizations, these are not the strategies we hear discussed nor the leaders we hear turned to for ideas or inspiration. If we are to decolonize anthropology, what would disruption and rebellion look like? Which type of roles do you see Black/African diasporic women playing in this liberating process of decolonization? And how would we know we had been successful?

FAYE HARRISON: I agree that disruption, protest, resistance, and rebellion—and the various tactics they entail—are necessary to effect the kinds of social transformation we envision when we imagine the decolonization of spaces, structures, and institutions from sites of high-echelon structural power to the micro-sites of everyday interactions. Within this broad continuum or complex matrix of interlocking modalities of power, we find ourselves as anthropologists collectively situated in the multiplicity of spaces that the profession of anthropology encompasses. These include classrooms, departments and other units within colleges and universities, editorial boards and peer review networks determining publish-ability criteria and who meets them, evaluation panels for negotiating the merits and fundability of research proposals, professional associations, NGOs, businesses, government agencies, and ordinary communities of various kinds all over the world–where we engage in civic participation and do fieldwork. Decolonization is a long-term process that needs to take place in and across all of these settings.

A great deal of the work that needs to be done entails the tactical everyday practices of individuals who take advantage of being at the right place at the right time. However, coalitions and collaborations are imperative as well to maximize cumulative impact and offset the limits of piecemeal activities. The fact that the ABA, ALLA, AFA, SANA, and other AAA sections have all sponsored sessions, workshops, publications, mentoring programs, and the like to support the educational, training, and research objectives of faculty and students has been an invaluable support, positive reinforcement, and inspiration for us to return to our home institutions and carry on struggles that often seem to be isolated and lonely if we don’t have a critical mass of kindred spirits in our respective departments or institutions of higher learning. Even when we appear to act alone, it’s important to recognize that we are often, or should be, embedded in wider networks of allies, no matter how geographically dispersed they may be.

Email and social media facilitates networking today, but I remember an era before computer-mediated communications of this sort were common. I remember when I made many a long-distance phone call (at my expense) and exchanged letters to develop relationships with colleagues, political allies, and friends. It’s also important for at least some members of these far-flung networks to connect periodically by coming together to experience some kind of group formation experience, crystalized via shared sociopolitical identities and projects. This can be accomplished online, but I believe that having face-to-face interaction is still important. Various kinds of organizations, campaigns, and initiatives can provide practical platforms for channeling and grounding networks toward explicitly articulated concrete goals, objectives, and outcomes.

Among the organizations we may belong to, some of our professional associations can do some of this work, especially as it pertains to decolonizing anthropology, area studies, or any of the fields we belong to. Anthropology has never been the only field that needs to undergo decolonization. Now that we understand how rampant the “coloniality of being and power” is in this time of imperial globalism, anthropology becomes a strategic point of entry or departure for getting at the logics that underpin the overall structures of knowledge and their gendered, raced, and hemispheric hierarchies of intellectual labor. There is so much work that needs to be done in these spheres as well as in those closer to the front lines of movement-building around the existential vulnerabilities and heinous injustices that directly compromise and threaten Black lives, indigenous self-determination, and the human rights of women, transpeople, youth, the differently able, and all who constitute Fanon’s notion of the “wretched of the earth.”

We need to build coalitional networks that allow us to share knowledges of various kinds, those generated through routine academic work, the activities of NGOs, and the sustained practice of activists in the trenches of struggle. These different approaches to knowledge and knowledge making reflect different priorities and audiences for research and social analysis. When these coalitional networks effectively provide a basis for cooperation or collaboration, it’s likely that the new research questions we anthropologists ask will reflect the restructuring of intellectual authority that decolonizing practices demand. But whether this kind of work is validated by academic reward structures will vary widely. There have been promising precedents established, but they’ve entailed winning “dog fights,” as one of my dear colleagues puts it, in hiring, funding, merit, tenure, and promotion review processes. Years ago, Manet Fowler, who was, from what we know, the first Black woman to earn a PhD in anthropology in the United States, lost a battle for contract renewal at a university in the Northeast because she did participatory action research as a vehicle to empower the local community being studied. In the early 70s this was considered much too radical and unscientific. This is the case in some places even today.

The questions you’ve asked need to be considered time and time again as we work toward the long-term goal of decolonizing anthropology and the institutional settings within which we practice the profession and co-produce the intellectual parameters and contents of the discipline. The “disruption” and “rebellion” against dominant streams of thought, spheres of professional action, and social relations of knowledge production are usually performed unevenly, through individualized and collective strategies and tactics that most of the people and communities we care about don’t even see. We aren’t talking about the forms of public collective action associated with social movements and movement-building politics—although anthropologists do indeed, as dissenting citizens or noncitizens, participate in these practices, whether by being part of demonstrations and the plans for them or serving as advocates in courts, print and broadcast media, etc.

Much of what we do to change anthropology in particular is aimed at effecting discursive disruption, that is, producing intellectual interventions we hope will make a difference in how the targeted audience of scholars, students, and lay readers understand and act within/upon the world. Sometimes we literally disrupt the routines of professional practice, such as the Die-In at the 2014 AAA meeting, which you, Bianca, assumed a leadership role in co-organizing. That disruption didn’t risk arrests and other kinds of police disciplining that happens in the streets, because it was the result of a negotiated agreement between the co-organizers and the AAA leadership, which happens to be sympathetic and supportive of this kind of public engagement. That level and quality of support, however, is not necessarily a constant in a professional association like the AAA, whose membership is quite diverse and sometimes polarized in terms of political issues. If the Die-In had been carried out without the approval of the AAA leadership and the hotel administration, it would’ve taken on characteristics more akin to civil disobedience in the streets. But rebellion and unrest assume multiple forms, and when dissent and unrest occur on the streets, there are reverberations in many other spaces.

Student protests against anti-Black racism, high tuition rates, and the vulnerability of certain programs vis-à-vis the priority given to STEM fields is a case in point. Decades past, the student movement and the movement demanding Black studies and other related fields helped create conditions for recruiting more diverse cohorts of undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology. Those protests, which have occurred in consistent cycles of time, made it possible for some of us to be hired in the professoriate. Of course, the majority of women and men of color were placed in ethnic and women’s studies programs or departments rather than in departments of anthropology, but our presence in these institutions (which were not made in our image) has allowed us to do the work we do to disrupt the conventional wisdom that has constituted hegemonic varieties of anthropology. Decolonizing anthropology, then, depends on changes being effected through struggle well beyond the institutional complexes of anthropology.

In terms of intellectual unrest and disruption, from what many colleagues and students have told me, Decolonizing Anthropology has had a major impact on many who’ve read it over the years of its three editions. Its critique of anthropology back then in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the models it offered of some of the ways to do engaged social research and analysis, inspired a great many students and emergent scholars to go against the grain of reproducing anthropology’s “normal science” (if I may draw on Thomas Kuhn’s ideas on moving from normal science to paradigm shifts). Although the book has had a considerable shelf life, it has also been elided in prominent scholars’ work that addresses similar concerns. This is pointed out in Jafari Sinclair Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s recently published essay in Current Anthropology (April 2016, 57[2]) on what they call the “decolonizing generation’s” impact on race and theory in anthropology since the 1980s. In situating the book in a wider generational context, they are referring to decolonizing in terms of broader networks of scholars, the work of Decolonizing Anthropology’s contributors as well as that of others (e.g., Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Leith Mullings, Irma McClaurin, Paul Gilroy, etc.) who emerged as critical voices around that time and since then in both anthropology and in conversations beyond it (e.g., in cultural studies, social theory, and philosophy). The authors even contextualize the cohorts of the decolonizing generation in terms of the history of scholar activism as evidenced in such figures as Antenor Firmin (Haiti), Fernando Ortiz (Cuba), and WEB Du Bois (US). They link the decolonizing generation crystalized in the late 1980s with the current decolonial turn that draws on a different mix of theoretical assumptions and sources, although there may be some overlap. The comments that respond to the article are extremely useful for thinking through the implications and limitations of what we’ve been trying to do since the 1980s, which is the length of my career in the field.

A fairly recent example of disrupting discursive routines is Christa Craven and Dána-Ain Davis’ co-edited Feminist Activist Ethnography: Counterpoints to Neoliberalism in North America. This collection presents analyses of a variety of activist research engagements meant to disrupt neoliberal logic and the common-sense assumptions that support it. Indeed, the language the collection is framed in invokes the notion of disruption. This publication project, however, is more than just a text that contests, critiques, and combats the principles and practices of neoliberalism. The ethno-racially diverse contributors are all activists or advocates who, in varying ways, have been involved in organizing efforts to effect radical social change, especially with in respect to issues related to gender and its entanglements with class and race. The contributors’ intellectual honesty and sense of ethical responsibility compels them to seriously ponder the limitations of their activism and of the ways that progressive organizations and initiatives can fall into neoliberalizing traps despite the best of their intentions and the alternative social vision conveyed by their discourses. An important part of the feminist activist ethnographers’ aim in this confluence of engagements is to disrupt the domestication and neutralization of the feminist movement by making ethnographic allies in the studied communities aware of how neoliberalism often has the power to fracture the landscapes of struggle for social, economic, and environmental justice.

You asked about the part that Black women have played in decolonizing anthropology and in building organizational capacity in the domain of movement building. The role has been major. They fostered the decolonizing project in anthropology even before that explicit terminology was used. The late Diane Lewis and Vera Green, and the alive and well Johnnetta Cole, who along with Green was an early ABA president, made significant contributions and set the tone for work that would be accomplished later in the ABA and in the larger profession. I won’t try to produce the long list of names, lest I leave some deserving sister out, but Black women anthropologists have been integral to this critical project in anthropology. This is reflected in their scholarship and in the professional service work and activism they’ve taken on. These efforts are consistent with the considerable history of Black women building and sustaining the everyday capacity of movements even when Black men were the public face of those sociopolitical formations and processes. This problem dates back to the 19th century in terms of U.S. history. And there are parallels in other parts of the African Diaspora.

Today, however, it seems that women are much more visible in their leadership, often exhibiting more collective, nonhierarchical forms of leadership, much different from the patriarchal forms of leadership that have been dominant and a fetter to the kinds of transformation needed to materialize equality, equity, and freedom. A related matter is that the women who’ve risen to the social responsibility of leadership in the network of organizations and campaigns that comprise Black Lives Matter, are embodying, performing, and articulating non-heteronormative models of personhood and politics. This is a marked shift from our experience before now. We are seeing fruits from the seeds that earlier generations of Black feminists, including Black lesbian feminists like Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith, planted and sowed. We must remain vigilant about whether this new trend is sustained and brought to fruition.

KAIFA ROLAND: So much to think with and about. Faye, thank you for taking the time to come out to Colorado to share with us. Thank you for all you’ve contributed and for leading the way for so many of us.

Thank you, Faye!
Thank you, Faye!


Series Navigation<< Decolonizing Anthropology: A Conversation with Faye V. Harrison, Part IHealing “the Break”: A DiaspoRican Project of Return >>
Decolonizing Anthropology

Decolonizing Anthropology is a series edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. To read the introductory essay to the series and see the list of contributors, please follow this link: /2016/04/19/decolonizing-anthropology/