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Anthropology Under My Skin

By: Lorena Gibson

How we can reclaim anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand and stake out a new public and pedagogical space for the discipline? This question was at the heart of a panel at the recent Anthropology in Aotearoa Symposium, hosted by the Cultural Anthropology Programme at Victoria University of Wellington on 10-12 May 2017. My contribution to the panel–shared below–was as part of a group of anthropologists from across the country who collectively sought to address the above question.

Writing a poem was my way of overcoming the writer’s block that hit me when I tried to turn my abstract into a paper. I was inspired to do so after re-reading the work of my colleague Teresia Teaiwa, who has been a major influence on how I think about and practice anthropology and who sadly passed away earlier this year. My poem begins where I first encountered anthropology – as an undergraduate student in a first-year class taught by Jeff Sluka – and ends with a new class I will teach next term. Providing a view from Aotearoa, it retraces some key moments in my journey towards what Faye Harrison calls an anthropology for liberation.

I am grateful to Sita Venkateswar for showing me what a classroom agenda can look like when informed by a politics of decolonisation, and to Teresia Teaiwa for continuing to inspire.

***************

I remember when anthropology first got under my skin

20 years ago now

BA, first year,

Student loan, didn’t care.

I asked my flatmate what I should study.

Endangered Cultures, she said

You’ll either love it or hate it.

She was right.

 

That course challenged us

to think about structures of power.

Colonialism

racism

gender and class inequalities

right here, at home, as well as out there.

We read John Bodley alongside Donna Awatere

(from her activist phase, not her Act Party days),

became politicised with Haunani-Kay Trask,

and got angry with Ranginui Walker.

Ethnocide, ecocide, genocide,

right here, on this land.

We learnt about the violence of progress and development.

Anthropology got under my skin.

It made me uncomfortable.

 

Anthropology made me look at this skin.

White skin.

Recognise its privilege

and think about what it means to live in a settler society

benefitting from ongoing processes of colonisation.

For my first anthropology research project

I delved into the insidious history and practice of colonisation

in Ireland, where my ancestors are from,

and Aotearoa, where some of them ended up.

I channeled my outrage into a song and an essay

2000 words, double spaced

in good English

Chicago referencing.

I got an A+.

 

Later, I learnt the name of the anthropology under my skin:

Anthropology for Liberation.

I eagerly followed Faye Harrison’s work, which asked

how can we decolonise anthropology?

How can anthropology work towards social justice

Emanicipation from racism, gender inequality, class disparaties, poverty, neocolonialism

Liberation of the oppressed and marginalised?

Adding Linda Tuhiwai Smith, bell hooks, and Paulo Freire to the mix,

I wrote to change the world.

2000 words,

double spaced,

Chicago referencing.

 

This was anthropology to be applied.

I tried to apply it when I was a high school music teacher

where it felt like I spent more time talking to teenage boys about

why it wasn’t okay to call each other faggot,

why it wasn’t okay to make fun of “horis,”

than how to play music.

I wondered what they learnt about ethnicity and race in their classes.

One small ethnographic study of Palmerston North schools later, I learnt that

in one school,

the school I worked at,

students were taught that there are four human races:

Caucasian, Mongolid, Negroid, and Australoid.

They did not learn that biological races don’t exist.

They did not talk about Franz Boas

or race as a social construct.

I wrote an essay calling bullshit

2000 words,

double spaced,

Chicago referencing.

I got an A+.

I gave it to the school.

They were polite

but they weren’t interested.

 

They weren’t the only ones not interested in my

anthropology for liberation.

Anthropology’s colonial heritage casts a long, cold shadow.

Studying the Other

as if they can be understood,

rendered knowable to the West.

I went to Papua New Guinea for my PhD without reading Margaret Mead

and ran straight into her legacy

in the 1980s ban on anthropologists doing research in Morobe Province,

still remembered,

and in the sharp questions from people I met

who wanted to critique her work.

I went to Tonga to do fieldwork for a report,

an anthropologist hired for her expertise on culture and development.

My first interview didn’t go well.

“So they’ve sent another palagi to tell me about my culture, have they?”

She asked

“What are you going to do with my knoweldge?”

 

We have been decolonising the arrogant assumptions that animate our practices for a quarter of a century or more;

– that anthropology can produce transformative knowledge

– that anthropology can bring about social change

We’re still working on it.

We need to keep working on it.

 

Anthropology is still under my skin 20 years later,

a tattoo that grows with me.

Post-PhD and after five years of adjunct work I practice my anthropology

at university,

full-time lecturer

student loan up to here.

Juggling managerial assessments of intellectual value

with teaching,

with service and academic care work,

in an increasingly neoliberal environment.

 

Last year I applied for promotion

over the bar,

from lecturer to lecturer.

I almost didn’t get it.

Excellent teaching and service, they said,

but not enough publications.

On track for a PBRF ranking of CNE.

Keep doing everything you’re doing, they said, and

write more.

 

Last year I applied to the Marsden early career fund

for a new research project

on how kid’s lives are transformed through music.

I almost didn’t get it.

“It is understood that the researcher has had two maternity leaves since defending the PhD,” wrote Reviewer 1.

“That would leave approximately three years for publications and other research-related outputs.”

As if I stopped parenting once I returned to work.

As if the work I was returning to wasn’t a series of fixed term,

discontinuous,

part-time,

often teaching-only contracts.

“The publication output of 3 peer-reviewed articles and 1 book chapter is at least half of what it should be,” wrote Reviewer 1.

As if quantity is what counts.

As if the entire scholarly merit of my new project,

being considered for an early career research grant,

should be measured by my publication record.

 

That independent,

critic-and-conscience-of-society tattoo parlour

that helped etch anthropology under my skin

is now a chain store in the knowledge economy.

 

Can neoliberalism and decolonisation coexist?

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

work on projects that genuinely move us further toward

an anthropology for liberation

and be publishing machines?

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

address issues of poverty, structural violence, discrimination

work in risky situations

in a risk-averse environment?

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

when our university proposes a policy on Academic Freedom

that would limit us to speaking only in our “field of expertise?”

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

provide opportunities for our students to work towards social justice,

to translate personal experiences into public concerns,

in classes of a hundred, two hundred, three hundred people?

When our university wants to remove the cap on our courses,

increasing student numbers without increasing the number of staff?

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

show students that anthropological knowledge

can make a difference in the world

is necessary in this world

while meeting university measures for graduate employability?

 

Last year my colleagues asked me what I wanted to teach.

Decolonising anthropology, I said.

My new course, Anthropology for Liberation, starts next term.

 

I’ve been thinking about those essays we write,

that we ask our students to write;

2000 words,

double spaced,

in good English,

Chicago referencing style.

That referencing style

makes it easy to cite

peer reviewed academic sources.

That referencing style

does have guidelines for citing

non-peer reviewed sources

but you have to hunt for them.

 

I’ve been thinking about how I can make space

for different ways of learning, knowing, and being,

for recognising the shoulders of different giants.

What happens if I ask students to write an essay

informed by a politics of decolonisation

called “An indigenous view of Wellington”

that requires them to work with different forms of knowledge?

Knowledge that might not be easy to cite using

Chicago referencing style?

 

How you do reference a tattoo?

 

Maybe instead of asking

“how many references do I need?”

students will start questioning what counts as knowledge,

whose knowledge counts,

and where knowledge resides.

 

My new course has a hundred students already.

I’m looking forward to learning with them

and adding to the anthropology under my skin.

 

Lorena Gibson is an anthropologist and musician based in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her research interests include culture and development, social justice, gender relations, music, and hope. Her latest project, East Side Orchestras: Music, Poverty, and Social Change, looks at the long-term social impacts of three charitable organisations that provide free Sistema-inspired music education programmes in urban Wellington. She currently teaches in the Cultural Anthropology Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

[Editor’s note: this poem was first posted on Anthropod. We thank Lorena Gibson for the new introduction provided here.]

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: https://savageminds.org/2016/04/19/decolonizing-anthropology/

3 thoughts on “Anthropology Under My Skin

  1. thank you thank you for this… to your ideas about writing – I’ve used Gloria Anzaldúa’s autohistoria-teoría and her writing with students to try and break out of the style, the way we write, and how it shapes knowledge, or what counts and what doesn’t.

  2. Thank you Lorena, your humble yet Powerful poem breaks through with ‘Conviction’. Humbled and honored to know you and I look forward to journeying with you over the next few years on a project 🙂 xox #teamtere #decolonisinggthemind #anthropologyforliberation YASS!!!

  3. Thank you Mastaliu and Jenny! I will check out Gloria Anzaldúa’s work, it’s very timely for me as I put together the reading list for my new course.

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