Othered by Anthropology: Being a Student of Color in Anglo-cized Academia

[Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Savannah Martin.]

It is both impressive and depressing how frequently scholars of color are Othered by anthropology. For many, the tales of alienation are too numerous to count; we are made to feel strange so regularly that the process becomes disquieting in its familiarity. Sometimes subtly, sometimes conspicuously, all the time we are reminded that we don’t really belong here.

During a roundtable at one of my first non-biological anthropology conferences, I was drowned in the creeping feeling of “otherness” that until that point in my graduate studies had only been an insidious “drip, drip drip,” of “you don’t really belong here.”

In a session ironically dedicated to the issue of “Diversity in Higher Education,” I listened to a room full of white anthropologists lament the dearth of people of color in anthropology. There were multiple presentations on student demographics, barriers to success, potential support systems, and other staple topics. Nevertheless, most of the scholars in the room were disappointingly oblivious to the barrier they were constructing around that very table. Otherwise well-educated people questioned why “they” (people of color) just don’t seem interested. “We” (but definitely not I) wondered out loud with palpable bewilderment at what could possibly be keeping diverse scholars out of “our” field.

The absurdity of the situation was maddening.

I knew the answer. My heart raced, and I could feel it beating in my chest. My face got warmer, and my mouth ran dry, and though I couldn’t see my own face, I’m sure my pupils dilated. I silently reflected on the cruel joke that I, an Indigenous biological anthropologist studying race-related psychosocial stressors and their long-term biological consequences, was once again suffering the very phenomenon I study.

The subject turned specifically to Indigenous students in anthropology. My heart rate spiked further. An old white man remarked casually, “I just don’t understand why they don’t want to leave the reservation and better their lives.”

What. The. Fuck.

“It’s you.”

I spoke up before I could stop myself. Quietly, and deliberately, I spoke up.

“It’s this. This is exactly why there aren’t more students of color in anthropology. We don’t feel welcome here.”

It was like my rapidly beating heart left no room in my chest and forced those words out of my lungs so that I had more room to breathe. The pervasive and yet subtle racism was suffocating. Staring down a room full of white eyes, I began attempting to make space for myself and for others like me.

“You other us; you act like we aren’t in the room, like we aren’t anthropologists too. I am literally right here. And you wonder ‘Why don’t they want to leave the reservation and better their lives’? Really? Isn’t cultural relativism a thing in our discipline? Some people value community over abstract research. And to be clear, only about 20% of Indigenous Americans live on reservations…”

There were many more issues than the lack of reflexivity. I touched on some of the subjects that the presenters had hypothesized about earlier, such as the lack of support that many POC have just getting into graduate school. But I went on. I talked about how little support there is even once we manage to secure admission to Masters and PhD programs; how our departments can treat us more like informants who have “gone anthropologist” than like the researchers that we are; how we fight daily to educate not only ignorant peers but also ignorant professors and mentors, often about things as ridiculous as whether or not Native Americans can vote in presidential elections (spoiler alert: we can).

After my impassioned but civil intervention, there was a moment of silence and then an older white woman across the table from me continued the conversation as if I hadn’t spoken at all.

Shit. There goes my almost-career in anthropology. All these older white anthropologists in the room had some measure of power, probably over future hiring decisions and article publications, and whatever else moves a career forward and I just pissed them all off by calling them on their bullshit. Well, Anthropology, it was nice. Hvm’-chi’.

I listened quietly for the remainder of the session, the corpse of my newly dead career hanging over my head like a cartoon rain cloud.

The roundtable ended, and everyone quickly gathered their things to leave the room, hurriedly scampering off to other panels and presentations. I collected my belongings with the same energy and futility as a sloth stuck in quicksand, pessimistic about what the next room full of anthropologists might have to offer my conference experience. My dejected inner monologue was interrupted by a tall, older white man holding his hand out to shake my own.

“Here we go…” I groaned inwardly, ready to be scolded for daring to challenge my more established peers. I forced a polite smile as I looked up and shook his hand.

“I just wanted to introduce myself and say thank you so much for speaking up. What you said is really important.”

Holy fuck. I envisioned little defibrillator pads being charged and heard an authoritative “Clear!” as my anthropological future was revived by the electric shock of white approval. I hadn’t fucked everything up! His validation comforted me more than it should have, but in a world where making the wrong impression on an influential scholar can slam so many doors, and where so many of those door-slamming scholars are white people who might not take kindly to being called on their racial biases, it was nice to know that at least one old white dude had my back. Maybe he could talk to his friends.

The lack of scholars of color in our discipline is due not only to the “Other”-ing nature of the hyper-Western canon from which we learn and teach, but it is also due to the colonial, racist history of our field, and often even (or perhaps especially) due to the alienating behavior of anthropologists themselves.

As a biological anthropologist, I was surprised by the aloofness and the lack of reflexivity that the cultural and applied anthropologists in the room demonstrated that day, though I shouldn’t have been. I had expected better, but this unchecked ignorance is one of the most pervasive problems in anthropology.

Brodkin et al. said it best in 2011: “Perhaps the biggest attitudinal barrier to ethnic diversification [in anthropology] is a belief that being an anthropologist inoculates one against racism…”

Clearly, it doesn’t. Anthropology has a lot of work to do.


Works Cited: 
Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?” American Anthropologist 113 (4): 545-556. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01368.x.


Savannah Martin

Savannah Martin is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and a PhD student in biological anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on health disparities in Native American communities and the relationship between chronic diseases and psychosocial stress linked to race, culture, and identity. She is the founder of the Anthropology Students of Color Coalition (ASCC).

2 thoughts on “Othered by Anthropology: Being a Student of Color in Anglo-cized Academia

  1. Great read.
    I’d love to hear more about your perspective,
    and also what you mean by the “the alienating behavior of anthropologists”. I /think/ it refers to the mentality of the field, and that, I think, is /expected/ to be personable and people-oriented, but in reality it strives to be harder (“hard science”) and more analytical.
    As an aside, I always found it slightly uncomfortable that all the famous anthropologists whose biographies I had to regurgitate on-demand were all white and 95% men of affluence and privilege. Perhaps it is just my formal schooling that is lacking, that I learned anthropology was mostly conducted by that demographic until mid-20thC C.E.

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