All posts by Takami Delisle

Takami Delisle

Takami is a medical interpreter and Co-founder of Coalition of Anthropology Students of Color ( You can reach her via @tsd1888 on Twitter.

“That” Moment of Clarity

Over dinner at a cozy beachfront restaurant in Florida, my dear friend from Costa Rica sadly talked about the devastating Orlando shooting that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others on a Latin theme night at the gay nightclub Pulse on June 12. As our conversation continued, she became more exasperated and eventually bewailed, “But these are my people!” For her, she went on, the heartbreak from the tragedy was the moment when she intensely felt her identity as a gay Latina for the first time. It was the moment she started to feel the strong impulse to stand up with other gay Latinx.

Another dear friend of mine Veronica Miranda, who started the organization “Coalition of Anthropology Students of Color” with me, once told me that it wasn’t until she left California for an anthropology graduate program in a staunchly conservative state when she became politicized. As she told me, “I never considered myself a person of color until I moved here and went to school here.” It was the moment when she came to the fuller sense of her identity as a Latina anthropologist. It was also the beginning of her advocacy for anthropology students of color.

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Anthropology Students of Color

When I was an anthropology graduate student, I often found myself in an ambiguous place as someone who isn’t white. I swallowed my words, one too many times, about “race” issues in didactic discussions and any departmental occasions, because I felt that I wasn’t “colored” enough to express my disagreement with the rest of the mostly white room.

I knew I wasn’t white, but I knew I was “Asian,” as society has plentifully reminded me all along. I have belonged to this category ever since I came to the U.S. 20 years ago. Besides all the name-calling targeting Asians, I have received absurd treatments in public places. I was called “that,” as in “where did you get that?” which a random white dude asked my white male friend while pointing his finger at me. Restaurant servers sometimes seem to have difficulty approaching me, as they lock their eyes onto my husband (who is white) while taking our orders or explaining their specials. And let me just verify that I don’t I look spectacularly eccentric or weird to drive people away. But such incidents happen, as if I were some mute and visible oddity, because, let’s be honest, I do look Asian.

It’s not that I was pretending to be white and trying to work my way from the ambiguous place to whiteness, while sitting through those graduate school conversations about race. I was already aware that describing myself as “non-white” itself is deeply problematic because it conforms with the idea that “white” is the standard bearer of our social world. But my silence in the discussions of race for me was, in part, a product of the positioning of Asian Americans as the “least” oppressed in the racial hierarchy according to dominant discourses of race. Ironically, my voiceless existence would put me right back in the stereotypes of Asian women: quiet and subservient.

But I also suspect that my silence had something to do with graduate training in anthropology.

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Rethinking Pedagogy of Race in Anthropology, Part 2

[Continuing from Part 1]

Thinking about my experience of teaching race, I feel that I fell short when it came to conveying to my students what “race” has meant historically, and how white America has produced various racial divides by weighing which group of color is better or worse than the others. I didn’t think about articulating the two seemingly conflicting facts about race – 1) the biological/genetic explanation of “racial” differences is unsound and thus should be rejected, at the same time; 2) we must not deny the social realities where people of color have lived with their “racial” categories/identities. Inevitably, when I say “we’re all Homo sapiens” to someone who doesn’t have a good grasp of racial history, what gets tossed out of the window are the differences among us humans, not to mention the long social processes through which powerful oppressors have assigned detrimental social meanings to these differences.

As late Sidney Mintz always asserted, the discipline of anthropology needs to be grounded in history. If anthropologists are to claim to be experts on race – and teach about it – I argue that they should also be able to teach larger histories of racism. After all, the collective experiences specific to different groups of color are different symptoms of the same problem. As Scot Nakagawa insists, for example, the liberation of African Americans is intimately tied with the liberation of all other people of color in the United States. Understanding larger racial histories can help us all see how these different symptoms have been created, not to mention how white supremacy has been produced within broader racial hierarchies. In this way, it can become unacceptable to be coy or disingenuous about the fact that white supremacy has been the law of the country, which also has shaped minds and perceptions about people of color. Understanding larger racial histories can help build solidarity among all people of color for anti-racism. We need more conversations, like “Building a Culture of Solidarity,” “Latino and Asian American Solidarity,” “How Multiracial Alliances Help End Discrimination,” and “How Black, Latino, and Muslim College Students Organized to Stop Trump’s Rally in Chicago.”

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Rethinking Pedagogy of Race in Anthropology, Part 1

Every time I see articles/essays about racial issues on media news, I often read through the comments posted from other readers to see what folks out there are thinking, and I occasionally get into heated debates with random online strangers. Some people may find it pointless to engage in conversations with bigoted individuals they don’t even know. But as I read more comments, I came to notice a pattern where the same rhetoric is repeatedly and pervasively used to dismiss racist incidents. And these strangers have no reservation in spattering around their reactions, as they call people of color oversensitive, whiners, over-reactionary, and reverse racists. They tell people of color, “Stop blaming white people for your own problems, focus more on assimilation, and get over the past!”

Who in the world taught these people about race and the history of racism??

Anyone teaching “race” would agree that it’s one of the toughest topics to teach. Looking back on the days when I taught introductory anthropology courses several years ago, I can still vividly remember the sense of dread while putting my lecture together. The university was in a relatively liberal pocket in the middle of a staunchly conservative state. The fact that the majority of the classes were filled with in-state conservative students shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Still, it felt like I was going to a Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of white Republican relatives – except that I had no choice. I had to go in there and talk about the social construction of racial categories and its devastating consequences.

My lectures on race began with a quick look at humans at the genetic/biological level. I felt that it was a necessary start for challenging the faulty biological basis of race before ushering the students into the most critical point – the social construction of racial categories. Subsequently I emphasized that we all belong to a species called H. sapiens, which is a single, highly variable species inhabiting the entire globe but has no biological subspecies or races.

What ironically resonates with this academic/scientific discourse however is the current perpetual colorblind narrative – “We are all humans, and so I don’t see any color and I don’t see you as a person of color! We need to abandon all racial categories!” This utopian post-racial sentiment profoundly dismisses the multiple histories of people of color in the U.S., as well as the histories of their struggles, sufferings, and courageous battles against oppressive white supremacy.

It’s not that my lectures on race completely left out the history of racism, as I briefly went over how racial categories and their given meanings came from white European colonialism and how they continue to be the root of contemporary racist climate. But with the limited amount of time allowed for the particular lectures, I spent too little time on the racial history, and ultimately perpetuated the colorblind post-racial rhetoric.

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Anthropology outside Anthropology, Part 2

You can find Part 1 here.

My patients sometimes present me with an opportunity to reflect on anthropological literature through our brief and yet candid conversations. By rule, we medical interpreters are not supposed to be friends with clients (both patients and providers), and thus we limit the amount of private time with them. Again, our fundamental responsibilities are to be a communication conduit, invisible and detached from the emotional exchanges between patients and medical professionals. It keeps us out of potential trouble, such as being asked for medical advice or personal assistance outside clinical settings (violation of HIPAA and Code of Ethics). Every time a patient asks me about her/his treatments, I have to tell her/him, “Let’s ask the doctor about it,” even if I know how I want to answer.

But when I accompany patients under long-term invasive treatments, we often end up with alone time. In such instances, I make sure that our conversation topics remain neutral and non-medical. And yet, we often develop a rapport, telling funny stories and laughing together. As I spend more time with them, some of the patients begin to confide in me about their struggles with their illnesses.

One of them, for instance, asked for my opinion on whether or not to wear a wig to cover up hair loss from chemotherapy. According to her, cancer patients in her home country typically prefer keeping their illnesses secret from people outside their families. Since her social network was mostly insulated within the community where the people speak only her native language, she was naturally inclined to follow the same trend. At the same time, crossing paths with her fellow cancer patients who were without wigs in the clinics led her to the realization that things were a bit different beyond her community. Still, she felt that going wigless would be like advertising her illness.

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Anthropology outside Anthropology, Part 1

“I’m an anthropologist by training and I work as a medical interpreter.” When I tell this to people from anthropology backgrounds, I often receive sympathetic groans from them, as if I fell out of anthropology heaven, wasting my graduate training. It certainly felt that way when I left academic anthropology. However, my medical interpreter job proved me wrong.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely thrilled about this job when the offer came to me at first. Having read numerous scholarly critiques of biomedical institutions during my studies in medical anthropology, I felt that I would be engulfed by biomedicine and end up working on the “wrong side” of the powerful (biomedicine)-powerless (patients) equation.

Anyone who has studied medical anthropology should be familiar with the canonical work in critical assessments of biomedicine (or Western medicine) by Arthur Kleinman, Byron Good, Margaret Lock, etc (for practical advice on working within biomedicine, see Kleiman’s essay “Anthropology in Clinic”). They warn us of the authoritative power of biomedical knowledge, which is so extensive that it permeates as legitimate cultural norms, values, and morals through our everyday lives. Specifically relating to my current job, some scholars caution about the negative consequences of medical interpreters in patients’ health outcomes: the interpreter as information gatekeeper and provider proxy (Hsieh and Kramer 2012), the interpreter as a covert co-diagnostician and institutional gatekeeper (Davidson 2001), and the interpreter as an ineffective mediator for meaningful clinical communications (Leanza, Bolvin, and Rosenberg 2010).

Despite my skepticism, the medical interpreter job hasn’t bulldozed over my principles as an anthropologist. And I credit this positive result to the medical interpreter certification program, as well as my training in anthropology. The interpreter training was carefully crafted to encourage prospective interpreters to learn how to focus strictly on being communication conduits between providers and patients, while also developing the ability to assess when to become a patient’s advocate. The instructor of this training program made us practice juggling these roles in various hypothetical scenarios over and over again.

Being detail-oriented, which I acquired from my ethnographic research as a part of the training in anthropology, helps me fulfill these medical interpreter roles as well. We interpreters are the eyes and ears of these complex medical situations, vigilantly attending to facial expressions of the provider and the patient and any words and sounds uttered by them. What our eyes and ears catch is instant data, so to speak, in order for us to identify miscommunications, distrusts, and disagreements between both sides of the equation. In this way, we can quickly step out of the communication conduit role and jump back in to help attenuate conflicts and tensions.

One unexpected benefit from my training in anthropology came to light through writing up mandatory post-appointment reports. My interpreter agency often commends me for my meticulous reports. Writing these reports certainly brings back some of the memories from my ethnographic research – Flashback: I’m sitting in my car at a gas station a couple of blocks away from one of my research sites and madly scribbling down every little detail I saw and heard during a long event where I just did participant-observation. I can later type this all up into a coherent story as a part of research data that will be coded and analyzed after the completion of the research.

Sure, writing post-appointment reports isn’t as complicated as typing up fieldnotes. But all of the words I jot down while interpreting my clients become something like the notes I took during my participant-observation, as I type them up into a post-appointment report – sometimes on my phone as soon as I get back to my car in the hospital parking lot. I honestly would have never thought that ethnographic research skills would be useful at a job outside anthropology.

To see Part 2, click here.