A strong media push by the Sage Foundation has put Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s book The Asian American Achievement Paradox into the public sphere in the past couple of days, garnering an op-ed on CNN.com and an interview on Inside Higher Ed. The book — at least what I’ve been able to read of it so far — is excellent. Even better, it pushes back against the embarrassing, amateurish work of Amy Chua, which claims, in essence, that ‘Asians’ are successful because they are morally virtuous. Or rather, since the weird, deeply-seated Anglo-Protestant cultural currents that run the US are often disguised, because of their ‘cultural values’. Lee and Zhou are adamant that cultural values do not cause Asian American success, and should be commended for boiling down their research findings into headline — and then getting people to run it. But their alternate explanation of Asian American success will look to most people, and especially most anthropologists, essentially cultural. The book deserves discussion because of the way it frames the culture concept, studies ‘culture of success’ (and, lurking in the background, ‘culture of poverty’ ) arguments, and attempts to intervene in the public sphere. It is an excellent model for how anthropologists should approach a topic they often shy away from. But it’s an argument for culture not against it. Or rather, for a good understanding of culture rather than an essentialized and inadequate ethnoracial understanding of culture.
In this piece I would like to explain, in detail, why I think Peter Wood’s recent piece in Anthropology News is fundamentally misguided. For a lot of readers, there will be no point in my doing so — they will just write Wood off as ‘racist’ and move on. I’m, shall we say, extremely sympathetic to this point of view. But I do think that Wood’s piece deserves some scrutiny to explain why so many people find it so misguided.
In his piece, Wood takes issue with four essays in Anthropology News responding to the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent reaction in Ferguson. Wood argues that the essays are “a retelling of… the left’s canonical myth of Ferguson: facts submerged in a sea of fiction”. He goes on to argue that these authors’ accounts of Ferguson ignore “the record of events established by the grand jury”. He claims that the concepts of “structural violence” and “structural inequality” used in the essays are “intellectually lazy simplifications of complex social circumstances” which “remove all moral and social responsibility from the actors who are portrayed as victims”. In doing so, he claims, anthropology “erases the motives of key participants and reduces them to objects acted on by invidious external forces”. In the end, Wood claims, it is a “just-so story that America is a nation run by privileged whites determined to maintain their privilege.” In fact, he says, “this is, quite plainly, a myth. There is nothing in the realm of fact to support it.”
These are amazing claims, and it is difficult to understand how Wood can make them in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence that proves exactly the opposite of what he claims. Wood is clearly not stupid. Charitable readers will assume that he is not evil. The nicest interpretation of Wood’s position, therefore, is that he is simply ignorant.
Savage Minds has gotten a lot more sophisticated than we were when we first started this blog almost ten years ago: We have guest bloggers, comp’d copies of books for our book reviews, and polished, seven thousand word interviews. And for the past couple of years we’ve also gotten an increased amount of accolades and recognition for some reason — mostly because we’ve been able to stay around longer than most.
But I feel that somewhere in this mix of newfound coordination and respectability we’ve gotten away a little bit from our origins as bloggers: entries that represent raw, immediate, thought. Entries that don’t figure out what their point is until the end, entries where the reader can feel you writing the piece, thinking alongside them.
That’s why I want to write something now about Ferguson, Michael Brown, and Darren Wilson even though I don’t know what I want to say. I only know that I want — need — to say something. Continue reading
In case you have been living under a rock (or in the field, either is permissible for an anthro really) you may not have noticed that everyone and their mother is dumping ice water on their head in the name of ALS. Watching this fad unfold has provided Internet observers and other semi-employed persons an extraordinarily rich phenomenon to critique.
First of all, there’s a lot to like about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. By means of this fad I have learned that I have friends, Facebook friends, and friends of friends, who have loved ones or have lost someone because of this disease. It’s raised millions of dollars for rare disease research, which is inarguably a good thing. And it has done so by means of a viral marketing campaign that is, in essence, a short video clip of people acting silly. Wins all around.
It’s also interesting how, like the best of the Internet, the Ice Bucket challenge has spawned appropriation, reappropriation, and metacommentary. Here I’m thinking of Orlando Jones pouring a bucket of brass shell casings on his head to protest violence against Black youth in America, Matt Damon pouring toilet water on his head to draw attention to the lack of clean water around the world, and persons in Gaza pouring rubble on their head to draw attention to ongoing violence in Palestine. It’s really cool how the Internet allows people to riff on a theme and permutate established performances into something new.