Race is Still a Problem in Anthropology

Race is Still a Problem in Anthropology

By Anar Parikh

[The following essay emerges from conversation with fellow PhD student and AES/SVA attendee, Scott Ross (George Washington University).]

How is it that a senior anthropologist used the n-word during a plenary lecture and no one is talking about it?

At last month’s American Ethnological Society Spring Conference in Philadelphia, Sherry Ortner delivered one of three keynote lectures, titled “Documenting Newark: Violent Resemblances.” Whereas much of Ortner’s work during the past two decades has focused on conceptualizing and theorizing class in anthropology—famously based on her ethnographic research among her mostly White, Jewish high school classmates in Newark, New Jersey—in this paper Ortner shifted her attention to questions of race, patriarchy, and policing in the city. Drawing from old police records and other archival texts from the 1960s and 1970s, in this work-in-progress, Ortner invokes Mary Douglas’ notion of purity and danger as framework for theorizing police violence. In this formulation, the able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gendered White male becomes the standard-bearer for purity in the United States; and in relation all those who are not are effectively “impure” others. Extending this analogy to the police forces, Ortner argues that mostly male, mostly White police forces constitute a patriarchal organization that employs violence against women, Black and other People of Color, LGBTQ people and folks with disabilities to uphold this binary between purity and impurity.

This lecture, given at a conference organized around the theme of “Resemblances” was strange and unsettling for several reasons. Ortner’s theorizations centered primarily on the work of Mary Douglas, and secondarily on Didier Fassin’s writing about policing in urban France. In other words, in a lecture about race, policing, and patriarchy, in mid-twentieth century Newark and by extension implicitly about the current milieu of police violence against Black men and women, Ortner—a White woman—did not cite a single Black scholar, and seemed altogether ignorant of intersectional feminist scholarship. During the post-lecture Q&A an audience member asked Ortner how she thought class might play into this, given her decades-long work in this subject matter. Interestingly, Ortner did not quite have an answer and admitted that all of the possibilities were overwhelming her. If Ortner had looked towards Black women anthropologists like Ruha Benjamin, Kia Caldwell, Keisha-Khan Perry, Christen Smith, Dana Ain-Davis, Bianca C. Williams, Erica Williams—who have written about these issues and even working alongside activists demanding accountability for racialized and gendered police violence in the US and across the globe—this line of inquiry might have come together more convincingly. These politics of citation are not to be underemphasized. Feminist philosopher Sarah Ahmed (2013) describes citation “as a rather successful reproductive technology, a way to reproduce the world around certain bodies.” Failing to cite Black scholars when we talk about the police brutality that disproportionately affects Black people in the United States reproduces, and indeed calcifies, the notion that White bodies and ideas remain at the center of our discipline, the academy, and public intellectual discourse.

The absence of Black scholarship in this paper became doubly disconcerting when Ortner made the choice to say the n-word in its entirety while reading from archival documents—especially when it seems as if one of Ortner’s key points was that racist name-calling serves to articulate and reify the “pollution logic” behind racist violence. Even more strangely, the audience seemed unphased by Ortner’s use of the racial slur; and while many of us graduate students whispered about the talk in hushed tones afterwards, the silence from more senior scholars—many among them our mentors and role models—was deafening. No one questioned her about this choice. Ortner did forewarn and apologized again after reading the document, but neither these indicators nor the fact that she was reading from an archival document absolve Ortner of responsibility for the racial violence inflicted through her choices. In a talk about the different forms of violence done to black bodies, it was unsettling to hear these violences redeployed under the guise of analysis.

This year’s meeting—a joint conference between AES and the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA)—was organized around the theme of “Resemblances,” around the questions: “In an era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alt’ political movements, what counts as meaning making?” and “How can we understand epistemology in an era of madness?” Sherry Ortner’s plenary lecture was bookended by two other keynote addresses featuring scholars of color including professors Kamala Visweswaran, Elizabeth Chin, and John Jackson as well as welcoming remarks from Reverend John Norwood of the Nanticoke, Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. The block of panels immediately following Ortner’s keynote included a roundtable conversation on social justice in anthropology, in which scholars drew attention to the inequities of academe, the forms of gendered and racial exclusion in American higher education, and strategies for pursuing social justice in our research and in our workplaces. . Ostensibly, the conference expressed an ethos of political solidarity beyond the scheduled panels and papers. This included a “Solidarity Lunch” for graduate students of color, Indigenous students, women, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities; AES even purchased $2000 worth of t-shirts from the March for Our Lives movement in a show of support for the nation-wide marches and rallies that took place in cities across the country, including Philadelphia, on March 24.

Of my own silence in the moment, which I now deeply regret, I will say that as a graduate student and person of color it somehow seemed indecorous to question one of anthropology’s most revered scholars on her use of racialized slurs. The final keynote address featured a presentation by Elizabeth Chin and response from John Jackson about anthropology, race, and multi-modality. Among several other poignant comments, Jackson reminded us of W.E.B. DuBois, who asked fellow Black Americans, “how does it feel to be a problem?”

Race, along with other kinds of Othering, are still a problem in anthropology, regardless of whether we like to acknowledge it, and the people who feel it most are the ones most marginalized within the discipline. Anthropology undergraduate and graduate students learn its paradigms from our advisors and mentors. The Othering tendencies of anthropological inquiry continues to be centered in the canons of many programs and in our disciplinary discourse more broadly. In their scholarly interest, questions about race and marginality, and the continued marginalization of scholars of color as graduate students, faculty, and intellectuals, we have witnessed that our discipline is not as steadfast as it is ambivalently obsessed with racial justice.

The AES conference this year took place just days after a domestic terrorist set off a series of bombs that killed and injured Black and Latino residents outside of Austin, Texas, and Sacramento police officers shot an unarmed Black man eight times while he stood in his grandmother’s backyard. Violence against People of Color is not only a historical, but also a contemporary reality. Anthropologists must address, analyze, and talk about such very real problems as white supremacy in better ways. In February of this year, an anthropology professor at Princeton University was forced to cancel a course on hate speech after he used the n-word. The call for Professor Lawrence Rosen to cancel the course did not come from the Princeton University administration or from the anthropology department. In fact, the chair of the department and the university spokesperson remained steadfast in their support of Rosen and “his right to free speech.” While such a right may exist, we should be committed to ethical speech, the language of solidarity, and holding each other accountable for the violences we reinscribe on others. We should be purposeful rather than provocative in our teaching. In March, thirteen professors of anthropology, along with more than 50 other scientists and researchers, composed and signed an open letter to geneticist David Reich critiquing his conceptualization of race as a biological human category. How we talk about race can and does feed into ongoing processes of white supremacy regardless of intent. We must actively work to refuse such violences. Next year’s AES meetings will be held in St. Louis, Missouri, where conference organizers have the opportunity to move beyond merely gesturing towards solidarities by centering the voices and work of Black scholars, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Black resistance.

Language matters. If “Resemblances” sought to ask questions about what we are supposed to do, and how we are supposed to think, in times like these, we must keep in mind that the choices we make around language and representation are fundamental to our disciplinary epistemology.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sarah. 2013. Making Feminist Points. feministkilljoys.  September 11, 2013. https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/.

BuzzFeed Contributor. 2018. Opinion: How Not to Talk About Race and Genetics. BuzzFeed. March 30. https://www.buzzfeed.com/bfopinion/race-genetics-david-reich?utm_term=.okrNn1OJ9l#.ln9xX6879Q

da Col, Giovanni, Claudio Sopranzetti, Fred Myers, Anastasia Piliavsky, John L. Jackson, Yarimar Bonilla, Adia Benton, and Paul Stoller. 2017. Why Do We Read the Classics: Ideology, Tautology, Memory. Hau Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7(3): 1-38.

Durrani, Mariam (@mariamdurrani). 2018. “Ortner emphasizes how repetitive racist name-calling brings to the surface the “pollution logic” behind racist violence. The ways that language gives a reflexive articulation of racism that dialogically echoes structural oppression and reifies its existence.” March 23, 1:50PM. https://twitter.com/mariamdurrani/status/977241217816768512.

Flaherty, Colleen. 2018. Ending a Course Over the N-Word. Inside Higher Education. February 14,. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/02/14/princeton-professor-who-was-criticized-using-n-word-class-hate-speech-cancels-course, accessed April 7, 2018.

Martin, Savannah. 2017. Othered by Anthropology: Being a Student of Color in Anglo-cized Academia. Savage Minds. November 3, 2017. https://savageminds.org/2017/11/03/othered-by-anthropology-being-a-student-of-color-in-anglo-cized-academia/.

Suggested Readings

(This bibliography-in-progress covers questions of race, policing, gender, and patriarchy in anthropology. It has been compiled by graduate students Anar Parikh, Scott Ross, and Dick Powis, and is on our own readings and the recommendations of our colleagues).

Antón, Susin, Ripan S. Malhi, Agustín Fuentes. 2018. Race and Diversity in US Biological Anthropology: A Decade of of AAPA initiatives. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 165: 158-180.

Baker, Lee D. 1998. From savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race 1896, 1954. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Benjamin, Ruha. 2016. Catching Our Breath: Critical Race STS and the Carceral Imagination. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 2: 145-156.

Berry, Maya J., Chávez Argüelles, Claudia, Cordis, Shanya, Ihmoud, Sarah and Velásquez Estrada, Elizabeth. 2017. “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 537–565.

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?” American Anthropologist. 113 (4): 545-556.

Burton, Orisanmi. 2015. To Protect and Serve Whiteness. North American Dialogue 18(2): 38-50.

—–. 2015. “Black Lives Matter: A Critique of Anthropology.” Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology website, June 29, 2015. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/691-black-lives-matter-a-critique-of-anthropology

Harrison, Faye. 1995. The Persistent Power of “Race” in the Cultural and Political Economy of Racism. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 47-74.

Mullings, Leith. 2005 Interrogating Racism: Towards an Anti-Racist Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 667-693.

Navarro, Tami, Williams, Bianca C. and Ahmad, Attiya. 2013. Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology. Cultural Anthropology 28(3): 443–463.

Ralph, Michael et al., eds. 2016. Special Issue, “Sorrow As Artifact: Radical Black Mothering in Times of Terror.” Transforming Anthropology 24(1): 3-69.

Visweswaran, Kamala. 1998. Race and the Culture of Anthropology: American Anthropologist 100(1): 70-83)

Williams, Bianca C. “Introduction: #BlackLivesMatter.” Hot Spots. Cultural Anthropology website, June 29, 2016. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/688-introduction-blacklivesmatter

In addition to these recommended readings, you can also refer to syllabi created to teach students about Black History, civil rights, and policing using the Ferguson and Charleston syllabi, and follow the conversation about the importance of citing black women on Twitter at #citeblackwomen and @citeblackwomen.

AuthorAnar Parikh is a PhD candidate at Brown University. She is currently conducting dissertation fieldwork on civic engagement, enfranchisement, and political belonging among South Asians in Chicago, Illinois. Her interests include the South Asian Diaspora, US Anthropology, citizenship, and the politics of representation.

4 Replies to “Race is Still a Problem in Anthropology”

  1. This is why Native Americans have good reason to be concerned about Euro American anthros thinking that they are the only people capable to interpret the data without bias , supremacy, and chauvinism. When they have proven over and over, that cannot even do so without the concious or unconcious need to compare NA cultures with their own, even though Native Americans developed on their own in complete isolation away from Europe, Africa, Asia, When though these white European academics, think that the inherently superior European people and cultures, they cannot show this without first showing how the NAs we’re Stone age, Hunter gatheers, , Nomadic, illiterate, Savage, Blood thisty, Stingy, …yada yada yada! The only way they can build their race up is to put all others down. They under no circumstance can they fairly and truly interpret the history of the Americas and the Native American people.

  2. Far more serious to me than Ortner’s use of the n-word as evidence for racism in the Newark police department is the observation that, while citing Mary Douglas and Didier Fassin, Ortner did not cite black scholars with something to say about her topic. I can fully understand Anar Parik’s outrage at this neglect. That said, I wish that Parik’s argument had been more fully developed. I would like to know how what these black scholars have to say affects and might force us to rethink Ortner’s analysis. Parik could, of course, reply that I should read the scholars in question.

    While fair enough, this response is unlikely to be effective. As an East Asianist and devotee of the history and philosophy of science, I am not at all likely to push this task to the top of an already overloaded stack of things I should read someday. Perhaps I should just shut up, and if this were a merely academic argument that is what I would do. But more is at stake here. Addressing Ortner’s argument instead of expressing outrage would keep me engaged. Wouldn’t that be better for both of us?

    1. Hi John. I think your interest in knowing more about the substance of Anar’s critique and the historical context of black scholarship on race and policing is surely well-intentioned. But, as another person of color in a space that continues to be white in important aspects, I also hope that you also see your request for more explanation, ostensibly to interest you more or get you to care more, is an exacerbation of the emotional labor that black and women of color have always engaged in.

      Indeed, it doesn’t behoove Anar’s essay to address why a white male person studying east Asia should care more about this issue – when, in fact, an essay expressing outrage and concern is epistemically valid and legitimate in and of itself. I feel questions such as yours tend to miss this crucial point when black and women of color intervene in public debates, especially on issues that have important political and material consequences for them. As someone afforded privileges of being a man, and being somewhat distant to these questions of policing (since I am in a different geographic space), I also understand that if I am to care more about this issue, it is my responsibility to take an interest and put in the work, rather than expect people to educate me. It isn’t their responsibility to make anything “effective” for a (white, male) audience – I feel if that is a litmus test of assessing an argument’s validity, it is still deeply problematic since it necessitates that knowledge be made to adhere to standards of white sensibilities (we are talking about race and racism here).

      In fact, Anar has done a fabulous task of listing the relevant references meticulously! – should anyone be more interested in reading and citing black scholars, which I feel shouldn’t even be up for debate.

  3. This is a wonderful article. At the risk of being admonished for not adding to the post about racism, I note this:

    “Extending this analogy to the police forces, Ortner argues that mostly male, mostly White police forces constitute a patriarchal organization that employs violence against women, Black and other People of Color, LGBTQ people and folks with disabilities to uphold this binary between purity and impurity.”

    I’m glad that disability and ableism made the grade as sources of concern in this important discussion. I just turned in my Disability and Embodiment grades and surfing the blogs is my reward. I try to think how I would feel if confronted with the r-word as a reminder of not yet past grievances. However, I don’t have to imagine how an inappropriate euphemism would, yet again, make it hard for me to defend anthropology to my critical disability studies colleagues. A conference “organized around the theme of “Resemblances,” around the questions: “In an era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alt’ political movements, what counts as meaning making?” and “How can we understand epistemology in an era of madness?”” Really, clueless conference organizers? The disability and the mad studies movements are sisters. We take each other seriously. How about “How can we understand epistemology in an era so in need of Mad Studies?” That won’t work either. Maybe, “an era lacking rationality?”
    There are serious differences in how disabled people want to be identified. Language use varies by geography, impairment, context, education, positionality, and theoretical concerns. While “people with disabilities” is never my personal or professional choice for many reasons, and I do use the word “folks” often, I wonder how the people who are militant about “people” or “person” first language, which they often capitalize and abbreviate as “PWD,” feel about “folks with disabilities”? Somehow, I’ll guess the informality is an in-group privilege to people who I am careful not to offend when they reference the “People First Movement” and I, with full in-group privileges, code switch to people who experience disability as an acceptable to all alternative. Yes, my beloved anthropology is racist. (See “Race is Still a Problem in Anthropology” https://anthrodendum.org/2018/04/09/race-is-still-a-problem-in-anthropology/.) It is also profoundly ableist. (See https://anthrodendum.org/?s=disability.)