Should I stay or should I go?

Should I stay or should I go?

looking upwards at two trunks of an elm tree festooned with green buds, blue sky and sun shining behind the tree
Elm tree, Ottawa

At the end of my sixth semester as an anthropology professor, I’m reflecting on what it means to inhabit this discipline (or, maybe, to occupy (re-occupy?) it). I have spent the better part of the last 8 years immersed in anthropological theory, anthropological politics, and engaging and interlocuting with the ghosts of the discipline’s past. And, to be honest, this work wears away at my cells, my fibres, my bones. I’m exhausted.

I have aged. I recently joked in a talk to a room full of bright, enthusiastic Métis students at a conference here in Ottawa that when I started my tenure-track position three years ago, I looked like I was twelve years old. And now I look like I’m twenty. (The women in my family age very well).

All jokes aside, though, the work of embodying the discipline, of disciplining myself into the structures of not only the academy, but the specificities of anthro itself, wear and tear at my Indigenous body. I paused the other day to ask myself if any of the last 8 years in anthro have brought me joy.

I cannot say that they have.

To propel myself forward within the discipline, to deflect the various forms of daily violence I experience within it as an Indigenous woman, I keep working towards the next step, the next goal, hoping that behind each successive door there might be something about anthro that brings me joy. If not passing my proposal defence, then surely the viva voce. If not the viva voce, then surely the feeling of graduating in absentia. If not the absentia graduation, then surely presenting at x,y,z conference or publishing in x,y,z venue. If not all of these things, then surely the satisfaction of tenure in a few years’ time will provide that joy or at least sense of meaning or belonging.

But what keeps creeping in throughout this punishing marathon of seeking external validation from anthropology is that I find joy elsewhere. Publishing in, and speaking at, critical art history venues. Collaborating with art historians, geographers, artists, and Indigenous/feminist STS scholars. Sneaking in my own artwork and poetry and references to popular TV shows into serious academic contributions. Working with other Indigenous feminist scholars to examine, in great detail, the experiences of our communities and our ancestors. Everything that brings me joy is outside anthropology. So why do I continue to call myself an anthropologist? (and do I?)

Disciplines discipline. They police boundaries and they seek to convene specific discourses. As a teenager, I once dreamt of joining the military, and through my adolescent years as an Army Cadet in Canada, I grew to love discipline. I loved the predictability of it, the reward of meeting a goal within the rubrics of military training. I loved running with our cadet company or platoons, I loved the camouflage, the drills, the routinized expectations. All of it. It gave me a sense of purpose, comfort. I was very good at discipline. I could take it, and I could mete it out.

But the thing with finding yourself through discipline, through routinization, through external rewards and punishment, is that at some point — for some folks — there is a limit to what the institution can offer you. A limit to discipline (a disciplinary limit).

At this point, when you have exhausted your utility to an institution or structure, and when the institution has exhausted its usefulness to you: you must make a choice. When your body exceeds the limits of the body of work you contribute to, what do you become? Waste? Collateral damage? Disciplines do not like unruly bodies or bodies that permeate and puncture the walls of their cells.

Disciplines are macrophages, seeking like and familiar. When your protein coating does not read as familiar to the institution’s immune system, when you are unfamiliar, you are ingested, broken down, and excreted as waste.

Eight years in: I feel like waste. And as life imitates art, my own immune system and other bodily systems are overrun with the markers of waste typical of a body that has been forced to circulate toxic, life-threatening levels of cortisol and other stress hormones for far too long.

Either we find a way for our bodies to assimilate to the pressures of the structures we occupy, or our bodies turn that pressure inwards, slowly destroying the structures that keep us standing.

I read Sara Ahmed’s work to help keep me afloat on the tenure track. Her words give me buoyancy but they also give me ballast. Her theorizations of what it is for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) scholars to occupy academe are important documentations of the ways disciplines discipline.  She also articulates, with laser precision, what it means for BIPOC scholars to speak up and to name problems within the academy, within disciplines. To speak up, to defy convention and the disciplining of disciplines is to become ‘problems’ within the university and within broader fields of study (Ahmed 2014). As Ahmed notes regarding sexism in the academy:

 “When [we] point out these structures, we become sore points, because you are pointing out something that gets in the way of how people occupy space. Note as well: when you point out sexism, you are often blocked. The message does not get through. In my work I have  called these blockages “walls” (Ahmed 2012). In the academy, I come across the walls of sexism every day: whether through citational practices that repeatedly privilege work by men (particularly when it comes to defining a new field or object of study, feminist work that leads to field formation often disappears once a field is given form); whether it is how women who are not willing to participate in sexual banter get called “uptight,” whether it is in the  expectation of who the lecturers are, of how they appear; whether it is in the constant stream of questions asked to female academics about how their work relates to this or that male theorist.” (Ahmed 2014)

This same process applies to speaking up about racism, white supremacy, and colonialism in anthropology. Thinking with Ahmed’s work, it is clear to me that to name the violences of anthropology, to speak of them, and to refuse their relegation to the ‘bad past’ separate from the ‘good present’, is to become a problem. Further, when you work in ways that confound disciplinary boundaries, you become a problem. When your body, and your body of work, do not fit neatly into the categories provided, you become a problem.

Achille Mbembe (2015: 19) articulates a desire to provincialize European thought (in reference to the work of Fanon) by enacting his specific vision of the pluriversity. He explains (2015: 19):

“By pluriversity, many understand a process of knowledge production that is open to epistemic diversity.  It is a process that does not necessarily abandon the notion of universal knowledge for humanity, but which embraces it via a horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions. To decolonize the university is therefore to reform it with the aim of creating a less provincial and more open critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism – a task that involves the radical re-founding of our ways of thinking and a transcendence of our disciplinary divisions. The problem of course is whether the university is reformable or whether it is too late.” (Mbembe 2015: 19)

What does epistemic diversity look like when we are tangling with a euro-western academy that meticulously tags and monitors us as problems? And is the discipline of anthropology reformable, as Mbembe asks of the university more broadly, or are we indeed ‘too late’?

I am not sure.

So, I turn to stories to tease out what is happening and what might be possible.

Over the last year, I have been interlocuting with a Black anthropologist who has dealt with egregious levels of antiblack racism in the discipline, and who has spent the better part of the last decade raising concerns about this through all the means available to them. And I have watched as anthropologists dismiss this individual as a ‘problem’. I have tried to figure out how I reconcile the work anthropologists claim to do to dismantle racism while I see it faithfully and viciously reproduced in every aspect of the discipline. I am trying to figure out how I counteract the surveillance and disciplining of our discipline while also making sure I stay alive, while I make sure the pressure doesn’t kill me. How do I, to borrow a term from Simpson’s (2007, 2014) work, refuse anthro’s underlying white supremacist tendencies?

I acknowledge that as a white-coded Indigenous woman, I possess a great deal of privilege. So, if I am feeling ground to nothing in anthropology — and I inhabit this Indigenous body that is read as white and is not subjected to the same racist surveillance and everyday violence as racialized bodies — then what levels of care and support can I hope for for my racialized students in the discipline? If I can barely survive the micro-aggressions against me as a white-coded Indigenous woman over the last 8 years, then what can I possibly hope for for BIPOC students?

I do my best to fight for the safety of BIPOC students, and to assert that nobody’s humanity is up for debate in my classroom. But I cannot guarantee the broader discipline or academy will offer this level of care. It feels unethical to try and recruit students into a discipline that I know to be violent, to a discipline that I know excuses a great deal of racism in its everyday operations. So I have not tried.

Instead, I am moving half of my appointment to an Indigenous Studies program, where I feel I can ethically supervise students and protect them from the worst of the violences I’ve faced as an Indigenous woman in anthropology in European, American, and Canadian contexts. (I am not naive, though. All disciplines discipline in various ways. It is a matter of finding the ones within which you can actually breathe, if possible).

It fascinates me that disciplines also quibble over the things that don’t matter when they could expend that energy actually transforming their fields into spaces that are inclusive and dynamic. I have had the relatively hilarious recent experience of defending my work to both anthropologists and sociologists. I hold graduate degrees in both disciplines. Some folks in both disciplines remain suspicious of my intentions. When I speak to some anthros, they are suspicious of my embrace of sociological theorists and principles. When I speak to some sociologists, I am a trojan horse, bringing my unruly embrace of ethnography and epistemic diversity (Mbembe 2015) into the neat and orderly world of ANOVA tests and quantitative measurement. The thing is, both disciplines are still rooted in white supremacist logics and histories. Both disciplines discipline. Both disciplines have more in common with one another than they care to admit. Their roots in euro-western cosmologies, ontologies, and epistemes hold them much more closely together on the tree of euro-western intellectual life than they realize. 

And based on my experience — and that of myriad colleagues and students who have shared harrowing stories over the years — both disciplines are still, largely, hostile space for Indigenous scholars here in North America.

Dr. Audra Simpson opens the fourth chapter of her seminal ethnography Mohawk Interruptus with the following statement: “to speak of Indigeneity is to speak of colonialism and anthropology, as these are means through which Indigenous people have been known and sometimes are still known” (Simpson 2014). What I learn from Simpson’s work, and from my own informal ethnographic study of the discipline, is that to speak of Indigeneity within anthropology is to navigate erasure of Indigenous agency, sovereignty, and self-determination (in all of their pluralities and complexities) — and to confront disciplinary conventions that frame Indigenous peoples in very specific ways. Ways that pose us alternately as cherished, noble informants (outside the academy), or nasty and brutish problems (within the discipline).

At a job interview (outside of anthro), a senior white male scholar approaching retirement leveraged this complaint against me: “where is the social theory in your work? You don’t seem to use any social theory!”. As a sociologist, he could not read my citations of Anna Tsing, Donna Haraway, Kim TallBear, Leroy Little Bear, Audra Simpson, Val Napoleon, John Borrows, my Aunt (Métis-Cree filmmaker Loretta Todd) as ‘social theory’. When this question was posed to me, I knew it spelled doom for me and this particular job opportunity. So I gathered up my Michif stubborness, took a deep breath, and offered this back to the interrogator:

“What if I asked you this question: you demand to know where the social theory is in my work as an Indigenous feminist scholar. I suppose my question back to you is: what has your discipline (sociology) done to deserve the presence of Indigenous feminist scholars within it, to be worthy of my social theory?”

I did not get the job.

Back to the joke-filled talk I delivered in front of the hotel banquet hall full of Métis students last month. In that moment, I felt joy. I did not have to defend my right to be there, to occupy that space discussing my work on Métis law, fish, and extinction in the Canadian prairies. I did not have to self-consciously cite obscure anthropological theory to prove my worthiness to be in that space. I told stories rooted in my place as a Métis woman borne of the Lake Winnipeg watershed. I cited the legal traditions that influence our governance, I talked about our theories and cosmologies. I cited myriad BIPOC women scholars, I talked about what it is like to do anti-colonial work in the spirit of building something otherwise. Later, colleagues asked pointed but thoughtful questions about my work — in ways that hold me accountable to the community I write about and belong to.

So what does it look like for us to engage more epistemic diversity, to be more generous and generative with the work that we do, with the bodies (human and figurative) that we carry within our disciplinary walls? I am not sure.

I think the biggest hurdle to embracing epistemic diversity in anthropology, to dismantling its current configuration as ‘white public space’ (Brodkin et al. 2011) is admitting the white supremacist roots of the discipline. To stop saying that anthropology ‘decolonized’ itself with the decolonial turn 30 years ago. Decolonization is a process, not a destination. You cannot declare you’ve arrived somewhere if you’ve barely even strapped on the seat-belts and delivered the safety lecture.

In Canada, the lives of Indigenous people are statistically shorter than the lives of non-Indigenous people . First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women can also expect to experience violence at 2.7 times the rate of non-Indigenous women. The categories employed here are also problematic — because the inter-related violences of the State against Indigenous, African-descended, and Afro-Indigenous communities are built into the DNA of the country. The above data are the statistics for Indigenous women, and statistics for African-descended and Afro-Indigenous communities and individuals are equally distressing: the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner recently completed a study of anti-Black racism in Canada that raises very specific concerns about violence against African-descended peoples in the Country. Despite appearances to being a liberal haven, Canada still turns on the logics of white supremacy and colonialism, and these realities permeate every institution, including our universities and academic disciplines.

So, as a Métis woman, I can expect to live at least three years less than a non-Indigenous Canadian woman, and I am 2.7 times more likely to experience serious violence in my life. With this statistically shorter life, and statistically higher likelihood of experiencing violence, I seek the right to inhabit those spaces that celebrate and nurture and uplift me.

Anthro: you have not been that space.

So, to cite the classic song by Tracy Chapman: give me one reason to stay here. I can’t promise I’ll turn right back around, though. Because I have found joy in so many other places within and beyond academe, and I am not sure the disciplining discipline of anthro can offer me anything at the moment that would draw me away from living a resolutely, stubbornly joy-full and meaningful life beyond its halls.


Works Cited:

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. Problems with Names. Feminist Killjoys Blog. Accessed 08/12/2018:

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

Mbembe, Achille. 2015. “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.” Lecture. May 2, 2015 at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. Retrieved October 05, 2016. (

Simpson, Audra. 2007. “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures 9: 67-80.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

7 Replies to “Should I stay or should I go?”

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’m only an undergrad, but this still resonates deeply with how I’ve been feeling for a while now. I’ve only been in Anthro for a few years, but already I feel the disciplining so deeply in my bones. I’ve become a “problem” in my (mostly white) department for pushing for structural change in how the department talks about race and decolonization, and I am so tired. Of pushing, of fighting for an inch of space, of trying to set it all aside to try to do my best intellectual work. Of teaching myself the work of BIPOC academics across disciplines, because we don’t read them in class. Even as an undergrad, I was enlisted early on into the project of defending Anthropology to the people around me, but as the years have progressed I can no longer defend Anthro, or encourage peers to enter the discipline. I will be forever grateful for the way Anthro has shaped my thinking, but it has taken all my strength just to carve out a little breathing room. I want to stay, but there is so little joy left for me in Anthropology.

    1. thank you for your bravery and your integrity. I know that you’re making an impact, and whether you stay or go, you are going to carry your stories with you into really meaningful engagements, work, forms of community.

  2. Not that you need my validation, but this is a brilliant and powerful piece, and I thank you for sharing it. Anthropology definitely needs you to stay, but that is the discipline’s problem, not yours. If I may ask a question: do you think part of the problem with your fit in the academy might be the kind of academic post you occupy? A few years ago, I took on a blended administrative-teaching role at a small liberal arts college. At first, it felt like I was settling for something less than the life of the research professor — the life I had been disciplined to expect and respect by the R1 program from which I graduated. I planned to move on to that kind of position as soon as possible. But I have come to realize that (at least for me) working in this kind of role at this kind of institution can actually be liberating. Like you, I don’t fit into clean disciplinary boxes, and the work I do doesn’t require me to. I am applauded for sharing just the kind of information about social inequalities that you mention; and for trying to inspire the next generation of students — most of whom will go out into the world, not into the Ivory Towers of academe — to push for change. While I don’t have as much time set aside for research activities, my VPAA supports my efforts at continued research and external service work. He recognizes it not only helps me to develop within my own career, it enhances the intellectual profile of my campus, making it easier to accomplish our very clear mission. I don’t know if this is the answer for everyone, but I can say that I would be happy — indeed proud — to teach social science alongside someone with your interests and commitments. I hope that you will find a place that allows you to live authentically within your professional self. Best wishes…

    1. Thank you for this. In building Mbembe’s vision of the pluriversity, he also talks about reconfiguring the way the university works, and I think we need plural and dynamic ways of configuring what our work looks like — we need to be able to imagine teaching, research, writing, etc… to exist in different configurations, just as you show by sharing your exciting and nourishing work/life experience in your current job. I am so glad you have a working environment that is enriching and rewarding. That’s really what I hope for everyone. That the work we do is meaningful, enriching, and has room for joy. Thanks for showing me it’s possible!

  3. Well said. As a non anthropologist even I can understand. I am sure there a lot of people thinking the same thing, but not expressing
    it. I am alarmed to see the growth of fundamentalism in several parts of the world including your neighbor south of your border.
    Stand up and stand tall. Otherwise you will not be counted.

  4. Zoe, thank you for writing this. It is, as others have already noted, a powerful piece. I am an old (70+), white, privileged male, but also an exile from the academy who is fortunate to be able to pursue academic interests without depending on what appears to be an increasingly rotten system for my livelihood. I am touched by what you write. In response, I offer two thoughts.

    First, an important part of anthropology’s colonial heritage is the way in which students trained in North America and Europe see anthropology as a field dominated by white men from these parts of the world. The largest concentrations of anthropologists elsewhere are in Asia, in China, Japan and South Asia. When I read your list of notable, non-EuroAmerican social theorists, I note the absence of Nakane Chie and Umesao Tadao from Japan and Fei Xiaotong from China. It is surely the fault of my ignorance that I cannot mention South Asian scholars of similar prominence.

    Second, I recall Thomas Kuhn’s observation that scientific paradigms change when those who embody the old paradigm die. The white men whose works are most often cited are doing just that. The figures who shaped my anthropology, Geertz, Turner, Douglas, Lévi-Strauss are gone. So are Irving Goffman, Ward Goodenough, David Schneider, Dell Hymes, Edmund Leach, Rodney Needham, etc., etc., etc. The last five presidents of the American Anthropological Society have all been women, including women of color. As Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a’changing.” For what it is worth, I encourage you to hang around and be part of that change.

  5. I am sorry to arrive late to the discussion, but oh well… here are my two cents… as a totally white Eastern European woman, an (ex?)anthropologist and in general a white crow/black sheep in the field of a “proper” anthropology, because I do studies of the digital (the blasphemy! burn the… oh wait, lets just not publish it… the times have “changed”)… 🙂

    So how does it look from the white side? I wish I could say it is a lot brighter, but… to be honest, a lot of things you mention sound awfully familiar. I wish I could blame it on the race, or on the men, or on the lack of funds… but tbh it is all about me and my choice of subjects. When I started in academia 20 years ago, I thought it to be a sanctuary of the knowledge, a light for the society and so on… yeah right… 20 years later and it looks more and more like a dusty tomb… and I am there on some kind of a tour, hosted by a deadly serious and slightly unhealthily pale undertaker – so, you know, not to disturb the peace… of the late cannons of the research and anthropo-methods. 🙂 If I flirt with feminism, I piss off the traditionalists, if I flirt with neurology, I piss off gender studies… If I question the methods – I am doing the research wrong… If I insist the data is human and personal, I get questioned if I am even researching the human groups… and on top of it all, if I am talking about my people, our Eastern European experience of soviet occupation and concentration camps… I am dismissed as irrelevant and inconvenient… because, you know… talking about the emotional backgrounds formed when living with your dead piled on your porch… because you cannot dig a hole in the permafrost and perform the rites… is a bit too gruesome subject really, can’t we find a happier one?…and… it is white cultural experience, so it leads to nationalism and demonic men anyway… actually can’t you just find those in there while you are at it? 🙂 Sigh… and the list goes on, while inside the little scientist shouts IT IS NOT THE POINT, look what you actually found!!!. 🙂

    In the end, I think it boils down to the question of freedom. Freedom to be able to speak free, in a rigid academic environment, dominated by the middle-class (American) values (does not matter left or right, nazi or metoo). As in that song… “I struggled with some demons | They were middle-class and tame.”… New ideas are fairly inconvenient thing, they tend to shatter the old believes and theories… and it does not matter if those theories come from the very rigid traditional anthropology or ultra contemporary gender studies, the result is the same, it is an uphill battle.