Monday, May 16, 2011

Anthropology's Rotten Egg

A while back I commented on the book Reversed Gaze:  An African Ethnography of American Anthropology by Mwenda Ntarangwi (here).  It is time to follow up on a problem he identifies.

As he introduces the book and his motivations for doing it, Ntarangwi writes (2010: vii)

 It is also a story hemmed within a specific discourse and views about anthropology that can be best represented by remarks from fellow graduate students who wondered what I was doing in a “racist” discipline…I became quite disturbed by the “racist” label placed on anthropology by fellow graduate students in other disciplines, particularly those in sociology and political science.

Later, I discover that this is not a rare problem.  Hawaiian native Ty Tengan (2005: 247) writes:

When I entered the anthropology graduate program at the University of Hawai‘i at
Ma¯noa (UHM) in 1998, I was dismayed to find that I was forced to justify my
positionality as both an ‘O¯iwi (Indigenous Hawaiian) and an anthropologist...Those I met were shocked that I was in anthropology and told me that it was ‘an evil white discipline’ that was ‘racist towards Hawaiians’.

Okay, no argument, anthropology, a profession found in many countries, is tainted with racism.  Among others, Hsu (1973; 1979), a Chinese born scholar, pointed it out years ago.

In a land full of racism such as America, you must assume that people born and raised here will likely bring their cultural baggage with them as they enter anthropology.  So, American anthropology is tainted with racism, although many anthropologists are not racists, and many are trying to lessen the problem.

The point here is that anthropology has an image problem within the American academy.  The issue above was found at universities in Illinois and Hawaii.  Apparently, graduate students in other disciplines don’t worry about the racist label, and, they are happy to sling it at anthropology.  Thus, Anthropology students do have to worry about it.  Anthropology seems like a scapegoat.

When and why has this stinky image cast its pall over anthropology within the American academy?  When did anthropology become the poster child of scientific racism and colonialism?

It’s hard to imagine that political science, economics, sociology, or any other discipline, had no part in the expansion of American capitalism and imperialism after World War II.  And, if they exist on American soil, they too will be tainted with racism.  Have you ever seen a black economist or a Native American sociologist?  I suppose there are a few but they are not common.

American anthropologists have to fix this image and identity problem.  Third party intervention is needed using savvy marketing consultants.  No amount of Anthropology of Anthropology can fix it.  Navel gazing is not the answer.  The brand of anthropology needs to be re-invented.

I know the racist discussion has been out there ever since Boas fought the issue at the beginning of the 20th century.  However, as a graduate student in the 1980s I don’t ever remember anything like this, especially since I did an ethnography of anthropology in those years.

Was it the political correctness of the late 1980s and 1990s that led to this image?  Was it the self flagellation of the culture critique crowd that led to it?  Did so many people inside anthropology piss on the discipline  such that other professions noticed the stink and took advantage of it?  Maybe so, maybe the fears of Herbert Lewis (1999: 716) about Misrepresentation and its Consequences have come to fruition:

This article deals with several of the most common charges leveled at anthropology, notably that it has regularly and necessarily exoticized "Others," has been ahistorical, and has treated each culture as if it were an isolate, unconnected to any other. It demonstrates how inaccurate and easily falsifiable such claims are and recommends a critical reevaluation of these unexamined and destructive clichés…[emphasis added]

Maybe anthropologists painted “racist” on their foreheads in their never ending desire for self destruction.  I don’t know.

I do know that no graduate student in any discipline should ever have to worry about such a label.

References cited:

Hsu, Francis L. K.
1973  Prejudice and Its Intellectual Effect in American Anthropology:  An Ethnographic Report.  American Anthropologist 75(1):  1-19.
1979  The Cultural Problem of the Cultural Anthropologist.  American Anthropologist 81(3):  517-532.

Lewis, Herbert S.
1999  The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and Its Consequences.  American Anthropologist 100(3):  716-731.

Ntarangwi, Mwenda
2010  Reversed Gaze:  An African Ethnography of American Anthropology.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Tengan, Ty P. Kawika
2005  Unsettling Ethnography:  Tales of an ‘Oiwi in the Anthropological Slot.  Anthropological Forum 15(3):  247–256.

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