Six Ways Anthropologists Can Challenge White Supremacy

Recently, white supremacists attempted to defame Boasian Anthropology and its historic role in challenging scientific racism. This article proposes some concrete steps by which to challenge whiteness as a category of power and status, and is a follow-up to last month’s Diversity and the Rise of the Alt-Right. While this list is short, do not underestimate its difficulty in implementing it.

  1. Create purposeful students

In an era of “alternative facts,” it would behoove us to draw on our ancestors for their pedagogical mission: to use education as a political tool.

I try to teach Boas’s 1906 Commencement Address at Atlanta University often, which many of my public university students find strangely familiar. Many of them are aware of institutional challenges for people of color through personal experience. I appreciate the text for its simplicity and succinctness in placing racial struggle within historic and economic contexts. I also ask my students to examine it as an archaeological artifact of the discipline of Anthropology at the turn of the 20th century. I tell them it was during this time that Boas taught students to provide global contexts and cultural comparisons, which challenged normative assumptions of social practices, relationships, and belief and value systems. I also believe that, in an era of “alternative facts,” it would behoove us to draw on our ancestors for their pedagogical mission: to use education as a political tool. I would like to see more of us engage with our students not only in ways that make their anthropology degree useful, but also purposeful. This entails teaching and advocating for skills that complicate, inspire, and de-stabilize our understandings of the world.

  1. Critique identity politics

The so-called Alt-Right have described themselves as seemingly innocent “Identitarians,” and they demand that their opinions, belief systems, and values be accepted as legitimate. Following up on my last opinion piece, I ask us to critique identity-based claims in terms of its work and its goals. When examined under this light, the legitimacy of the Alt-Right is questionable. That is, identity politics have been instrumental to the distribution of American civil rights. They have also been a strategy used to address oppression and marginalization. Until the rise of the so-called Alt-Right, our understanding of identity had mostly gone unchallenged. Rather, we often debated whether these strategies were necessary or apt in a colorblind society. Moving forward, I urge us to historicize and critique identity-based claims as categorical processes, and understand them as operational and productive. In other words, at work and in everyday life, we should aim to understand identity politics for its purpose as a historical and social mode of organizing.

  1. Create brave spaces

In the last few years, the concept of creating safe spaces has permeated the language of activist groups, workplaces, and educational institutions. It has also become critical for diversity management within multinational corporations. For instance, during fieldwork I aided numerous diversity consultants in making presentations and exercises to have managers and executives practice creating “psychological safety” before attempting to have difficult conversations. We emphasized that people need an environment where they can ask questions and make comments without feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or experience being attacked. Yet, I also contend that critical dialogue cannot occur unless individuals are open to being vulnerable. Creating a safe space should not be conflated with comfort, convenience, or personal satisfaction. Rather, change is discomforting, at times unpleasant, and necessitates vulnerability and bravery. For challenging conversations to be productive, participants need to agree on common goals, desired outcomes, and the terms of engagement.

Critical dialogue cannot occur unless individuals are open to being vulnerable. Creating a safe space should not be conflated with comfort, convenience, or personal satisfaction.

  1. Break the Silence

It is clear that the “colorblind society” that scholars and media commentators studied and critiqued during the Obama years are now over. Increasingly, “political correctness” is under scrutiny, and Trump has denounced it as counterproductive to fighting terrorism. On the other hand, as many media commentators noted, the right also has their own form of political correctness. Today, they often cite the right’s consistent refusal to critique Trump, regardless of how unhinged some of his comments appear. Taking a post-structuralist stance that speech is both performative and productive, we as intellectuals and educators must draw a line in this public “free speech” debate. We should not tolerate language that perpetuates hate. We must also encourage frank and open discussions on racial and social difference, realizing such discussions can be complicated and emotionally difficult. To invoke Buck-Morss (2009), who critiqued Hegel’s abstention from discussions of the Haitian Revolution, silence in the face of racial struggle is nothing less than complacency with white supremacist ideologies.

“Diversity and Inclusion board meeting,” January 2016. Luzilda Carrillo Arciniega
  1. Push back against hierarchies

When I was in the field, I reviewed resumes for research assistant positions. Although the process of hiring was highly attentive to race, the structures by which race operated were unquestioned. Applicants who graduated from Research I universities were almost always hired. Their qualifications and skills were lauded, whereas those who had graduated from local schools were viewed with suspicion. In academia, disavowing hierarchies is near impossible, but challenging them is productive. I suggest that we make a concerted effort to be critical of structures that grant us special kinds of privileges and resources, but which are denied to others. This means moving beyond the spirit of Affirmative Action, which focuses on upward mobility. I contend we should attempt to do the opposite and work with and through less-privileged spaces by donating our time, resources, skills, and talents. As I often say, the myth of individualism and merit is our greatest enemy in creating social equity and fairness.

  1. Remain politically engaged

Lastly, we should all be productive with the training and education that we have received. Participate in public spaces as a critical thinker. Create allies and projects with other advocates for marginalized communities. Now is the time for those who had opted out of political activism to take on new projects, in whatever small or large role, and for us all to take ownership of a future we can build together.

Do you have any other strategies and suggestions? Please feel free to add it in the comments section below.

Luzilda Carrillo Arciniega is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is writing her dissertation, Making Corporate Inclusivity: Discrimination and Expertise in Post-Affirmative Action America. @luzildac

Feature image © 2003 by Alan Nyiri, courtesy of the Atkinson Photographic Archive.

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