Refusal as Care

It was my second time attending the neighborhood association meeting in the community where I was doing fieldwork. The association president had invited me, saying he thought it would be great if I talked about my project with the attendees and that, perhaps, some people would want to share about their experiences living under food apartheid. In those early days of research after my dissertation proposal defense, I felt unsure about my project, unsure if I had enough tools or the right tools, unsure that the work I wanted to do would be what helpful or necessary to the community. I welcomed the president’s invitation. I was looking for affirmation.

After the meeting, an elder approached me. I had watched and listened to her during the meeting. She knew she was somebody. And in the moment she made her way to me before anyone else could and slid me her phone number indicating she wanted to talk more about the research, I knew she wanted me to know she was somebody. I felt affirmed.

I called a few days later. When she picked up the phone, I reminded her that I was the graduate student she’d met at the meeting, and I was wondering if she’d like to have tea or a meal to continue our conversation. She paused. I don’t really have much else to say, she said. I was shook. This was the same person, who days before, made it a point to get my attention; who wanted me to know that she was one of the most important people to talk to. I stumbled through a few words to see if I could get her to talk, but her staccato responses were enough to indicate she was in no way interested in talking to me. In the moment, I felt like I failed at something. Looking back, I see that it was not that I had failed. It was that this woman had succeeded at both demanding that I see her and that I respect her right to refuse engaging me beyond that initial seeing.

If we witness and honor refusals in our ethnographic contexts, perhaps they give us courage to practice refusal in our writing, in our teaching, and in our departments.
Ethnography, from its origins and many of its contemporary manifestations, is a practice of excess. “Thick” presumes that as ethnographers—our bodies as tools, our words as cultural translations of what these tools have collected—we can know more than we should. Couple this with being a minoritized ethnographer, the heaviness of “should” is doubly so as skepticism about one’s work and ability can result in over-explaining, over-showing. “Thick” description becomes more of a show and prove than show don’t tell. As John Jackson, Jr. has shown us, however, the pursuit of “thick” description sets us up as needing to be all-knowing, while forgetting that communities can and do control what we see, hear, and do when we are with them in the field (Jackson 2013).

At the community meeting the elder did a specific thing: in her affirmation of herself, she was also pointing out my preference as an outsider. Yes, I was invited. But I was invited by someone who was in a position of authority who made a decision to include me in the space with little or no input from others. When I arrived at this meeting, there was little at stake for me. I very much wanted the attendees to see the value in the project. I wanted people to want to talk to me. But at that point, I had not thought through how I might be disrupting a shared space, perhaps a sacred space, for those living in the same neighborhood—one in which anti-Black policing, continued disinvestment, and food apartheid were everyday realities—whose risks and rewards were the very reasons they gathered that evening.

On the telephone the elder did another specific thing: she let it be known that just because the president invited me into that shared space didn’t mean that invitation extended to her private space. Her invitation to call her was an invitation to be checked: my authorized presence and stamp of approval stopped at her doorstep. She refused. Sometimes I wonder if the moment would have unfolded differently if I had entered the initial space differently. But, the lesson of her refusal is instructive beyond that call. It teaches, too, that these are moments of opening and of questioning; they are moments that ethnographers can see as something other than roadblocks. If we witness and honor refusals in our ethnographic contexts, perhaps they give us courage to practice refusal in our writing, in our teaching, and in our departments.

As I move forward in ethnographic inquiry and research, I want to think more deeply about care, specifically “care as shared risk,” as something other than the violence enacted by the state and academic institutions (Sharpe 2018,180) alongside and within ethnographic refusal. Writing into a “we” in which she places the concerns of the Kahnawa’kehro:non communities at the center of ethnographic inquiry, Audra Simpson argues that rather than being seen as a limitation refusal lets us know when we’ve reached “enough”: the point at which the gains and sovereignty of the individuals and communities we work with may be compromised.  Carole McGranahan later explicated refusal as “we refuse to continue on this way” (2016, 320). If we take both care and refusal as ethnographic imperatives, how does this shift our definitions of and engagements with “the field” and “fieldwork,” which is to ask: how does thinking with care as shared risk and refusal as affirmation of one’s sovereignty fundamentally change our experience of ethnography itself? Risk shared among whom? What risks are we sharing and how do we know? And then ultimately, in these explorations of refusal and care: where do we see, as Saidiya Hartman writes, other arrangements of the possible (Hartman 2019, 302)?

Savannah Shange asks: “What does it mean to contour our method such that refusal is part of the shape rather than an aberration” (2019, 16)? To her question, I offer that to contour our method in this way is to understand it as an ethic and a practice of care from which we and the communities we work with are producing other arrangements of the possible; arrangements that may upend the “techniques of knowing” (Simpson 2007, 67) that we are encouraged to reproduce.

Ashanté Reese is assistant professor of anthropology and co-director of the Food Studies program at Spelman College. When she isn’t writing about race, space, and food access, she’s practicing yoga and looking forward to the day when easy seat is actually easy. Her first book, Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. is available from UNC Press.

Deep gratitude to Mai-Linh Hong, Shermaine Jones, and Brandi Thompson Summers for thinking through this column with me.

Cite as: Reese, Ashanté. 2019. “Refusal as Care.” Anthropology News website, June 4, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1181

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