Dear White Anthropologists, Let Not Symbolism Overshadow Substance

Racism permeates the academy. We will need more than performative allyship and symbolic statements condemning racism in society if we are to build a more inclusive anthropology.  

Black bodies have always been and continue to be under social, economic, and physical siege in the United States. Glimpses of widespread protests against racism and police brutality from coastal Georgia, Central Park, Louisville, Minneapolis, and Atlanta coupled with the disproportionately deadly impact of COVID-19 have reminded us of this fact. What we have all witnessed in streets across the United States over the past few weeks, is a collective release of rage against the most cancerous of America’s ills—state and folk violence against African Americans.

Such a project of authentic allyship must address the epistemic violence inherent in our theories, publications, and citation practices.

The racial composition of protesters has been a frequent discussion point as pundits compare the current response to prior social upheavals. The mass mobilization of white Americans during this time has been remarkably noticeable. This ethos is similarly mirrored in the anthropology community, where a barrage of statements against police brutality have been released by institutions, departments, and associations helmed by white anthropologists. The symbolism here, of white Americans who position themselves as allies committed to publically declaring that Black lives do indeed matter, is powerful.

However, in the United States, symbolism is often the hill where substantive change goes to die. If both the United States and anthropology are to meaningfully change in the wake of this revolutionary moment, then both must commit to doing the hard and sustained work at the personal and institutional levels of translating the symbolic into the substantive. For white anthropologists, this will demand a forceful confrontation with white complicity as well as a willingness to work alongside anthropologists of color in reframing the discipline’s modus operandi within the academic arena.

The genocide of Black people that was foundational to the birth of the United States continues to inform the social fabric of contemporary US society. Anthropology carries a similar burden. The historical tethering of the discipline to the biological understanding of race—an unholy alliance of the highest order—effectively allowed it to aid, abet, and legitimize the white supremacist logics of European and American slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. This, however, is not anthropology’s single story. In recognition of and in response to this history, generations of anthropologists have labored to dismantle racism and the problematic racial worldview that their intellectual ancestors created in order to transform anthropology.

And yet, even in light of this, the present moment beckons us even further toward a deeper engagement with the limits and possibilities of truth, reconciliation, and reparation. Specifically, it calls for a decentering of whiteness in order for white anthropologists to grapple with the micro ways in which white complicity maintains racism, not as an historical artefact of anthropology, but as a part of our present. White anthropologists must question who they study, what defines their notion of who belongs within the bounds of our hallowed canon, what analytics constitute their intellectual toolbox, how they structure the architectures of our departments and organizations, where they commit research dollars, indeed, what defines their very notion of what an anthropologist is expected to look like.

The truthful answers to these questions are all reminders that racism inflects the grammar through which anthropology makes itself legible to the world. Moreover, white anthropologists, whether silent or not, are complicit in this system because they are the gatekeepers and intended beneficiaries. It would be disingenuous to be myopic or naive in our diagnosis of the depths of the systemic illness which ails us. When white anthropologists learn to confront the depths of racism within the discipline as well as their complicity in the present tense, then we can begin to make not just statements, but plans of action that envision an anthropology more just and whole for all.

But can anthropology matter if Black lives do not matter to anthropology? Interrogating this urgent and existential question will mean a willingness to rethink not only our public relevance in the world but also our very raison d’être within the academy.

To be sure, a more inclusive anthropology can never come through performative allyship and symbolic statements condemning racism in society while it still stains the halls of academia. Rather, it can only be forged, as Black feminist scholars from Zora Neale Hurston to Faye Harrison to Gina Athena Ulysse have long taught us, in decolonizing the mundane moments, practices, actions, and interactions which constitute the very modus operandi of our discipline. Such a project of authentic allyship must address the epistemic violence inherent in our theories, publications, and citation practices. It will involve ethically reconstructing our syllabi, our undergraduate and graduate pedagogies, and our mentorship behaviors. It must mean advocating for more equitable models of hiring, leadership, and administration.

For anthropologists, these are, in fact, familiar practices and habits. If attention to the everyday is one of the hallmarks of anthropological inquiry, then we must now turn our perceptive eyes inward and fashion ourselves as ethnographic subjects worthy of study. In doing so, we will come to realize what is required if white anthropologists are to commit to not just saying Black Lives Matter, but more importantly, to living Black Lives Matter. Indeed, living Black Lives Matter means acknowledging that the true success of a revolution comes not in the spectacular burning but in the deliberate and conscientious work of crafting a world anew.

As I, a Black female anthropologist from the Caribbean, sit with and within what certainly feels like a precipice in time, I am reminded of our disciplinary declaration in the nation’s capital only three years ago that, “Anthropology Matters!” But can anthropology matter if Black lives do not matter to anthropology? Interrogating this urgent and existential question will mean a willingness to rethink not only our public relevance in the world but also our very raison d’être within the academy. If anthropologists have been historically trained to study what makes us human, then the time has come, as Irma McClaurin recently suggested, for anthropology to rethink the very terms of what it means to be human. Anthropology, in this sense, must now preoccupy itself not just with the human, but with the question of humanity. If white anthropologists are truly invested in substance over symbolism, then they will realize that the discipline is far better positioned than most to addressing the crisis of humanity at home.

Kimberley D. McKinson is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York (CUNY). She is from Jamaica and her research examines urban in/security, material culture, and critical Black historiography in Kingston.

Cite as: McKinson, Kimberley D. 2020. “Dear White Anthropologists, Let Not Symbolism Overshadow Substance.” Anthropology News website, July 2, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1452

Comments

I like this very much. I also think we must expand it to at least include the other original sin of the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere, the theft of much of its land from Native Americans, along with their dispossession, forced relocation, taking of children from their families, suppression of their languages and culture, and many acts of genocide. Those two processes were and are intertwined. Some of the land that was taking from Native Americans was used for slave plantations. Other land was given to white “homesteaders.” Much of it was used for extraction of gold, silver, iron, and other minerals, or for extraction of oil and natural gas, uranium, and coal. Some Native Americans owned African-American slaves. Other Native Americans were enslaved, including in California, the homeland of some of my ancestors. Many Native Americans and African Americans inter-married. I know many people who have that kind of mixed ancestry. I know that there are many more. The Garifuna people have African American and Native American ancestry, and speak a Native American language.

The battle against racism must also include other people who have been invaded or conquered by European colonizers of the Americas, including Pacific Islanders (in Hawai’i, Samoa,Micronesia and “Easter” island (Rapa Nui); the people of the Philippines; East Asians; Southeast Asians; and more). Other than Chile’s occupation of Rapa Nui, this is all the work of the US Empire.

All of this occurred in two continents and in

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