Decolonizing Everyday Praxis/Space → Decolonizing Anthropology

(Note: This essay is a revised version of my brief statement at a workshop on decolonizing anthropology at my institution, where I as a graduate student panelist was asked to share my reflections on diversity and inclusion in anthropology.)

I began my advocacy work for anthropology students of color in 2015 through online publications and a collaboration with a fellow graduate student. It was born out of the frustration with the state of U.S. anthropology, where while anthropology claims its premise to be promoting diversity and equity, its colonially informed methodology and theorization permeates through daily operations of anthropological institutions, including graduate training. My work was a small endeavor on the local level at first. But since it became my dissertation project, I have had the privilege to be connected with many marginalized anthropologists across the country, many of whom are graduate students working hard to mobilize their own advocacy efforts at their institutions. They are from quite diverse backgrounds and identify themselves as, for example, ‘child of refugee immigrants,’ ‘Afro-Latina,’ ‘queer Asian American,’ ‘Indigenous woman,’ ‘brown international,’ ‘biracial Black woman,’ and so forth. As I listen to their mini-life stories about their student careers in anthropology, I am increasingly alarmed by how many of their painful experiences of graduate training are not just from single identifiable instances of blatant discrimination. They are rather from personal interactions with White (Anglophone) anthropology professors and students in a hallway, in a meeting, in a classroom, at departmental events, in conference sessions, and even on social media. Such incidents mostly occur out of the public eye, unreported and unnoticed as if they never happened. These anthropologist colleagues are indeed putting a lot of efforts into implementing policies for diversity, decolonizing syllabi, and increasing the number of students and faculty from underrepresented minority categories. But everyday hurtful incidents (including silence) that are seemingly inconsequential – which have been characterized as “microaggression” (Pierce1970) and “racial gaslighting” (Davis and Ernst 2017) – and the cumulative impacts of these incidents really take the center stage in the stories shared by my colleagues. Their stories are not ‘complaints,’ if anyone can recall Sara Ahmed’s work on “complaint as diversity work” (2017). Rather, these stories are ethnographic accounts that say something about ineffectiveness of institutionalized ‘diversity’ apparatuses for decolonializing anthropology. These stories are signaling the importance of equitable everyday practices that are sensitive to power relations in the academic hierarchy. To regard their stories as ‘complaints’ and dismiss them is to look away from “micro-contexts of local power” (Kleinman 2000). It misrecognizes how local contexts enable normalization of continuously unpunished violence situated in the larger structural inequity.

Several weeks ago, I was asked by a white anthropologist how to have an institutional, collective discussion about racial/gender gaslighting behaviors without the receivers of such behaviors getting emotionally triggered. I responded it is critical to recognize that a list of hurtful behaviors as a pedagogical tool does not always prevent such behaviors in reality because the offenders require everyday mindfulness; they require someone who can catch their injurious behaviors in that precise moment on a daily basis. And I suggested that our focus be broadened to create an environment where the marginalized can rightfully point out the hurtful behaviors without the fear of being vilified and labeled as angry, divisive, and unprofessional.

But how do we collectively cultivate that kind of environment? When I started my advocacy work, I fell short of delving into this question. I needed a safe space for myself, so that I could openly express my frustration with the system of white supremacy, without having to face someone who gets angry with me or deploys the power of silence to ignore me. And I thought that was all we needed – just an underground safe space. But then I finally started to look up and around, noticing that there are “accomplices” (Gomberg-Muñoz 2018), rather than performative allies, for solidarity building against the system of white supremacy. I have had productive, albeit sometimes contentious, conversations with these accomplices. And all the discussions with them and my colleagues of color have taught me the importance of making a robust collective commitment to rigorous conversations about political ‘positionality’ while also recognizing the importance of identity politics. I am purposefully and carefully not using the term ‘relatability’ here, because the sense of relatedness is different from ‘positionality,’ which signifies political commitment to equity and critical self-reflexivity. People with more privileges may feel related to one aspect of struggles of the marginalized, but that feeling is not good enough to become accomplices as long as they are unwilling to risk their privileges. We need a political kinship where we can discuss what it takes to practice decolonial positionality and how to craft and translate decolonial policies into every day actions, even if it is painfully apparent that we cannot fix the unjust system tomorrow or next week. If we all can agree that we take the positionality of anti-neoliberal ideology, then we should be able to not only recognize the absurdly complex U.S. academic system but also envision what that feels like to navigate through so many unknowns for students with financial scarcity, first-gen students, and students coming directly from other countries. If we all can agree that we take the positionality of anti-American exceptionalism, anti-sexism, and anti-white supremacism, we can cultivate a safe environment for the marginalized and transform our anthropology departments and organizations into a decolonial space.

Decolonization is not a synonym of diversity/inclusion (see Gabriel 2018; Tuck and Yang 2012). Cultivating a decolonial space is a process that begins with privileging silenced voices to interrogate how unjust structures have been (re)produced by and within them. We have to do better every time and every day. Just because we did better one time, that doesn’t mean we accomplished it. We just have to do better all the time. And that involves decolonial policies, curriculum, syllabi, mentorship, communications, everyday operations of our departments and professional organizations, and our everyday practices. Equitable anthropology graduate training is not only the necessary praxis of anthropology’s fundamental principle of promoting diversity and equity within anthropological institutions, but it is also the future of anthropology to rectify its colonial history through decolonial methodology and theorization, and contribute to justice and equity in the larger society.

References Cited

Ahmed, Sara. 2017 Complaint as Diversity Work. feministkilljoy, accessed on April 12, 2019.

Davis, Angelique M., and Rose Ernst. 2017 Racial Gaslighting. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 1-14.

Gebrial, Dalia. 2018 Rhodes Must Fall: Oxford and Movements for Change. In Decolonizing the University. G.K. Bhambra, D. Gebrial, and K. Nişancıoğlu, eds. Pp.19-36. London: Pluto Press.

Gomberg‐Muñoz, Ruth. 2018 The Complicit Anthropologist. Journal for the Anthropology of North America 21(1):36-37.

Kleinman, Arthur. 2000 The Violences of Everyday Life: The Multiple Forms and Dynamics of Social Violence. In Violence and Subjectivity. V. Das, A. Kleinman, P. Ramphele, and P. Reynolds, eds. Pp. 226-241. Berkeley and L.A., CA: University of California Press.

Pierce, Chester. 1970 Offensive Mechanisms. In The Black Seventies. Floyd B. Barhour, ed. Pp.265-283. Boston, MA: Porter Sargent Publisher.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012 Decolonizing is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1):1-40.

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