Guest Post: Feeling like “Colored Me” and the Inequities in the Intellectual Formation of Anthropologists [Embodying Reciprocity Series]

[Footnotes is excited to present a guest post by Louis Philippe Römer. This post is a part of the Embodying Reciprocity series. Louis Philippe Römer is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College, where he has taught courses in Anthropology, Africana Studies, and Urban Studies since 2016. Professor Römer holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from New York University. His current research focuses on race & class, language, politics, and media in the Caribbean and the Atlantic World. On Twitter: @lromeranth. Please cite accordingly.]

“I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel the most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background. For instance, at Barnard. “Beside the waters of the Hudson” I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.”

—Zora Neale Hurston (1928)

When I descended into the convention center in Minneapolis, MN for the American Anthropological Association Meeting in November 2016, the air was cold and dry, and the people roaming through the oversized hallways looked shell-shocked. For many people I encountered, the unthinkable had happened. Donald Trump had been elected. I would like to say that I was surprised too, but I was not. The whole run-up to the election had already given me a queasy sense of deja-vu. My graduate work and ethnographic research up to that point—on political talk radio, elections, populist backlash against neoliberalism, as well as the longue durée of racism and imperialism that casts a long shadow on all those aforementioned things— had prepared me for the moment that Donald Trump would be elected. On that 2016 November morning, however, something happened that my graduate training and academic trajectory did not prepare me for: my conference presentation about political talk radio and populism in the Caribbean was met with enthusiasm—and even with invitations to contribute to publications. I was so unprepared for this enthusiastic response that it left me inarticulate, unsettled, unsure of how to respond. After all the work that I had done to develop theoretical frames and narratives to show the ways that my research contributed to anthropology, and was relevant to its current theoretical debates, it had taken something entirely out of my control—the election of Donald Trump on a platform of racial revanchism—for the soi-disant progressive community of anthropologists to understand why this research was relevant to them.

This might seem like a strange thing for me to say: how could I both be prepared, and not prepared, at the same time? How could it be that the factors that finally made my work legible had so little to do with my own preparation, and much more with the vicissitudes of politics and the public sphere? To address these questions, I want to return to that moment in the Minneapolis convention center. Engaging primarily with the thought of Zora Neale Hurston in “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928) I want to use the experience of that moment in Minneapolis to shed light on the ways that enduring asymmetries still manifest in academic preparation and graduate education, but also to illuminate pathways toward greater equity and reciprocity in relationships within academia and beyond.

Up until 2016, anthropology conferences like the AAA Annual Meeting were spaces that most closely resembled the condition that Zora Neale Hurston described as the feeling of being “colored me” (1928). This feeling comes up in social situations when you are singled out as a racialized, othered subject, or when your status as a racialized, ethnic other is made into the most salient, essential thing about you; one paradigmatic example of the phenomenon is the racial interpellation scenario that Franz Fanon described in Black Skins, White Masks, where Fanon recalls being hailed as a mere “black” when a child pointed at him while yelling to his mother: “Look: A Negro!” (1967). Hurston sensed the feeling of being “colored me” most acutely at Barnard College, where she was trained in anthropology. In my case, I sensed the feeling of being “colored me” when I entered academic situations where I was asked to defend the contributions and value my work. Encounters in my early days in graduate school, with senior scholars and with other graduate students, where I was told that I could never be a “real” anthropologist because I was a “native” studying “my own” community, cast a long shadow over my entire trajectory toward my PhD. Over the course of many years, I had learned to expect that I would have to push back against the expectations that I, as an Afro-Caribbean “native” doing fieldwork “at home” had only “particularistic” and “subjective” things to say. In academic spaces, “the feeling of being colored me” came up when asked to defend why my work as a “native” doing fieldwork ‘at home’ is “anthropological.” All of these acts to defend myself call to attention my Otherness, my deviation from the default situation of a white anthropologist contemplating the ‘savage slot’ usually occupied by black and indigenous folks (Trouillot 2003). None of these observations are new or particular to me, of course; very similar experiences have been reported by past and current generations of anthropologists of color. Black feminist anthropologists have been at the forefront of identifying and addressing these long-standing inequities (Harrison 1997; Navarro, Williams & Ahmad 2013; Navarro 2017; Smith 2017; de Jesus and Pierre 2020).

Over time, these experiences of others drawing attention to my racial identity and my positionality within academic spaces began to affect my intellectual formation. The feeling of being “colored me” accrued and compelled me to cultivate an intellectual “double consciousness” (Dubois 1903; see also Harrison 1997); drawing on past experiences of dismissal and trivialization, I acquired the ability to evaluate myself from the perspective of those who saw me and thought: “Look—a Black anthropologist doing fieldwork ‘at home!’ I deployed this double consciousness to my advantage, so I could anticipate and preempt those dismissals, and so that my work could get a chance at being engaged with. On top of the methodology and theory that I needed to master to conduct my own research, the experience of having to rebuff these attacks on my credibility had made me conversant in a broad range of theoretical debates across multiple disciplines. I became adept at re-framing my arguments and positioning my research and its contributions within multiple frameworks and debates. I read voraciously to track trending concepts and discourses.

All of that extra work, I did so that I could preempt all the conscious and unconscious perceptions and expectations that are then projected onto my work because of my identity. I admit, like Zora, that it was thrilling to know that in the academic arena any act of mine could get “twice the praise or twice the blame.” I was too busy sharpening my analytical “oyster knife” to feel down about any of the extra preparation I felt that I had to do. The socialization into established academic norms and practices, the many times I was made to “feel like being colored me” along the way, and the extra intellectual work I did to preempt dismissal and disregard, left behind a double consciousness as a watermark.

However, I do want to emphasize that this extra work—despite my enjoyment of it—still is a burden that my peers, who more comfortably fit the standard mold of the white anthropologist contemplating the “savage slot,” did not have to bear. In the end, none of my pre-emptive measures, none of my exertion, had worked to make my work legible as well as Donald Trump did.

I see what happened in that moment in 2016, when my research shifted from being dismissed as irrelevant to regarded as significant, as less indicative of my own development as a scholar and more indicative of a broader shift in the conditions that make engagement with my work possible. This sudden shift is no cause for celebration, because it throws into even bolder relief the inequities engendered by established academic norms and practices. At the same time, it also opens up a path toward fashioning an academic practice that more fully embodies reciprocity. Such efforts would have to attend to “the feeling of being colored me” that Zora Neale Hurston articulated so concisely decades ago, and to the double consciousness that is left behind as a result. The socialization of reciprocity involves “a give and take” (Schieffelin 1990), and the work of fashioning more equitable, collaborative relations in academia should also be equally distributed. I look forward to seeing where others will take the knowledge and experience that I have shared here.

Works Cited

Dubois, W.E.B. 1903. The Souls of Blackfolk. New York: Dover Publications.

Fanon, Frantz 1967. Black Skins White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Harrison, Faye V. 1997. “Ethnography as Politics.” In Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. 2 edition. Arlington, Va: American Anthropological Association.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1928. “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” The World Tomorrow.

Jesús, Aisha M. Beliso-De, and Jemima Pierre. 2020. “Special Section: Anthropology of White Supremacy.” American Anthropologist 122 (1): 65–75. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13351.

Navarro, Tami. 2017. “But Some of Us Are Broke: Race, Gender, and the Neoliberalization of the Academy.” American Anthropologist 119 (3): 506–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.12888.

Navarro, Tami, Bianca Williams, And Attiya Ahmad. 2013. “Sitting at The Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (3): 443–63. https://doi.org/10.1111/cuan.12013.

Schieffelin, Bambi. 1990. The Give and Take of Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Smith, Christen. 2017 “Our Praxis.” https://www.citeblackwomencollective.org/our-praxis.html

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.” In Global Transformations, 7–28. Santa Fe: Palgrave Macmillan US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-137-04144-9_2.

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