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Because anthropology originated in 19th-century European empire-building, it can be accused of Eurocentrism, colonialism, and racism. Some anthropologists have been so receptive to such indictments that they make their career out of deconstructing earlier schools of thought. Recently, so many postcolonial and decolonial theorists have scaled the heights of the profession that they have become the new establishment.
I joined the anthropological tumult in the 1970s. Our competing explanatory paradigms — symbolic, structural, ecological — are part of our strength. Time and again, I have dismissed some school of thought only to later learn something important from it. No matter how many intellectual sins I have seen committed, and how many errors I have seen embraced by the field’s generous ecumenicism, I have always assumed that evidence will prevail.
I am no longer certain of that. One bad sign is a recent farewell address by the departing president of the American Anthropological Association. The occasion was the 2021 annual meeting, held in the Baltimore Convention Center. The gigantic space dwarfed the small number of attendees who braved Covid, rejected Zoom, and showed up in person. Amid the gloom, our departing president, Akhil Gupta, issued an “AAA Apology to the Indigenous Community.” Speaking for the association, he apologized for “anthropology’s exploitation of Indigenous communities, identities, and cultures, and the harms caused by our extractive research.” There was no reference to how anthropologists also have supported indigenous communities, identities, and cultures.
Then, in his presidential address, Gupta called for a racial reckoning to decolonize U.S. anthropology. Even though anthropology has long positioned itself against racism and colonialism, he said, it has never stopped enacting “normative whiteness.” Only demanding accountability for past wrongs, atonement, and a radical change of direction will satisfy the grievances of young anthropologists.
Last but not least were accusations of racism from two of Gupta’s discussants. Lee Baker characterized Franz Boas (1858-1942), the founder of American anthropology, as a racist and eugenicist because he shared the widespread assimilationism of his time. Shannon Speed accused Boasian salvage ethnography — basically, tracking down survivors of shattered cultures and milking them for information — of reproducing “the racist logic of settler dispossession” and “the structuring logic of white supremacy.”
In some parts of the field, this kind of talk has become so common that maybe I should have shrugged. But I did not expect to hear it from the top echelon of the AAA. One surprise was the assumption, by both Gupta and his discussants, that anthropologists can be reduced to their racial identity — in a field where our proudest accomplishment was to expose racial classification as junk science. Another surprise was Gupta’s presentist litany: “After Ferguson, after Standing Rock, after the Black Lives Matter protests, after the crisis of refugees at the U.S. southern border” — as if contemporary politics should provide anthropology’s moral compass.
Last fall Gupta and a co-author, Jesse Stoolman, published a more cautiously phrased version of the address, “Decolonizing U.S. Anthropology,” in American Anthropologist. I thank them and their discussants for informing AAA members of a fundamental shift in the association’s agenda and editorial boards. For the people who now run the AAA, the purpose of anthropology is no longer to serve as a big tent for everyone who is attracted to it. Instead, our purpose is to deepen our commitment to anti-racism and decolonization. That many members of the association have failed to grasp this moral imperative is why we face a reckoning.
I was also surprised by Gupta and Stoolman’s apparent assumption that — all? most? many? — anthropologists under their umbrella term BILPOC (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, People of Color) agree that white-norming is the fundamental problem facing anthropology. Updating terminology does not avoid the pitfalls of racial classification. Even when the goal is to fight racism, racial classification always risks becoming fetish or mask for the local distribution of trust, of who belongs and who does not.
Calls for solidarity might seem to engage anthropology in the great human disasters of our time. But they also can disengage us.
In the case of BILPOC, for instance, why should Chinese and Native Americans view themselves as belonging to the same category? Doesn’t this new racial category regenerate the same old stereotype that people who share a skin tone — or in this case, any skin tone other than white — share an outlook? Why should we believe that upper-class immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America represent an American underclass?
Against anthropology’s own best traditions, Gupta and Stoolman believe that BILPOC anthropologists are a coherent coalition, so they expect anthropology’s new moral compass to become BILPOC opposition to white-norming. But if racial identity is the crucial determinant of who has the right to remake anthropology, the implication is identity-first argumentation, in which who we claim to be counts for more than our evidence, and contrary evidence can be dismissed as racist.
That is the racial truth-standard hiding behind Gupta and Stoolman’s invocation of Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, Standing Rock, settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, structural violence, reparations, and so on. Each of these terms, once brought into a political arena and turned into a slogan, poses a test. Are you joining the struggle against settler colonialism? Are you an ally of asylum seekers at the southern border? Do you agree that the time has come for racial reparations? If the answer is no, you flunk the loyalty test.
Calls for solidarity might seem to engage anthropology in the great human disasters of our time. But they also can disengage us. Solidarity demands a priori commitments to particular interest groups who ignore circumstances that complicate their agenda and who claim to be more representative than they actually are. What makes anthropology so valuable is our ability to evaluate such claims through immersive research with local intellectuals and other actors. The only way to obtain this local knowledge is through fieldwork, and fieldwork requires openness to data that undermines pre-existing agendas.
Responses to Gupta, et al., have also been published by American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Sapiens, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. However, nobody has challenged Gupta’s reliance on racial classification, nor has anyone pointed out a disturbing implication of his appeals to the left. In a professional association, political slogans can quickly become loyalty tests, determining who does and does not belong. One advantage of couching your argument in terms of anti-racism is the implication that people who disagree with you are, consciously or unconsciously, apologists for racism. Ditto for couching your argument in terms of decolonization. How many anthropologists want to be seen as defending white privilege?
Since the 1990s this kind of argument has stifled debate and become a weakness in the critical theory on which Gupta and his discussants draw. When anthropologists turn their research into manifestoes, when they claim to represent the wretched of the earth, who is going to tell them that their argument is unconvincing? Judging from what I have seen published in AAA journals, not enough AAA peer reviewers have been willing to deliver the bad news.
Figuring out what holds anthropology together has never been easy. Our topics are so varied, our subfields so numerous, that debates can quickly degenerate into sloganeering, which then becomes an excuse for ignoring evidence. Once anti-racism and decolonization become political slogans, they too can become rationales for ignoring evidence. As Nicolas Langlitz has argued in these pages, AAA declarations have become so moralistic that they ignore all the dissenting, debating, and dreaming that has made anthropology a garden of new ideas.
Unfortunately, collaborative research on political controversies can be very risky for interlocutors who live under lawless regimes. Even the prior task of figuring out exactly who merits collaboration is no small problem. In my own research on evangelical growth in Latin America, I could have framed my questions as an ally of liberation theology — but that would have made it harder to ask why liberation theology failed to attract as many Latin Americans as Pentecostalism. In my research on the Guatemalan civil war, I could have framed my questions as an ally of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor — but that would have made it harder to ask why it lost the support of the people it claimed to represent.
Even groups that seem like obvious research partners may not be. Among Native Americans, joint research with a tribal government could require ignoring opponents who accuse it of nepotism. In my research on Guatemalan migration to the U.S., I learned that asylum seekers often mortgage family property to pay human smugglers. Some use their own small children to create a legal pathway, and some borrow under-age minors and falsify identification, increasing the potential for human trafficking. Do my failures to serve the agenda of migrants and my warnings about how they can become involved in human trafficking mean that my research is noncollaborative? Have I been silencing the voices of marginalized people and perpetrating colonial structures of domination?
Anthropology has opened up more conversations than can be accommodated by the frame of U.S. anti-racism, or even the seemingly wider frame of decolonization. Andrew Gardner spells out why in his critique of “imperial diversity,” an ideological prism that assumes:
- Ethnicity is a façade for race.
- Constitutional democracy is sufficiently strong to reallocate rights and entitlements.
- Citizenship can be extended to anyone in the world.
- Blackness is an infallible marker of oppression.
Gardner’s question (and mine) is: How applicable are these assumptions beyond former colonial metropoles? In sub-Saharan Africa, race is less a divider than are ethnicity and gender. In the Mideast the most obvious dividers are dictatorship, Islamic fundamentalism, and Sunni/Shia strife. And so on.
In the racialist terms employed by Gupta, Stoolman, and their discussants, the call to decolonize anthropology sounds as distinctively American as the Statue of Liberty. If even anthropologists must reinterpret everything we find in terms of U.S. anti-racism, who else will point out how poorly this paradigm illuminates the rest of the world? Let us not trap ourselves into yet another racial echo chamber.