On the Whiteness of Anthropology

On the Whiteness of Anthropology

by Girish Daswani

cover picture: Bronisław Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders, 1918, credit: LSE

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

When studying Sociology as an undergraduate student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) (1995-1999) I was introduced to the work of three seminal thinkers of modern social theory, who are considered to be the founding fathers of Sociology: Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. My teachers at the time, while educating me on the impact of these men’s theories and their applications for an understanding of “modernity”, also emphasized that these theories emerged from a Eurocentric (“a way of seeing and not-seeing that is rooted in a number of problematic claims and assumptions”; Alatas and Sinha 2001) and Androcentric perspective. They reminded us that we should question the applications of these theories in non-Western contexts and remember the historical, gendered, and geographical milieu in which they were constructed. After all, European classical thinkers were usually men who wrote not only about their own societies, but also about the “Orient”, and “we” were representative of this feminized Orient. At the time, my lecturers were already formulating ways to make social theory relevant to their Singaporean students, to decolonize Sociology, and to further reflect on how to reorganize the teaching of social theory in a way that moved beyond “the abstract and reflexive level” acknowledgment of Eurocentrism, as well as its largely American and British contexts (Alatas and Sinha 2001). They asked important questions, such as: Why are non-Western precursors of social thought (e.g. Ibn Khaldun, José Rizal, Benoy Kumar Sarkar) left out of the syllabi? Why are these syllabi not engaging with European colonialism and its impact on how and why do we have to study these “founding fathers” as the sole originators of ideas? They did not intend to replace European thinkers like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Instead, they aimed to critically engage with their work through a decolonizing perspective and to include other, female, and non-Western social thinkers (Alatas and Sinha 2017).

In my honour’s year at NUS, I did fieldwork with “Reiki” practitioners (an energy healing, alternative-health, therapy) and wrote a thesis that drew heavily on the earlier work of Michel Foucault. I caught the research bug, decided to apply to a Master’s program in Social Anthropology and, in 2001, was accepted into the prestigious London School of Economics and Social Science (LSE). There were no grants available for Masters’ students (the “LSE’s cash-cows”, as some called us) and I was taking a financial risk in order to see where this dream might take me. It was there that I was re-educated in the history of British anthropology and on the founders of my new discipline. Names like Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Fortes (amongst others) replaced Marx, Weber, and Durkheim and, to my dismay, Foucault was nowhere to be found. I have to admit that I was unprepared for the vastly different approach social anthropology offered (the “Virgin Birth” debates for example – see Leach 1966) but also excited at the prospect of eventually doing a PhD under the tutelage and supervision of several respected anthropologists. Yet, there was a lack of reflection on the continuing presence of colonialism and little efforts were made to decolonize the curriculum (though I hear that things are changing). If my former teachers in NUS had asked about the paucity of indigenous (i.e. Malay) sources when studying the sociology and colonial history of Singapore, my anthropologist teachers could claim that they were studying “indigenous” people in non-European settings (formerly colonized countries). I found myself in love with the ethnographic method of fieldwork as a way to get to know people over a long period of time (I later learnt that the method too is flawed), but uncomfortable with its whiteness and lack of reflexivity.

Decolonizing Anthropology

Before I carry on, let me first explain what I mean by “Whiteness”. It does not simply imply that the majority of anthropologists are of Euro-American descent. This is not the point and increasingly not the case. And it is not my intention to insinuate that anthropology continues to be a handmaiden of colonialism or unreflective of its past. Instead, I am interested in an ideological position of Whiteness – a class aspiration whose roots are located in an imperial past (that persists in transfigured forms) – and its real institutional effects on anthropology as a discipline today. I am speaking about the lack of any real acknowledgement of the continuing presence of an elite, masculine, and imperial habitus within the discipline, which has been, to varying degrees, internalized by all of us, even non-white anthropologists of different social backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations. It is this remnant of imperialism that allows many anthropologists to think that they do not need to have real conversations about (but simply acknowledge) the presence of indigeneity, race, and misogyny, or the need for more feminist and non-white thinkers in our syllabi.

We somehow share the assumption that, just because we are anthropologists, we have acquired the skill of social critique and of self-criticism. That we have done the colonial analysis and called out “race” as a construct, that we hate what colonialism did, and are in a noble profession. Let’s move on. Let’s get on with our jobs. And yet, we often forget how, in order to become anthropologists, and in order to prove that we are successful at what we do, we, unconsciously or consciously, become that elite, white, male anthropologist that we sometimes publicly critique. It is to this history, embedded in our own aspirations – that includes a history of Whiteness – that we have inherited and largely internalized, that I turn to next.

James Baldwin writes in his essay The White Man’s Guilt:

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Baldwin goes on to explain that it is only with great “pain and terror” that we are able to personally assess and understand this inherited history “which has placed one where one is, and which formed one’s point of view”. For example, the anthropologist who attends the best American universities – “best” because they are recognized for their high-ranking and assumed to better train graduate students to publish in the top three American journals – potentially carries within them a history of an inherited intellectual prestige and a center-periphery relation with other universities. Baldwin claims that one can fight and struggle with this history in order to achieve “personal maturity.” But how many of us are willing to experience pain or even discomfort in order to “rob history of its tyrannical power”? Baldwin writes:

“On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”

Decolonizing anthropology also means decolonizing our minds (from the flattery that a certain history of anthropology provides). This process is also about the ongoing imperialistic powers that some prestigious universities (and anthropologists) in North America and Europe have, in their assumed self-importance, as well as in their ability to produce the “best” work and the “best” anthropologists, who tend to be systematically preferred during job searches. It means that we have to look beyond the imperial (American) or colonial (British) brand and recognize the true value of a diversity in opinions, methodological approaches, forms of knowledge production, and citational practices. We have to look past the anthropologist with an inherited tradition and ambition to be the best (and inevitably exclude others), and seek out those with a willingness to work well with others and with a generosity to share (recognition and ideas) in a more inclusive environment. Then, perhaps, which university you come from would matter less than what you are willing to bring to a community of peers and students.

A lack of self-reflection on the part of tenured anthropologists (those who put their heads down and aim to simply start the next project or write the next article or book), is part of the problem, and an important reason why decolonizing anthropology is not easy. One can, rightfully, say that another major part of the problem lies in the neoliberal university and the institutional barriers that keep it from truly creating (not just acknowledging) a meaningful diversity, and from engaging in the practice of decolonization. This is why Tania Murray Li‘s new collaborative research project Discovering University Worlds, which will study the university as an employer, a site of education, an investor, and a place for “diversity”, is an important step in the right direction. Yet, we often use, explicitely or not, our ambition to achieve “success” or continue to receive recognition in our field, to justify our lack of engagement with such questions. Not everyone has to play the same role or participate equally, but to ask and articulate these questions – because we’re angry when injustice happens, when we see our colleagues in precarious positions, when we see anthropologists behave badly, when we see barriers for graduates from Canadian universities or anthropologists from non-hegemonic universities – should become common practice for us all.

Rather than academic competition, or the desire to make anthropology great again, we need to rekindle our desire to nurture one other. We need to educate ourselves, help empower others, and not criticize them for expressing their anger. As Audra Lorde (1979: 19) famously wrote “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, and neither will they ever bring about genuine change. “And this fact is only threatening to those… who still define the master’s house as their only source of support”. To ask difficult questions, to allow them to become uncomfortable and potentially bring pain, is a good first step. The anger on social media around controversial events and topics in anthropology is one (though not the only) way to deal with that pain, and it must be recognized as a legitimate response. As Lorde also wrote:

“Anger is loaded with information and energy… We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty”.

Anger (in comparison to hatred) is, according to Lorde, “a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change”. Is the anger of junior, untenured, unemployed anthropologists more threatening than the claims of disempowerment and experiences of dis-belonging that potentially affect us all? This anger is not what truly threatens us as anthropologists. Instead, it is “our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment” (Lorde 1981).

A Contrapuntal Anthropology

I want to conclude this piece with a view from a contrapuntal anthropology. In his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said suggested that if we look at a novel contrapuntally, we are able to consider and interpret its intertwined histories and perspectives (of the colonizer and the colonized, the accused and the accuser). Borrowed from music, where it refers to the relationship between styles or themes, Said, intrigued by Bach’s multiple musical voices in counterpoint, used “contrapuntal” to refer to the relationships between narratives set in metropolitan centres and the colonies upon which the European powers depended for their wealth. Said’s “contrapuntal” analysis pointed to a multiplicity of coinciding voices that, in forming an atonality that lacked a center or a stark binary, considered a non-hierarchical order and the autonomy of the individual subject. This act of listening to the melody in life is what I call a contrapuntal anthropology, and its “atonality” serves as a reminder of an anthropological homelessness (the impossibility of return to a secure home) – or that the home of anthropology has radically altered – that is vital to its ability to be a force of social critique in the world. A contrapuntal perspective is, according to Victor Li, “less about the ease of accepting or accommodating differences than about exposing and challenging differential access to power” (forthcoming “Globalorientalization: Globalization through the Lense of Edward Said’s Orientalism“, ARIEL).

It is not lost on me that I am a child of colonialism and that this feeling of being unsettled is personal to me and my biography. My grandparents’ and parents’ generation lost their homes due to British colonial intervention and they continue to remain a diaspora and a minority in the countries they have since chosen to settle in. I have grown up in and continue to live and work in places that were colonized by – or the ruling centre of – the British empire. Yet, this feeling of living on the margins of identity has also been an opportunity, and it has become a way of doing anthropology for me. I have realized that being disconnected from the centralizing authorities of home has allowed me to connect with people and to question any real sense of stability (and flattery) that anthropology as a vocation may afford.

This feeling of being unsettled, of living in the margins, is the strength of a contrapuntal anthropology that aims to study people but that can simultaneously take enough distance from itself in order to reflect on and judge itself. This is the only way anthropologists can start to decolonize and take stock of how they treat people (sometimes unfairly) and how they start the difficult conversation of truly acknowledging the presence of others. It is not simply by getting rid of the past (our ancestors) that we can move forward. The past and its figures of authority should be read and acknowledged. However, with a decolonizing mind. Even as we acknowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, let us not forget the intentional or unintentional carnage, loss of life, and disregard for others that takes place when these giants are making their way through the thicket, nor how something resembling truth may be found in the margins rather than from the heights of our achievements.

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto


One thought on “On the Whiteness of Anthropology

  1. I am a University Guidance Counsellor in the Global South. The thoughts you share are pivotal for people especially in my field to not just recognise, but really challenge what is being perpetuated because its easy ‘money’. ‘Higher Education’ and ‘International Education’ have swept away freedom of choice to think and learn in multiple contexts with the hegemony and allowance of continued hegemony of the the United States and Britain Anthropology of Education. The perceived ‘Faces of Success’. Thank you for this! “Decolonizing anthropology also means decolonizing our minds (from the flattery that a certain history of anthropology provides). This process is also about the ongoing imperialistic powers that some prestigious universities (and anthropologists) in North America and Europe have, in their assumed self-importance, as well as in their ability to produce the “best” work and the “best” anthropologists, who tend to be systematically preferred during job searches. It means that we have to look beyond the imperial (American) or colonial (British) brand”


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