The (Im)Possibility of Decolonizing Anthropology

The (Im)Possibility of Decolonizing Anthropology

by Girish Daswani

This is a cross-post with CLEAR

As a discipline that studies people – their social systems, cultures, and power dynamics – Anthropology’s powers of observation and scales of analysis allow it to speak with authority about social institutions and the unequal relationships that emerge from the practice of fieldwork and ethnographic writing. In this post, I want to make the argument that Anthropology’s superpower is also its main weakness. In being trained to look at the Other, the Other in themselves/ themselves in Others, anthropologists often overlook their own intersectional positionalities. I argue that the categories that anthropologists take to be intrinsic to who they are and the work they do are part of value hierarchies that influence how knowledge is produced, shared, and disseminated. I ask why this is the case and why should we pay attention to the advice that “decolonization is not a metaphor” (Tuck and Yang 2012). When it comes to “decolonizing” Anthropology, diversity or decolonial initiatives often change very little or nothing at all. I suggest that anthropology is currently facing the dilemma of situating itself as a discipline that allows for the possibility of decolonial approaches while being unable to truly decolonize. 

Willful Indifference

When do years of training, in studying and writing about the Other, the Other in ourselves/ourselves in Others, become a “willful indifference” to others amongst our own ranks? This was a question posed to me (in slightly different words) by a non-White anthropologist. They certainly used the term “willful indifference” to refer to their colleagues who witnessed the racism, the sexism, and the classism, exacted at them but who did little to stop it from happening and only later, simply made excuses for people’s bad behavior. This is an individual’s story and, yet it is also not an individual story (Ahmed 2021). When does recognition (of other races, genders, sexual orientations) become misrecognition (of an identity, a category or a type of person)? How do we appreciate the relations we have as anthropologists, as colleagues, as mentors and teachers already embedded in power relations and patronage systems, while refusing to participate in a hierarchical and classificatory system called anthropology? How do we understand the inactions of anthropologists who would rather not engage with the violence of racism, sexism, and ableism in the world, or in their own departments, but who expertly lecture about Race, Sex/Gender, Virtue Ethics, and the Body?

This post is not a lecture – in that I am not here to lecture you about what to do or how to do it. Instead, I want to ask a few sincere questions. I want to share my own observations and experiences as an anthropologist who has started thinking about my own intellectual and aspirational Whiteness, my training in anthropology, and my process of unpacking what colonialism and words like decolonization mean or do (and do not mean or do). My own process of (un)learning started around 2017 when I was Chair of the Diversity and Decolonization Committee in my department at UofT, a position I filled until 2019. I have since watched anthropologists respond to initiatives such as “diversifying” the department, “decolonizing the syllabus” and even taking “decolonial approaches” seriously in their own work. But what does it mean to decolonize anthropology? Personally, in the beginning, I have had to acknowledge how little I knew and have had to (un)/learn from others what decolonialization meant in different contexts – learning from students and colleagues, mainly women, and from Black and Indigenous voices. I have had to reflect on my own assumptions of what we do as anthropologists and how we possibly can do better.

Picture Katherine Blouin

Let me first acknowledge that anthropologists have been concerned about the discipline’s relationship to colonialism and imperialism – so, this is not something new – and anthropologists have suggested theoretical and methodological alternatives (e.g. contributing to the political struggles of the oppressed) in different “critical turns” (1968 forum in Current Anthropology with articles by Gerald Berreman, Kathleen Gough, and Gutorm Gjessing; 1972 Reinventing Anthropology edited by Dell Hymes, 1973 Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter by Talal Asad; 1986 Writing Culture edited by George Marcus and James Clifford; more recently Zoe Todd has notably written here, here and here on the topic of anthropology’s decolonial turn). Yet, these “critical turns” either lose steam or are not used as catalysts for change as they were intended (see Pandian 2019). With each critical and reflexive turn, anthropologists seem to return to a comfortable place of [liberal] complacency (Jobson 2020) – we have acknowledged colonialism and imperialism, so let’s move on.

Let me start by addressing the categories that anthropologists take to be intrinsic to who they are and the work they do. I have three that I’d like to unpack with you: Whiteness, Location and Decolonization. Let us start with Whiteness – the Whiteness of Anthropology.

Whiteness

There is the general perception of the anthropologist as White and Male. But by Whiteness, I do not mean the color of one’s skin or a European-American identity based on race or nationality. By Whiteness, I am referring to a shifting and an internalized system of prestige, status, and class that has emerged from a colonial and imperial presence within anthropology and academia. I am interested in an ideological position of Whiteness – a class aspiration whose roots are in an imperial project that persists in transfigured forms and that has real institutional effects on the university and anthropology as a discipline. Whiteness is a political and existential reality inhabited and internalized by all of us through a recursive colonial history and through specific geo-political centers of gravity. And by all of us, I include non-white anthropologists. Whiteness is aspirational, it is connected to social class, status, and reproduced in elite institutions – which is why we are all implicated and why we need to focus on intersectionality. Social class, gender, race, sexual orientation as well as one’s educational trajectory, where one grows up, and one’s relationship to the places and people where one lives and works (to the Land/land) matter. I will return to intersectionality later, but for now let us say that to focus merely on “race” or the color of one’s skin is to appropriate a colonial lens through which to diagnose or understand diversity – and that one’s multiple selves, commitments, and relations, which are usually hidden to the naked eye, matter. Our intersectional positionalities as well as how we treat people become important when situating ourselves as anthropologists. Another category of importance is Location.

Location

Anthropologists are known (for better or for worse) to conduct their research in non-Western societies, cultures, and countries that allow for further conversations or comparisons of sameness and/or difference. When an anthropologist chooses to study their own community, they are called “indigenous anthropologists” and deemed less worthy of acknowledgement. When an anthropologist decides to work in communities in Europe or North America (with interlocutors who identify as White and not immigrants or refugees), they are not valued as much. Take for example what a senior anthropologist said to me when I asked why a colleague who was well-published could not get a job in anthropology. His response was – which seemed obvious to him but not to me at the time – that this colleague did fieldwork in the US and that they did not meet the geographical needs of many anthropology departments. What does that say about anthropology – about us? What of other anthropologists who made the US their field site and who hardly received the recognition they deserved for their work on race and an anti-racist anthropology. I’m thinking about anthropologists like Allison Davis and St. Clair Drake, contemporaries of Boas’s students who “were publishing politically and economically-informed analyses of Black America and of African American cultural communities” (Interview with Karen Brodkin 2014). I am thinking of Diane Lewis, William Willis, and Charles Valentine, who focused on the struggles of the racially oppressed. On the other side of the location conundrum are scholars who are institutionally based outside of North America, on the African continent for example, where funding networks and opportunities for collaboration and publication are fewer. Also, what is our relationship to the lands we are on – on which we work and live? How are our locations (in universities in Europe, UK, or North America) contributing to a form of re-colonization through the kinds of knowledge that we reproduce and the ways this is disseminated and filtered through specific conferences, journals, and their gatekeepers? How is the location from which we write a part of an ongoing culture of domination and colonialism? The next category I want to turn to is Decolonization.

Decolonization

We still need to ask ourselves several questions about decolonization. What are we decolonizing from or to? Are we using a definition that seriously considers land relations (Liboiron 2021: 26)? Are we practising an “extractivist mindset” (Leanne Simpson 2013) or a soft colonialism even as we claim to be decolonizing – extracting knowledge and assimilating it into this thing called “ethnography” or “anthropology”? Max Liboiron (2021) astutely reminds us: “Colonialism at its core, is about non-Indigenous access to Indigenous land, knowledge, and life for the goals of non-Indigenous, including when those goals are benevolent”. So, even if anthropology’s goals are perceived as “benevolent,” how are we still contributing to the intellectual and physical extraction of the people we study? Given colonialism is an ongoing process, how are we participating in a structural colonialism? Ann Stoler (2016: 345) points out that “to posit a colonial presence” is not to speak about leftovers or legacies of another time/place and neither is it “to suggest that the contemporary world can be accounted for by colonial histories alone. It is rather to understand how that presence – especially when effaced – yields new damages and renewed disparities”. Now, let us move to what decolonization might mean in settler-colonial states like the US, Canada, Israel, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand. How is it different from other civil and human rights-based social justice movements or the moves to “decolonize” commonly seen in universities around the world? Let me briefly quote an article by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang “Decolonization of not a metaphor” (2012: 1-3):

“Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.”

“It is not uncommon to hear speakers refer, almost casually, to the need to “decolonize our schools,” or use “decolonizing methods,” or “decolonize student thinking”. Yet, we have observed a startling number of these discussions make no mention of Indigenous peoples, our/their struggles for the recognition of our/their sovereignty, or the contributions of Indigenous intellectuals and activists to theories and frameworks of decolonization”.

Tuck and Yang (2012) argue that projects that call for decolonization often mean something else than what Indigenous peoples are doing or asking for. That decolonization is distinct from recognition (Coulthard 2014) and when used in the context of governments or institutions like universities, it can problematically seek to reconcile settler guilt and complicity. It is a way to say: “let’s move on” without really doing anything at all. We need to acknowledge the assimilative power of these institutional discourses around “decolonization” – as performances that aim to do little or nothing to change the structures that exclude and that alienate (Ahmed 2014; 2021). That most of what institutions and universities in North America (US and Canada) do is not decolonial – it is not about the rematriation of Life and Land. Neither is it about the “abolition of slavery in its contemporary forms” or about “the dismantling of the imperial metropole” (Tuck and Yang 2012: 3). And that “[a]ppropriating terms of Indigenous survivance and resurgence, like decolonization, is colonial” (Liboiron 2021: 26).

We should stop calling what we do in anthropology departments in Canada, the US, and other settler-colonial states “decolonization,” especially since “colonial Land relations remain securely in place” (Liboiron 2021: 26). At the same time, we can acknowledge that decolonial approaches may mean something else in post/colonial societies such as Ghana, where I work, or Singapore, where I am from. We can acknowledge that “different colonialisms will have different decolonialisms and anticolonialisms” (Liboiron 2021: 132). For example, what does it mean for someone who is from marginalized groups in Europe or the UK – academics who originate from former empires and colonial countries but who do not neatly fit into these spaces? What does it mean for migrants, and members of diasporic groups (members of racialized and Black communities) who live in Western Europe or the UK? What happens if we truly acknowledge the colonial influence of “American colonialism [that] is enacted through economic influence, the use of threat and coercion, the export of cultural terms and values, and tacit control over knowledge” (Sanchez 2021: 5)?

Simply put, and this will not come as surprise to those of you who are anthropologists, “decolonization” means different things in all these contexts. But how often do we dwell on this difference? I would argue, not so much. Can we rather speak about different vernaculars of decolonialism that are specific for each group and particular to the lands we are on and on which we work? How do we recognize that decolonization is “perpetual as a process” (Grande 2015: 358)? For example, what would decolonization mean in an African context? To quote from a paper by Francis Nyamnjoh entitled Decolonizing the University in Africa (2019):

“[T]he modern university in postcolonial Africa has little to do with African institutions, despite repeated attempts by African intellectuals and governments disabusing the African university of the one-size-fits-all character of its European colonial origins by making it more relevant to its African context. Such relevance… entails questioning taken-for-granted theories configured in the Western academy that have only tended to produce mimics and caricatures among African academics and students and coming up with alternative theories that “strike the right balance between the local and the global.””

Asymmetrical relations between scholars in the Global North and South continue to be an issue in knowledge production, in the predominance of non-African writers in African Studies, and in the influence of Eurocentric epistemologies (Crawford, Mai-Bornu, Landström 2021). From the earlier initiatives of Pan-Africanist leader Kwame Nkrumah, to the academic work of Nigerian Claude Ake, to the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa in 2015, there is a history of decolonizing academia in the African continent which often gets ignored (Crawford, Mai-Bornu, Landström 2021). Kenyan anthropologist Mwenda Ntarangwi (2010: 96-7) writes how “as a colonial project, formal education in Africa was a deliberate attempt to alienate Africans from their traditional way of life and insert them into a colonial (Western) way of thinking.” Achille Mbembe (2016) has called for decolonization, criticized universities as places of authoritative control and standardization, and questioned the hegemonic authority of the “European epistemic canon”. Yet not much has changed in terms of systemic structures that include editorial gatekeeping, reviewer bias, lack of research funding, knowledge extraction by academics in the Global North, and global power inequalities. Colonialism, its patterns of power, continues to define these relations long after the end of direct colonization and the role of American imperialism in “African Studies” has yet to be directly addressed (see Twitter post by Anima Adjepong).

Picture: Podium of the toppled down statue of Egerton Ryerson, X University, by Girish Daswani

I now return to the importance of intersectionality when considering how Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives in universities, including anthropology departments, can do more damage than good before providing some talking points for general discussion. I start by looking at how “Race” has (problematically) re-emerged as an important category in universities and in their own marketing. As Mbembe (2016) astutely points out: racism continues to act “as a constitutive supplement to nationalism”. I would add that inclusivity practices of universities and departments try to circumvent racism through self-branding and EDI initiatives. In attempting to circumvent experiences of racism on campus through these “non-performatives” (Ahmed 2012), they cause more harm.

Race and EDI

Race is important, a non-White anthropologist tells me. During recent EDI initiatives in their department, they were tokenized and asked to speak about their experiences of racism as a way of creating a conversation about diversity. When they did, thinking that it will become a collaborative effort to change the culture in the department, they were reminded of the culture of the department. They were shut down and the meeting quickly became dominated by senior men who questioned the claims of this non-White anthropologist. This anthropologist was gaslit and exposed to further abuse. “We’re not seen as people” they told me – but “forms of labor”. “Until they see me, nothing will change” (I gain inspiration from Sara Ahmed’s 2021 talk when thinking about Complaints). Another non-white anthropologist tells me that we are still imperial subjects and that we have to constantly qualify our place in anthropology – to prove that we are somehow good enough, to be seen and to be accepted (as equals). This anthropologist worked hard to reproduce Whiteness – until they could not anymore, until they no longer wanted to. Both these anthropologists spoke about how colleagues would show support – but always in private – not much in public. It made me think of what El-Farouk Khaki, a lawyer and queer activist in Toronto said on a panel I co-organized (with Wunpini F. Mohammed) about feminist and queer organizing. In reference to what he called “bad allies”: he said that in private “they are with you” but “in public you are alone”. This is how many non-White anthropologists feel when they experience bullying and harassment.

Race intersects with class, gender, social status, and other value hierarchies that are in place within anthropology – such as a prestige and an honor system (Kawa et. al 2018). In North America and many parts of Europe, race intersects with White Supremacy – a term that makes many of my colleagues and many anthropologists (usually White) uncomfortable. White Supremacy speaks of a system of power that has benefitted and continues to benefit from colonial structures and its effects are not limited to the Global North. Yet in its naming or in speaking it in relation to anthropology it becomes a bad word that is hurtful, unkind, or simply untrue. It becomes heard as an accusation – that you (my White colleagues) are White Supremacists. It becomes personal-ized. We (anthropologists) are afraid of losing something that we have held on to for so long – that we believe that we are somehow not that person. Our replies come in different forms: We are all anthropologists. We are all in this together. We are a department. That universal “we” in Anthropology allows us to escape the many individual “we’s” and to evade responsibility and obligation (Liboiron 2020). And White supremacy is not simply about individuals (even if individuals are benefitting from it). Instead, it is a system that amplifies certain voices over others and one that continues to exclude and to create situations of oppression and violence that often go unrecognized.

The Performance of EDI

Within the context of increasing the need for representation, academic departments continue to interpret “Equity and Diversity” through a colonial (and White Supremacist cultural) lens – they assume that simply including more Black, Indigenous, Brown, and Asian bodies means that they are being more inclusive. That in asking them to do “diversity work”, they are allowing diversity to happen. This is, in part, true. But this assumption is also deeply problematic – as it adds the burden of diversifying on already marginalized and under-represented faculty. It tokenizes diversity (as something that can be done by expanding, but not changing). And it exposes these marginalized faculty to more work, further bullying and harassment, when trying to challenge an unequal system. This appropriation and branding of EDI in Canadian academia has recently been masterfully articulated by Rinaldo Walcott.

Here are some selected quotes from Sara Ahmed’s talk Complaint, Diversity and Other Hostile Environments that also speak to that issue:

  • “When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced”
  • Diversity as “a revolving door – women and minorities enter only to head out again”
  • “You just have to say the word race and you are heard as complaining, as being negative, destructive, mean”
  • “Those who benefit from relationships with those who are abusive often minimize the abuse to keep the benefits”

On the flip side, once social class, status, and prestige enter the EDI picture – non-White academics too can become members of the privileged group who can also exclude and enact violence onto other Indigenous, Black, and minority groups. An example would be of non-White anthropologists who, in reproducing Whiteness, do harm or violence onto their students or junior colleagues. Including Indigenous, Black, Brown, and Asian voices is important, even crucial, but simply adding different colors to a white or already-toxic background does not mean you’re truly diversifying your department, especially when elite reproduction remains unchecked, especially when non-White academics reproduce Whiteness, and especially when people continue to be treated badly, disrespected, or remain tokenized.

This is why it is important to remember that: “If we do not interrogate our motives, the direction of our work, continually, we risk furthering a discourse on difference and otherness that not only marginalizes people of color but actively eliminates the need for our presence” (bell hooks 2015: 206). As bell hooks also notes – it is not just important what we speak about but how and why we speak. The influence of a Boasian anthropology runs deep in how many anthropologists speak. As Mark Anderson argues in his book From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology (2019), Boas and his students – while using culture to move race away from biological determination and in explaining difference – did not deconstruct the race concept. The “Americanism” (or American exceptionalism) of US anthropology allowed for an imagined liberal America to feature strongly in theories around race and racism that “reinscribed in new terms the equation between whiteness and America” (Anderson 2019: 13).

It is also important to note that it was anthropologists of color and white anthropologists working with an anti-racist and/or anti-colonial framework that made a difference –William Willis (1921-1983), Diane Lewis (1931-2015), and Charles Valentine (1929-1990) for example – all who drew on the Black Power and the Black Studies movement to look at a structural analysis of racism and “to redefine the relationships between anthropology, race and “America”” (Anderson 2019: 164). They “exposed the normalization of whiteness in American social institutions” including the university (Anderson 2019: 16) and cast doubt on the progressive legacy of anthropology in the US. William Willis described the lack of outrage about the misery and distress of colored people that prevailed in anthropology despite its liberal intent. He was able to “identify failures and limitations in Boasian anthropology including its inability to address white oppression and the “black struggle for survival, for freedom, and for equality” (Anderson 2019: 180).

Diane Lewis’s Anthropology and Colonialism (1973: 601) examined “the unacknowledged effect of colonialism on anthropology” and on the people it studied (Anderson 2019: 183). As Anderson (2019: 184) points out: “Lewis identified a tendency “for anthropologists who overtly fought racism at the same time to perpetuate formulations, attitudes, and behaviors which fostered it” (583)”. Lewis also observed that anthropologists who called for reform very rarely “questioned their position or the structure that made it possible” (Anderson 2019: 181). The structure that made it possible for anthropologists to look the other way was colonialism. From Lewis’s article Anthropology and Colonialism (1973: 583-4):

“[A]nthropology has contributed to the gulf between Western and non-Western culture by providing information which supports the mental constructs developed by those in power. Anthropologists, who peer at a culture from the outside, record the differences between that culture and Western civilization. The noting of differences between two groups is not in itself racist, but it invariably acquires such a connotation in the context of colonialism”

Like Willis, Lewis experienced discrimination and was discouraged by professors from studying anthropology at the PhD level (Rodriguez 2018). And, like Willis, Lewis questioned the ability of the “culture concept” to tackle colonialism and racism. Lewis agreed with Charles Valentine’s Black Studies and Anthropology (1972) where Valentine criticized social science knowledge production as grounded in race and class privilege. In “A Response to Inequality: Black Women, Racism, and Sexism” Lewis (1977) added that most anthropologists were “reluctant to look at the structures of oppression when studying nonwhite people” and pointed out that Black women were members of two subordinate groups as they were affected by both racism and sexism.

So, you see, some founding parents of American anthropology did conceptualize the discipline as a decolonizing project. They were simply ignored or not taken seriously. Neutrality or not wanting to “rock the boat” becomes a way to enable violence and is another form of denial or settler move to innocence.

“Truths that complaint has taught me: so much violence is enabled and reproduced because people do not want to “rock the boat.” And thus also: there is so much violence in “keeping things steady” or in “steadying” (Tweet by Sara Ahmed).

Some of us claim to want to address racism and to decolonize (the syllabus, the department, anthropology) but our actions speak less of real change, and more of personal investments and interests in projecting a certain image of ourselves as liberal anthropologists. To conclude: I do not believe that it is easy to decolonize anthropology in settler colonial states like Canada and the US (see Tuck and Yang 2012). Instead, decolonizing anthropology “is a process, one that must be engaged and re-engaged for as long as it takes to build something that reflects the ethics of the worlds we want to build, tend to, breathe life into” (Todd 2018). What we can do is start making reparations, by returning something stolen for example, respecting the knowledge and life of the lands we learn and work on, reanalyzing the kind of work we do without claiming that we’re “decolonizing” (when we’re not). If “[d]ecolonization is a process which engages with imperialism and colonialism at multiple levels” (Tuhiwai Smith 2012), then let’s do the (hard and uncomfortable) work and stop using catch phrases. Here are some ideas to work through.

1) Change

“One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness” (hooks 2015: 94).

“Anthropologists who study their own societies will also add immeasurably to their theoretical understanding of mankind. It has been suggested that lack of fieldwork in the anthropologist’s own society is a measure of the anthropologist’s “disassociation” from his own culture and has probably led to distortion in his abilities to grasp another culture” (Lewis 1973: 590)

We should be ready to interrogate ourselves, our own societies, and our own practices (see Jobson 2020)). How are we doing anthropology differently (see Pandian 2019)? Do we still need “ethnography,” or are we prepared to see ethnography as a form of extractive practice, and can we think of alternative ways to do research or to think outside our received canon under the terms of what Ryan Cecil Jobson (2020: 263) has called a “patchy anthropology”? If we are storytellers, are we truly respecting the stories which people, animals, vegetation, spirits share with us? Or are we creating curated stories to fit academic demand? These are questions we need to ask ourselves.

A change in discipline, or calling anthropology by another name, is always a possibility, but it does not eradicate the colonially inspired and extractive structures built into academic learning or its concomitant claims of ownership.

“If anthropology has a role to play, it is to unveil the shaky constitution of this scaffolding in a moment rife with authoritarian affects rather than to advocate for a futile return to a status quo” – Ryan Cecil Jobson (2020: 265)

I agree with Jobson (2020: 266) that a “thick solidarity” is preferable to “thick description.” In response to the interconnected violence of antiblackness, resource extraction, and colonialism, we ought to take seriousy an “abolitionist anthropology” that pays attention “to the interface between the multisited anti-Black state and those who seek to survive it” (Shange 2019: 10). Anthropologists need to “care more than we can know” (Shange 2019: 10) and take an informed stand on practices of settler-colonialism, racism and sexism, modern slavery, state violence, anti-LGBTQ legislation, and illiberal governments and neoliberal universities. We need to embrace a feeling of being unsettled and of being in the margins. This is potentially the strength of a contrapuntal anthropology that can critically reflect on oppressive institutions and on historical biases. A contrapuntal perspective is, according to Victor Li (2020) (drawing on Edward Said), “less about the ease of accepting or accommodating differences than about exposing and challenging differential access to power”. This, by itself, will not lead to radical change, but it will certainly help orientate us toward better relations with the people we work with.

2) Care and Collaboration

Picture: Katherine Blouin

What does care and collaboration look like? One thing it should not be is a new means of control and governance. First, we should acknowledge that doing anthropology is not free of the reproduction of values and hierarchies that make up other infrastructures of power. Second, we need to unpack how we embody those values and hierarchies and how our research can potentially do damage. Third, care and collaboration also means “deep reciprocity,” respect, and responsibility:

“What’s missing is the responsibility. If you’re not developing relationships with the people, you’re not giving back, you’re not sticking around to see the impact of the extraction. You’re moving to someplace else” – Leanne Simpson 2013.

In Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities Eve Tuck (2009) asks us to consider the long term impact of “damage-centered research”. Simply “giving a voice” to a group (“to speak their pains”) that exemplifies the harms caused by racism and systemic injustice is not enough. Damage-centred research “is a pathologizing approach in which the oppression singularly defines a community” (Tuck 2009: 413). Such research is “designed to document failure or a deficit rather than to provide opportunities to redress existing inequities” (Tuck 2009: 414).

Similarly, even if fieldwork and knowledge production in countries in the Global South aim to be “collaborative,” we must be attuned to the existing inequities, especially in a context where there is a history of exploitation and power inequality and where good intentions are not enough. For a good example of how values such as humility, accountability, and collectivity are conceived and become guiding forces in research the CLEAR Lab Book and read Max Liboiron’s “The Power (Relations) of Citizen Science.” Co-authorship should also be encouraged and equity in author order considered (see CLEAR’s blogpost “Equity in Author Order” as well as their 2017 article “Equity in Author Order: A Feminist Laboratory”).

“It helps people to see that we are not independent geniuses and they are always in connection with others in all acts of knowledge production. You may notice that our papers have rather long lists of coauthors. Another part of humility is recognizing forms of scientific knowledge production that don’t usually get noticed or credited.” (Liboiron 2019)

3) Citational Politics

Picture: Katherine Blouin

We often do not consider the impact of our citational practices and politics (Rivers 2021). Writing about a “politics of citation,” Sara Ahmed (2013) describes “citation as a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.” One thing to look out for is repetition and we should ask who gets reproduced and erased in such a practice.

In response to the problem that citation practices are racialized and gendered, some scholars have chosen to absent White men and to focus on Black, feminist and post/colonial scholars. In response, Katherine McKittrick (2020: 22) has asked: “Do we unlearn who we do not cite… Do we teach refusal?” and “How do we teach each other to read (disapprove, evaluate, critique, use, forget, abandon, remember) “white men” or other powerful scholars?” If we are already implicated in a system of exclusion and in reproducing an uneven citational politics, how do we teach “refusal”? How do we remain committed to anthropology while divesting from it?

I draw inspiration from Max Liboiron (2021) who writes about “doing anticolonial science within a dominant scientific context” (and I believe it relates to anthropology):

“Compromise is not about being caught with your pants down, and it is not a mistake or failure – it is the condition for activism in a fucked-up field” (Liboiron 2021: 134).

Returning to Ahmed’s (2017) work, the point is to not smoothen over these bumps, cracks, and contradictions but to give attention to them. And to ask ourselves what are our intentions when writing, who are we citing and why, and what or who are we willing to give up along the way? While we try to stay in good relations – maybe some relations are meant to be frayed or broken? Our research need not be stitched together by famous names but by the practice of sharing of ideas about how we might resist injustice? We can learn to write from an embodied practice rather than from a head/ego-driven need to be first or to be known.

Writing to create something new and to be first to say something is deeply problematic since we could be participating in the colonial practice of “firsting” (Liboiron 2021).

“It’s a mark of hubris of not realizing every knowledge is partial, constructed within a regime of imperceptibility. It is a proclamation of power to make property in someone’s home, to put your own name on otherwise shared or common knowledge. It’s a proclamation of the privilege to not see others, cite others, or acknowledge others” (Liboiron 2021)

4) Classroom

We cannot assume that all students come to anthropology from or literate in the White academic habitus. We ought to challenge that habitus and teach differently. Teaching differently (and not from the “knowers chair” – I am grateful to Lee Maracle who taught me this) is also about reading differently, and not just changing the syllabus or adding non-white or Indigenous authors (Liboiron 2019). Personally, I abide by two principles:

1) “You can start by learning and teaching about the colonial roots and ongoing structures of colonialism in your discipline” (Liboiron 2019).

2) “What if we read outside ourselves not for ourselves but to actively unknow ourselves, to unhinge, and thus come to know each other, intellectually, inside and outside the academy, as collaborators of collective and generous and capacious stories?” (McKittrick 2020: 16).

The training of students involves a process of unlearning and discomfort. It means thinking beyond “inclusion” to considering the power differentials already existent in our spaces of learning and sharing (thanks Max, for pointing this out). Sometimes, we, as educators make mistakes, and our students suffer for them. Acknowledge the mistake, apologize, and work toward repairing the damage. I remember teaching a graduate class and asking for everyone’s gender pronouns. This was a new practice for me at the time and in subsequent classes I mis-pronounced the gender pronoun of one of my students. They corrected me while I was talking. Yes, I was embarrassed. But I was also grateful for my student’s intervention. I thanked them for it and worked to never repeat my mistake.

5) Challenges

Picture: Katherine Blouin

How do we challenge differential access to power? I recognize that not all ways forward are easily accessible to all. I also acknowledge that struggle can be a “blunt tool” and “can promote actions that simply reinforce hegemony and that have no chance of delivering social change” (Tuhiwai Smith 2012). Yet, starting from the perspective of struggle is important. For those of us who are tenured and less vulnerable, we can refuse to do ethnography as it was taught to us: a refusal to participate rejects the false promise of inclusion (Simpson 2011, Tuck and Yang 2014; Grande 2015). Instead, the work we do should become a generative space for rethinking relations, for reframing questions, and for imagining alternative ways of co-existence that do not comply to or easily get co-opted into a settler-colonial logic or one of American imperialism.

Three questions I leave you with regarding the (im)possibility of decolonizing anthropology:

  • What do we mean by “decolonizing” and what price are we willing to pay for it?
  • Can we be concerned with a diversity of readings while also able to denounce/alter the reproduction of colonial and elite structures that cut across racialized and gendered lines in anthropology?
  • In thinking through decolonial approaches are we doing “work that opposes structures of domination” and are we equally “committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” (hooks 2015: 96)?

Acknowledgments

I have many people to thank and many of them are cited in this post. This blogpost was initially delivered as a public lecture on 19 April 2021, as part of the Department of Social Anthropology research seminar series at the Stockholm University. I am grateful to Shahram Khosravi who extended the invitation and who encouraged me to rethink why “decolonizing anthropology” was necessary or even possible. There are several writers whose work and ways-of-being have inspired me and given me encouragement in the often-uncomfortable world of academia. They include Sara Ahmed, Rinaldo Walcott, Eve Tuck, Lee Maracle, and Max Liboiron. Max Liboiron’s invitation to participate as a guest in CLEAR has had a tremendous impact on me and allowed me to further think through many questions in this post and to see first-hand how a feminist and anti-colonial research lab, guided by values such as equity, humility, and accountability, could work. As always, thanks to Katherine Blouin, Rachel Mairs, and Usama Gad for reviewing my post and for allowing me to publish in their amazing blog.

cover picture: Trees Beings, Beacon Hills Park (Victoria BC) by Katherine Blouin. All the other pictures by Katherine were taken on the traditional territories of the Lkwungen (Lekwungen) People (on Vancouver Island).

Author

Girish Daswani (@girishdaswani) is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto/UTSC. Apart from writing blogposts for EO, he is working to complete his book on activist, artistic and religious responses to political corruption in Ghana. He is also writing a comic book (with Bright Ackwerh), a documentary-film (with Mutombo da Poet) and, in order to sooth his restless spirit, songs. Girish is the founder and editor of Africa Proactive and Human Stories.

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