Thursday, May 01, 2008

Minorities and Anthropology: Reflecting on 35 Years

In 1969, the AAA passed a resolution calling for the recruitment of under-represented groups into anthropology and encouraging efforts to hire and facilitate their careers within the discipline. This year, the AAA Executive Board has established the Commission on Race and Racism in Anthropology and the AAA in order to re-evaluate how the discipline’s minority issues have changed over the past 35 years.

The AAA encourages members of the anthropology community or others interested in this subject to reflect on issues of race and racism in professional structures and practices of anthropology. We invite all members of the anthropology community to read the 1973 report and to reflect on what has and has not changed during the past thirty-five years.

1973 Minority Report

Minorities in Anthropology: 1973 versus 2008, Progress or Illusion *As printed in the April 2008 issue of Anthropology News

Commission on Race and Racism in Anthropology and the AAA


Anonymous said...

It is true that Anthropology has suffered from a dearth of ethnic and cultural diversity among its practitioners. However, this shortcoming has propelled the development of an insidious racially charged attitude in the current anthropological establishment. Being anthropologists, most within the discipline find themselves absorbed by issues of social justice and postmodern considerations as relates to anthropological work. As such, it has become a generally accepted idea that programs should actively attempt to solicit students from a non-western background. This has led to a dramatic increase in the enrollment of such individuals in many prestigious institutions. However, this is indicative of lazy, racist, and inane anthropology. To assume a native of a culture is better equipped to study their own culture than an outsider is ridiculous and reduces the required qualities of a capable anthropologist to apparent cultural familiarity and literacy. Many seem to forget the clinical distance in the early stages of an ethnographic project that results in so many brilliant, unattached observations. Furthermore, often non-western is equated with native status. Gannath Obeyesekere offers perhaps the most salient example of this misstep in equating his knowledge of Sri Lanka to familiarity with pre-colonial Hawaiian culture and attitudes. This is badly veiled racism, which attempts to avoid the attachment of positive or negative qualities to a specific race or ethnicity. Those who hold to this thinking continuously imply that there is fundamental incompetence and innate bias in the work of Western anthropologists; or perhaps the implication is that non-western people are so enigmatic and exotic that only another "foreigner" can properly study them. I am not trying to argue against the active recruitment of non-western peoples into the study of anthropology. However, the way in which this is done is ineffective and threatens to weaken the field. Firstly, graduate school is not the time to broadly apply ethnic quotas to admissions. As anthropologists we should know better. This is lazy. We should attempt to engage under-represented peoples before their decision to attend graduate school. We should strive to attract more applicants that represent the under-represented. We should not give preference to a small number of such applicants during the process. Secondly, those who are being admitted into these programs under such pretenses are usually representative of small elite westernized populations. As a discipline, we are not attracting many from the untouchable class in India, rather, we are admitting privileged individuals who in many cases were schooled in methods to defeat the G.R.E. and write an excellent letter. This removes considerations of substance from he equation, reducing the process to mental masturbation and conscience appeasement by the already established elite in our field. Additionally, despite the GRE scores of many of such persons, often, they cannot write as they did well on the GRE's through rote memorization. As anthropologist we should not be as naive as the bureaucratic automatons we so frequently deride. Yes, we should include among our ranks those who have been historically marginalized, but we must look beyond the statistics that fit onto a paper. The impoverished are the ones who require representation. There are enough opportunities for the wealthy and connected, despite their nation of origin. There is a world of difference in the experience of a wealthy Indian, whose family has benefited from economic ties to the West, and reality of an economically distraught rural Indian woman. We should know this. Please, if we care about this issue let us restrain our impulses and avoid cheap, lazy, and false solutions.

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with the previous comment. Anthropology should not be recruiting people already pursuing the field. Instead it should seek those just entering and being introduced to this kind of work. Undergraduate students in particular should have more access to resources, funds, and specific career experience opportunities in the field. This in turn will allow the field to have a broader group of people to work with and recruit to graduate school. I find it very hard to find specific examples of career opportunities in the field. I know there are many, but they are difficult to find, and in addition to then convince people (like a parent) about why it is a good career choice is almost impossible. The unrepresented are not represented because there aren't enough people going into the field. There are no connections being made and no effort of undergraduate recruitment. I am more than willing to work towards my dreams of being an Anthropologist, but my talents and efforts would be more efficient if there was a way to make connections faster and affective. I am a woman and I am Latina. I attend an all women’s college in Massachusetts where I am allowed to represent the minorities of my class in whichever field I choose to pursue. This article would be unnecessary if people like me were being contacted and enlisted in projects, internships, programs, and careers in the field of Anthropology in undergraduate education and secondary school education.

Eric Garrett said...

Comment posted on behalf of Eric Garrett:

As a “minority” student, I made the choice to want to study anthropology. I stumbled upon it taking classes for college. I had no prior knowledge of Anthropology, but once I took one course, I was hooked. My story is more the exception than the norm. As with many minorities, I was not even told about this field of study. Most of my peers are more concerned with becoming successful doctors of medicine, lawyers, or enlist in duty with United States Armed Forces. If I had prior knowledge that the field existed, the choice would have been clear and I probably would have come under the wing of some college professor at whatever university I choose. But, the sad reality is, most students in high school, no matter their ethnicity, have not been exposed to Anthropology. With that, it is no wonder that the American Association of Anthropology has a need for minority members, let alone the whole field of study. The main problem that is being encountered is the lack of “publicity” to those who may be interested in the field. There are no Anthropologists going to schools bringing up topics to senior high school students and soliciting questions from them. Doctors of medicine and lawyers have exposure to minority students and have knowledge that these fields are lucrative among minority students, especially those of African descent. These field choices offer a more prestigious look in their societies. I have spoken to several of my peers about the very topic. It seems as if culturally, minorities, especially for blacks, it is hard to break from traditionally accepted fields to the unknown. If individuals are more exposed culturally, I think you would find a steady increase in the recruitment of minority students into the field and that yields more members.
The only exposure to Anthropology that some minorities receive is through the media. National Geographic does a good job with the television series “Taboo”, but in order for someone to be exposed, they would have to watch the show to be immersed. Other than programs from National Geographic and Discovery, the only other outlet is the series “Bones” on the Fox network, that, while the show is good for those whom actually have somewhat of a background in Anthropology, most people who watch the show may not have a clue about what the characters on the show are discussing and that may turn them off from the idea of entering into the field of Anthropology.
Upon searching the Internet for some glimmer of hope for minority students, the only mention of encouragement for minorities wanting to enter Anthropology was through the Department of Anthropology at the University of Buffalo, The University of New York. The sad thing is, in Cultural Anthropology, cultural diversity is a main driving factor and yet Anthropology as a whole cannot find a way to add diversity amongst its ranks. This undermines the idea of Anthropology. The idea of missing out on encouraging people that Anthropology is trying to assist is perplexing. Wouldn’t these individuals be a great source with their life experiences to assist in helping preserve dying cultures, or wouldn’t a minority anthropologist take pride in knowing that he or she is contributing to help their culture in a number of different ways?
I got into anthropology because I enjoy studying humans. I have not yet chose a discipline, rather, I am waiting for someone to groom me, yet, I have yet to encounter a mentor to help guide me. I am not necessarily looking for a “black” mentor, nor do I go looking for “black” anthropologists, though it may beneficial for others and beneficial for anthropology as a whole.

Najwa Adra said...

I very much agree with Eric Garrett that a major problem with Anthropology is that hardly any one knows it exists. I like his idea of working on establishing anthropology courses at the high school level (SVA has lists of films that could be useful to high school teachers if only they can be archived and distributed.)And we are more likely to access a more diverse student body at the high school level.

On the dearth of mentors, this is also a problem with the field itself. The only people I know (of any ethnicity) who received decent mentoring were those who attended top ivy league schools.

Nevertheless, I have picked up quite a bit of racism in talking with fellow anthropologists (usually white and including professors when I was in school.) These are attitudes independent of what people think of affirmative action. Somehow, our field, which should be debunking all sorts of elitism, is failing in its mission. How, then, do we correct this problem?

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