By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Examine the effects of White supremacy in anthropology.
- Give examples of how anthropologists in other subfields are working against White supremacy and colonialism.
- Explain what decolonizing anthropology entails.
This section explores how anthropologists have looked within their own discipline to address ways in which they may be reproducing inequities through their practices and approach. Anthropologist Laura Nader uses the phrase “studying up” (1972) to call for more research on people and institutions with power. Following anthropologist Pamela Runestad (2017), this chapter uses the phrase “studying in” to address how anthropologists have looked at their own practices, training, methodologies, and assumptions and how anthropology as a discipline may in fact be contributing to inequities for students, practitioners, and the communities with which anthropologists engage.
Even though the construct of race has roots in anthropology, anthropologist Leith Mullings (2005) argues that critical studies of race and racism did not originally develop in anthropology. Mullings attributes this to the fact that anthropologists still do not agree about the role of race and racism within the discipline or how the categories of race have emerged and persisted in society. In addition, Mullings argues that many cultural anthropologists have focused on ethnicity, becoming “race avoidant” by not even mentioning race in ethnographies. Mullings warns that “race avoidant” anthropologists consequently ignore racism (Mullings 2005, 670).
In recent years, anthropologists have looked at the ways in which knowledge production and anthropological methods are rooted in White supremacy. Within the subfield of archaeology, anthropologists Maria Franklin and colleagues discuss how “archaeology has been used to justify imperialism, the displacement of Native Americans and Indigenous peoples from their lands, scientific racism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobic nationalism” throughout the world (Franklin et al. 2020, 754). However, archaeology does not exist in a vacuum, and these anthropologists also discuss ways to reimagine archaeology to do anti-racism work, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. These efforts include encouraging growing numbers of members of minority groups as academic colleagues and seeking research sites that represent the lived experiences of minority populations. In 2020, Meredith Poole, a researcher for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia, began a project identifying previously unrecognized Black archaeologists and excavators who had worked for Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s. Additionally, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists are currently working to excavate the First Baptist Church, one of the earliest Black churches in the United States. Projects such as these are critically important to the academic search for truth. Not only does this knowledge correct inaccuracies in the historical record, but it also serves to correct the course of future academic work.
Archaeologists Kylie Quave and colleagues (2020) have written about the ways in which introductory archaeology classes taught in the United States have often been problematic and how those teaching these courses are currently using anti-colonial and decolonial theories to revise curricula to promote equity within the discipline. Quave and her colleagues found that students taking revised curricula developed more complex understandings of the benefits and harms of archeological knowledge production and were better able to articulate the inequities in the discipline.
In April 2021, the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA), the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA), and the Black in Bioanthropology Collective (BiBA) released a collective statement regarding the possession and unethical use of the remains of the children of MOVE and the Africa family. In May 1985, the city of Philadelphia dropped two bombs onto the MOVE compound, home of “a revolutionary group of Black people opposed to capitalist growth and committed to environmental justice and interspecies harmony” (ABA, SBA, and BiBA 2021). The bombs killed 11 MOVE members inside the compound, including five children, and destroyed the neighborhood, incinerating at least 61 homes. Two forensic anthropologists, Alan Mann and Janet Monge, were hired by Philadelphia officials to identify the remains. In April 2021, various news outlets revealed that either Mann or Monge kept the remains two child victims, Tree Africa and Delisha Africa, in their personal possession after the investigation, moving them between the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University. In addition, the family of the deceased were never notified of the remains, nor were the remains returned to the family. In response, the ABA, SBA, and BiBA supported and republished the demands of Mike Africa Jr., who was six years old when the Philadelphia police dropped the bomb on MOVE. The collective statement acknowledged the long history of White supremacy and anti-Blackness within the discipline and called on White anthropologists to actively work to undo the violence committed against non-White communities.
In Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (2010), edited by anthropologist Faye V. Harrison, the term decolonizing anthropology is used to emphasize the responsibility of anthropologists to work for the enhancement and empowerment of those most alienated and dispossessed. While decolonization refers to different ideas in different disciplines, the principal goal of the Decolonizing Anthropology volume is “to encourage more anthropologists to accept the challenge of working to free the study of humankind from the prevailing forces of global inequality and dehumanization and to locate it firmly in the complex struggle for genuine transformation” (Harrison 2010, 10). This work to decolonize, transform, and liberate anthropology is still happening, and the discipline still has a long way to go in decolonizing each of the subfields of anthropology and decolonizing methods and pedagogy to make classroom spaces more equitable.
Adelman, Larry, prod. 2003. Race: The Power of an Illusion. https://www.racepowerofanillusion.org/.
Davidson, Kief, and Pedro Kos, dirs. 2017. Bending the Arc. https://bendingthearcfilm.com/.
Cargle, Rachel Elizabeth. 2018. “When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels.” Harper’s Bazaar, August 16, 2018. https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a22717725/what-is-toxic-white-feminism/.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds. 1995. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: New Press.
Jenkins, Destin, and Justin Leroy, eds. 2021. Histories of Racial Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Williams, Bianca C., Dian D. Squire, and Frank A. Tuitt, eds. 2021. Plantation Politics and Campus Rebellions: Power, Diversity, and the Emancipatory Struggle in Higher Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.
James, Alyssa A. L., and Brendane A. Tynes. 2020–. Zora’s Daughters. Podcast. https://zorasdaughters.com/.
Smithsonian Institution. 2020. “Talking about Race.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. Last updated June 2, 2020. https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race.
American Census Archive Research
Browse through the US Census Bureau website (data.census.gov). Look at the categories from 1790, when the first US census was taken. Compare them to the 2020 census. How are these categories different? Who is being counted and how? Who is excluded?
Go one step further and search through two different zip codes. Look at the demographic makeup of each area. Can you see differences in household income? Education attainment? What if you go to Google Maps? Can you correlate this information with other causes of inequities? Are there grocery stores in these areas? Bus and subway stops? What is the population density of the area? Do you know anything of the history of the zip code?
Construct a visual that best explains the differences between the historical and contemporary censuses. Then, do the same with the two zip codes. Draw conclusions about social inequalities throughout history and in contemporary times.