Public Anthropologies

Yarimar Bonilla (YB): In the past days, American Anthropologist has received a great deal of criticism for its editorial decision to run a cover image that depicts Margaret Mead next to a table of painted skulls from Papua New Guinea. As a board member of the journal, and as someone who has worked with you closely for many years, I wanted to reach out to you directly to talk about that choice and what you’ve learned from it. Can you tell me a little bit about the decision-making behind the cover and what you’ve done in response to the critiques?

Deborah Thomas (DT): To begin, I would like to first personally apologize for the editorial choice I made to use that image on the cover. The decision reflected an oversight on my part. But also, perhaps more importantly, it reflects anthropology’s long and devastating history of Native dispossession. We know the role that anthropology has played in the erasure of Indigenous peoples in the Americas through its salvage/savage ethnography project and its continued use of human remains for “research” purposes. Anthropology has consistently erased Indigenous peoples, just as it has consistently dehumanized Black people. Anthropology is founded on the savage slot, and this is a systemic and structural condition that spans beyond our intentions. I think this is what Ryan Jobson was saying when he has argued that we need to “burn it all down”: when we stand within the anthropological project, even our critiques of white supremacy can end up reproducing that which we are fighting against. Our use of the image of Mead illustrated exactly that.


We know the role that anthropology has played in the erasure of Indigenous peoples in the Americas through its salvage/savage ethnography project and its continued use of human remains for “research” purposes. Anthropology has consistently erased Indigenous peoples, just as it has consistently dehumanized Black people. Anthropology is founded on the savage slot, and this is a systemic and structural condition that spans beyond our intentions.


The March 2020 issue included a special section on the anthropology of global white supremacy, which contained an article by Junaid Rana about Margaret Mead’s conversation with James Baldwin called “A Rap on Race.” We chose an image that would critically reflect on that essay in order to show that despite the anti-racism of Boasian anthropology, and especially of such a public figure like Margaret Mead, she participated in the very racist practices that she was decrying. Within the context of the issue, we felt it made sense for us to use that cover. Of course, we recognized the image was racist; our intention was to call attention to that very fact.

I should admit I didn’t realize that the skulls in that image were actually skulls. I thought they were reproductions or masks, as did the editors of the special section. I didn’t mention this in my original statement because I didn’t want to claim ignorance as a way of absolving myself of responsibility. But if anything, that lack of knowledge is just a further instantiation of how saturated our discipline is with the logics of white supremacy that the special issue is actually attempting to tackle. I realize that not knowing what was depicted in the image, I should have gotten feedback from peers before making the decision to use the image, but I didn’t, and that was a mistake.

Once we realized the problem, we removed the cover from our website, and it will soon be removed entirely from the Wiley page. Also, in my September 2020 editor’s remarks there will be a statement and a permanent record in the journal of the change that was made and why.

YB: Someone on Twitter remarked that the violence caused by that image was similar to that caused when images of Black bodies are circulated, whether its lynching photographs or viral videos of Black women and men killed by the police. And I do think there’s something to that in the sense that there is a kind of trauma that is produced and triggered by seeing these images, even when they’re put out with a clear political intent. So I think there’s a lesson to be drawn from this about how to do anti-racist work with images, and how those images need to be contextualized, how they should be manipulated and altered, and to think about how they function not just in the analog world, but in the digital world where they can go viral in so many different ways.

DT: I think that’s true. I think often images are put to good use in terms of witnessing. But I don’t think this image did that. So, I recognize that this does not serve that purpose. I wouldn’t make an argument that this was meant to witness. It was more to instantiate the history of anthropology as a racist history

YB: So, one of my friends wanted me to ask you: What’s it like to fuck up as a woman of color?

DT: Well, I think the stakes are higher in some ways because, you know, if I think of how I’ve responded to people’s mistakes or people’s apologies when it involves white men— to some extent there’s a greater expectation that it will happen, but when it’s a person of color, people feel you should know better, and in that sense it hurts more. There is very little margin for error.

YB: As part of the board of AA, part of what I found so upsetting about this moment was that this was one of the most powerful issues ever put out by the journal, with the section on white supremacy and your own editorial statement about reparations. And the issue also comes near the end of your tenure as editor, where you have not only brought issues of racial inequality and white supremacy to the pages of the journal, but also on the back end you have worked so hard to diversify the board in terms of race, gender, generation, institutional and geographic location, etcetera. You have consciously attempted to make long term institutional change.

DT: Yeah, I mean, institutions don’t change until new people come into them. And so part of my goal as the first nonwhite editor of this journal was to try to transform it—not to decolonize it in that simple metaphorical way, but to actually transform the people who were at the table, the shape of the issues, the reach of the issues. And it’s upsetting that the outrage over the cover, justified as it is, erases a lot of that work that everybody on the board has done.

YB: Well, it seems like this could be an opportunity to think more about the constitutive relationship between anti-Blackness and Native dispossession and how white supremacy is founded not just on anti-Blackness but also on anti-Indigeneity. Anthropology, in particular, as the savage slot, is the discipline most profoundly rooted in the dehumanization and objectification of Indigenous people, and that is something that needs to be brought to bear in debates about anti-Blackness and white supremacy. I think there’s still a chance for us to use this moment to open that dialogue and to connect it to the conversation that the white supremacy issue was trying to generate.

DT: Yeah, I think that those conversations about anti-Black racism, Native dispossession, and decolonization rarely come together, and this is something I’m often encouraging my graduate students to do. I think just now there’s a scholarship that’s trying to do some of that work, like Tiffany Lethabo King’s The Black Shoals, or Shanya Cordis, who has recently published an essay called “Settler Unfreedoms” in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal. And then there was the “Culture at Large” session during last year’s AAA on (anti)Blackness and (anti)Indigeneity with Christina Sharpe. Obviously, activists have been thinking together about this for a long time. And in fact, over the last couple years we’ve been planning a conference that will happen next fall at the Penn Museum called “Settler Colonialism, Slavery, and the Problem of Decolonizing Museums.” Through that conference, we are trying to bring together the conversations about NAGPRA (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and other agreements about the repatriation and use of Native materials, and the conversations about imperialism and slavery that are happening somewhat more robustly in European and South African contexts. I think more of these kinds of conversations will be important. And Twitter is not necessarily the space where they can be had.

YB: Well, you know I love Twitter; I’ve written about it and I see a lot of value in it. I realize that there can be moments where it can become a performative space— a lot has been written about “virtue signaling,” for example—and I know that the kind of slow, careful, and invisible labor of diversifying the discipline is not what goes viral or gets retweeted. But, as I’ve written about in the past, I do think it can be an extremely important platform to make political claims that are hard to denounce in an institutional space. I’m thinking, for example, of the controversies around HAU, and how Twitter created a space to have a conversation that was simply impossible in other arenas. It can have a significant impact. But in this instance, I picked up the phone, I texted you and said let’s talk about this because there are things that require dialogue and careful engagement, and in some ways Twitter is most powerful when it serves as a catalyst for conversations and engagement beyond its platform. Twitter is both the best and the worst of the public sphere: it can provide a space for critique—and in many ways made this very conversation possible—but it can also dehumanize the target of critique. And it has been widely shown that this is especially true for women, and particularly for women of color.

DT: I don’t use much social media. I’m not going to say it’s generational because many of my friends are experts at it and use it in many different kinds of ways, but it’s just not my preferred medium for interaction. Yet, I see how it can be very positive and useful. Obviously, it brought this to a broader audience and has started a conversation in a way that would not have otherwise happened. However, I do wonder sometimes why people who were originally raising concerns that were then brought to my attention didn’t feel they could just email me directly. I think it’s great that Twitter has really raised the profile of the problem in a way where we can actually understand better what the mistakes were and how to make amends for them.

YB: Yes, and it’s true that most folks weren’t really evaluating this in relationship to your work as editor or the work you’ve done over your career, but rather in relationship to the history of AA and the history of the discipline. Because the fact is, when one sees that image on the cover of AA it’s easy to assume that it was meant as a very earnest representation of what the discipline is. . .

DT: And that has been the case in the past.

YB: Absolutely. And precisely what you were trying to do was to get us to think more critically about these canonical figures that are so often celebrated. With Margaret Mead, specifically, I mean, there’s still a ton of prizes in her name. There are probably lecture halls. . .

DT: Film festivals. . .

YB: Exactly. And I am sure that her work often gets taught in a very uncritical manner. In some ways, she is like these monuments that are being torn down all around the world right now and the buildings that are being renamed. And it’s a real question as to what we should do with these monuments and canonical figures. I think, for example, of the monument to Josephine Bonaparte in Martinique, which was constantly being beheaded by locals, and eventually the government gave up and just left it up with no head. Now it’s no longer a monument celebrating Josephine but a monument to anticolonial struggle.


I think as anthropologists we need to ask how to deal with our racist monuments. Is the solution to simply silence that history to a point where future generations would not even know about it? Or is there a different kind of work that we need to do? . . . How can we decolonize something fundamentally rooted in colonialism? 


I think as anthropologists we need to ask how to deal with our racist monuments. Is the solution to simply silence that history to a point where future generations would not even know about it? Or is there a different kind of work that we need to do? What should we do about the fact that the Mead cover could be seen as an earnest representation of the discipline? And I am sure that although many were offended by the cover, there were also many who completely missed both the offense or any possible political critique. And in many ways that is the problem of decolonizing: how can we decolonize something fundamentally rooted in colonialism? How can we behead our monuments and not just erase them? I wonder if there is some way we could have intervened on that photo, manipulated it in a similar way. What might that have looked like?

DT: Yeah, for sure. And you know, someone like Mead is, like everyone, a very complicated figure. I don’t know if you know, but she actually was the one who really encouraged Connie Sutton, my adviser, to continue to get her PhD in anthropology and found a little bit of money to support her in doing that. And, I’m sure, she would never have seen herself within the frame of global racism.

But I think also, as we begin to rethink some of the historical anti-racism of anthropology—which is usually brought forward in moments like this—you know, people who have written very critically about that are often critiqued for taking down such important figures. I think about Mark Anderson’s book, for example, From Boas to Black Power, which is really trying to reconfigure that Boasian moment and sort of think about it anew within the context of the more radical work that was being done, and largely ignored, by Black anthropologists at the time and after—it’s hard for people to hear that. And I’ve also gotten pushback on previous editor’s remarks in which I have made similar kinds of critiques; people will email me and, you know, re-educate me as to the significance of the Boasian legacy, or of his relationship to Zora Neale Hurston, in order to restate the argument for the good that people were doing in the early twentieth century.


All of the reworking, rethinking, and critique should be done from the position of championing liberation, recognizing that a liberation from anti-Black racism also requires a liberation from Indigenous dispossession throughout the Americas and the world.


I think all of that, all of the reworking, rethinking, and critique should be done from the position of championing liberation, recognizing that a liberation from anti-Black racism also requires a liberation from Indigenous dispossession throughout the Americas and the world. Because, as you said, those two processes are foundational and co-constitutive of the modernity that creates the conditions for anthropology to have developed in the way that it has.

 

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