By Leniqueca A. Welcome (University of Pennsylvania)

To ask where anthropology is—or should be—going today is to ask where anthropology is coming from and to assess critically the heritage that it must claim. But it is also to ask about changes in the world around us, inside and outside of academe, and how these changes should affect our use of that heritage, and what is best left behind as obsolete, redundant or simply misleading in this new context of global transformations. – Trouillot (2003, 117) 

How do we create an alternative future by living both the future we want to see, while inhabiting its potential foreclosure at the same time? – Campt (2017, 107)

The California wildfires and bombastic authoritarian speeches of 2018 were the apocalyptic omens that urged a conversation in Ryan Jobson’s 2020 essay “ The Case For Letting Anthropology Burn.” The multi-scalar social and economic losses due to the US’ mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, the uprisings against anti-Blackness around the country, and continued ecological disasters induced by capitalism in 2020 have further confirmed the uncertain future of anthropology and the world at large. The toxicity of deep systemic racism registered for white liberal audiences as images of militarized law enforcement enacting violence on protestors against murderous anti-Black policing circulated in the media this past June. Following this mass awakening, university letters responding to the moment were sent out to faculty and students already contending with the isolation and ramifications of the mitigation processes for the spread of the pandemic. As many well-meaning US anthropology department letters addressed a “we” as a cohesive community of scholars of the human and mused on the ways “our” research on race and politics could be helpful for the times, it became abundantly clear that many anthropologists thought the violence of white supremacy operates out there in the streets and not in here within the walls of the academy (Beliso De Jesús and Pierre 2020). As Nahir I. Otaño Gracia (2020) pointed out in her essay “On Hidden Scars and the Passive Voice,” many anthropologists, similar to other academics, were quick to engage with their peers and students as if “trauma is [solely] a [shared] theoretical exercise and not a lived experience” for many of those with whom they share a classroom. Furthermore, many anthropologists embodying whiteness refused to acknowledge that they are often responsible for perpetuating this trauma. The Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA) Statement Against Police Violence and Anti-Black Racism sharply tore down any facade of neutrality within the discipline as it addressed non-Black, especially white anthropologists and asked them to move past “soul searching, despondency and white guilt” and enact material changes within their scholarship, teaching, and administrative practices that will actually contribute to the true decolonization of the field. This was not the first time transformation of the field as a whole was demanded.

Despite numerous calls by Black, Indigenous, and person of color scholars over the past (at least) three decades for anthropology as a discipline confront its colonial roots and contribute to critical theory on racism and processes of racialization (see especially Allen and Jobson 2016; Baker 1998; Harrison 1995; Mullings 2005; Todd 2016; Trouillot 2003; Visweswaran 1998), “the trained inability of many in the discipline to understand—and treat—race and racialization as constitutive of all modern relations” remains apparent (Beliso De Jesús and Pierre 2020, 66). The unwillingness of members of a discipline whose primary ethical obligation is “to do no harm” to abandon extractive models of fieldwork, explore white supremacy in their research, and address racism, classicism, ableism, hetero-patriarchy, sexual assault, labor exploitation, and other acts of oppression within their departments, itself makes a case for letting the mainstream form of institutionalized anthropology burn, as Ryan Jobson (2020) suggests in his review article. As Jobson shows us, the old “Boasian fix,” and newer suggested fixes, such as
“the virtual fix,” cannot save anthropology from its past and present evils, particularly when many anthropologists remain committed to business as usual, even as this business is repeatedly proven to be harmful to others within and outside the field (for evidence of this commitment, one only needs to glimpse the American Anthropology Association’s “Communities” page).[1]

It is even clearer now than when Jobson first wrote his review article that mainstream US Anthropology as “a ‘white public space’ that maintains a liberal myth of perfectibility through the progressive incorporation of historically subordinated peoples into the comforts and privileges of property and citizenship” (Jobson 2020, 7; drawing on Brodkin, Morgen, and Hutchinson 2011) has to be abolished along with the institutional structures that make it. And as Savannah Shange reminded us in a recent interview with Transforming Anthropology (2020), as well as in her book Progressive Dystopia (2019), abolition is a bipartite project that entails both destruction and construction. She says, regarding abolition, “you bring the wall down so then you can clear the rubble and build something to live in—build something worth living” (Shange 2020). What needs to be abolished may seem formidable. However, if we turn our attention to those who are already operating under different modes of anthropological work that contribute to a living future in which work that illuminates and dismantles the logic of white supremacy will no longer be necessary, we may draw hope. This is not the hope that anthropology as an institutionalized field will be rebuilt anew after its current dominant form is hopefully destroyed along with the racial capitalist world order that produces the neoliberal and increasingly financialized organization of the university, but hope generated from the fact that necessary freedom work is already happening within anthropology, that the fruits of this labor will live beyond the discipline, and that, if only in this way, anthropology still matters.

Jobson addressed some of this work in his essay, particularly through the lens of research aimed at dismantling liberal humanism’s idea of a coherent subject. In what remains of this piece, I seek to expand his contribution and highlight Black and Indigenous feminist work within anthropology that continues the long fight against anthropology’s own “fictive coherence” (Jobson 2020). These scholars and activists continue to do the work that needs to be done, whether or not the formal channels of academic evaluation choose to recognize it. This work at once aspires to better futures and lives those futures as if they were possible now because those who do it know from the bodies they inhabit and the experiences they live through that “ignoring politics becomes a luxury that only the privileged few can afford” (Ulysse 2019).

In 2017, Maya J. Berry, Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada published their collaborative article/manifesto “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field” in Cultural Anthropology.” This group of self-identified “black, brown, indigenous, mestiza, and/or queer cisgender women” placed at the forefront their critical transnational feminist praxis “grounded in black feminist analysis and praxis and inspired by indigenous decolonial thinking” that entails embodied processes of activism, scholarship, and pedagogy. They put out an urgent call for anthropology to abandon the following: its institutionalized notion of “fieldwork as a masculinist rite of passage or an exercise of one’s endurance,” its perpetuation of the academy’s hetero-patriarchal culture that even self-declared activist anthropologists often perform, its reliance on women of color within the academy to mediate the racialized and hetero-patriarchal violence of the academy by providing unpaid affective labor to students, and the superficial diversity hiring fix and other reformist agendas. The authors—speaking as survivors of racialized gender and sexual violence and as people who conduct collaborative activism and scholarship with transnational feminist groups rooted in an understanding that, though differently positioned, oppressions and liberatory struggles within the academy are inseparable from those outside the academy—present a nonprescriptive model for doing anthropological work that resists the inside/outside academy binary, learns and shares with alternate forms of praxis existing in the world, and at its core is about forging a different world. The fugitive form of anthropology they practice and promote understands the academy as a means, not the end. In their own words, “The outline of this fugitive anthropology is, in essence, one that seeks to advance a decolonized discipline, yet at the same time takes flight from that contested space we claim as our intellectual home.”

I foreground this article here because, better than I ever could, it lays out the stakes of doing anthropology and our continued investment in this work for those of us who remain “outsiders within” (Harrison 2008) the discipline. I claim part of this “us” as a Black Caribbean cis-gendered woman who is trained in the United States and works against gendered anti-Black violence in Trinidad. Ethnographic work facilitated by the material resource of the university (made necessary by the very racial capitalist system we work against), has always been anthropology’s treasure. For many, it has been a treasure because it offers an opportunity to travel to distant places to learn more about other peoples and systems for the development of philosophical projects. However, for others of us who occupy bodies that demand with urgency that any anthropology we do must matter outside itself (Trouillot 2003), the real treasure of ethnographic research is the time and space it affords for deep listening, learning, laughing, mourning, grounded theorizing aimed at material transformation, archiving, community building, and other forms of activist work with others whose lives continue to matter to us. Though, to paraphrase Savannah Shange (2020), this is the work in the world one would be doing as part of one’s political praxis anyway even if one were not an anthropologist, it is very much tied to the ways we as “outsiders within” choose to practice anthropology now and, thus, are the only facets of anthropology that continue to have resonance.

What I have tried to communicate here is this: the world is on fire, anthropology as a discipline tethered to whiteness is on fire, and while some within the discipline throw buckets of water on the flames with futility, and some sit idly by yet are choking on the smoke, others are already involved in building reciprocal relations of learning and pedagogy rooted in care that will persist when the ash and rubble are cleared. The only appropriate anthropology for our times is anthropology involved in dismantling our current white supremacist, imperialist, hetero-patriarchal, ableist, and capitalist formations and building a world where scholarship and activism against the like are no longer necessary. Anthropology aimed at material transformation is the only anthropological work that continues to be worth doing. Any other way of doing anthropology we can let burn.

REFERENCES CITED

Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, and Ryan Cecil Jobson. 2016. “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.” Current Anthropology 57 (2): 129–48.

Baker, Lee D. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896–1954. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Beliso-De Jesús, Aisha M., and Jemima Pierre. 2020. “Special Section: Anthropology of White Supremacy.” American Anthropologist 122 (1): 65–75. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13351.

Berry, Maya J., Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada. 2017. “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” Cultural Anthropology 32 (4): 537–65.

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?” American Anthropologist 113 (4): 545–56.

Campt, Tina. 2017. Listening to Images. Durham: Duke University Press.

Harrison, Faye V. 1995. “The Persistent Power of ‘Race’ in the Cultural and Political Economy of Racism.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24:47–74.

Harrison, Faye V. 2008. Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age. University of Illinois Press.

Jobson, Ryan Cecil. 2020. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019.” American Anthropologist 122 (2): 259–71. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13398.

Mullings, Leith. 2005. “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34:667–93.

Otaño Gracia, Nahir I. 2020. “On Hidden Scars and the Passive Voice.” Pree, April 22. https://preelit.com/2020/04/17/on-hidden-scars-and-the-passive-voice1/.

Shange, Savannah. 2019. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press.

Shange, Savannah. 2020. “Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Anti-blackness, and Schooling in San Francisco.” Transforming Anthropology, September 2. https://www.instagram.com/p/CEpV3mgppgh/.

Todd, Zoe. 2016. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology 29 (1): 4–22.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ulysse, Gina Athena. 2019. “Homage to Those Who Hollered before Me/Meditations on Inheritances and Lineages, Anthropological and Otherwise.” Anthropology News website, April 8, 2019. doi:10.1111/AN.1133.

Visweswaran, Kamala. 1998. “Race and the Culture of Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 100 (1): 70–83.

NOTE

[1] Jobson (2020) describes how the “virtual fix”—the use of digital technology to mitigate the carbon footprint of anthropological practice—only works to absolve anthropologists from culpability in climate change rather than transform the disciple. For Jobson, it operates similar to the Boasian fix, which prevented any radical reckoning of the field as a whole with processes of racialization and racism.