The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Race Relations and the Anthropology Department

I was listening last night to a radio call-in show, and the topic of discussion was why social and economic disparity exists between different ethnic groups, and who was responsible for fixing it. The callers, host, and guests were all over the board, and their comments ranged from insightful to ludicrous. However, none of them could reach any consensus at all, and all of them seemed to want to simplify matters beyond reality, while simultaneously creating straw-man arguments out of the positions of their opponents. This got me thinking about the value of the social sciences in addressing these issues, but then I recalled earlier events in my life and wondered whether this was truly the case.

When I was in graduate school, a few students noticed something that seemed both odd and disturbing – most of the non-white graduate students were leaving the program without finishing their degrees. This led to a number of us looking at what was happening. One particular group of students came to the conclusion that the non-white students were being pushed out of the program, while the white students weren’t. This seemed pretty simple and direct – another case of white privilege in a society where race is so often the elephant in the room – the overwhelming presence that nobody wants to talk about or acknowledge.

However, the problem wasn’t that simple.

Those of us who decided to look closer noticed something important – the non-white students who could be said to have been pushed out were all in the socio-cultural anthropology wing of the department. Looking closer still, MOST of the socio-cultural students were being pushed out of the department. The faculty tended to play politics with each other and use the students as pawns, resulting in students unable to form PhD committees, unable to get funding or workspace, and experiencing a remarkably hostile environment. Of course the students were being pushed out, but it was all of them, not just the non-white students.

So, why did it look like the non-white students were being pushed out? Well, the bio-social, physical, and archaeology wings of the departments had, between the three of them, only two non-white students. As these wings of the department tended to be more supportive of the students (including the non-white students, both of whom had secured generous funding and workspace arrangements), the students tended to complete their degrees. So, if you didn’t factor in the differences between the different wings of the departments, it looked like non-white students were being specifically mis-treated or alienated, when it was an entire wing and not just students of certain ethnicities.

If one wished to increase the ethnic mix of the department, which in an anthropology department is a very good idea, then the appropriate route to take was to tackle the issue at recruitment, trying to get a wider range of students into the other wings, while also improving retention of socio-cultural students. Specifically trying to keep non-white students in while ignoring the problems at both recruitment and retention of all socio-cultural students would be to tilt at windmills rather than to seriously address the issue of increasing ethnic diversity of the department.

The problem was that a few students had decided, without bothering to look more deeply into matters, that the problem was one purely of retention of non-white students, and anyone who tried to point to that pesky little thing called reality were immediately shot down and accused of, and no I am not making this up, “Racist colonialism”.

Hand me a pith helmet and a native phrase-book, Jeeves.

From this point on, everything that happened in the department was viewed through the lens of race and racism, leading to an increasingly weird and paranoid experience for all of us. For example, a position came open in the socio-cultural wing, and a number of candidates – both white and non-white - were interviewed. One applicant was a Hispanic man whose work had direct real-world applications in helping to figure out immigration-related matters, and, to top it off, was really fascinating. However, it wasn’t “cutting edge theory” (which, in our socio-cultural wing, often meant “mental masturbation”)*, and so the job was offered to a British guy whose work was “on the cutting edge of theory” and was also amazingly boring and irrelevant to the world around him.

Now, taken in context with other decisions that the faculty had made, it was clear that this was a matter of academic snobbery – the “pure research” fellow was favored over someone whose work was actually interesting and had real-world applications. However, as the interesting guy was Hispanic and the other was a pasty white guy from England, this immediately came to be seen as a case of racial preference rather than what it actually was - theoretical snobbery and shunning of the potential for research to actually impact the outside world.

Of course, the faculty also didn’t do themselves in favors in dealing with these issues. Whether it be some comments about Japanese internment that made a certain amount of sense from a historical perspective but sounded callous to people not overly-familiar with the events, or faculty members actively using the issue of race to further play politics with other faculty members, once everything began to be viewed as a “race issue” matters continued to spiral out.

And all the while, the real underlying issues, poor retention of socio-cultural students coupled with a lack of recruitment of non-white students into the other wings, went unaddressed. What’s more, other issues of diversity were completely ignored. A frequent feature of discussions involving this was the assumption that white people were a homogenous group, all affluent and all of the same background. I had the surreal experience of watching a white graduate student who had grown up in a run-down trailer park being told by a woman from a rather wealthy family that he didn’t understand what it was like to be economically disadvantaged. Likewise, I was regularly informed that I had always lived in all-white communities, thus proving that the people who made these claims had never seen the ethnic mix of the neighborhood where I grew up.

Last I heard, none of the attempts to “increase diversity” of the anthro. department had worked. This is no surprise, as the problems identified by the people with the passion to do something were not the problems that were actually present. Retention of specifically non-white students may yet be a problem that needs to be addressed, but until the other two problems (recruitment and overall retention in one wing) are addressed, there is no way to know.

The point that I am getting at is that anthropologists, the groups that, along with sociologists, one would expect to be the best at examining and addressing complex issues such as race relations, can be just as blinded by both early assumptions and easy answers. This can, in turn, lead to the “source of the problem” being mis-identified, and false solutions that do no good being implemented.

*I am not saying that all research, or even most research, is like this. However, in the department where I was a student, there was a tendency to favor things that sounded complex and were filled with buzz words over things that actually made sense. Other departments don’t necessarily have this problem.

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