Thoughts Halfway Through The Semester (#PhDLife)

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I’m in an interdisciplinary social-justice oriented doctoral degree. I’m currently taking the first two of my core classes. Within the first few weeks of the semester, one of my classmates stated that he’s not comfortable talking about race in “divisive” ways. Last week, another one of my classmates complained mentioned the previous cohort (who was majority African American, btw) and how she felt like they brought personal experience into the classroom too much, as opposed to just sticking to talking about theory. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what they said or what she meant. But when foundational theory includes excerpts like this gem, how do you not bring yourself into the classroom dialogue?

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Kroeber, A. L. (2001). What anthropology is about? In P. A. Erickson, and L. D. Murphy (Eds.), Readings for a history of anthropological theory (pp. 141-154). Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

It seems to me that if in the course of learning the theories, one has to be faced with demeaning references to self and others from marginalized communities, yeah, people are probably going to engage critically with the theory in a way that reaffirms their humanity. I get it, we’re supposed to be dry and academic and intellectual. But that’s not realistic. It’s a critical perspectives degree program, people. Like it or not, the influences of those theorists are still present in the discipline, as I noted while listening to a (White) anthropologist talking about her experiences studying village people in Sri Lanka. Too, the point of getting a doctorate, as my professors keep reminding us, is to build the theories and knowledge practices of the future. To shape new knowledge structures, we have to confront the old ones. I discussed this to some extent in my weekly reflection paper:

From its beginning, there seemed to be a heavy focus on the societies anthropologists deemed “primitive” and “savage.” Levi-Strauss (2001) speaks of social anthropology as serving to capture history past in the living incarnation of history present, via the so-called primitive societies. This discipline mission was echoed in Edward B. Tylor’s work, in which he maintained that anthropologists help to connect with the past through “survival” societies, as demonstrated in classical cultural evolutionism thought (Erickson & Murphy, 2001). Kroeber (2001) explained this obsession with non-Western societies as “a desire to understand better all civilizations, irrespective of time and place…or as generalized principles as possible” (p. 144). He goes on to say that sociologists tend to linger on their own societies, as the focus of study, while psychologists have a tendency towards centering their own culture as the norm (Kroebel, 2001). The implication is that anthropologists are broader in their coverage and more inclusive of topic, however the manner in which Kroebel speaks of non-Western cultures, including African American culture, reveals a paternalistic nod towards Eurocentric values and White supremacy…I’m also curious what role anthropology and other social sciences may have played in supporting or subverting colonization and the “civilizing” and assimilation of non-Western societies. What inherent power dynamics are built into the discipline, which might affect how truth is perceived?

Of course, my classmates would likely say they didn’t meant it like that. Sometimes, though, intent is less important than impact. My question is: if you can’t bring personal experience, as a black person, into dialogue with theories in a social justice oriented degree program, when can you?? Also, given that some of the theorists we’ve read have been straight up racist and/or white supremacist in their orientation…is the expectation that we should not engage with that in the classroom? How would one ideally critique racist theorists and theories without bringing up race in uncomfortable and “divisive” ways? I genuinely want to know. I’m trying to wrap my mind around this dynamic of discomfort. Is it that there is fear around Black emotions? Is that what this is? Inquiring minds would like to know.

 

 

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