Re: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Wed, 7 Dec 1994 10:11:04 EST

>Both Michelle's and Luis' points well taken.
>I was at another AAA panel about, it turned out, the dilemmas created
>peoples of color and other minorities (women) becoming anthropologists
>("Between a Rock and a Hard Place on Sun").
Did the participants at that session talk about any publications coming
out of it? I was at another session at the same time, older women
anthros narrative project. I and another woman of color from my alma
mater, unc-chapel hill, told of our joy -- not angst, despite my being
told I was too old to make any scholarly contributions, -- and of our
issues with paradigmatic stuff in theory classes, treatment by faculty
and students in some situations because of being black, and therefore,
we were the "other"... It was clear some of it was our own cultural frame
being brought to the academy as it was also clear that the folks we met
weren't very thoughtful about us either. [Like the time a very, very
dear anglo friend complained about the other black woman... "she just
doesn't represent your people as well as you do... " I don't represent
anyone other than myself nor does anyone else... I retorted " Does XXX
represent white folks? I hope not, cause I'd never speak to them again."
She realized her own racism... in expecting both of us to be perfect,
brilliant and constantly agreeable and flexible into whatever frame she
or the others had in mind.... get the drift??

>Nowhere was the notion presented that the estranging, stripping away of
>the fieldworker's preconceptions and assumptions have intrinsic value.
>Does anyone else out there believe that there is more to "getting
>distance" than simply deciding to turn anthropological lenses on
>interaction (as the native anthropologist must do)? I am strongly in
>of native, activist anthropology. But I still subscribe to the notion
>native anthropologists can be far more effective if they have their
>significant fieldwork experience away from their childhood tromping
>There are many ambiguous cases that fuzzy categories like "native"
>and "other," of course, which I'll only recognize but not elaborate upon

One of the reasons I hear over and over from minority anthropology
students about their angst in graduate programs is that no one wants to
do any serious talking about this topic. The need to feel other is not so
keenly felt in people who have been the "other" in many contexts
throughout their lives. cf. Helan Page's work on "white public space" --
we know where we haven't belonged and we have experienced the need for
stepping back and analyzing that frame quite well. The need for work to
have meaning for many anthropologists of so called minority groups is
real -- it's hard to reconcile spending precious intellectual resources
on understanding something totally alien and foreign for LONG periods of
time as the MAJOR work during graduate school. I addressed this need by
using archaeology methods as topics for certain papers and for examining
the literature on Ethiopia and the horn of Africa, which I could explore
with the large number of immigrants on finds in DC and many other parts
of the US know. I wrote four papers on various topics about that part of
the world so that I would know several areas in depth beside the area of
my primary research. I stopped an extra semester to do a masters and
focussed on an entirely different frame, the "Islamic world."
A Latina wanting to study Mexico, if she comes from Argentina, is indeed
studying the "other." This type of research has been discouraged until
recently as not being unfamiliar enough terrain! I studied in the
Caribbean; I am urban Africa n American -- I was quite "other" enough
there. On the other hand, I know plenty of minority scholars who
traverse the distance. One anthropologist, who was denied the
opportunity to study in Asia because he didn't speak the language during
grad school, spent twenty years getting himself equipped to study and
work in his original choice of locations. He is invited to speak in
foreign countries, but rarely here except to nonacademic audiences; He
was forced to do low status American "white" ethnography for his

Herskovitz and others who are often heros to people who read their work,
as he is to me on some levels, also had a side which marginalized his own
African American students, forcing his best "collud" student to do a
library dissertation and thereby ruining his chances of higher status in
the academy... similarly, it is alleged by St. Clair Drake and others
that he blocked African Americans from getting money to study in Africa
because it was too similar to their own culture. These kinds of
historical events led to a lack of minority anthropologists. I have
heard the same stories from loads of latinos... check out Francis Hsu's
work in AA in 1973.. presidential address... where he cites his
colleagues failure to cite him even in parallel work, the failure of many
to cite any anthropologists of color, etc. etc....
And when we natives whine and want to invest some significant time
studying something relevant, we are told that it isn't authentic
anthropology.... I suggest that the critics of such work help us define
the methodological frames which would make such work palatable to the
critics and help us remain in anthropology and not find refuge in
sociology, ethnic studies, education, public health departments.

My doing an ethnography in an urban black high school is not my
childhood tromping grounds. Most of us, between the rock and a hard
place, are not just interested in describing our own block, we have
frames on areas of our communities that need examination. Some
familiarity does not mean knowing. studying, doing ethnographic research
and documentary research, etc., leads to academic knowledge.

I'm raving.. I'll be flamed. You just pushed a button and why I left
antho for a few years after spending tens of thousands of dollars of your
taxdollars on a fellowship, my own lost wages far in excess of that, etc.
to return to politics and education.... I decided to give anthropology
one last chance by trying to influence its politics (!!) and participate
in its discourse in some useful fashion that why you can reach me to
argue, agree, make suggestions about methods texts which address some of
the things that I've hinted about, at Commission on Minority Issues in
Anthropology, American Anthropological Association, e-mail: I might add that the other social sciences
have had initiatives to assist with minority issues over twenty years.
Anthropology has addressed it with this office (me and a computer,
really) for less than one.