Hitting Home: Anthropology, Academia, Race and Gender

Just when you think you’re working in a progressive discipline – one that is conscious and reflexive with regard to issues of race and gender – you hear a story that makes your heart sink. And it’s never just one story, because once one story has been told others begin to come out. There are stories of people of color and women being consistently overlooked for funding, jobs and promotion. There are stories of women being treated like children, and put in their place. And these stories are all justified by a logic other than race and gender – quality or quantity of work, academic “fit”, lack of funds, abrasiveness or lack of self-control. But it happens so consistently to particular people and not to others that it can’t help but raise questions among those who are paying attention.

Not enough people are paying attention. Our discipline has come a long way. In spite of – and maybe even because of – our history as a colonial science, we have made great strides in terms of being more reflexive and conscious of issues of race and gender in our research. We go to great lengths to ensure that our informants or collaborators feel included – even when they don’t particularly care about our projects. We call out racism and sexism in other disciplines and in society as a whole. But still we have failed miserably in many cases to turn that reflexive gaze upon our day-to-day practices, and in the academic departments we call home.

I’m not the first person to call attention to this, and if this post gains any traction in the discipline it will serve as one more tragic reminder that the voices of women and people of color are not being heard. But I feel the need to do something, and writing this little blog post on this obscure corner of the internet is the one thing – the one minimal thing – I can do.

What we need is a serious discussion of race and gender within our own field. Not race and gender in “the field” – a space comfortably distanced from our everyday lives even when the actual place is just down the street – but race and gender in our departments, in our writing, in our daily habits. Anthropology has a lot to offer the world, and we make a substantive difference out there, but it’s time to hit home a little harder and make a difference in our own worlds.

Race, Gender, and Science

Let’s say you’re a scientist – I’m pretty sure this isn’t my audience, so it’s a safe bet you’re not.  But let’s say you are… You’re looking at a lake, and you see that there is one portion of the lake where you find mostly male fish with a certain speckled pattern.  This in spite of the fact that this lake is full of this species of fish with plenty of both males and females and a large array of colorings and markings.  You think – this doesn’t make sense, the probability must be really low.  Indeed, you run some statistics and find that the probability of finding only male speckled fish clustered in this portion of the lake is less than 0.05.  That’s statistically significant!  So, you think, there must be something going on here – there must be some causal factor.  In fact, you eventually find that male speckled fish tend to prefer a particular type of food and this area happens to be rich in that food source.  Science!  Nice job investigating that anomaly!

Now let’s say you’re still that scientist.  You’re sitting in a room with your fellow scientists and some policy makers discussing some issue that has regulatory potential.  Let’s say you look around and see that everyone around you, with a couple of exceptions, is a male with a particular coloration pattern (generally, a lack of melanin and often a slight speckling).  What do you do?  Do you look at the probability of this happening in a diverse population, and then look for causal factors?  I doubt it.  More likely, you come up with some explanation for why this is natural and dismiss it.  Then again, you probably didn’t notice it to begin with.  Is it your fault? No, of course not – not in any direct causal sense.  Then again, that you didn’t notice or failed to call it into question is part of the cause, and in that sense, that you didn’t do anything about it is part of the problem.

I am part of the problem…

Race and the Social Construction of Reality

The fundamental idea behind ontological constructivism is – as the name suggests – that reality itself is constructed. That is, reality itself is historical and contingent – could always have been and could always be otherwise. This is a key lesson, I think, of emerging evolutionary theory and post-quantum physics, but also of contemporary social theory with an ontological focus. In the social sciences, this marks a transition, I believe, from the ontological theories of the past which took reality to be given and concrete, and the epistemologically focused theories that treated reality as fundamentally off-limits.

Take the issue race, for example. For many in the social sciences today, race is a (powerful) illusion or (merely) a social construct. This suggests that there is a more real existence behind our conceptions of race that simply needs to be articulated in order to do away with the problems our racial categories have created. This is an epistemological constructivism that extends only to our conceptions about reality and not to reality itself. I would argue, instead, that race is a reality that has been created over hundreds of years through a process of material-semiotic assemblage – pulling together both material and symbolic factors to create a force that has very real social, physical, and emotional consequences for all humans.

To say that race is a reality is not a judgement. It is not to say that our racial categories are good or bad (or inevitable). It is only to indicate a starting point from which we can begin to think about ways of changing reality. In this case, transforming the reality of race will take a combination of conceptual work (i.e. education, marketing, institutional changes, etc.) and material work (i.e. dismantling the material constraints imposed on people based on physical racial indicators). Whether or not some concept of race will continue to be part of the new reality is not clear.

Struggle forever! is a social theory and socio-political agenda based on the premise of ontological constructivism. It does not indicate a particular form of reality that ought to be brought into existence. By definition, the struggle continues no matter what form reality takes because reality will always change and new issues will always emerge. Instead, it provides a way of thinking about struggle in a world where nothing is given, and there is no center or hierarchy of being. In such a world, struggle must always be collaborative and collective because the creation of reality is a negotiation betwen all of the different beings who must share it. Struggle forever! is about process rather than product – not utopia as a place (utopia is literally “no place”) but utopia as a method for making the world better for everyone.