You’re probably looking at the title, and then at my photo, and thinking, “Isn’t she white?” Yes. Yes, I am white. I was never a graduate student of color in the academy.
So, my insights are limited, and I don’t present myself as an expert on this subject.
But I did have a career that spanned no fewer than three racially-charged departmental environments. And during my time in these three departments, I tried my best to stay open and alert to the challenges posed to the white dominant system in those departments by the graduate students (and faculty) of color. I came to understand some of the ways that my own subject position and mode of operation were products of white privilege, and the many unthinking ways that I reinforced that through my work. I watched graduate students and faculty of color brutalized by the unacknowledged racism of the institution, and I did my best to serve as an ally. I don’t think I was always as successful as I wanted to be. But I did learn a thing or two. And it’s those things I share today.
First, my background. I went to graduate school at the University of Hawai’i. I got my first job at the University of Oregon. I got my second job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Hawai’i the Anthropology department was deeply implicated in the conflicts on campus about the relationship of the University and the Native Hawaiian community. One cultural anthropologist on the faculty, not long before I arrived, had just been forced to abandon her research focus on Native Hawaiians after her informants revealed they had systematically and intentionally lied to her in her most recent published fieldwork project.
At the University of Oregon, the archaeology program, which was highly Pacific Northwest focused, had begun intensively recruiting Native American graduate students shortly before I arrived. When I was there, there were approximately five Native American students enrolled in the department, some in the Cultural Resource Management MA program, with the goal of getting training to manage their tribes’ museums, and some in archaeology and cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on their tribal cultures, languages, and histories.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, two Latina/o faculty members in cultural anthropology hired before I arrived had, over time, successfully recruited a group of approximately seven Latina/o graduate students, who were primarily enrolled in cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on a range of Latino, Mexicano, and Latin American cultural topics.
In all three of these departments, the presence of a “critical mass” of graduate students of color—that is to say, graduate students of “one” color, ie, from one particular racial and cultural background—fundamentally altered the department climate and profoundly challenged the graduate seminar environment.
At Oregon, because of a separate critical mass of white faculty members who were (within limits) willing and able to look directly at questions of race and their own privileged subject position, the department, at least during the years I was there, was able to adjust and grow as a result of these challenges.
At Hawai’i and Illinois, the departments proved unable to do this.
At Hawai’i, the cultural anthropologist who had previously worked with Native Hawaiians changed her research focus and left for a position on the East Coast. The department, during the years that I was there as a Ph.D. Student, indeed operated as if it was located on the East Coast. There was no indication whatsoever that we were a department at the very center of a profound social upheaval resulting from the newly powerful Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and the work of scholars and activists like Haunani-Kay Trask, right on our campus. The department stayed entirely mute. It was a department in total denial.
This despite the fact that at just the same time, the discipline of anthropology was itself reeling from a new interrogation from scholars of color (Edward Said foremost among them) of the profound involvement of the discipline in histories and mechanisms of colonialism and imperialism. These scholars also queried the continuing racism embedded in a discipline that is based on the ideal of a white scholar writing about and making a career from studies of communities of color.
It was a curious fact that this critique was taken seriously at the most intensely white anthropology programs, while at the programs where the faculty felt directly threatened by actual people of color in the community, it was entirely ignored.
At Illinois, because the Latina/o graduate students had the support of two respected (albeit untenured) faculty members, and also the support of no less than the brand-new then-Chancellor of the University, Nancy Cantor (a long-time proponent of diversity in graduate education), they were able to break through the wall of silence and denial in the department, and force the issue of the racism of anthropology into the open.
The fascinating thing at Illinois was that the critique of anthropological racism was never explicitly denied. On the contrary, most of the white faculty members by that point were well-versed in “talking the talk” of self-reflexive anthropology and the imperialist origins of the discipline.
But when it came to taking the next step, that of interrogating their own privilege, and in particular, the readings assigned, and the discussions encouraged, in their own graduate seminars, then….well, things were entirely different. Far from being mute, the faculty became aggressive and hostile.
The department fractured in the end over a truly heartbreaking and appalling incident centering around a plaque that the university, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to erect honoring long-deceased UI anthropologist Oscar Lewis and his “Culture of Poverty” thesis (which, for those of you unfamiliar, basically blames poor Mexican people for being poor). I will not rehash the dreadful events that ensued here, but you may read about them in this account by a former Ph.D. student who was at the center of it: Brian Montes, “No Longer Silent: A Historical Moment of Latino Student Activism” Latino Studies (2005) 3, 280–287.
I’ve written too much without even getting to any thoughts on the purported topic of this post: “Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy.”
Here’s what I want to say. I learned through these interactions that the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.
One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, in the midst of the Oscar Lewis debacle, “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable. Kind of like the Republicans blaming Obama for the debt-ceiling crisis. If a problem emerges under your purview—you must be the cause of the problem.
Anyway, it goes without saying that graduate students of color so often feel heartbreakingly isolated in their departments and completely without a friend or ally. That when they try to talk to white faculty about race—not so much as an analytical concept, as a systematic source of blindness about how syllabi are written (ie, with exclusively white scholarship) or how classroom discussions are conducted (ie, when the tentative critiques of students of color are instantly and angrily shot down by defensive white students and faculty), they are met with on one end, bewilderment, in the middle defensiveness, and on the other end, hostility. That when they try to engage their white graduate classmates in a collective intervention, the white graduate students are often MORE defensive, angry, and hostile than the faculty members themselves, probably because of their own status insecurity.
I am not the first to say these things, and I won’t be the last.
What I do want to say is this: the starting point and the ending point for so many graduate students of color in the humanities and social sciences is frequently (although not always) fundamentally different from that of white students. While some graduate students of color most certainly do turn their scholarly interests to subjects unconnected to their own racial or cultural background, and that is entirely to be supported, for the majority, I believe, scholarship starts and ends with the question, “does this help or hurt my people?”
And that is a question that white people don’t get. Because white people don’t have “a people.” Of course the most ethical among us will ask this question about the people we study. We might care deeply about those people and spend a professional life intimately involved with them. But they’re not “our” people. Even when we marry one of them, they are not our mothers, our fathers, our grandmothers, our cousins. We have not seen our closest family members ravaged by the widespread, all-encompassing systematic poverty and alcoholism and disease that has ravaged the Native Hawaiian community, the Native American community. White people have not seen our families torn apart by oppressive immigration policies that victimize so many in the Latina/o community and force so many into hiding.
Sure, white people can feel a sense of belonging to an ethnic group, or to a class. Working class white people in the academy do indeed feel systematically excluded from the in-groups and from classroom debates. I am not denying that. But it is different, because the stakes are different. When your people are dying, literally dying, from forms of cultural genocide, your approach to academia is going to be different. It’s going to be urgent. It’s going to be impatient. It’s going to be angry. You’re going to ask questions about why their stories are not being told, and why scholars aren’t asking how the discipline helps or hurts a group of people, your people, who are already suffering from so many histories of neglect and disregard.
I have no solution to offer for white blindness and cluelessness. I don’t present myself as a hero of enlightenment in this regard. I am still blind to my own privilege much of the time, despite my best efforts. I would still be even more pathetically blind if not shaken out of my complacency by living in Hawa’i during a powerful moment in the Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and if not directly confronted by a group of Native American graduate students in my Foundations of Social Theory Core Graduate Seminar at Oregon. If they had not asked me why all of my readings were by old, dead white guys, and insisted on an answer that wasn’t stupid, and if those students had not already been empowered by an archaeology program that was dedicated to supporting them, and if they had not been defended by a white cultural anthropologist Department Head who stood up for those students and our tumultuous class when they were attacked by the white students enrolled in it…..well, if all those things had not been in place, at that one moment in time, I would most likely still be totally comfortable with the idea of a Core Seminar in Anthropology imposing an all-white world view onto graduate students, and those Native American students would have been silenced once more.
Perhaps it takes a lightning in the bottle kind of moment to shake white people out of their race-blindness. That is depressing, and not good news. What I know is that graduate students of color bear far more than a fair share of the burden in pushing departments to confront race. And they all too often pay a terrible price for it.