White

In the writing center where I used to work, I helped a white student with an anthropology personal statement for graduate school. During our session, as the student was explaining their choice to focus their studies in anthropology–instead of sociology–they said, “Sociology is Anthropology for white people.”

At the time, I chuckled and continued to talk about passive verbs and abstract ideas, but in truth, the student’s complete misunderstanding of their field really bothered me. My discomfort worsened as the student detailed their research within an “intentional community” of hippies, freegans, and artists.

Later, I stumbled upon some photos of the student with another friend of mine at their Arabic dance class. The two of them sported heavy eye makeup, gossamer scarves, bangles, and jewels fastened to belly buttons, eyebrows, and cleavage. They were posed in artificial, exoticized positions, their white skin dusted with powder to make them glimmer under stage lights.

If Anthropology is not for white people, then who is cultural appropriation for? Was this just another research method to justify the scientific and cultural othering of non-white people? Or was this student caught in the delusion that their neoliberal multiculturalism benefited their scholarship?

Hippies don’t see color, which allows them to appropriate indiscriminately: dreadlocks are fine if your own thick hair dreads itself “naturally”; belly dancing is feminist and body-positive; the only non-white cultures worth studying are “exotic” cultures and their “mystical” religions, not the cultures of the neighborhoods hippies’ intentional communities have gentrified.

While I don’t have a problem with Anthropology, I do have a problem with white scholars saying shit like “Sociology is for white people.” Set down your Sanskrit dictionary and get a clue.

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2 thoughts on “White

  1. The issue of some (white) anthropology students assuming their discipline automatically includes them within marginalized cultures is one of my few beefs with undergraduate anthropology programs. A few years back, I did a field study at a historically marginalized neighborhood, with a large community center in the middle of it; my partner, within several minutes of meeting the organizer, asked if she could hang out there after hours, chill in the garden/community center with friends whenever she wanted, and use the outdoor oven to cook herself a pizza (?).

    Even if anthropology is a more radicalized and inclusive discipline than sociology (spurious at best, but I don’t even want to get into the mass of unchecked privilege typically tied into assumptions of “whiteness”), a discipline is only as radical as its practitioners. Which is to say, of course: fetishizing and co-opting “the other” is still a fucking problem. Especially in disciplines like anthro, which is still recovering from its colonialist roots and half of a century of being used as a prop for US military intelligence. It’s an essential struggle, but requires some real effort on the part of the privileged practitioners to figure out any problematic things they might be doing.

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