Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project, Pedagogy

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Week 19: Anne Galvin on Reflexivity and the White Anthropologist

The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to continue an ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice. You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed.  In this entry,  Anne Galvin discusses how teaching with memoir introduces many voices and points of view in her classroom. 


I attended graduate school in the 1990s and, like many anthropologists in training, spent much of my coursework considering questions of “positionality.”  At the time, taking stock of anthropology’s relationship to colonial projects, as well as our own sometimes privileged positions and biases, shaped disciplinary debates and new methodologies.  Reflexivity – the practice of being transparent about one’s own situation and possible bias – was one way anthropologists responded to the problem of position. It turns out these considerations are far from academic in 2017 as we work to build more effective engagements between anthropologists and movements for racial justice and develop inclusive classroom pedagogies.

Making reflexivity part of research and teaching, however, can be challenging.  As a white anthropologist who researches and teaches on social justice issues in the Caribbean, the primary lesson for me has been to listen first and speak later. However, in my capacity as a professor, I need to be a source of knowledge, experience, and authority for my students. Finding ways to meet these dual duties of listener and authority has become part of my job teaching at one of the most racially and economically diverse universities in the country. It means being a professor but also decentering myself as the sole source of authority.  Many of my students, after all, have more personal experience with Caribbean families, migration, and confronting racial discrimination than I do.

As I see it, part of my role is to help undergraduate students critically contextualize their own ideas and experiences within broader bodies of knowledge and scholarship.  Opening up the mysteries of ethnographic fieldwork and sharing my own experiences of producing knowledge about the Caribbean is one strategy I’ve used to encourage debates about reflexivity and positionality.  Another is to assign testimonies of Caribbean people alongside more traditional anthropological texts.  The readings encourage students to bring their own experiences to our discussions, and can help others to speak frankly about privilege.

In class I share my fieldwork experiences in Kingston, Jamaica to highlight the process of listening and learning from people, experts on their own lives, as a research technique. I try to demonstrate how discussions with people about the workings of the dancehall music industry, and their encounters with governance and development projects shaped the analysis in my ethnography, Sounds of the Citizens: Dancehall and Community in Jamaica (2014). In class discussion I’m able to share dilemmas over my white privilege during fieldwork and to demonstrate how people I worked with played with their own ideas of privilege in their interactions with me.

Beyond including anthropological research written by women and scholars of color in my syllabi, breaking away from the traditional anthropological format also encourages discussion. Assigning memoirs and essays written by Caribbean authors can help center black voices, perspectives, and expertise in the classroom. In particular, Edwidge Danticat’s memoir, Brother, I’m Dying (2008), and Jamaica Kincaid’s book length essay, A Small Place (2000), are fantastic sources for student discussion.

Danticat’s memoir challenges students to see the brutality of immigration policies and bureaucracies that contradict the United States’ inclusive mythology. Readers bear witness to the experiences of Danticat’s Haitian family as they struggle to navigate labor markets, health care systems, and state agencies. Danticat’s family story is pushed in a senselessly tragic direction as a result of stigmatizing, reductive, document-obsessed methods of immigrant management. While ethnographic monographs can give students valuable insight on the immigrant experience, the memoir adds another dimension of intimacy to the curriculum. It reveals the tenderness within Danticat’s multi-generational Haitian family, an aspect of black experience that is not highlighted frequently enough in popular culture or social scientific research. The memoir promotes discussion by opening a space for students who have immigration stories in their own family histories to reflect on how these narratives are unique and what they share in relation to institutional systems of power. At the same time it can help students who may have never faced such circumstances to imagine the experience of total helplessness and dependence on, at times, arbitrary and brutalizing state bureaucracies.


Jamaica Kincaid’s essay, A Small Place, also utilizes an accessible format to communicate a critical Caribbean perspective to students. The idea to teach the essay to undergraduates came from a friend who gleefully told me, “That essay will ruin your vacation!” Kincaid addresses her writing to you, the reader. Students become implicated in Kincaid’s depiction of a small Caribbean island dominated by foreign tourism and government corruption because the essay speaks directly to them. They are shown how historical and geographical context shapes residents’ perspectives and limits their aspirations. They are then drawn further into the long history of European exploitation in the Caribbean. This essay plants the seed of personal involvement in the reader. It puts a new wrinkle in the American collegiate spring break tradition by placing it back inside real time and centering the privilege of the tourist while also giving critical voice to the invisible local worker who serves and tidies as part of vacation’s backdrop. Readers become immersed in a biting commentary on slavery, state sovereignty, racism, and economic inequality. In the classroom, students react either in defense of themselves or in anger at the effects of European colonialism, which creates an opportunity to have important discussions about perspective, power, and the ways history initiates and sustains inequalities in the present. This piece pairs well with Stephanie Black’s documentary on Jamaican structural adjustment, Life and Debt (2001), which draws its narrative heavily from the essay and includes extensive interviews with Caribbean farmers, politicians, and scholars.


The discipline of anthropology, while long shaped by colonial discourses, can also be a special space for students to consider their own position and the ways other peoples have struggled to create more equitable societies. Whether through ethnographic work, or less traditionally anthropological works of memoir and essay, demonstrating reflexivity and centering the work of scholars of color in the classroom can be a unique disciplinary strength. The value of this approach is both academic and practical as students think through their own political engagement and acts of solidarity and resistance at this perilous time.


Black, Stephanie (2001) Life and Debt, Tough Gong Pictures.

Danticat, Edwidge (2008) Brother, I’m Dying. New York: Vintage Books.

Galvin, Anne (2014) Sounds of the Citizens: Dancehall and Community in Jamaica. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Kincaid, Jamaica (2000) A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Anne M. Galvin is Associate Professor of Anthropology at St. John’s University in NYC. She earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the New School for Social Research. Her teaching and research interests include anthropology of globalization; colonialism; popular culture; anthropology of the state; political economy; race and gender studies; the Caribbean and African diaspora. She is currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of the NEAA Bulletin, a peer reviewed publication of the Northeastern Anthropological Association. Her book, Sounds of the Citizens: Dancehall and Community in Jamaica, is available through Vanderbilt University Press.


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