Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project, Pedagogy

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus, Week 24: Thurka Sangaramoorthy on Decolonizing Anthropology in the Trump Era

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 post, Thurka Sangaramoorthy discusses anthropology in the Trump era. 

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election campaign and the election of Donald Trump has signaled a more visible rise in xenophobia, racism, and nativism which has left many in tremendous shock, fear, and uncertainty. Some of us were not surprised, even predicting these results, while many others have voiced profound shock, pronouncing personal calls to action brought upon by the election and declaring to fight bigotry and white supremacy in all its forms.

Trump’s election to the highest office in the country has only increased concerns among faculty of color, especially those who are part of communities that are continually feeling besieged by the political landscape. This state of persistent personal insecurity for scholars of color has only amplified long-standing issues of academic precarity in the face of enduring whiteness of the academy. Even in the most so-called liberal campuses, faculty of color continue to face and witness frequent instances of racism, racial stress, and racial battle fatigue; experience feelings of disrespect and marginalization as often the only, or one of only a handful of people of color in academic schools and departments; and encounter fierce resistance or are rebuked for doing radical anti-racist work.


(Jim Cole/AP)

These issues were at the forefront of my mind while attending the 115th American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Conference in Minneapolis, MN. In fact, they drew me to a late-breaking meeting, which attracted over 100 conference attendees, to discuss post-election strategies. Groups of 8-10 of us gathered at tables across the room while the organizers opened the meeting by briefly discussing the rationale for the gathering and initiating conversations around suggested topics for us to discuss in smaller break-out groups.

After about 30-40 minutes of discussion, we broke out into smaller groups to discuss the following issues: student support including sanctuary campuses; support for anthropologists of color, particularly those who come from communities targeted by the new administration; new research initiatives to support a response in the wake of the election; contributions to public policy and legislative recommendations; creation of a policy statement for the AAA on the elections; media engagements; community outreach; and on-the-ground strategies and resources.

As a person of color, long interested in and acting upon issues of inequities within and outside anthropology, I was curious about how we would break out into these smaller groups. To which topic of discussion would each of us would be drawn? Which action points were we willing to consider and act upon?

I was therefore interested in seeing how many of us would gather at the table dedicated to strategizing about how to support fellow anthropologists of color in the Trump era. How many of us were ready to answer Faye Harrison’s long-standing call to decolonize anthropology; to interrogate the internal hierarchies of the discipline itself; to consider our own complicity in marginalizing and discounting colleagues who have never stopped laboring and enacting theoretical, methodological, and professional alternatives?

Not many.

I was not at all surprised that our table included the fewest number of participants—a grand total of six—and included graduate students, contingent faculty, and untenured faculty, almost all identifying as women of color. The fact that some of the other tables, particularly those devoted to sanctuary campuses and community outreach, were overflowing with a variety of (white) engaged participants seemed mundane, expected—reaffirming decolonization scholars’ critiques of anthropology, particularly in how it locates its “objects” of inquiry, its critical role in developing the trope of particular black and brown subjects, and in this case, its impetus for certain types protest and action.

Just like the 2016 election cycle described by the meeting’s keynote speaker Melissa Harris-Perry in her talk titled, “What Just Happened?” the moment felt predictable and normal. Harris-Perry addressed among other things the persistent misogyny, racism, and marginalization rooted in the very fabric of American liberal democracy that resulted in the election of Trump, subsequently calling out academic complacency and institutional inequality (“..State violence against women has been reaffirmed every minute, we just didn’t notice. Sometimes it was us.”).


(Melissa Harris-Perry giving the Keynote Address at the AAA, Shit Academics Say)

Despite (or perhaps because of) our numbers, we six proceeded to discuss a series of issues related to racial, gendered, and class vulnerabilities among anthropologists and the amplification of such vulnerabilities in the academy. In particular we spent much of our time thinking through the various institutional policies and disciplinary practices (the formal and the everyday) that continually challenge, dehumanize, and erase students, faculty, and staff of color. We also discussed Trump as a sustaining symbol rather than a remarkable exceptional event for most of us.

Since this meeting, I’ve been comforted by familiar and new pieces in thinking through next steps. Taking seriously Allen and Jobson’s call in The Decolonizing Generation to “plus ça change,” I’ve been reading texts that I first encountered as an undergraduate student such as Baker’s From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race; Bolles’ piece on Black Feminist Intellectual Thought in Anthropology; Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks; Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation; Harrison’s Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation;. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism; Said’s Orientalism; Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?; Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History; and Visweswaran’s Race and the Culture of Anthropology. These pieces have provided me renewed understandings of the connections between race and colonialism as a continual ongoing process rather than a historical event. They are constant reminders of engaging in historically grounded and inclusive analyses of race and gender formations within the United States and beyond.

I’ve also been energized by more recent discussions in this regard. The Decolonizing Anthropology Series as well as other posts (e.g. Anthropology, Misrecognition, and the Racial Politics of Crisis and Anthropology after November 8th: On Race, Denial, and the Work Ahead) on Savage Minds has sparked productive conversations and debates around continuing struggles of decolonizing anthropology and the academy more broadly. American Orientalism, Vivek Bald’s brilliant account of the perpetual politics of brownness of South Asians in the United States, is another favorite. Simpson’s On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship which positions decolonizing methodologies of refusal as a generative orientation has been good to think with. John Jackson, Jr’s Color, Community and Citizenship in an Aspiringly “Post-Racial” Democracy talk given at the 2014 University of Maryland’s Baha’i Chair Lecture also continues to inspire me.

In terms of the most recent election, I’ve relied on Robin D. G. Kelly’s writings and Jonathan Rosa’s talk at the 2016 AAA meetings to think more deeply about the rise of Trump and have enjoyed reading colleagues’ posts in The Shattered Echo Chamber: Experiences of #amanth2016 in the Wake of the Election curated by Carlos Martínez-Cano.

None of this would be complete without an accompanying playlist. Some favorites for the moment include A Tribe Called Quest’s We the People (“All you Black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans, you must go/ And all you poor folks, you must go/ Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways/ So all you bad folks, you must go”); Xenia Rubinos’ Mexican Chef (“Brown walks your baby/ Brown walks your dog/ Brown raised America in place of it’s mom/ Brown cleans your house/ Brown takes the trash/ Brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass”); and M.I.A.’s Borders (“Freedom, ‘I’dom, ‘Me’dom/ Where’s your ‘We’dom?/ This world needs a brand new ‘Re’dom).

Collectively, these writings and performances suggest freedom as an act of improvisation. They also reimagine resistance as one in which, as Common eloquently rhymes, we (re)write our own story.


(M.I.A. Borders video, Interscope)

Thurka Sangaramoorthy is a medical anthropologist whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS, immigrant health, and risk environments. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley and her M.P.H. from Columbia University. She is currently assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Treating AIDS: Politics of Difference, Paradox of Prevention (Rutgers, 2014). She is currently working on projects that focus on race, health, and inequality, examining intersectional stigmas among black women with HIV/AIDS and immigrant health and environmental degradation in rural environments.


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