Talking about Race with “White Person Bias”

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek
Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Fieldwork. We all do it, yet it seems to be something that’s particularly hard to teach and talk about, especially when so much of the success of fieldwork in any anthropological sub-discipline hinges on a researcher’s ability to form genuine social relationships. I’ve heard people say, “You just can’t teach that” about this keystone of success. Well, Russ Bernard has shown us that many elements of the focused attention required for fieldwork can be taught (see his section on participant-observation from Research Methods in Anthropology, AltaMira, 2011), while books like Tales of the Field (Van Maanen),Disasters in Field Research (Ice, DuFour, and Stevens), and I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long (Borgerhoff-Mulder and Logsdon) speak to the need in the social sciences to share and learn from fieldwork mistakes and misadventures.

I continue to be fascinated by the exigencies of fieldwork, perhaps in part because they are so universal yet typically not prioritized in discussion—so familiar, yet so strange, to quote the theme of the upcoming AAA Annual Meeting in Denver.

Chris Lynn and I have organized a session for the meeting titled, “Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research,” which we designed as a forum for an updated discussion of the practicalities of field research. Our inspiration came in part from Clancy and colleagues’ recent PLoS One study on sexual harassment in the field, which received a lot of press last year (a shocking 70% of the over 500 women they interviewed reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their field research careers, while 25% reported actual assault). Robin Nelson, one of the study’s authors, will serve as our session discussant.

I am especially excited about this session because, although the presenters are all professors, the topics address challenges common at all stages of research and training.Rebecca Lester’s and Eileen Anderson-Fye’s presentations, for instance, will explore how fieldworkers manage and respond to trauma, both theirs and others’, in field research. My presentation will use data from a small study of fieldworkers at various stages of their research careers to explore how they grapple with racial differences between themselves and their informants. Chris Lynn’s and Michaela Howells‘, meanwhile, will discuss fieldwork and family—a favorite topic of mine and one relevant for graduate students and faculty members. There are important lessons to be learned here for students, mentors, and fieldworkers at all stages.

My desire to talk about race and racially charged encounters in fieldwork stems in part from my employment in a largely white department (as most anthropology departments are) in the deep south. Our department’s faculty are particularly concerned with social inequity in health outcomes, which means that our research and teaching often put us in contact with disenfranchised people in the greater Alabama area, many of whom identify with minority racial groups. The ongoing racial tensions in our community, which are more blatant though probably no stronger than anywhere else in the U.S. right now, undoubtedly shape our research and teaching—especially when it comes to understanding and reflecting on how we are perceived by the people with whom we work.

Early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness…It is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past.

 

Last year, when I received a student review that claimed my teaching suffered from “white person bias,” I took the comment very seriously because I regularly teach about social inequality and social justice in the south. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to engage racial difference in an overarching cultural context of racial tension meaningfully, respectfully, and in a way that is useful to all parties involved. Although I thought I was doing this pretty well, my student’s comment reminds me that I have a long way to go. So, my motivation for doing a study of fieldworkers’ engagement with race is partially selfish.

 

This issue is also important from a historic perspective in anthropology. We all know that early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness. Typically, when anthropologists read these materials today, we do so with an understanding that we must overlook the racism embedded in these authors’ works if we want to extract their insights. We say that we can’t get caught up in their racism because that’s just how things were back then.

 

But I think it is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past. No matter our intentions, we are still an overwhelmingly white discipline that works with people all over the world who do not identify as white. We are still an overwhelmingly white set of authority figures, and our classrooms reflect much greater racial and ethnic diversity than our anthropology faculties and departments do. We need to talk about these things.

 

So, come to our AAA session and help me figure out how to be a better anthropologist. You might learn something, too.

“Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research”
Invited Session sponsored by the Biological Anthropology Section and the General Anthropology Division
Thursday, November 19 4:00 pm- 5:45 PM

Lesley Jo Weaver (PhD/MPH, Emory) is an Assistant Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and an affiliated faculty member in UA’s Asian Studies program. She studies health and illness in India and rural northern Brazil.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.


This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ October 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”