This past week, I’ve been writing on Donald Trump and the anthropology of lying, and I reread Veena Das’s (1998) article on rumors and the social production of hate. Producing hate involves no longer recognizing the humanity in those considered stereotypically different from oneself. Fear of such other communities transforms them into Fearsome Others, a distinction that legitimates violence, including fatal violence. Reading Das brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” which appears in the anthology I Love Myself When I Am Laughing (1979), edited by Alice Walker. In this essay, Hurston is playful, but also deadly serious as she muses on when she feels “colored” and when she doesn’t. The distinction is sharpest when she is among whites, whether it is in Florida or at Barnard College or at a jazz concert. At a concert one evening, she dances, experiencing the music viscerally, and is moved, transported to another world. The white man sharing her table, who listens to the music without moving, tells her that it is “nice music.” The gap between them so starkly evident to her, she writes that “he has only heard what I felt.”
That is what this presidential election has felt like to me, an ability to hear but not to feel. Lost in the gap of fear is the joy of life, the delight so evident in Hurston’s later exclamation, “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.” Almost one hundred years later, we can turn to her words to gain a sense of what it feels like to be colored her, to be a “brown bag of miscellany” or perhaps a “white, red, or yellow one.” Each of us should heed her autoethnographic words to try to feel and not just hear (or see, as racial coding so often has it). Feeling what others feel, what another or the Other feels—or else acknowledging it if not truly feeling it—is to recognize the humanity of each of us. It is to recognize, as Hurston does at the end of her essay, that each of our bags of miscellany, each of our selves, is “a jumble of small things priceless and worthless.” Each of us is such a jumble. This we should not forget, not for ourselves or for any others.
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“I am aware that this discussion is unconventional anthropology,” Gerald Berreman wrote in his 1968 article “Is Anthropology Alive? Social Responsibility in Social Anthropology,” “but these are unconventional times.” These words dates back to an earlier period in anthropology, from the time of Vietnam War, when some were calling for a new commitment to ethics and responsibility in the discipline. And yet they read as if they could have been written today, in response to Trump’s presidential campaign and election, and to the current political order of things in the United States. This past November, the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) annual meeting in Minneapolis was the most politicized one I have attended in the last twenty-five years. If, in 1967, the AAA drafted a Statement on Problems of Anthropological Research and Ethics, in 2017, the association created the Rapid Response Network on Academic Freedom. Fifty years later, Berreman’s words ring true once more.
We find ourselves again in a time of urgency and responsibility, in a moment of global crisis and disciplinary response. Nothing feels conventional. We are off-kilter, in states of disbelief, anger, and fear. Parallels between the late 1960s and today are imperfect, but important. A genealogy of political commitment in American anthropology can be traced back to the Vietnam War, to a time when many anthropologists spoke out in and beyond the discipline, answering questions of whether or not anthropologists should be involved in real-world politics with a “yes” that still reverberates loudly today.
In 1968, Gerald Berreman wrote that the political and military commitments of the United States had worldwide consequences. As a result, he argued, anthropologists need to accept “unconventional responsibility for our acts, be they acts of commission or of omission.” Anthropology will not save the world, from Donald Trump, or from anything else most likely, but that does not mean that we do not have responsibilities. We have responsibilities to share our knowledge, to act, and to name the implications and consequences of our knowledge, especially in the wake of those who act without knowledge, but with power.
Das, Veena. 1998. “Specificities: Official Narratives, Rumor, and the Social Production of Hate.” Social Identities 4, no. 1: 109–30.