Anthropology Needs You Much More than You Need Anthropology

Dear Prospective Graduate Student,

Thank you for contacting me regarding pursuing a PhD in anthropology. I appreciate your interest in working with me and see productive overlap between your proposed project and my areas of expertise. I’m especially glad to learn that you are a woman of color—thank you for trusting me with that information. I’d be happy to answer your questions, but first let me share a pressing observation I had as I read your email: your project is radical, original, and quite frankly, wondrous. Are you sure you want to become an anthropologist? It could crush the soul out of you and your ideas.

Whoops, that came out harsher than I had intended! Let me back up.

Your project is at the intersection of anthropology and ethnic studies, and draws on history, critical race theory, and literature. I love that! This is going to pose major problems for you. Anthropological empiricism can render critical race theory and literary studies fundamentally suspect. Furthermore, anthropology still hasn’t figured out what to make of ethnic studies. Studying Asia or Latin America is highly prestigious. Studying immigrants? Not so much. This is the work of sociologists, or of people overly invested in identity politics. If you’re a person of color studying a minority group in the United States, a good number of anthropologists will write you off as “studying yourself.” (Feeling incredulous yet? You’re in good company.)

Anthropology has, for centuries, freely studied the world’s nonwhite populations, but “home” is more complicated. To clarify, anthropology does acknowledge our settler-colonial history, but Native Americans don’t figure into this definition of home. I’m talking about white middle-class academics, who comprise the mainstay of anthropology. Whether in North America or Western Europe, studying “our” culture has far less value and cachet. Why study something that everyone already understands? And how else would we distinguish ourselves from “the other” (BTW, we don’t use that term anymore, but really, we do).

This is one of many forms of academic racism that underpins anthropology today. My white colleagues who study South Asia or its diaspora are never thought to be exploring identity politics, because they will never embody South Asia in the academy; they are free to legitimately explore its infinite heterogeneity. In anthropology, whiteness still has no identity. It remains the undisturbed center of authority and epistemological production, around which anthropologists of color (what an awkward term!) arrange themselves.

I work at an elite research university where graduate students are well supported. Working in a place of privilege makes elitism feel normal for some, but it may never feel normal for you. That’s because it doesn’t belong to you. As an academic of color, you will quickly understand this power imbalance. It is most pronounced in the institutional obsession with diversity discourse, which can obscure, legitimate, and even reproduce the very racial hierarchies it purports to correct. You might hear anthropologists praise diversity while they write students and faculty off as angry brown or black women. This is a textbook example of the gendered, racialized ways that some anthropologists reproduce the very power structures they claim to critique (note: this is not covered in any anthropology textbook). 

This is why, in 2018, we still find ourselves in a moment of #AnthropologySoWhite. Certainly, there are anthropologists of color, but it remains onerous to unsettle this power dynamic. There are so few structures of accountability that keep special journal issues, panels, and symposia from being all white. The field is still dominated by white men who see themselves as celebrity anthropologists (now that is a truly awkward term!) who have legions of Twitter followers and oversubscribed Academia.edu pages. Let me tell you about my own experience with this, as just one example, so as to not alienate you completely (you’re still reading, right?).

At the beginning of June 2018, I was asked to join the editorial board of HAU. It was like being invited to join a secret society. I thought of it as a small crack in epistemological hegemony (the seemingly invisible ways in which knowledge is produced and disseminated). I reveled in the possibility that a broader range of voices shape was finally going to shape the intellectual conversation. That bliss lasted about six days, until #HAUtalk started up. As you’ve likely heard, that conversation took a very different, disturbing turn and has yet to be resolved. But at least now there is a conversation about these issues.

I understand that I’ve painted a rather grim picture, but I want you to know what you’re getting into. I haven’t even touched upon issues like academic precarity, but my “cons” column is already overflowing. Let me offer you some “pros,” because I really do want you to choose anthropology. Students like you are the reason I stick around; you and the undergraduates, who are fantastic. As a recent undergrad, I bet you have that amazing curiosity, resilience, and deep commitment to understanding what is wrong in the world and figuring out ways to not replicate those things moving forward. This is true of the remarkable graduate students whom I’ve had the privilege of working with, who not only see anthropology’s potential for social change but enact that change through their own academic priorities, networks, and forms of collegiality.

Now that I’ve laid all of this out, I’ll ask again: are you sure you want to become an anthropologist? Please say yes. If you come work with me, I will fight for you, teach you to fight, and do all I can to ensure that you don’t become co-opted in the university’s struggle to represent diversity. I will allay your concerns about impostor syndrome, because I can already tell that you are the real deal. I will help you navigate the pitfalls of academic elitism by introducing you to the many excellent people I’ve met who are equally concerned about these matters. They do this work too, every day. Sure, we’re in the minority, and many of us are minorities, which makes us doubly committed. We focus far more on the inclusion part of “diversity and inclusion,” in ways that are surely, but very slowly, creating change in academia.

In short, anthropology needs you much more than you need anthropology. This is true for our current students, and I am thrilled that they are the future of anthropology. Watching them rise gives me great hope. As do you.

Yours truly,

Shalini Shankar