I disembarked from the plane to Minneapolis in the early evening of Tuesday, November 14, one day prior to the official kickoff of the 115th installment of the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting. It had been three months since I was last in the United States. In the spring of 2016, I accepted a position at Goldsmiths, University of London, and relocated my family in August. My return, of course, coincided with the tumultuous conclusion to an election cycle that I had watched from afar as I settled into life in the United Kingdom amidst the uncertainty of Brexit.
As I walked through the terminal, assaulted by the spectacle of CNN blaring its incessant, tepid analysis of American exceptionalism from TVs interspersed throughout the airport. I wondered what the response to the election would be at our yearly conference. Would things be humming along, as they seemed to be for the many air travelers going about their business in predictable fashion? Would academic papers be delivered in monotone seriousness, describing and theorizing fractions of the world from a removed, North Atlantic perspective without a mention of the global rise of neoliberal-informed nationalism, its effects, and its historical precedents? Would conversations about the U.S. election take place in the corridors of the convention hall with the same tenor as the buzz of CNN, an unconscious normalization of Donald Trump and his rhetoric, a myopic discourse of liberal surprise and disbelief rooted in the here and now without a historical or global sensibility and sensitivity? I braced myself for the most mundane of responses, even as I hoped for a thoughtful, reflective recognition of Trump’s election as part and parcel of colonial histories that have produced unequal social, economic, and political conditions, particularly for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in the United States and beyond. My sincerest wish was that this election created enough of a rupture that a decolonial anthropology that “supports a reverse interrogation by ‘native’ anthropologists who continue in ‘gazing and talking back’ from their tenuous, or at least contradictory, positions within the Western academy” (Allen and Jobson 2016, 133) could take, at least for a moment, center stage.
The remainder of this short piece focuses on the kinds of “gazing and talking back” that I witnessed and took part in during this year’s annual meeting. I believe that the rupture that this election and other related political happenings has, at least temporarily, afforded opportunities for us so-called native anthropologists to offer our perspectives on the politics of the moment as well as necessary and productive critiques of the discipline, the academy, and the institutions within which we work. This was evident in this year’s meeting, as scheduled disruptions were visible, even showcased. However, what I found even more productive were the unanticipated moments of gazing and talking back I found myself coconstructing with other anthropologists of color throughout the conference.
A montage: Jonathan Rosa’s short address on the colonial aphasia of the discipline and the need to recognize racism as structural, not simply inscribed on overdetermined Black and Brown bodies but deeply rooted in institutions and knowledge formations we are complicit in maintaining; John Jackson’s unforgettable performance of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man soliloquy during an anthropology of storytelling roundtable; Melissa Harris-Perry’s keynote, which highlighted the continuity, rather than exceptionality, of Trump’s victory; the entirety of the “Towards an Unapologetically Black Anthropology” panel and its unequivocal refusal of respectability politics. These were a few instances of scheduled disruption that one could use the searchable conference website to find, attend, and learn about the continuity of struggle that neither begins nor ends with this election cycle.
The unscheduled disruptions, however, happened when I—and others, I suspect—least expected it. Another montage: a spontaneous lunch on Wednesday with a group of junior scholars with deep familial connections to Iraq, India, and Lebanon, where, over the burritos we found on Eat Street, we discussed the politics of the academy, shared stories from our respective projects, and exchanged information with the idea of doing something in the future; an unexpected gathering of anthropologists of South Asian origin in the exhibition hall on Friday, where we discussed creating our own section within the AAA, as well as ways we could forge connections with existing sections and strategies for supporting our colleagues in South Asia at a moment where their academic freedom is in acute jeopardy; the small group of senior colleagues I found myself with on the last day of the conference, all Black women whom I had met minutes prior in the main reception area, who generously peppered me with questions about my work and gave me advice on how to navigate publishing and institutional commitments while staying committed to the political: in short, how to survive and thrive in academia as a person of color.
These instances of solidarity, something I had not experienced previously at the annual meeting of the AAA, emerged unexpectedly. They were, in retrospect, a wholly sensible response to the politics of the day. In the uncertain future ahead, we must not lose this impetus to gaze and talk back as an individual and collective strategy of disruption within our discipline and in our public engagements. We should also recognize that planning disruptions with those we already know is only part of the struggle. Unplanned disruptions—both inside and outside academia—have the potential to create what Faye Harrison has recently described as “transnational and diasporic solidarities” in ways that prefigured interruption cannot. I write with hope, two weeks after our meeting in Minneapolis, that these sorts of conjunctures can pave the way toward decolonial futures if we leave ourselves open to the possibilities they contain.
Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, and Ryan Cecil Jobson. “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology Since the Eighties.” Current Anthropology 57, no. 2: 129–48.