Not all Researchers are White: The Twisted Episteme Surrounding ‘Native’ Black Woman Ethnographers

From the Series: Denaturalizing Ethnographic Epistemology

Marlaina Martin stands in Gozo, Malta off the coast of Xlendi Bay in Summer 2010, taking a break from her ethnographic research on lacemaking as gendered intergenerational practice, tradition, and income source. Photograph from the author's collection and was acquired with permission.

American anthropologists have increasingly probed power imbalances between “researcher” and “researched.” For example, a mid-twentieth century ‘crisis of representation’ rocked the discipline, challenging scholars to reckon with and transparently reframe researcher/participant relations. However, similar questions have not been as ardently asked about power dynamics among researchers. Instead, the tendency to attach an ethnographer’s perceived ability to validly collect, analyze, and frame data to their social identitiesespecially visible ones such as race, ethnicity, and genderpersists, and vibrantly so. Even more jarring is that many anthropologists reproduce these double standards under warped and ghettoizing applications of otherwise promising phrases: ‘responsible research,’ ‘inclusivity,’ and ‘recognition’ among themcritiques of which have snowballed, especially since the 1990s (Harrison 1992, Jackson 2004, Allen and Jobson 2016, Pinckney 2020, Leonard 2021). With this, disciplinary traditionalists can continue to presume that Black and Brown anthropologists can and will only study their so-called “own” as so-called “natives.” Hence, in acts they likely saw as constructive criticism, numerous people have cautioned me to explicitly distinguish myself from Black women with whom I work as a demonstration of the “rigor” of my research but also as a way to convince readers of my credibility. However, as a complex human being who happens to be a Black woman (and proud!), I find such unsolicited “advice” frustrating for two main reasons. One, it comes across less as sincere concern and more as a projection of reductive ideas of Black womanhood onto me and my interlocutors, as if they homogenously totalize and subsume us all. Two, in contradistinction to memories of presenting my findings from undergraduate fieldwork among non-American, non-Black women, I viscerally feel the different criteria by which people seek to qualify my research premises and praxes. Though perhaps unintentional, these two distinct attempts at pursuing and claiming ethnographic knowledge exposed me to what the field implicitly but predominantly treats as a ‘proper’ relationship between an ethnographer and their selected group of study.

While marginalized people mayand have every right tochoose to study themes and threats plaguing their communities, it is crucial to differentiate this from wider institutional norms that expect and push them to conduct such research. The latter could imply that they are mal-equipped to examine anything else. In my ostensibly Black, cis-woman body, I have grown fluent in discourses that mark Black women as niche and unprofessional, and accustomed to the shock-and-awe that some emit when their neatly-packaged internalized narratives of Blackness and Black women meet counterexamples in the form of real people’s accounts of the myriad microaggressions and other complexities shaping their lived experiences. It is from this perspective that I reflect on my sense of how other anthropologists have responded to me as researcher in the two studies I conducted thus far. The first involves my undergraduate honors research on gender, tourism, and late capitalism in the work and family lives of lace-makers in Gozo, the second-largest island in the Maltese archipelago. The second involves my dissertationand ongoing bookproject on New York City-based Black women media-makers’ production and distribution strategies. Although self-doubt stifled my ability to thoroughly understand these situations in the moment, I have since embraced the beautiful possibilities of retrospection to consider the hopeful-yet-hazardous project of studying Black women as a Black woman. Even my acquired PhD does not quell or outweigh the preconceptions and underestimations that haunt Black women in the dominant public imagination.

In 2011, I stood before a room of spectators to present my undergraduate honors thesis andif successfulprocure my joint Bachelors’ degree in Anthropology and American Studies. To demonstrate the ethnographic and interpretative toolkits I had developed, I analyzed two summers’ worth of original research that I conducted among Gozitan lace-makersmost of them women over 55 years oldwho intentionally advertised their work to tap into the island’s nostalgia-driven tourism industry. I delivered my talk with PowerPoint slides carefully curated and paced to match. However, program attendees’ follow-up questions primarily targeted not theoretical and methodological details, but my identity in ways both coded and blatant. “What brought you to this work?” “What made people trust you?” “Did you feel like an outsider?” Such questions from people generally unfamiliar with my work clued me into how separate and disinvested they assumed me to be from the women I worked withregardless of the latter’s actual perceptions of me. Ultimately, I was Black in white space. More specifically, I was a heady Black student researcher amid European women artisans who would likely be designed white in norms of U.S. racial categorization. This relation immediately rendered me suspicious not only to that audience but also in the larger demographic of anthropologists thought (able) to work in Europe. While exact words have escaped me over the past fifteen years, I can clearly recall the looks and leading aura of inquiries directed towards me during that question and answer session by people struggling to grasp how and why a ‘non-native’ Black woman undergraduate student could and would study ostensibly white women’s gendered adaptations to global capitalism. Two postulations underlie this dynamic: 1) I was believed to have innate and pre-existing connections with Black women, and 2) that relationship must be controlled for and routinely explained should I want to become a ‘real’ intellectual.

In my gap year between undergraduate and graduate schools, I had time to consciously reflect on and brainstorm my prospective directions in higher education. A clear issue that mentors warned me ofhowever well-intentionedwas that my then-present project on Gozitan lace-making and proposed future project on U.S. Black women media-makers had very different odds of resonating with Anthropology graduate program selection committees. One would position me more “traditionally” as a U.S. researcher venturing “elsewhere” to decipher the lifeways of folks in some far-off land with a scientifically beneficial degree of distance. Discouragingly, even this more conventional study seemed compromised by my Black womanhood, which disallowed me from identifying fully as researcher. On the other hand, the media project made me illegible to anthropology programs, several of whom asked if Africana or Media Studies might be a “better fit.” My perceived status as insider and noted interest in U.S. Black women’s experiences hurt my chances because they were believed to dull my capacities for intellectual and analytical sharpness. It felt like they assumed I would have instant and complete familiarity with strangers merely because we share what are realistically quite broad race and gender labels.

I decided on graduate research centering Black women in independent media. While I did embark on this path with sincere questions sparked by my interceding summer internship with a media organization, it was also fed by the rebellious discomfort I felt, and still feel, towards prevailing ethnographic epistemologies that demonize the feelings, silences, and the very notion of going (and of being) ‘native’whatever that means. Juxtaposed with my thesis presentation experience, I remember my introduction of my developing graduate research proceeding very differently. During a seminar, the professor asked each student to detail their research topic. One of my few recollections from the first time describing my research topic aloud to this instructor and some classmates was the follow-up period of broad-sweeping questions: “What do you mean by Black, Blackness, and Black women?” “How will you establish distance (assuming some kind of nascent, pre-contact closeness)?” “How are their issues generalizable to broader humanity?” “Isn’t naming Black women as your research population essentialist?” And do not forget the almost-guaranteed: “But what about all women/all Black people?” and the related, “How do Black women constitute a valid population of analysis?”

Importantly, Zora Neale Hurston (1936, 1938), John L. Jackson, Jr. (2004), Savannah Shange (2019) and various other Black anthropologists have stressed that imposed native/non-native, scientific/personal, and intellectual/emotional binaries are irresponsible if they serve to collapse and treat Black people as monolithic. Like them, I too have learned that freedom to study beyond personal affiliations is not universally available. Reversals of this realityi.e., attesting that white researchers should only study white people but can only manage to do so non-intellectuallyhave indeed stirred guffaws of rage and disbelief. These and other radical scholars have critiqued white scholars researching Black and Brown people on principles of cultural opacity and sacred emic knowledge. This has prompted several of those critiqued to shroud themselves in “academic freedom” and lean harder into white-favoring cultural capitals and privileges“objectivity” among them. Oftentimes, this is done to the detriment of Black people, many of whom can remember times they felt pressured to check their allegiances to and divorce themselves from wider Black communities in order to “prove” their legitimacy to an enduringly white supremacist patriarchal academe all too primed to exploit and take them for granted.

Plucked from the ephemerality of passing events for closer interrogation, the two examples touched on here acknowledge how scholars from ethno-racially marginalized groups get caught in polarized crossfires between cultural recognition and race- and gender-neutral academic prostration, between measured objectivity and unadulterated passion. Despite disparate relational terms and expectations, both situations encouraged and even incentivized me to pit my embodied experience against my intellectual acuity and depth. Both called into question my authoritative potential and ability to think and work dynamically. Both associated my research with pronounced emotionality, whether referencing my “misguided” interest in lace-makers or my overly familiar intimacy with Black women’s media-making. Both started from grounds that restricted my purview as a valid academician to Black women’s stories and histories. My European study befuddled new listeners but my U.S. study garnered skepticism from institutional peers and seniorsquite the hefty ultimatum for a budding scholar. Thinking on these predicaments and their echoes present-day, I realize that what I went through was not just the work of a few old-fashioned mentors or departments, but a discipline-wide ideology quick to situate scholars like me not as culturally advantaged and insightful, but uncritically and naïvely immersed.

Cognizant attunement to one’s social background does not automatically undercut the rigor of one’s research design, methods, or analysis. My unintentionally multi-sited engagement with politics, practices, and pertinences of gendered cultural production has pushed me to theorize across geographic, racial, ethnic, and class lines: an allegedly laudable but effectively booby-trapped excursion to bear as an anthropologically-trained Black woman determined to uplift womenin particular, Black onesas legitimate foci and also as conductors, interpreters, and authors of ethnographic research.

Marlaina Martin earned her PhD in cultural anthropology from Rutgers University-New Brunswick in 2019. Her anthropological research and writing explore learning, creative, and community-building practices of Black women and nonbinary media makers. She has received fellowships and grants from the National Science Foundation, the Association for Feminist Anthropology, the Social Science Research Council, The Phillips Collection, and Rutgers University. Additionally, she has been published by The Feminist Wire, OMERTAA, Current Anthropology, PBS, and SCA and has pieces forthcoming with Routledge and Transforming Anthropology. During the 2020–2021 and 2021–2022 academic years, Martin held the first-ever Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship in University of Maryland, College Park’s Department of Anthropology. Most recently, she joined SAPIENS Magazine in Summer 2022 as their Public Anthropology Postdoctoral Fellow.


Harrison, Faye V. 1992. “Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology of Liberation.” Anthropology News 33, no. 3: 24.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1990 [1938]. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. New York: Harper Collins.

———. 2009 [1935]. Mules and Men. New York: Harper Collins.

Jackson Jr., John L. 2004. “An Ethnographic Filmflam: Giving Gifts, Doing Research, and Videotaping the Native Subject/Object,” American Anthropologist 106, no 1: 32–42.

Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, and Ryan C. Jobson. 2016. “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties,” Current Anthropology 57, no. 2: 129–148.

Leonard, Wesley Y. 2021. “Toward an Anti-Racist Linguistic Anthropology: An Indigenous Response to White Supremacy,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 31, no. 2: 218–237.

Pinckney, Darryl. 2020. “Zora Neale Hurston and Questions of Scholarship,” LABOR 17, no. 3: 93–100.

Shange, Savannah. 2019. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.