Postelection Shell Shock, Resilience, and the Dangers of Desensitization

From the Series: The Shattered Echo Chamber: Experiences of #AmAnth2016 in the Wake of the Election

Photo by Zach Korb, licensed under CC BY NC.

The world was rearranging itself around me while I processed words from a liquid-crystal display.

—Ben Lerner

On the morning of November 9, I woke in the predawn hours to read the New York Times’s election headline on my smartphone, closed the app, and rose to walk the dog, experiencing a sensation of numbness. Two years removed from fieldwork, I had been preparing a conference paper for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) that would present ethnographic analysis from one of my dissertation chapters on a multimodal learning environment. Later that afternoon, I briefly checked my social media accounts; the fallout from Donald Trump’s election was apparent by the panicked, angry, and defiant posts by fellow anthropologists. The content of my AAA paper suddenly felt inconsequential.

I had spent the past several years learning the practice of critical ethnography, and my fieldwork involved living for three years in a New Latino Diaspora town, becoming acquainted with the families half a dozen Latino middle-school boys. My formal data collection site was a community-center technology room, conducting participant-observation of the boys’ self-directed digital literacy learning. However, in the curious way that long-term ethnography becomes intimate, I had attended events in the homes of these families, learned about the legal concerns that some of them had, and written letters on their behalf. The boys had talked to me about their social lives, their school experiences, and their families. I made it a point to keep in touch with them even after our study had concluded.

In the days following the election, I reached out to the boys via messaging apps and phone calls, although our conversations were pointedly different from previous monthly exchanges. “How are your grades?” and “Have you still been coding?” were replaced with “Are you safe? What happened at school? Who said that to you?” The tone of their responses was telling. “People were telling us to pack our bags, that we were going to be deported,” they told me flatly. When I tried to reassure them, they seemed unfazed. I found this as troubling as the taunts they had endured. How much of their response could be attributed to adolescent ennui, and how much was teenage callousness amplified and legitimated by the hate-filled rhetoric of the president-elect? In considering the concept of resilience among marginalized students in the anthropology of education, at what point does it become desensitization?

As a critical ethnographer, I engaged the boys in praxis: dialogue involving reflection and action to understand their transformative power in the world. We spent time speaking about social inequity and imbalances of power in their community. In relation to their digital literacy interests, for example, we discussed how the lack of web presence among Latinx-owned businesses in their community affected their economic power, as well as what they could do about it. After these extended dialogues about leveraging their intellectual interests to recognize their own transformative power, it was deeply disheartening to hear them now seemingly complacent in the face of racialized invective at school and the possibility of impending tyranny in their country.

I had already written most of my conference paper, which connected concepts of communicative repertoires and multimodal learning to the boys’ digital literacy projects. In the days between the election and the opening of the conference I pressed forward, unsure whether I would present the same ideas during my Saturday panel. From the tenor of the Indigenous welcome by Neil Cantemaza McKay and Melissa Harris-Perry’s keynote address, it was obvious the attendees of this year’s conference were experiencing a charged and emotionally raw postelection atmosphere. We knew that the myriad marginalized groups with whom we worked in anthropological contexts were made more vulnerable by those emboldened to act on the president-elect’s hateful vitriol and the policies he could enact. The stakes had been raised: this much was clear.

Those days in Minneapolis were unlike any I had experienced during my previous seven AAA annual meetings, dating back to 2009. Discussions within sessions, informal conversations in hallways and skyways, and even the usually staid business meetings seemed to refocus on activist anthropology. Urgent public and engaged anthropological projects were the order of the day for the foreseeable future. Taking this into consideration, and given my own emergent expertise in critical ethnography, I revised the final third of my presentation to address the neoliberal individualism in the emic utterances of my study participants.

Throughout the study, notions of the boys’ transformative power had been connected to the individual successes that they could achieve: sometimes via higher education trajectories, at others through acquiring high-demand technical skills for economic advancement. At first, I saw this as unproblematic, since the boys were challenging previous research suggesting that Latino middle-school males disengaged from learning with long-term negative consequences. Now, though, noting how this individualism might have left them unprepared to respond to verbal racial attacks, I questioned what I could have done as a critical ethnographer to better discern between resilience and desensitization and to direct their attention to the strengths of their community as well as their individuality.

What did this impending political environment mean, I wondered, for these brown-skinned and, in some cases, undocumented boys who had fashioned themselves as digital literacy experts? To return to my epigraph, the world had rearranged itself around these boys while they processed words from a liquid-crystal display.