Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology


How Minority Anthropologists Feel About Their Profession

Another concern of the Committee has been the attitudes about anthropology expressed by minority anthropologists and whether they would encourage minority students to enter the field. This concern was reflected in questions raised in discussion, such as what advice is or should be given to young, would-be anthropologists? Has the experience of the minority person soured his view of the field? Has he had an overall positive experience and would he go into the field of anthropology again given a choice? Two specific questions were selected from this orientation.

Responses to the question "How do you feel about anthropology?" were tabulated in terms of positive and negative answers (Table 9, Appendix C), then in terms of the reasons given for the positive (Table 10, Appendix C) and negative (Table 11, Appendix C) feelings.

The feelings of minority anthropologists about their discipline are strongly ambivalent and, like other anthropologists, they seem to find something personally satisfying about the profession. One stated the following:

I feel ambivalent about Anthropology. Despite its colonialist overtones, as far as Native Americans are concerned, I recognize many of the positive programs initiated by people trained in Anthropology, such as John Collier, Sr. I also see much of the vicious practice engendered by aspiring anthropologists, as described by Vine Deloria, Jr. On the other hand, perhaps because I have not been alienated from my people through the educational process, I personally feel very comfortable as a teacher in Anthropology. I do not feel that at ease in research, for I feel that I am using friends and kin as objects for perusal. Generally, the racist and ethnocentric stance of the majority of Anthropologists is difficult to bear. I have found great solace and affection among many practitioners of Anthropology. I daresay that, had I chosen another discipline (i.e., Education), per se, my disaffection with the institutions of the dominant society would be more acute. I think that the cross-cultural perspective of Anthropology has contributed to my development as a human and enriched my life.

One is struck by the relatively high percentage of those minority anthropologists who admit to having some positive feelings for the discipline but who, nevertheless, are either unable or unwilling to articulate the reasons for those feelings. The responses from those minority anthropologists who did try to articulate positive feelings about the field are too varied to give a strong unitary sense of the source of this satisfaction. It seems to center on the ethos of anthropology. Strong positive statements include: "It is my whole life" and "Anthropology and my family are the whole of my life."

A few respondents stated that they feel our discipline to be "superior" to other social sciences or the humanities. In addition, respondents referred to the uses of anthropology; individual respondents see anthropology as offering a solution to intolerance, as helping to solve practical problems and even as being of use to Third World peoples to achieve their own ends.

Other positive features of anthropology mentioned were: the interest of the subject matter, the fact that it increases understanding of one's self and others, that it speaks to many different concerns (its "catholic" nature) and that it enables a person to "make a contribution."

The reasons for having positive feelings about anthropology seem to be almost as varied as the number of respondents. Reasons for liking the discipline seem to be shaped more by respondents' personal needs than directly by their minority background. Of course, "personal needs" themselves may be indirectly formed by the life experiences inherent in being of "minority background" in the United States. Parenthetically, it is striking to note that only 5 minority anthropologists describe anthropology as being "personally satisfying," rewarding" "exciting" or "interesting."

Although minority anthropologists by and large have positive feelings about anthropology (18 positive responses, 11 negative responses), about 40% (7 of 18) of the respondents who make positive statements about the discipline qualify them in some way. The respondents providing qualified, positive statements, combined with those who make partial or completely negative comments about anthropology, are more than half of those replying (18 of 30). The satisfactions that minority anthropologists have about our discipline are less focused than their complaints, as indicated by comparing the two following statements from the same person:

The study of anthropology has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career because of the insight it provides into my own behavior and that of others. The knowledge, appreciation and skills gained have enabled me to engage in rewarding activities and to acquire some recognition in the field.

I do not think that anthropologists as a whole are aware of the enormous amount of unjust beliefs, attitudes, values and practices that are directed toward members of minority groups or their negative consequences on both groups. If they are aware and are combating it, it is not well known.

There is a negative side to the ethos of anthropology that respondents characterize as "ethnocentric," "racist," "intolerant" and "amoral" (in the sense that attempting to take a value-free position is seen as avoiding core issues concerning the impact of the discipline). Respondents see this ethos reflected in particular activities and actions of anthropologists. One respondent noted that American anthropologists tend not to use foreign languages well and to ignore much of the anthropological literature written in those languages, thus reinforcing professional ethnocentrism and myopia; the same respondent used the term "imperialistic" to describe anthropology. Several others referred to the proposition that anthropology exploits the people it studies and that it perpetuates a negative image of "Third World" peoples as being qualitatively different and inferior or quaint. This view is expressed more clearly in responses to some of the other questions in the protocol.

Others see this aspect of the anthropological ethos expressed not in particular activities but in the absence of certain activities and trends: that anthropology is not applied enough; that it has not done enough to develop and train "Third World" anthropologists; that, for the layman, it does not explain well enough the nature and equality of other cultures. Finally, there were two complaints about the professional habits of anthropologists (status maneuvering at professional meetings), and about an intellectual trend (too much concern about methodology).

Those anthropologists who feel most negatively about anthropology and those who are most likely to see the discipline as racist, are anthropologists from minority groups which are most visible and, consequently, are less likely to be able to "pass." There is a notable contrast in this regard between Black, Asian and American Indian anthropologists on the one hand, and Spanish-speaking anthropologists on the other. It is clear that the first group of anthropologists are less able to escape from their ethnicity and from the discrimination which their ethnicity causes them to face. Some quotes follow:

A few years ago I was very despondent about wasting my one life in such a covertly racist field, feeding information about Third World people to the monstrous exploiter and oppressor of non-white people. Paranoia? Many Blacks feel this way in general, but I was in a discipline that is implicated.

Everything in life has to have meaning. The once accepted shibboleths in anthropology just didn't apply to me any longer (if they ever did). With the rise of Black consciousness, it is now possible to rethink the possibilities in anthropology in a more meaningful framework. Reading lots of works by Third World scholars, and by men like Valentine and the article by John Moore in the Liberator has helped. Also, highly successful courses in Black culture where the students helped me see how the social sciences can be used to further our own interests (Third World).

There is no reason why anthropology must continue to function in the old ways. It is also gratifying, to see how often non-minority students in anthropology are beginning to think this way.

A second question stated "Knowing what you know now, if you were starting a career, would you become an anthropologist? Why or why not?" The answers are indicated in Table 12, 13 and 14, Appendix C. The pattern of responses to this question provides an interesting complement to the previous question discussed "How do you feel about anthropology?" Here, the responses are more strongly positive toward anthropology. Most minority anthropologists would still choose anthropology as a professional field.

The group as a whole is relatively mute about the reasons for continuing in anthropology. The reasons given for entering anthropology among those expressing opinions, however, are similar to those they use when they explain their positive feelings about anthropology in the earlier, less-focused question. The net impression left by the pattern of responses is that, for most respondents, the personal and professional satisfactions of anthropology seem to outbalance their dissatisfactions with the field.

Similarly, some respondents who indicate that they would not choose anthropology at this point, also note an alternative profession or field they would enter. Half of those who would now choose another field would choose a profession or occupation in which their work would be of more direct utility in helping minorities.

Those anthropologists who would remain in the profession, but indicate they would consider an alternative if they were choosing now, show a parallel pattern. Fields they would consider are those where service to others is more direct, primarily medicine. Three respondents answering "no," gave the following reasons:

I would go into a field which prepared me to be more actively involved in solving real problems in the world. I think about medicine, medical research or law.

I have had to expend too much effort trying to prove myself to people who were subtle racists. I find myself trying to defend a discipline which was and still is in a modern way the "handmaiden of colonialism." I realize that not all anthropologists are this way but too few even want to acknowledge the existence of these problems and want to keep out of the conflict.

The "psychic unity of mankind" search has to take second priority to sheer survival of the species.

A perusal of other parts of the questionnaire suggests that most of the anthropologists who would leave the profession are Black. But examination of the responses to the first question suggests that negative feelings about anthropology are more evenly distributed among the minority groups represented in the sample.

From the responses to the questionnaire, the impression is left that the respondents are a group of anthropologists who are peripheral to the profession in some ways (only 19% of 37 respondents teach in anthropology departments). Although it seems that many are unaware of this; at least one respondent commented:

They (minority scholars) find that they are not part of a major power block in the profession or in their universities. There is frequently simply no one at the center high enough to listen sincerely and to help. What we need is advancement.

One notes the inability of the respondents to comment on, or cite, the work of minority anthropologists or to see the place of minority anthropologists as theory builders. This is discussed in Chapter III. It was also surprising to find a relative lack of alienation from the profession, although when it exists, it is very strong. We suspect that, if our fellow minority anthropologists who formed the bulk of our sample knew exactly how peripheral they are to the discipline, that their sense of alienation and outrage would be even stronger than it is. However, professional patterns seem to exist that insulate them both from real power in the profession and from objective perspective on their place in the profession's power structure. Our hope is that additional information could shed light on this hypothesis: that minority anthropologists tend to perform ancillary roles in the profession such as teaching anthropology in non-anthropology departments and teaching in ethnic studies programs, and that they have been precluded from playing a significant role in the development of anthropological theory.

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