White Anthro Nonsense, Episode 1: Dr. Sahlins’s Facebook Rant

Earlier this week, the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory Facebook page posted a rant on behalf of Marshall Sahlins. It was annoyingly Euro-centric. It was colonial. And it was full of white-savior attitudes towards black and brown cultures, which apparently will die without white anthropologist “custodians” teaching outdated, flawed research about exotic others to white students.

(Oh, and the act of posting a personal rant via a wide-reaching publication’s social media platform was the quintessential embodiment of white privilege. HAU, let me know when you start posting rants on behalf of anthropology students of color and not just on behalf of white professors emeriti. I have just as much to rant about.)

Below, the text of Dr. Sahlin’s original “rant” is printed in black. My admittedly unrefined gut-reactions are printed in red.

Marshall Sahlins’ rant of the day: please comment!

Emeritus rant
Maybe I’m wrong. It happens. But,
Where Have All the Cultures Gone?

Well, that was a nice three lines or so.

“The cultures” haven’t “gone” anywhere, despite the way you and other white anthropologists talk about us black and brown people upon whose backs you’ve built your careers. We, actual members of these cultural groups are still alive, still kicking, and on top of that, we have Facebook and we are sometimes even anthropologists ourselves, even though the attitudes of white “possession” over us and our knowledge as informants rather than researchers makes our careers immeasurably more difficult than you can fathom. Further, there is a really interesting culture of whiteness in the discipline itself that it seems you aren’t aware of, though you are participating in it. It might be a culture worth observing.

What happened to Anthropology as the encompassing human science, the comparative study of the human condition? Why is a century of the first hand ethnography of cultural diversity now ignored in the training and work of anthropologists? Why are graduate students in the discipline ignorant of African segmentary lineages, New Guinea Highlands pig feasts, Naga head-hunting, the kula trade, matrilateral cross cousin marriage, Southeast Asian galactic polities, Fijian cannibalism, Plains Indian warfare, Amazonian animism, Inuit kinship relations, Polynesian mana, Ndembu social dramas, the installation of Shilluk kings or Swazi kings, Azande witchcraft, Kwakiutl potlatches, Australian Aboriginal section systems, Aztec human sacrifice, Siberian shamanism, Ojibwa ontology, the League of the Iroquois, the caste system of India, Inner Asian nomadism, the hau of the Maori gift, the religion of the Ifugao, etc. etc.

Why have you only listed things that black and brown people do? Is this what you mean by “cultural diversity,”—those people who aren’t white, and who definitely aren’t anthropologists? Why are we only ever the subjects of study, and what makes you think that the studies carried out, not with us but upon us, are even accurate reflections of the knowledge in these communities? Because from everything I know, anthropology has a pretty good record of getting it wrong, due in large part to the solipsistic perspective of its predominantly white male composition and early lack of reflexivity on how this position influences the content and the quality of the research on all those things you mention. It’s not only possible but probable that the first-hand ethnography you mentioned is flawed, and maybe it isn’t taught anymore because anthropology should be learning from its mistakes.

We are the custodians of this knowledge, and we are content to let it be forgotten.

No. You aren’t. You’re being a Eurocentric white-savior anthropologist. You are not the custodian of knowledge that IS NOT YOURSWhat you are is content to continue to alienate the black and brown scholars (who actually ARE the custodians of much of this knowledge) from the historically white, male, Christian discipline. What you had ought to be is working towards making this discipline more welcoming to the actual custodians of the knowledge you readily claim ownership to.

Where else in the university are these things to be taught, or is it that they are not worthy of scholarly contemplation, and should just be confined to the dustbin of intellectual history?

Firstly: Try checking the departments that are more welcoming to diverse people as researchers and not subjects.
Secondly: Wow. That is beyond insulting. Because white anthropologists, or even just academics in general, might not be dissecting the cultural knowledges of black and brown people, that information is deserving of literally being compared to trash? SERIOUSLY? Cultural information loses all of its value and usefulness if white anthropologists aren’t studying it and talking about it? Please. Stop.

Maybe in a few hundred years, if the human species survives the dark ages of planetary degradation, there will be a cultural renaissance driven by the discovery of some buried or flooded libraries filled with astonishing memoirs of human achievement.

Hopefully one of those memoirs includes stories about the decolonization of anthropology and its move towards empowering rather than exploiting people of color—stories not about exotic black and brown research subjects, but instead about colonial white anthropology and its evolution to an inclusive and diverse discipline. Hopefully.

8 thoughts on “White Anthro Nonsense, Episode 1: Dr. Sahlins’s Facebook Rant

  1. I think you misinterpret Sahlins’s rant, Mónica: he’s going off on the currently fashionable abandonment of nitty-gritty, fieldwork-based ethnography that for over a century attended to the particularities of other peoples’ lives before anthropological wannabe media creatures decided for career considerations to forego all that and leap directly to litcrit-based generalizations about the Others. His position is much in line with Hau’s general project of reviving ethnological analysis based on fine-grained description of local categories rather than prefabricated academic discourses (unsurprisingly since he’s one of that journal’s founders).

    Considering MS’s progressive commitments ever since he invented the teach-in to help stop the US imperialist project against the people of Vietnam, your justified indignation about academic dilettantism (of whatever color) may be more in agreement with him than you realize. Check out his terrific collected political and anthropological essays, Culture in Practice (Zone Press).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Mistaken author identity (who I take to be you, sorry) but it’s the right blog entry, all right. (The confusion came from seeing the argument on an uncaptioned FB post by Mónica; thought she’d written it.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not black and I am not brown either – definitely no white anthropologist either. I am originally from Mexico. I am not ‘native’ (not sure native from where) …and I do not study white people or brown or black people either (I do not study ‘my’ people for sure)… I study Central Asia (mainly). Perhaps we should stop assuming that there is a so-call ‘while-male-pale’ anthropological knowledge ‘attacking’ us (non white-male-pale) and build the notion of privilege, as well as access to and production of knowledge in more sophisticated ways than ‘ranting’ back. After all, if I was not ‘privileged’ as much as my white male anthropology-peers, I wouldn’t be writing in English, in response to two so-called rants (Sahlin’s and this blog’s author’s) for a specific (and rather privileged) type of audience looking through my office window in southern England (in contrast to unprivileged people living in both urban and rural areas in my home-country who barely manage to finish school). But yeah…it is easier to rant from my ‘brown’ (or whatever non-white and even better, postcolonial if possible!) background and pretend I am unprivileged and put down my my white-male predecessors and current colleagues…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Savmartin I am very interested in what you are saying – also I shared your link to the Women In Academia Support Network on Facebook – power to you and your great work!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s