Category Archives: imperial scholarship

Pedagogy, Engaged Anthropology, and Zombies

I love zombies! Not only are zombies popular, but in the immortal words of Levi-Strauss, zombies “are good to think with.” Zombies stand (stagger?) as powerful metaphors supporting everything from emergency preparedness to invasive species education. Scholars draw on zombies as part of an engaged pedagogy to spark student interest. This includes Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies and Harman’s Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx. I have also joined the horde by using the zombie apocalypse to teach geospatial analysis. Anthropologists have studied zombies for decades and I draw on this rich tradition as part of my freshman seminar to introduce students to anthropology with an exploration of zombies past, present, and future.

Zora Neale Hurston’s immortal photo of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a zombie from Haiti.

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A Primer on Critical Race Theory and the Postcolonial Critique

Recently, as part of a small collective of anthropology students here at the University of Florida, I have begun turning my attention to postcolonial studies as a possible complimentary theoretical perspective for critical race theory (CRT). My interest in postcolonial theory focuses on its ability to intersect with a critical race theory framework to produce a deeper understanding of race, racialization, and racism in American society. I believe this combination holds the potential to expand each perspective in unique ways. Critical race theory remains a mostly US-based approach (with notable exceptions in education studies in Australia). Conversely, the majority of postcolonial research continues to focus on locations outside the US – a useful and important exception include King’s edited volume Post-colonial America. By understanding the possible connections between CRT and postcolonialism, I hope to extend the applicability of the first beyond our nation’s borders and advocate for more postcolonial research of America.

Critical race theory began as a movement in law departments during the 1970s and 1980s, roughly the same time postcolonialism and subaltern studies arose. Again, like postcolonial studies, CRT has quickly spread to other disciplines such as political science, ethnic studies, education, and so on. Today, the movement encompasses a group of scholars and activists interested in the relationship between race, racism, and power. CRT broadly draws on critical legal studies, critical theory, and social feminism with specific influence from Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Derrida, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr. The work of CRT scholars generally accepts six basic tenets. The following list also points to intersections between CRT and anthropology.

1) Racism is ordinary – it is the common, everyday experience of most people of color. This does not (alone) refer to overt, interpersonal violence like hate speech, but refers instead to the complex institutional and structural oppressions and inequalities which continue to haunt American society.

2a) Developing a Diverse Strategy for Transformation – this theme challenges ideas that any single policy can solve discrimination across society.
2b) Interest Convergence –large segments of the world do not have an interest in seeing the status quo challenged. This includes lower and middle class Whites who identify with the wealthy and powerful because of a perceived ethnic similarity.

3) Race and racism are social constructions. These ideas exist in the mind and are social facts in the Durkheimien sense, and as beliefs in the human imagination, motivate individuals and groups to respond to them as ‘real’ things.

4) Differential racialization – dominant groups (and those who psychically identify with them, see point 2b above) in society racialize groups in different ways for various purposes across time; this tenet deals heavily with representation and I believe is an especially important point for historical anthropologists interested in interrogating the development of race and racism (Baker’s From Savage to Negro).

5) Intersectionality and Anti-Essentialism – no person has one fixed and static identity. In order to firmly grasp this idea, research needs to investigate the relationships between various axes of identity and social relations – race, class, gender, and even sexuality (Weber’s Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework)

6) Voice of Color Thesis – that voices of the oppressed and/or marginalized should be sought out because of their unique ability to talk to White colleagues about injustices. The development of storytelling as legitimate academic practice among legal scholars is an important methodological intersection here, something that remains outside the mainstream of anthropological education and practice (although an excellent recent volume challenges us to rethink this, Waterston and Vesperi’s Anthropology off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing).

These tenets are reconfigured in numerous ways by CRT scholars, but they serve well as a basic introduction to the central ideas being addressed by this group. In specific relation to postcolonial studies, I see a number of immediate connections.

The first intersection deals with postcolonial studies and CRT’s desire to deconstruct or unpack the structural conditions disadvantaging people. By this, I mean the complex ways in which our society still disadvantages individuals and groups based on race, class, and sexuality. This includes the arbitrary application of the law as documented by CRT scholars, the continued discrimination of minorities in the academy, and so forth. For CRT, this tends to focus on base structures such as the legal and education systems; while many postcolonial scholars look at more superstructural forms of ‘othering’ and oppression that focus the investigation on literature, language, and the like (e.g. Fanon, Said). Of course, these are not exclusive domains, Marx and Engel saw them as mutually conditioning (Raymond Williams). The interest in exposing the legacy of colonialism in the modern oppression of minorities, women, and indigenous groups as a historical development is shared by these two groups.

In the context of the United States, this shared goal could offers important insights into various lived experiences of disadvantaged groups. For instance, a postcolonial reading of literature reveals processes of historical silencing (akin to Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History). The erasure of African Americans from The Great Gatsby is a powerful example demonstrating postcolonialism’s utility in an American context as well as highlighting the historical depth of everyday racism in US society as obfuscated in popular culture.

A second intersection revolves around CRT’s ‘voice of color’ thesis. This seems an immediate connection since most postcolonial research in America is firmly situated within broader literary studies, and CRT’s dedication to storytelling suggests a potential alliance between these frameworks. The creation of a counter-storytelling movement combining CRT and postcolonial perspectives informs a new critical race praxis investigating the connections and roles of cultural imaginaries and the continuum of violence in the world today. This coalition of ideas excites me as an anthropologist and I am dedicated to exploring storytelling as a form of counter-hegemonic praxis to fight modern representations of groups, stereotypes and the like that continue to harm these populations in psychological and material ways.

The conversations around the ‘voice of color’ argument for increased minority perspectives in the academy directly intersects with Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak. However, where the conversation around Spivak’s work remains controversial (at least in part because of her own positionality at the top of India caste system – itself a product of the colonial experience), the conversation in CRT has produced more positive results. The work of Derrick Bell providing the best example.

As a historical anthropologist combining archaeology and ethnography, the alliance between CRT and the postcolonial critique is a powerful way of investigating the ongoing legacy of disenfranchisement of minorities in America and around the world. CRT is important because these communities must interact with legal systems in ways which continue to produce communal trauma (e.g., Chinese asylum seekers as documented in the film Golden Venture). Postcolonial studies provides a complimentary perspective for investigating how literature and popular culture inform people’s imaginations.