Stuff White People Like: Anthropology, apparently

While reviewing an article titled, “No Surprise Here! Almost No Black Faculty Members in the Field of Anthropology,” in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (No. 16, Summer 1997, 37-39), I performed a very cursory Google search for “white people” and “anthropology” and ended up at a Los Angeles Times article about the blog-turned-bestseller, Stuff White People Like. Searching that blog using the term “anthropology” brought up no results. That word is not used once by Lander, it seems. How interesting then: Christian Lander, the blog author, missed something important. Curiously enough the LA Times (“Christian Lander knows the Stuff White People Like” Mindy Farabee, July 4, 2008) calls Lander’s work a “satiric ethnographic book” and his blog, the one that does not mention anthropology, “a snarky bit of grass-roots anthropology.” (His book reminded me of another post on this blog, in terms of what kind of “anthropology” really gets public attention.) But is anthropology stuff that white people like? According to the study mentioned at the outset, yes, and it is particularly stuff that black people do not like.

No Surprise Here! Almost No Black Faculty Members in the Field of Anthropology

The JBHE article summarizes itself at the start:

In the early years of the academic study of anthropology, the field harbored a host of scientific racists. One of the group’s principal academic objectives was to demonstrate the biological inferiority of the black race. Anthropology as an academic discipline became contaminated with beliefs in congenital black inferiority. To this day, very few black colleges or black universities offer anthropology as a major: It is not surprising that a large mjority of the nation’s highest-ranked universities have no black faculty in their departments of anthropology. (p. 37)

The article features an introductory overview of early cultural evolutionism, that cast Africans as childlike and primitive, alongside early physical anthropology propounding views of the racial inferiority of Africans (especially in the practice of anthropometry and craniometry as depicted in the illustration at the top — in fact, using photographs to document body measurements is one of the earliest forms of visual anthropology). Some of the outstanding figures in this racist bedrock of anthropology were Jean Louis Agassiz at Harvard, and Samuel George Morton, and what became known as “the American school of ethnology.”

JBHE does point out that in 1938 the American Anthropological Association officially repudiated scientific racism, however, the unnamed author(s) of the article also suggest that by then it was too late: “for African Americans the study of anthropology has been seriously tainted with the racism of craniometric scholars” (p. 37). JBHE does not actually survey African American students or faculty to ask them why they avoid anthropology — even though the article does provide convincing and conclusive evidence that they in fact do avoid the field.

The article tells us that by the end of World War II, only 10 African Americans had ever earned a graduate degree in anthropology. The Association of Black Anthropologists numbered two dozen after it was formed in 1977 as a division of the AAA (and only recently has a division for American Indian Studies been formed). By the time of this article, 1997, only 130 members belonged to the ABA. The ABA website does not state the size of its current membership, although one can assume that not all African American anthropologists have joined it, and that not all of its members are African Americans.

Avoidance: JBHE did a survey of 15 large African American colleges and universities and found that none offered an undergraduate degree in anthropology. The institutions surveyed included: Clark Atlanta, Fayetteville State, Florida A&M, Grambling, Hampton, Howard, Jackson State, Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central, Prairie View A&M, South Carolina State, Southern, Texas Southern, and Virginia State.

White colleges in the meantime have few black students in anthropology. Since there are few African American anthropologists among faculty in anthropology departments, and no employment opportunities in black colleges, they are in a bit of a bind academically. JBHE found that “Over the 1991-to-1995 period, 39 blacks earned doctorates in the field, making up 2.2 percent of the total of 1,761 Ph.D.s awarded in anthropology” (p. 38). In the 24 highest ranked U.S. universities that have anthropology departments, there were a total of 15 black faculty in 1997 (see the table below). They thus make up 4.3% of anthropology faculty, which is a figure comprabale to the other social sciences, except that black anthropologists tend to be clustered in the lower ranked universities. In 15 of the top 24 departments, there was not one single black anthropologist. Have things changed much since then?

Concluding Comments

We will know of exceptions and many cases that fortify the results presented above. The question is how this situation continues to be shaped and maintained — I doubt that it is as a result of a sinister plot on the part of faculty, or overly conscious and historical awareness on the part of students. We do need to have, and continue having, some brutally frank discussions about where we stand as the colonial, white discipline. We need to be cognizant of the development of anthropology through racism, imperial administration, and conquest of American Indians. And I think we need this more than anything else in anthropology, but only if one’s goal is to ensure some sort of legitimate, credible, and viable future for a world anthropology, outside of the walls of the Pentagon, and outside of middle class white suburbia. This is an “anthropology of anthropology” that remains to be done, that is ready to be done, and there can be no more of an anthropology at home than one that begins by studying itself, its history, its bases for being and continuing. We need to understand how anthropology continues to be a site or vehicle through which a certain segment of the world’s population experiences and consumes the world. How is the world an object of desire in anthropology, but only for a specific kind of consumer (and a specific kind of consumption)? Why is it that the discipline that is one of the loudest now in challenging insular, bounded, methodological approaches, is the one that most resembles an insular, bounded, white island? If we cannot pose these questions and challenges to ourselves first, then we probably have no business posing them to others, so our discussions will also need to be humble, self-critical, and honest.

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17 thoughts on “Stuff White People Like: Anthropology, apparently

  1. New to Anthro

    This is very interesting! I’ve transitioned into anthropology from another field and after learning about its racial background, I started questioning my professors about the demographics of the field. So far, most have confirmed what is said in your post without any concrete evidence.

    I’m going to throw some stuff out there, and I hope it will keep the conversation going.


    I think there are two things going on here: a lack of minority representation in academia as a whole and a PR problem with anthropology.

    (As a side note, I clicked on the link for the ABA, and guess who’s currently listed as an officer on the website? Anthroman! (John L. Jackson, Jr.) Perhaps he can provide some insight?)

    Firstly, I wish I had some readily available evidence to back this up, but I’ve read/heard that academia as a whole, despite the perception of the general public that academia is a super-Lefty all inclusion-fest, is far more conservative, male, and white than one would imagine. If this is true, then I’d imagine anthropology in academia reflects these demographics.

    Secondly, I get the feeling that few people know if an anthropologist can be useful in the workforce (outside of academia).

    I know/have known minority pre-meds who were more than willing to overlook/accept past racial indiscretions in the medical field–such as the Tuskegee Experiments–to pursue lucrative careers in medicine, so I don’t think that historical racism is as great an obstacle as one would think.

    Not to conflate race and class, but I can imagine that a field with a perceived low utility (read: employability) in anything other than academia would be of greater perceived risk for those who go to college (and maybe grad school) as a means of employment-seeking or social/class motility. I don’t really want to make this into a debate between theory and practice, but I do think there should be an emphasis on what an anthropologist can do outside of academia.

    Anecdotally, most–but not all–of the people I know who pursued anthropology at the undergraduate level were the specific subset of white people that Christian Landers discusses in SWPL–people who reside comfortably in the middle-to-upper middle class. For them, utility does not matter as much because they had a stronger social net/network to catch them just in case their degree in anthropology didn’t yield some sort of lucrative employment if they’re pursuing something outside of academia.

    (As a side note, many of the non-white people I knew that were in this class category who were interested in the social sciences went the Cultural/Black/Africana/Feminist/Etc. Studies route. I have no idea why this is.)

    My friends–who were either broke or come from broke families–from every race (including myself as an undergrad) picked fields that we perceived as potentially lucrative and/or appealing to future employers like the natural sciences, engineering, pre-medicine, or pre-law. There were a few sociologists and economists in this category, though, but they wanted to pursue law/business school.

    Ok, that’s all I’ve got.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much New to Anthro, though I must say that with the range of factors and situations you presented you might consider calling yourself “Old to Anthro.” I think that all of those conditions are present. What is absent, and I am complaining about myself here as much as anyone else, is any kind of systematic survey of students that would bring their reasons to the fore. Students who don’t know about the Vietnam war know about craniometry, Agassiz, the mid-1850s? It’s possible I suppose, but it seems unlikely. Perhaps they look at the various “jungle” stores in malls and see the only people buying sleeveless action jackets and bamboo flutes as being white and middle class, and associate them with National Geographic, and being poked at like curiosities? I think there is a great range of possibilities beyond what you and I have mentioned here, and they may work together.

    Thanks again for the contribution here, those are very good points that you made available for consideration, and they certainly give me a lot more to think about. If I was not so deeply buried underneath so many projects and loose ends to tie up, this would have been a study I would like to do, and if once my slate has been cleared in a few years, if no one else has embarked on this I might try, possibly limiting it to Canada alone.

  3. Pingback: The Wrong Way and the White Way « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

  4. cherry!

    I’ve noticed this. I’ve been looking for graduate schools offering degrees in anthropology
    and all the historically black colleges offer sociology degrees and thats about it.
    It’s the department of sociology AND anthropology or nothing at all.

  5. Maximilian Forte

    That’s interesting, and in some cases where there is a combined sociology-anthropology department, the “minority” students still tend to prefer sociology. For example, there are many Haitians in Montreal…and the only time I have met Haitian students in my classes is when my courses are cross-listed as Sociology.

  6. Macc

    New to Anthro said, “As a side note, many of the non-white people I knew that were in this class category who were interested in the social sciences went the Cultural/Black/Africana/Feminist/Etc. Studies route. I have no idea why this is.”

    I can offer my 2 cents as a prospective student/lay person on how Anthropology (A) seems different from Cultural studies (CS).

    1) A=old, CS=new
    2) A=study of “Other,” CS=study of ourselves

    As a side note on my part, The English Passengers is a wild read with a character who is one of those “craniometric scholars;” it’s a really interesting book.

  7. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much Macc.

    I think you are right in that assessment, and CS does not carry the same baggage, or provoke as many questions about what the field is and whether one studies bones and pyramids, etc.

    I have only heard of that book, thanks for mentioning it here, I will have to get a copy.

    Best wishes.

  8. Shelly & Travis

    We are wondering if you read and found the website ‘Things White People Like’ funny?
    We are non-white and find the meanderings about ‘crackers’ a belly aching good time.

  9. Maximilian Forte

    I have visited that website twice. The humour there is a bit too cute and middle-class for my tastes. I don’t recall reading the word “cracker” in any of the posts that I personally read, and am not sure that term is ever meant to be just “funny.” We don’t use that word in Canada, but my sense is that in the U.S. it is meant as an offensive term. I am glad you had fun.

  10. November

    I’m African-American and am researching graduate schools to pursue a MA in Anthropology and eventually a PHd. Lanita Jacobs-Huey, PHd teaches at UCLA.

    Yes, I agree, there needs to be a PR make-over in regards to Anthropology. AND if people of color pursue Anthropological studies, research about ourselves and produce relevant, honest and valuable work we can change the face of Anthropology.

    I’m ready for the hard work, are you all?!

  11. Jupiter Hammon

    Stumbled across this in a google search. I have to correct you. I earned a BA in Anthropology from Howard University in 1997. Howard has offered a BA in Anthropology since at least the 1970s. It was also the lead university on the New York African Burial Ground Project, a decade long archaeology and biological anthropology research project directed by Dr. Michael Blakey. Now with the College of William & Mary, Blakey was a professor of anthropology and anatomy at Howard and the curator of the institution’s W. Montague Cobb Human Skeletal Collection. He earned his BA in Anthropology from Howard in 1978 and PhD from UMASS-Amherst. Unfortunately the discipline has never gained independence from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology to become a separate department. The department only has 5 Anthropology professors.

    Also, your post doesn’t mention UTexas-Austin’s Anthropology program, which is one of the leading programs in the nation. The department even has a specialty area in the African Diaspora.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much, it’s important to have these corrections. I was relying heavily on the one and only article I know on the subject, rather than basing myself on my own research — anyway, that’s not as important as having at least one place where these corrections are available.

  12. Clint

    I took a good sample of Anth courses at UNC-CH (including one by the only African-American professor) and was pleased with the level of awareness demonstrated about the exploitative\ethnocentric\imperialist history of the discipline. That said, I don’t remember knowing any African-American Anthropology majors. While the White-dominated history was discussed, it was framed as a foolish past that the discipline has mostly evolved beyond. The White-dominated present was avoided.

    Thanks for the excellent (as usual) analysis.

  13. Maximilian Forte

    Thank you very much Clint. Thanks for your comments as always, and the odd thing is that I don’t return the favour even though I check your blog on a daily basis. I sometimes seem to out-write myself.

    The white-dominated present is always avoided, and my only question is whether it is taken-for-granted, unconscious, or deliberate.

    The funny thing about my Dept. is that we underwent an external review a few years back, and one of the points of criticism was that the faculty was primarily European, as a code word for “white”. The criticism was made from people at equally white departments, and in fact, much more Anglo than our heavily Mediterranean department (by that I mean French, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Israeli, Lebanese). Also interesting, they failed to note that 99% of our students are also of European descent.

    It’s lost opportunities like those, fragmentary, unreflexive comments made in passing, that prevent the larger discussions for occurring, which is why I am so grateful for the very unique study to which this article refers.

  14. Ted irving

    It’s very frustrating as an African-American to witness people and most blacks condemn every industry & field that does not have many persons of color employed, as racist. Has no one ever examined the fact that there may not be any interest by blacks in these vocations? Or that the black collective doesn’t have enough numbers to supply adequate levels for these industries? Blacks only make up between 12 to 14% of the 300 million persons in the U.S. LOL you won’t see many of us in these careers and let’s not forget the huge increase in anti-intellectualism and a dropout rate for black males in this country that is over 50% with black females doing slightly better. These career fields can not compete with rap, sports & entertainment. There is no counter to this force. Site the last black you saw that was a bike engineer, scuba diver, paleontologist, biomechanicsl engineer, typographer, video game developer, etc. Etc. The list goes on. This is not a blame the victim response, but some ethnic groups don’t pursue certain careers due to ignorance, just not being interested and a failure on the collectives part of promoting careers other than law, medical, entertainment, sports and service jobs.

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