Anthropology and Black History Lesson Plan

Amanda Zunner-Keating
64 min readJan 31, 2022


This lesson plan is a compact form of “Representations” that can be assigned throughout Black History Month. These lessons and assignments can be assigned daily and can be used to augment your anthropology course with anti-racist material.

  • This material should take no more than 8 hours to complete; students can dedicate an average of 15 minutes per day throughout February to manage the workload.
  • You’re strongly encouraged to import the corresponding Canvas Shell into your course
  • Audio lessons can be streamed on Soundcloud

Learning Objectives

At the end of this module, students will be able to:

  • Explain the ways in which legacies of colonialism impact our field and our modern world
  • Define the four fields of anthropology using specific examples from the work of modern anthropologists
  • Apply the intersectionality when examining cultural beliefs and practices
  • Apply the principle of cultural relativism when examining cultural beliefs and practices
  • Explain the importance of ethical fieldwork and participant observation
  • Critique the concept of “race” and deconstruct racist views

February 1: Introduction to Anthropology

Anthropologists define our discipline as “the study of humanity;” this area of research should consider diverse perspectives in order to best understand the complete human experience. But, like so much of our modern world, anthropology is dominated by primarily Euro-centric paradigms and White voices that can hinder our understanding of the full range of humanity as a diverse species.

Historically, anthropological textbooks have privileged the Euro-centric, White perspective, and have provided limited information on the experiences of the Black African Diaspora, Indigenous people, and those who identify as People of Color (POC). Indeed, many anthropology texts presented non-European groups as “the Other” — those who are fundamentally different from European-descended groups. Additionally, they also often failed to cite Black and Indigenous anthropologists as experts — ignoring the fact anthropologists, themselves, come from every community. The reason for this treatment of non-Europeans, and the omission of non-white anthropologists in the citations, can be traced back to anthropology’s contributions to the colonial endeavor in which the study, as well as the objectification, of non-Europeans, became the primary goal of much anthropological fieldwork and publication (Trouillot 2003).

It is essential that the anthropological research produced by Black and, Indigenous anthropologists, as well as those who identify as, anthropologists of color, be equally represented in the study of anthropology. Having inclusive perspectives will ensure that as we study the human condition, we can gain a broad and representative portrait of humanity, and the unique perspectives that human biological and cultural diversity have to offer in shaping our understanding of ourselves and the global world in which we live.

This course material is intended to elevate the quality of anthropology courses in institutions of higher education by highlighting the works of anthropologists who are not typically represented in anthropology textbooks. While our students represent all races, genders, and identities, anthropological curriculum and anthropology departments fall short all too often (Brodkin, Morgen, and Hutchinson 2011). If we hope to train a new generation of anthropologists who can represent diverse perspectives, we must teach anthropology in a manner that allows our students to imagine themselves as professional anthropologists.

We know that Black Lives Matter and that the vital contributions of Black anthropologists matter to the success of our field. This project was specifically designed as a Black History Month lesson plan. Since our launch in February 2021, this material now includes a complete textbook that highlights the contributions from other historically underrepresented groups (you can access the book for free online). Our complete text highlights the works of Black anthropologists, Indigenous anthropologists, and anthropologists of color in order to begin offering a more balanced representation of anthropological work.

In “The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology,” Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams note, “Students whose identities have been stigmatized or marginalized in society can find sources of inspiration in the stories of the next generation of Black anthropologists (xxi).” In other words: classroom representation matters.

Harrison, Johnson-Simon, and Williams further note that “…we have gone from a time when the work of Black anthropologists was marginalized and invisibilized because the African American intellectual tradition was not valued by the academy to a time when [the journal] Cultural Anthropology published a series entitled “#BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance (xxii-xxiii).”

But, if our field has improved in highlighting the contributions of Black anthropologists, the classroom is still an arena where representation is still lacking.

Please read on to introduce yourself to the vital contributions offered by Black anthropologists across our field.

February 2: What is anthropology?

As you engage with this anthropology course, you may be unclear on what anthropologists do. As anthropology is the study of humanity, the work of anthropologists spans a wide range of subjects and touches upon all areas of the human experience. While anthropology includes four distinct fields, all anthropologists consider the perspectives and evidence from all four fields in order to gain a “big picture” understanding of what it means to be human. So, at this point in the course, it’s important that you know something about all four fields.

The four fields include:

  1. Cultural Anthropology
  2. Biological Anthropology
  3. Linguistics
  4. Anthropological Archaeology

Cultural anthropology is the study of human culture. Cultural anthropologists study everything that relates to the human cultural and social experience and examine a wide range of cultural issues (including politics, family structures, religious and medical beliefs, and beyond). Zora Neale Hurston was a cultural anthropologist and author. Hurston produced such pivotal works as “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) which addresses issues of race and gender in the American south, “Tell My Horse” (1938) an ethnographic examination of Voodoo in Haiti, and “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (2018). In “Barracoon (2018),” Hurston interviewed Cudjoe Lewis, the last known living person to have been brought from West Africa and enslaved in the United States. While all of her publications were groundbreaking, “Barracoon” offers unique, first-person insights into the lives of those brought to the United States through the Middle Passage in a way that only an anthropologist could produce. Hurston utilizes interviews and embraces local vernacular throughout her work in order to best reflect Cudjoe Lewis’ genuine lived experiences.

Biological anthropology is the study of human diversity, biology, and evolution. Caroline Bond Day was a biological anthropologist who utilized her expertise in human biological diversity to push back against racist pseudo-science. Day was born in 1889 into a world that purported ideas of racial hierarchy and biological determinism. Biological determinism is the pseudo-scientific idea that human behaviors are determined by biological factors. Modern anthropologists now know that our characteristics and behaviors actually emerge in response to the complex set of influences and circumstances that we face in our daily lives and upbringing. Caroline Bond Day researched 350 families of mixed ancestry in an effort to demonstrate that all groups contained equally diverse levels of intelligence and aptitude (Ardizzone 2007; Ross, Adams, and Williams 2018). But, because Day was, herself, from mixed Black and White ancestry her colleagues considered her high intelligence to a sign of her White background (causing them to ignore her actual research and to — rather — use her as an example to reinforce the idea of biological determinism).

Anthropological archaeology is the study of human behavior through site excavation and investigation of human-modified environments and remaining material culture. (Or, archaeologists study the objects that humans leave behind.)

Archeologist Alicia Odewale works to elevate our understanding of the aftermath of what is commonly called the “Tulsa Massacre” through her archeological work in Tulsa, Oklahoma. By 1921, the majority Black Oklahoman community of Greenwood was widely known to be a prosperous and thriving community; it was popularly called “Black Wall Street.” That year, a Black man was falsely accused of attacking a White woman causing the surrounding White community to violently attack Greenwood. Tragically, hundreds of people were killed and the entire thirty-five-block area of Greenwood was burnt to the ground (ten thousand people were left homeless) (PM Press 2020). Until very recently, archeological research was not conducted in this area causing this event to be under-represented in historical texts.

Odewale is engaged with active dig sites and the primary focus of her work emphasizes the ways that survivors and descendants of the massacre managed to survive the long-term impact of the tragedy. Working with the University of Tulsa and leading a team of student archeologists, Odewale digs, researches, and analyzes the physical remnants of the massacre in order to fully understand the events surrounding the Tulsa Massacre and the long term impact of the violent event.

Odewale argues that archeological fieldwork can actually serve as a form of restorative justice (a form of justice that focuses on rebuilding and rehabilitation rather than criminal punishment). As the Tulsa Massacre left thousands homeless and without means of income, the generational impact of survivors and family members is likely substantial but largely unstudied. The work of Odewale and her colleagues paints a picture of the crimes and destruction committed against the Greenwood community of 1921 as well as their resilience.

Archaeologists excavate sites throughout all periods of human history and across all areas of the globe. Archaeologist John Wesley Gilbert participated in the discovery and first-ever mapping of the ancient Greek city, Eretria (a central city of Ancient Greece in the 5th and 6th centuries). Gilbert’s fieldwork and scholarship led him to be the first archaeologist to specifically write about the urban neighborhoods of classical Athens. Gilbert was born in the American South in 1863 to a mother who was enslaved and he traveled to Greece in 1891 where he collaborated to produce high-quality surveys of the archeological site that are still used today (Archeological Institute of America).

Linguistics is the study of the human experience through language. Linguist Mark Hanna Watkins played an important role throughout his career in conveying foundational criteria that transformed anthropology’s understanding of language. Watkins was the first American to publish a grammar on African language, as well as a pioneer in the creation of college African Studies programs (Wade-Lewis, 181).

Focusing on African languages, Watkins’ doctoral dissertation, “A Grammar of Chichewa: A Bantu Language of British Central Africa,” was renowned as the first book on African grammar and intonation written by an American. Having previously worked with Indigenous languages of North and Central America, Watkins existed in a primarily White professional environment that saw a great deal of other languages as “primitive”. More than anything, Watkins’ goal was to highlight the complexities and cultural significance of languages that had been completely dismissed by his colleagues. Watkins analyzed not only the grammar and syntax of multiple African languages, but also examined the ways they were used within their specific cultural environments.

The work produced by anthropologists is diverse and touches upon all areas of the human experience. While some anthropologists are interested in producing objective sets of observations about a cultural group, others seek to identify and propose policy changes based on their research. Note: using anthropological research to advocate for human rights or policy change is called applied anthropology. Read on to learn more about the accomplishments and ideas of anthropologists.

February 3: Holism and Intersectionality

Anthropologists embrace the “four-field” approach toward the study of humanity because we acknowledge that there are connections between the cultural, biological, linguistic, and material aspects of human life. In fact, these connections are quite common; no part of the human experience exists in total isolation.

Consider these examples of how anthropologists use holism. This perspective will come up frequently throughout our course:

  • Medical anthropologists worked in West Africa throughout the Ebola epidemic. Simply examining the genetic material of the virus was not sufficient in understanding why and how the disease spread so rapidly. Anthropologists therefore looked to the religious beliefs and practices of the community to learn that some West African communities touch and hold the bodies of their deceased loved ones as part of their religious and cultural ritual. Holistically combining this cultural knowledge with the scientific knowledge that Ebola is still contagious immediately after a person’s death, social scientists and doctors were able to see the big picture and to understand the progression of the epidemic (Wilkinson et al., 2017).
  • Marriage is practiced in a variety of ways and, in some rural Tibetan communities, women marry multiple men at the same time; most commonly a woman will marry all of the brothers from one family. We call this “fraternal polyandry”. Anthropologists have examined this practice at length and, by examining the culture holistically, we understand that a variety of factors cause a family to enter this type of marriage (Starkweather and Hames, 2012). In traditional Tibetan society, families prefer to keep their farms intact without splitting the land between children (fraternal polyandry keeps the entire farm intact within the same family) (Goldstein 1987). Traditional Tibetan society does not employ the same gender expectations that forbid a woman from having multiple husbands. So, by looking at the big picture and considering farming traditions, rules of inheritance, gender roles, and sexuality in this society, we can understand why these communities would practice fraternal polyandry.

In fact, all parts of the human experience are connected. For this reason, anthropologists use what we call a holistic perspective to study culture. Rather than using a naive approach that expects to simply and easily delineate a single part of the human experience in which we are interested, we instead seek out the connections between cultural institutions, biological variation, language, kinship systems (family structure), economies, gender ideology, political life, cultural understandings of health, and much more.

We can look at the work of UCLA Professor Kimberle Crenshaw to better understand certain aspects of the holistic approach as it relates to contemporary discussions surrounding race and racism in the United States. Crenshaw argues that, while the Black Lives Matter movement consistently brings the murders of unarmed Black men to light, society at large too often ignores the murders of unarmed Black women. By examining this holistically, anthropologists and social scientists understand that these women’s murders are harder to address because both their race and gender intersect to create a type of marginalization that is unique. Black women in America are marginalized differently than Black men are and we cannot study the two trends in the same way; we must look at the big picture and consider both race and gender at the same time. Crenshaw calls this “intersectionality” whereby all of our different identities (our race, gender, class, nationality, ability, sexuality, etc.) intersect with one another in order to create unique lived experiences.

February 4: Intersectionality and Black Feminism

Anthropologist Irma McClaurin coined the term “Black Feminist Anthropology” as she developed a new methodology for anthropological scholarship. This movement within anthropology frames cultural issues in a way that fully embraces the intersection of both anti-racist scholarship and feminist scholarship (two fields that have an unfortunate history of being mutually exclusive). In McClaurin’s view, this new approach to anthropology is a form of knowledge production that better represents the communities it strives to examine. McClaurin calls her work a “Black feminist anthropological intervention.”

In the same way that McClaurin recognized a severe lack of overlap between anti-racist and feminist anthropologies, she also shines a light on the lack of representation including Black women in archival records. The omission of these stories is a glaring problem that must be addressed. In order to address this lack of representation in scholarship, McClaurin has launched a Black Feminist Archive designed to capture the stories and realities of Black women throughout history. This project is essential in anthropology because — by collecting and archiving — the voices and experiences of Black women will be available for future scholars to engage with.

Anthropologists Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Faye Harrison similarly apply the concept of intersectionality in their works. Cole serves as the first female and African American president of Spelman College and Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Cole’s reader, “Anthropology for the Nineties” offers a collection of diverse and much-needed perspectives on human life that remain relevant to anyone studying culture today. Her 2003 book, “Gender Talk: The Struggle For Women’s Equality in African American Communities” was among the first to push for an intersectional approach toward the examination of the Black female experience. In “Gender Talk” Cole argues, that discussions surrounding race are primarily framed by the male experience and that by taking multiple identities into account, social scientists can more effectively understand individuals’ lived experiences.

Harrison has long worked to confront social and academic prejudice as she studies race, class, gender, social inequality, and how these factors intersect. Harrison’s activism and advocacy has helped–and is still helping–to fundamentally change the power dynamics within anthropology to create an equal place for Black scholars. In centering the perspectives of marginalized groups, she has aided in the shift from seeing individuals and communities of color only as objects of study to seeing them as valuable contributors to the field because of their lived experiences, not despite them.

February 5: Worldview

When studying the human experience, anthropologists consider a community’s and/or individual’s worldview. Your worldview is the way that you view the world including:

  • Your understanding of “good” and “bad.”
  • Your understanding of “better” and “worse.”
  • Your ideas of how people should behave.
  • Your idea of what gender roles are.
  • Your idea of what justice is.
  • Your understanding of history.
  • Etc.

It’s all specific to you and to your cultural group. No two people have identical worldviews. You know that this is true if you have ever sat at the table with your own family and engaged in a political debate. Your family likely has an otherwise similar worldview to you (perhaps a similar religion, economic background, geographical location) and yet some members of your family might still diverge from you politically because they still have their own unique worldviews. Or, if you are religious, you know that no one culture has a unified worldview because you’ve likely had at least one argument with a member of your own religion over what the religious text “actually” means. Even two people raised in the same religion, reading the same holy text, can hold different worldviews on the “true” meaning of the religion. By holistically examining all of the elements that tie into a person’s life, we can better understand how different worldviews emerge.

Anthropologists know that worldviews are culturally specific and that they differ from person to person, place to place, and that they are connected to our cultural experiences. In this course, we’ll be examining a wide variety of different worldviews and culturally specific perspectives.

Anthropologist Rachel Chapman’s research in Mozambique revealed a unique worldview and attitude toward the culturally-specific dangers of pregnancy in that part of the world.

Chapman’s 2010 book, “Family Secrets,” opens with her being implored to help a laboring mother in Mozambique. She is taken to a house where the mother and two attending women are in distress. Not being a medical professional, she tries to convince nurses from the nearby clinic to come help. They refuse, saying they can only help those who “aren’t lazy” (Chapman 7) and are willing to come into the clinic. Chapman manages to convince the mother to travel to the clinic. Chapman wonders why it was so hard to help this woman which leads her to develop an explanation of the economic and social factors that lead to a worldview of mistrust toward medical professionals.

Chapman’s research was conducted in Mozambique where international organizations and NGOs have operated for generations but — Chapman finds — these organizations have missed a crucial factor about Mozambican culture: the social vulnerability of being pregnant. In the early stages of her research, she would knock on doors to find interview candidates. In this work, she met visibly pregnant women who would flatly deny the pregnancy. Chapman was very intrigued by this cultural tradition of hiding and denying a pregnancy because she believed that this practice of denial must impact their health.

Chapman dug deeper and conducted interviews with women of Mozambique and looked at the social, political, and economic factors that influence their lives. In her research, Chapman learned that the knowledge of pregnancies are “segredos de casa” or “family secrets” that are traditionally protected in Mozambique. In this culture, exposing a pregnancy creates vulnerabilities that modern medicine can’t handle. They are rooted in social causes that physicians don’t address ( Chapman 125). For example, in this culture, witchcraft or sorcery is believed to cause harm to a woman’s reproductive health. A pregnancy may elicit jealousy, resentment, or rivalry in other women (59) that leads the jealous party to seek the help of a sorcerer (63) to harm the pregnant woman. Angered or disrespected ancestor spirits (65) or disruptions within the family are also believed to cause harm to the most vulnerable member: the pregnant woman (66). In this worldview, visiting the prenatal clinic announces their condition to the community, so women avoid it as long as possible if not entirely. And whether they go to a clinic or not, indigenous healers are also used to increase chances of a positive outcome. These healers have a wide array of specialties and vastly outnumber physicians (126). Women also self-medicate with both folk remedies and modern drugs, or visit Christian churches and healers (29). The plurality of these medical systems help explain why women aren’t coming to prenatal clinics; they are seeking treatment elsewhere.

Anthropologist Niara Sudarkasa similarly researched a worldview that determines gender roles in her book titled, “Where Women Work: A Study of Yoruba Women in the Marketplace and in the Home.” Sudarkasa’s research focused on women of Yoruba (a group native to the West African region; specifically southwestern Nigeria and Benin). Sudarkasa argues that these women are able to both have a career and be mothers due to the cultural worldview that all women should have a professional occupation. Rather than automatically removing mothers from society and the economy, mothers are offered various forms of support that ensure their presence and participation in the community. Therefore, mothers were not expected to be the sole caregiver to children. Rather, other women would help teach young children (who were not their own) to be self-sufficient.

In her later published works, Sudarkasa similarly focused on the cultural and familial worldview present in African American families that point to African heritage. Her 1996 book titled, “The Strength of Our Mothers: African American Women and Families” closely examined the division of labor and gender roles. Sudarkasa similarly emphasized the importance of seniority in relationships and interpersonal relations within these families.

Both Sudarkasa and Chapman’s research allow anthropologists to engage with a more complete picture of the human experience. By highlighting worldviews that challenged preconceived notions of “normalcy” in the Euro-American cultural tradition, we are able to better understand the diversity of ways that human societies can exist and thrive. Anthropologists know that no worldview is better or more successful than any other and — by studying various worldviews — we can better understand our own.

February 6th: An Overview of Anthropology’s Relationship with Colonialism

The history of anthropology is connected to the problematic history of colonialism. The actual “beginning” of anthropology is hard to identify because human beings have, to some extent, always been interested in studying each other. Long before anthropology was officially recognized as a field of study, early travel writers and philosophers from ancient societies all over the world studied and wrote about the diversity of human culture (Guest 68). But, before colonialism, anthropology was a field of study that often had no clear value to those who held power in their respective societies (Lewis 269, 300).

The value of anthropology became more pronounced during the era of European expansion from the 16th-20th centuries, as European countries strove to expand their political and economic control across the entire globe. In many cases however, European-run colonial governments struggled to control local populations (Wolf 1982; Nevins 675; Sullivan 806). During this time, early anthropologists sought to re-brand their work in a way that could assist colonial governments in their missions (Kuper 1973) because, if you can understand a people, you can better exercise control over them.

So, what is colonialism?

We use the word “colonialism” to refer to the control of people and their land by a foreign power. While there are still some colonies today, the peak of colonialism took place from the 16th-20th centuries. European powers sought to expand control of the world in order to control its resources (this includes minerals, gems, waterways/trade routes, spices, and, in many cases, people). In some colonial situations, native people were viewed as an obstacle to circumvent, while in other cases, native people were viewed as resources to be enslaved. In all situations, native people were viewed as objects without equal standing or claim to human rights (Vaughan, 921).

What did colonial anthropologists actually do?

Anthropologists working for colonial regimes produced a great deal of work that was intended to assist the colonial governments in their efforts by:

  • Producing propaganda that presented native peoples as “savage” or less-than-human (while producing propaganda that their own people were “civilized”). When these early anthropologists were viewed as “experts,” they were taken at their word by Europeans living at home. And, when anthropologists produced accounts of culture that were steeped in racism, they were justifying the abusive control that European powers sought to keep over the rest of the world (Crewe and Axelby 28–31; Kuper 111; Willis 123).
  • Developing a hierarchy of cultural value. European anthropologists believed that their culture was, inherently, the “best” culture. They then strove to compare all other cultures against that standard in order to determine which people were more advanced than the rest. This logic is inherently flawed because the European standard of greatness is not a universal standard and these cultural hierarchies were not objective (Ibid; Trouillot 2003; 1; Mines 312–313).
  • Collecting census data. By surveying the number and types of people in each community, the colonial governments could better exercise control. (ibid)
  • Studying and learning the local culture and languages. It was easier to control a population if you could understand how they spoke to each other and about themselves. (ibid)
  • Studying and learning about local judicial systems so that the foreign governments could use them to better control the local population. (Ibid)

Cultural anthropology during this time did not look like the cultural anthropology of today. We call anthropologists of this era armchair anthropologists because they did not spend a great deal of time among the people whose cultures they studied (Guest 69; Launay 167). In fact, some never visited the people at all. Armchair anthropologists would rely on information provided by missionaries and government officials in the field; they would then write lengthy articles and books on the native peoples. As you can probably imagine, this type of research is often unreliable and did not actually reflect the realities of the cultures it investigated.

Early anthropologists’ impact on the cultures they studied is hotly debated. While we know that anthropologists were offered funding and access to native lands during the era of European expansion (Guest 69; Crewe and Axelby 28–31; Kuper 113), and that many of these anthropologists marketed themselves as helpful to colonial governments in order to gain funding and other support (Kuper 94–114), the actual contribution that anthropology made to colonial rule is widely contested (Stocking 3–8; Asad 1991). Anthropologist Adam Kuper argues that anthropologists were in fact mostly ignored by government officials as eccentrics while anthropologist Talal Asad argues that the contributions of early anthropologists were too specific to be helpful to colonial administrators.

Did anthropologists directly help colonial governments? This is unclear. But what is clear is that early anthropology was steeped in a worldview of White, European supremacy during its early development (Wolf, Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 18–19). Whether each individual anthropologist was assisting or resisting the colonial effort, they were working within a framework that constructed the world in a binary construct of European whiteness versus the rest of the world (Trouillot 2003, 103; Said, 1). This worldview is deeply flawed, problematic, and requires modern anthropologists to overcome our damaging history (James 32–33).

Why do we care about colonialism now?

Please look at a world map and take a moment to identify which parts of the world were colonized. With, arguably, the exception of two countries (Lesotho and Ethiopia) the entire African continent was colonized during the era of European expansion, as were all of South America and the Pacific. More than half of the Middle East and Asia was colonized by European countries during this time. When we look at the world as a whole, we can see that the wealth disparity between the richer European (and European-heritage) countries and the significantly poorer nations in the rest of the world reflect colonial borders. This is no coincidence! When European colonial governments were mining other parts of the world and stealing their valuable resources while simultaneously enslaving the people for free labor, the colonial powers became steadily richer while native people became poorer (Willis 1972; Wolf 1982). This wealth disparity led to technological advancements in the European and European-heritage nations while the robbed nations were weakened over and over again, leading to the disparity that impacts our daily lives today.

Perhaps most importantly, we can consider our own history to understand the impact of colonialism. For example, the Eastern United States was colonized by the British until that community rebelled against the British crown and became the American colonists. The Southern states were colonized by the French until they were sold to the American colonists and the Southwest United States was colonized by the Spanish until it was taken by American colonists through warfare (in between, much of that territory was Mexico’s land after Mexico pushed Spain out. It was taken by the Americans. California transitioned from Mexican to American rule in 1850).

In the United States, we live in a former colony and our colonial heritage impacts all areas of our lives. Consider the two majority languages that we speak in our country: English and Spanish. These are not native languages, these are the languages of the colonizer. Consider the majority religion: Christianity. This is the religion brought over by the colonists. Our judicial system, legal structure, style of dress, the holidays we celebrate, and our gender roles are all cultural forms that were brought to this land through European heritage. So, we cannot separate our modern lives from colonial history.

February 7th: William S. Willis on Anthropology’s Colonial Heritage

As the field of anthropology was initially steeped in colonial interests, many anthropological projects sought to advance the idea of biological determinism (the false idea that people’s traits and characteristics are biological). With early anthropologists seeking this connection between biology and culture, early biological anthropologists and cultural anthropologists produced bodies of work attempting to establish a discrete and hierarchical categorization of the races while similarly demonstrating the racial connection to cultural development.

Arguably the first anthropologist to question these ideas was German-born, American anthropologist Franz Boas who developed the idea of cultural relativism and sought to disprove the biological connection to culture through scientific antiracism. And yet, Boas’ body of work was limited in scope as — according to the powerful works from ethnohistorian and anthropologist William Shedrick Willis Jr. — anthropologists embracing scientific antiracism still failed to support the Civil Rights movements in the United States (Sanday 145, 259). In general, early antiracist movements within anthropology were used to dismantle the idea that various White groups could be placed on a hierarchical scale while failing to recognize that all racial groups were inherently and biologically equal (ibid). Fortunately, Willis’ career highlighted these shortcomings and paved the way for a new way in anthropological thought.

Willis’ piece titled, “Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet” was initially viewed with some hostility and skepticism because the work so courageously highlighted anthropology’s shortcomings due to the field’s ties to both colonialism and racism.

In this piece, Willis declared that anthropology’s claim to being a “science of man” was deeply delusional, instead stating that it had largely been “the social science that studies dominated colored peoples — and their ancestors — living outside the boundaries of modern white societies.” (Carpenter 2020). Throughout the essay, Willis drew clear parallels between the history of social sciences and its relation to social justice that would further validate his opening claim about racism in anthropology. In addition to identifying anthropology as a discipline “…primarily organized around the “projections of the needs of white people,” Willis also encouraged the rejection of its standards by “…[pointing] towards the need for an ‘urban ethnography’ in which “sociopolitical significance will become the main criterion in selecting research problems” (Carpenter 2020).

In “Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet”, Willis argues that written histories have historically privileged only the voices of White groups while erasing the experiences and testimonies of all other groups (Willis 121). So, throughout his career, Willis advocated for a re-examination of colonial and historical records in order to better identify the previously ignored documents left behind by more diverse groups (Sanday 250). This endeavor resulted in many interesting discoveries. This type of research allowed Willis to identify the presence of patrilineal descent structures among Native American groups in the southeast who had previously been labeled as exclusively matrilineal by anthropologists. Similarly, Willis was able to uncover documents and testimonies that reflected interactions and relationships between Black communities, white communities, and Native American communities in the colonial southeast that demonstrated a campaign of “dividing and conquering” whereby white colonial movements sought to sever ties of cooperation between Black and Native American groups. His findings on this were published in his article titled, “Divide and Rule: Red, White, and Black in the Colonial Frontier” (Sanday 251).

Willis’ dissertation “Colonial Conflict and the Cherokee Indians, 1710–1760,” relied on primary sources to establish evidence of the white cultural influences upon Cherokee customs and society. He went on to research and publish extensively. Of his most significant publications were “Colonial Conflict and the Cherokee Indians, 1710–1760 (1955)” and “The Nation of Bread” (1957).

Willis’ findings held profound implications for current and future anthropological studies and for our understanding of race. Morton Fried, a highly influential anthropologist recognized the significance of Willis’ studies and stated that “‘Any thorough study of the race problem in any culture,’ he concluded ‘requires some use of Willis’ contribution’ (Fried l964 letter)” (Sanday 1998). Even modern anthropologists recognize Willis’ significance as Brian Carpenter wrote in 2020, Willis’ works continue to have “deep relevance to our contemporary national turmoil over ongoing racial injustice in America and the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans” (Carpenter 2020).

February 8th: Introduction to Cultural Relativism

Colonial anthropologists practiced ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the practice of measuring the achievements or cultural practices of another community against your own cultural standards. In other words, if your favorite color is blue then you might say that a green car is ugly because it isn’t blue. In this circumstance, we know that the judgment is not objective because not everyone agrees that blue is better than green. This was the logical mistake that many fields made during the Era of European expansion: they decided that European culture was the best and then measured everyone else’s value against how ‘European’ their cultures were (Hammond 1; Lewis 586).

Anthropologist Franz Boas developed the concept of cultural relativism in direct response to this kind of ethnocentric thinking. Cultural relativism is the most important skill to learn in this course. Cultural relativism is the principle that all cultural beliefs and practices are equally valid in their own context. In other words, to judge a culture other than your own based on the standards that you learned within your cultural setting is always a pointless exercise that is biased by ethnocentrism. Instead of judging from the perspective of an outsider, as early anthropologists did, we now strive to understand cultures through their own, culturally-specific logics.

Let’s closely examine the worldview of a European anthropologist in 1926 living among the Azande people (of North Central Africa) to better understand how two seemingly-opposing worldviews can be reconciled using cultural relativism.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard was a British anthropologist who lived among the Azande people in central Africa (in the North-Eastern area) during the colonial era. People within Azande communities build tall granaries on wooden stilts to hold their food and supplies so that no animals are able to get it. And since the region is very hot and offers little sources of shade, people often meet under the granaries to talk and share the news of the day. Unfortunately, sometimes the termites of the region will chew through the granary stilts, causing the granary to collapse and tragically killing (or injuring) everyone underneath. In the worldview of the Azande, a person who dies in this type of accident has been killed by an act of witchcraft. This situation was particularly interesting to Evans-Pritchard and led to his publication on the matter.

When Evans Pritchard tried to explain to the local people that, actually, it was termites that were causing the tragedy, the local people turned to him and explained that they understood termites caused the collapse, but the odds that a person was standing underneath the granary at that exact moment was an unfortunate event and misfortune that needed to be explained. In Azande society, misfortune and suffering is typically thought to be caused by witchcraft (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 19).

This is not an entirely unique worldview; actually, most cultures have beliefs like this. Consider the last time that you saw a blue pendant hanging in someone’s doorway, car, or as a necklace. These blue pendants are used to ward off the “Evil Eye.” Many cultures have a manifestation of the evil eye. It is believed in these cultures that when a person feels extremely jealous or angry with you then they can actually harm you by having such strong feelings. The idea that a person’s feelings or thoughts can lead to negative outcomes serves two functions in society:

  1. This belief prevents antisocial behavior. We define antisocial behavior as any behavior that does not conform with society’s expectations. So, for example, if you get into a fight with a person in public and then learn that they fell and broke their leg afterward, you might be accused of hurting them with your anger. In Azande society, a person who is accused of witchcraft is often kicked out of the community or sometimes killed. So, many of the Azande will make an effort to maintain composure and to not behave with great jealousy because they don’t want to be accused of being witches if the person they fought with has some bad luck (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 419). Anthropologists call these “witchcraft accusations” and they serve the function of preventing antisocial behavior (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 25).
  2. This belief explains misfortune or suffering. To many human beings, life can feel exceptionally illogical and out of our control. All cultures find a way to explain why bad things happen. Witchcraft beliefs explain misfortune by tying the misfortune to people’s intentions (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 30).

By practicing cultural relativism, we can understand the cultural logic of this belief system. By taking a cross-cultural perspective, we can understand that we have similar beliefs in our own culture, and by examining the function we can see the role that this belief system plays in society.

February 9th: Sheila Walker Reframes Ethnocentrism

The question of ethnocentricity is re-framed by anthropologist Sheila Walker. In “The Virtues of Positive Ethnocentrism: Some Reflections from An Afrocentric Anthropologist,” Walker argues that anthropologists should recognize our colonial history as, actually, one of Eurocentrism whereby early anthropological works prioritized and centered the cultures and norms of people with White/European heritage. Walker makes the point that ethnocentrism can be defined as a focus and appreciation for one’s own group. Ethnocentrism, in this way, can actually allow anthropologists to focus, specifically, on studying people with whom they feel kinship in order to bring that essential insider perspective into anthropological discourse. Walker calls this positive ethnocentrism and labels her own work as “Afrocentric.” Walker has extensively researched issues facing the African Diaspora and centers these perspectives in her own work.

Ethnocentrism can also be defined as “the evaluation of others’ cultures according to preconceptions originating in standards and customs of one’s own culture.”, Walker, therefore, argues that cultural norms and practices around the world should be analyzed by people of those groups.

Sheila Walker’s area of expertise is the African Diaspora. Her work centers primarily on the processes of identity formation, celebrating one’s own culture, and hybridity as distinct from earlier models of syncretism (the process of two or more independent cultural systems, or elements, conjoining to form a new and distinct system.) Walker’s main research goal is to debate the stationary view of cultural transformation in prominent discussions of Black culture and identity.

Issues facing the African Diaspora are largely hidden from the public eye, but Walker uses the mediums of writing, teaching, and filmmaking to create space for this story to be told. Walker has spent her entire professional career collecting and preparing field research on the African Diaspora in an attempt to impact the widest audience possible. She releases books and documentaries on the subject.

February 10: Participant Observation

Colonial armchair anthropologists were largely failing to capture the true realities of people living across the globe because their perspectives and goals were marred by the colonial endeavor. Today, we embrace an essential fieldwork strategy called participant observation in order to better examine and reflect the realities of our communities of study.

In 1914, an anthropologist named Bronislaw Malinowski was offered a position to briefly visit New Guinea (a British colony at the time). Malinowski was a citizen of Austria-Hungary and was studying in the UK. He planned to do the minimal amount of research that the dominant approach to anthropology — the armchair approach discussed above — required at the time.

Upon arrival in New Guinea, Malinowski learned that the First World War had broken out and that he was, essentially, behind enemy lines. Malinowski was required to stay in British territory as an “enemy of the state” but he was hired to complete fieldwork while he lived among the Trobriand Islanders (Young 1, Frazer vii, Uberoi 5). Malinowski transformed fieldwork by intimately getting to know his community of study (Stocking Jr. 11, 12).

After the end of the war, Malinowski returned to the UK with a powerful book about the lives of the people he had truly had the chance to observe, live among, and know. Malinowski’s experiences led him to develop the fieldwork strategy, participant observation, that we embrace today.

The four steps of participant observation are:

  1. Stay for an extended period of time: This may seem obvious to us now, but it was groundbreaking at the time. Malinowski wanted to make sure that anthropologists spent years living among the people they were studying in order to have enough time to fully understand all elements of the culture.
  2. Learn the local language: If you are multilingual then you know that different languages lead to different ways of thinking. Malinowski realized that you can’t understand a community if you can’t learn how they speak about themselves and about the world.
  3. Explore the mundane imponderabilia: in other words, “make the strange familiar and make the familiar strange.” Anthropologists strive to make sense of cultural practices that seem “strange” while equally trying to identify what might be unique or “strange” from an outsider’s perspective in order to highlight what, exactly, is a social construct in our own cultures.
  4. Get off the veranda:” Malinowski wanted anthropologists to leave their homes and actively participate in the cultural practices of the people they were studying (DeWalt 1–17). It is only by getting off the veranda and participating, while also observing, that we can ever fully know the people that we are studying.

All of this is done with the goal of understanding the culture from the perspective of its actual members. To learn how cultural insiders see the world is to gain what we call an emic perspective. Another way to say this is that when we take an emic perspective, we are looking at the world around us through the eyes of a member of a particular culture, interpreting it in terms of their beliefs, preconceptions, and categories.

In contrast, another approach that anthropologists use when trying to gain an understanding of a culture is what we call an etic perspective. This term refers to a way of observing a culture without the preconceptions, attitudes, or cultural knowledge of its members. In other words, an etic perspective is supposed to be free of any cultural biases, even cultural insiders’ perspectives about their own reasons for doing what they do.

Anthropologist Delmos Jones researched both perspectives throughout his career and he outlined his findings in his publication, “Towards A Native Anthropology.” In this influential work, Jones makes the case that anthropologists must increasingly focus on studying their own communities. Jones rightly argued that anthropology’s exclusive focus on being the “outsider looking in” was steeped in ideas of cultural supremacy (the exact racist and colonial worldviews that anthropology now strives to overcome). By working as both outsider and insider throughout his career, Jones exemplified a new, modern style of anthropological research that is now widely embraced by our field.

February 11: Fieldwork Ethics

Anthropologist Delmos Jones conducted research in three separate areas: among the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, among the Lahu of Northern Thailand, and within the Black community of Denver, Colorado. Each of these areas of research led Jones to profound conclusions that shaped the future of anthropology, and his work within Black communities in Denver offered a particularly powerful insight toward the power of “native anthropology”. Jones writes, “I am an intrinsic part of the social situation that I am attempting to study. As part of the situation, I must also be part of the attempt to forge a solution (Jones 255).”

Jones lived from 1936–1999. Jones grew up partially in the South and partially in Oakland, California. Each circumstance influenced how he viewed the world: the former offered him an intimate knowledge of the Jim Crow South and how people struggled in oppressive cultural systems; the latter introduced Jones to the diversity of cultural views and political engagement (Klugh 2018). Later in life, in San Francisco, Jones earned his degree in anthropology in an era when student and faculty activism was on the rise alongside the increased popularity of anti-racism and feminism.

After moving to Arizona, Jones’ initial position was as a field researcher among the Papago of Arizona. In this position, Jones developed his new anthropological consciousness: studying “the other” was also an opportunity to study one’s own cultural understanding of the self. Jones found that anthropological research should not create a false binary of “West versus other” but that, rather, anthropologists should utilize the unique perspectives of our own cultural knowledge to offer insights about our communities and the other groups that we work among.

He writes:

“As a graduate student, whenever I read descriptions of other people’s way of life, I could never quite escape the notion that the writer could just as well be talking about me, and the way I lived as a Black youth in the rural south in the 1940’s…I saw the Papago more as a poor people than as “Indians”…What I saw were people, who lived very similarly to the rural Black and White people of my childhood in rural Alabama (Jones cited in Klugh 2018.)”

Delmos Jones was particularly concerned with ethics within anthropology. While working in Thailand, the local government became interested in seeking out identifying information about socialist groups and demanded that Jones’ research be handed over (Klugh 2018). Jones recognized that he could no longer conduct ethical fieldwork as his work was being used to target political groups; as a result, he suspended his research and subsequently published guidance for future anthropologists to protect the identities and lives of informants in the field.

As fieldwork is the backbone of anthropology, ethical fieldwork is a core value of our field. Without establishing and following ethical procedures, anthropologists are unable to accurately reflect — and protect — the lives of the informants who share their cultural knowledge with us. The American Anthropological Association offers 7 clear guidelines for anthropologists to pursue ethical fieldwork; each is essential for anthropologist pursuing ethnographic fieldwork.

The seven Principles of Professional Responsibility in the AAA Statement on Ethics are:

  1. Do No Harm: Above all else, anthropologists must not harm their communities of study. This principle emphasizes the role of anthropologists as researchers whereby we must not experiment on or manipulate the communities who we are striving to better understand. Additionally, we cannot publish information that would jeopardize the safety or wellbeing of the community.
  2. Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work: Deception has no role in anthropological fieldwork. Anthropologists must remain transparent about our work. We share the purpose and implications of our fieldwork with our informants.
  3. Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions: Before conducting any interviews or field observations, anthropologists must communicate their research interests and purpose to their informants and gain informed consent. Information gathered without consent cannot be used in any anthropological publications.
  4. Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations Due Collaborators and Affected Parties: Anthropologists must consider how time, research, and publication might impact the people and institutions who we research and work with. Vulnerable groups must be protected and prioritized in fieldwork, research, and publication.
  5. Make Your Results Accessible: The communities that we study have a right to understand and engage with any publications that result from our fieldwork. Your conclusions must be made available to the people who we interviewed and observed.
  6. Protect and Preserve Your Records: Anthropologists must keep their research preserved (while protecting confidentiality).
  7. Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships: Anthropologists are required to respect colleagues and informants alike. Always credit informants or fellow anthropologists for their own information and research while always prioritizing equitable workplaces and field sites.

When we look at Delmos Jones’ work, we see that we owe him a great deal. Jones developed a methodology to protect the safety and identity of informants and referred to his own field experiences to press the importance of informant protection. Additionally, Jones pushed for a new direction in the field known as “native anthropology.” While cultural anthropologists were aware of the colonial legacy that marred the legitimacy of our field for generations, Jones identified and implemented a path to research that tangibly addressed these problems.

February 12: Presenting Ethnographic Research

Anthropological fieldwork traditionally results in the production of written texts, called ethnographies, that reflect the beliefs and practices of a particular culture. But, written work is not the only way to convey our anthropological findings.

Glenn Jordan, for example, is an anthropologist who presents his fieldwork through series of photographs. Jordan has dedicated his life to documenting and sharing the stories of people and their cultures particularly through his passion for photography. His work champions the underdog and advocates for an appreciation of human diversity. The focus of Jordan’s research, ethnographies, and exhibitions is representation. Jordan states, “Behind everything I do, all my photography is all about identity and representation and culture, multiculturalism” (Haf 2012). Through exposure and education he aspires to challenge ignorance. Jordan uses his photography to enhance and bring life to his ethnographic work. By enhancing cultural knowledge through photographic representation, Jordan more vividly reflects the stories told by his informants (ibid).

While early anthropologists looked to study isolated cultures, modern anthropologists — operating in an increasingly globalized world — analyze how interactions between people shape our identities. Jordan’s exhibitions particularly look at the life and history of minorities present in Ireland and Wales. Jordan uses his visual art to tell the stories of Somali people living in Wales and Sikh communities in Ireland, among others. Jordan’s 2015 collaboration with Andrew McNeill titled, “Under the Bridge: Being Homeless in Cardiff” explores the lives of unhoused people living in Wales (“Glenn Jordan” n.d.; Haf 2012). His article titled, “An African Presence in Europe” (2008) describes his ethnographic research on Somali people living in Wales as “an exercise in anti-racist education” (Jordan 2008). Jordan aims to improve understanding between diverse groups to create a more united community that does not discriminate against those of different backgrounds (Haf 2012).

Jordan has also written several books and articles on culture, race, and African American history. “Cultural Politics” (1995), co-authored with Chris Weedon, focuses on power and reflects on the ways in which the constructs of class, gender, and race are upheld and perpetuated — Jordan writes “Social inequality is legitimated through culture” — or even how these social divisions may be challenged in a culture. These themes are also touched upon in a later work with Weedon, in which the pair examine collective memory and its role in identity creation along racial and gender lines, among others (Weedon & Jordan 2012). They note the many influences on collective memory including the ways it may be politicized or biased to serve a dominant group (ibid). Anthropologists use the term collective memory to refer to way that family, groups, and/or communities might share similar ideas of past events. Of course, as human memory is not perfect, social scientists know that our memories are largely impacted by the dominant narratives that are perpetuated by powerful groups. So when examining collective memory, we must take a holistic approach that considers the complex web of influences that may impact our ideas of past events.

Additionally, Anthropologists Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus both presented their extensive fieldwork through dance.

Katherine Dunham or the “Matriarch of Black Dance’’ as many called her, was a revolutionary African American anthropologist and professional dancer. Dunham was exceptional in her field as she incorporated her anthropological research into her own dance career by showcasing the beauty and power behind global dances from various African and Caribbean cultures. This work challenged the negative cultural misconceptions surrounding dances from the African diaspora in the era of segregation across the United States. Dunham’s research reflected extensively on her first-hand experiences with the racial divide in America and offered her research to clarify the disparities that influenced the lives of many.

As an advocate for racial equality, Dunham would always refuse performances at segregated venues and was very involved with domestic and international rights issues (The Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts & Humanities).

Much like Katherine Dunham, anthropologist and dancer Pearl Primus combined her two areas of expertise to shed a light on areas of American culture that were previously — and purposely — hidden from public discourse. Specifically, much of African culture, such as dance, was viewed as “primitive” and unworthy of public viewing. Reflecting on her career, in Pearl Primus’ words, “I wanted to show white people that there is respect due this culture. And I danced to show Black people that this is a great heritage” (Wright 1985).

Primus’ work is considered by many to be a form of “translation” (McClaurin 2001) whereby she used dance to convey important messages about social and economic disparity in the United States. Like any great anthropologist, Primus aptly communicated meaning across groups that would otherwise not encounter one another; in 1991 Primus explained, “I dance not to entertain but to help people better understand each other” (Dunning 1994).

Her effectiveness as a “translator ” was in large part due to her intensive fieldwork methods–Primus’ participant observation was unparalleled. In 1944, she spent months working as a migrant worker in the American South picking cotton in order to better understand the plight of Black Americans in that region. In 1948, Primus traveled alone across Western and Central Africa, experiencing and absorbing the knowledge of local culture, religion, and dance directly from the source (Foulkes 2014). The insight she gained into the lives and worlds of these people allowed her to empathize fully with them, allowing her to create real and compelling choreography that reflected the intricacies of traditional, cultural dance as applied to modern topics and techniques.

UC Riverside’s Anthea Kraut argues that these African American women helped to change the view of African culture from “primitive” to more complex representations of the African diaspora, which is far more nuanced than Western ideals were willing to accept during the 1930s. Their productions all “depicted the transformations of Black dance forms as they moved from the Caribbean to the United States.” (Kraut 447) and were all based on Dunham’s anthropological fieldwork as well. Kraut notes that Dunham’s productions would not just incorporate Black forms of dance and movement but also eurocentric dance forms (due to her background in ballet and modern dance) which created a combination of both “Afrocentricity and hybridization” (ibid).

February 13: The Construction of Race

As you recall, the colonial effort was structured around the idea of European supremacy whereby European colonial powers systematically took control of lands, resources, and peoples across the world under the false guise of European superiority (Buck 31–67; Bejarano et al 17). In many parts of the world, clear racial delineations did not exist before the arrival of European colonial powers; these colonial governments designed and implemented rigid racial hierarchies in order to justify their own system of control (ibid). A standard colonial strategy followed the idea that, if people are separated into distinct groups, assigned limited roles in society, and then placed upon a hierarchical structure that prevents cooperation and resistance then they are easier to control and dominate (Willis 123).

The colonial construction of race can be understood through the case of Rwanda.

Before the colonization of the African continent, African communities lived and moved across the continent without the borders that exist today. Concepts of identity varied from place to place and were not discrete or rigid in most cases. In Central Africa, for example, groups called “Hutu” and “Tutsi” existed but were not strict racial identities and were — rather –were more of a loose grouping. A person could change which group they belonged to through marriage or by changing the type of work they engaged in (typically herdsman were Tutsis and Hutus were cultivators) (Kigali Genocide Memorial; Gibbs 406–440; Gourevitch). These identities were fluid and not ethnically or racially distinct (ibid).

When the German colonial government took initial control of the central African region that is now called Rwanda, they sought a grouping that could be amplified and codified in order to better assert local control. Using pseudo-scientific justification, the Germans decided that the group who called themselves the Tutsis were more “Caucasian” (or, looked more white) to them than the other major group called the Hutus. Due to this perceived Caucasian look, the German colonial government gave the Tutsis more administrative control and more power in that part of the world, which resulted in a forced lack of cooperation between the two groups who were both subjugated under colonial regime. When the Germans passed control of Rwanda the Belgian colonial government, they began issuing ID cards that cemented each Rwandan person’s identity in the newly unchangeable categories of “Hutu” or “Tutsi” with the Tutsis placed firmly at the top of a racial hierarchy that awarded them economic and political power (Gourevitch).

We can turn to the case of Rwanda to understand how race was constructed based on appearance and then used to offer opportunity to certain groups while denying opportunity to others. This is how the construction of race was used against native communities across the colonial era and how it is still used today.

So, what is race?

Race is a socially constructed identity. Race is not genetic (there is no genetic code that makes a person “white” or “black,” etc.). Rather than being written in our DNA, race is determined on a cultural level. Race is defined differently across various cultures and periods of time. While race is not biologically real, it is still culturally real because race and racism impact people’s lives in a very tangible and measurable way. Cultural anthropologists closely examine how communities determine and reinforce racial identities. Biological anthropologists examine genetic variation across all groups to better understand our vast diversity.

In your daily life, you likely determine a person’s race by looking at their suite of physical features including skin color, hair color and texture, face shape, body shape, eye color, etc. and then deciding which race you think they belong to. We also consider characteristics like behavior, name, clothing, career choice, language, etc., when we try to determine a person’s race. These determinations are, themselves, culturally-specific and the cultural elements surrounding them change over time and change from place to place. We then project our own idea of a person’s race upon them, it’s usually based upon the social constructs that our society has worked hard to teach us. While, in many cases, individuals may agree with the race that you assign then, it is certainly not always so clear cut. Ask yourself: have you ever been assigned a race that you don’t actually identify as? Or, have you ever been rejected from a racial or ethnic group that you actually do have a claim to? Or, has someone’s race surprised you in the past? All of these examples reflect the subjective and ever-changing nature of race.

Race is a complex identity that is not based in biology but that still carries a lot of cultural power. While race is not biologically real, it’s socially very real: people are treated differently based on their “race” and this impacts everyone’s lives in a very real, tangible, and measurable way.

So, what is racism?

Racism is the belief that human beings have certain characteristics, abilities, or different behavioral traits based on their assigned race.

“Race” and “racism” are two concepts that must be defined separately, but they are inextricably intertwined. Without the socially-constructed categories of race, systemic and cultural racism would not have a structure within which to function. Dominant narratives surrounding race and racism argue that both race and racism are natural parts of human nature, but, anthropologists with a complex understanding of human genetics and access to cultural and historical records know that race was actually invented to justify inequal power distribution. As author, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” In other words, race did not exist before racist worldviews emerged. Rather, the racist need to exert colonial control motivated the complex construction of racial categories.

The construction of racial categories — as we know them today — took place largely in the realm of pseudo-science whereby scientists — including anthropologists — utilized flimsy means of gathering and interpreting data in order to develop a justification for their governments’ policies of subjugation.

An example of this type of effort can be seen in the work of Johann Blumenbach (1752–1840) who worked to develop a racial hierarchy. Blumenbach measured human skulls in an attempt to demonstrate that each race had its own, distinct, skull shape.

Blumenbach claimed that they were five categories of race: Ethiopians, American Indians, Malayan, Caucasian, and Mongolian. He argued that he could determine someone’s race by looking at their facial shape, and then he categorized the skulls in order of intelligence and value to society. In fact, Blumenbach believed that human races were so different that we actually belonged to different sub-species that could not change or have offspring across groups.

Of course, we quite obviously know that members of different races can have children and that racial identity changes rapidly with each generation. However, these racial categories — as developed by Blumenbach — were widely accepted as scientific fact in such a way that they still impact our view of race today.

February 14: Race and Biology

Each cell in our body contains DNA. DNA is packaged as chromosomes, and these always come in pairs. These pairs are called homologous chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. A gene is a section of a chromosome that has a particular function, and the matching sections of paired chromosomes work together to carry out that function. Any particular gene can come in different varieties. Some genes come with two variations and some come with more than two variations. These variations are called alleles. The way that a gene functions will depend on which alleles are present on the chromosomes at that gene. When an individual carries the same allele on their paired chromosomes, they are called homozygous for that gene. When an individual has different alleles for a gene, they are called heterozygous for that gene.

We use the term discrete trait to refer to a biological trait that can only be expressed in a few, clear, easily categorized ways. We use the term continuous trait to refer to a biological trait that exists somewhere on a spectrum.

Discrete traits are rare in human beings, some examples include:

  • Blood Type: A person can either have type A, B, O, or AB blood
  • Cleft chin: A person either has a cleft chin or does not
  • Earlobe attachment: A person either has attached earlobes or detached earlobes

The vast majority of human traits are continuous because they are determined by a set of many alleles that combine to manifest in various ways. These include hair color, eye color, skin color, height, etc. Although we culturally consider human beings to only have a few eye colors (blue, green, hazel, or brown) these colors actually vary widely; for example, there are many shades of brown eyes and sometimes the difference between the eye colors isn’t clearly delineated.

Across cultures, the characteristics that are used to determine race are categorized in various ways. In order to better understand how widely these categories vary, consider these examples:

  • In Brazil, race is based on skin tone. In this way, a person can actually be a different race than their own parents (Guest).
  • In the United States, race is based largely on parentage. While physical characteristics are key in determining race, we typically assign a person’s race based on what races their parents are. The United States implemented the “rule of hypodescent” which categorized mixed-race people with any amount of African heritage as “Black” and not at all white. Initially, this rule was used to expand power over the enslaved population (Delgado and Stefancic 152).
  • In South Africa, race is based on ancestry (African ancestry, European ancestry, etc.). In contested cases, the “pencil test” was used whereby people were asked to place a pencil in their hair and, if the pencil didn’t fall out, they were categorized as Black. Black people were then separated from society’s essential resources throughout the era of Apartheid.

Of course, skin color is considered in all of these cases. Skin color is similarly not discrete as human skin tones exist with limitless diversity. Skin color is determined by the presence of melanin in our bodies combined with the impact of our environment. Historically, before mass migration, those closer to the equator where it was hotter would adapt to produce more melanin in order to protect themselves from the sun. Skin color is determined by ancestral proximity to the equator. Socially, we might work hard to place these various skin tones into a few categories, but these categories are inventions of the human mind and not an actual reflection of our gene makeup.

All the criteria we use to place people into a certain race are either continuous traits (which cannot be biologically categorized into distinct groups) or behavioral traits (that have no connection to biology at all). It’s important to note that, when racial groups are tested genetically, more genetic variation exists within groups than across groups (Rosenberg et al., from Walker Pacheco 357).

By looking at the continuous traits we know there is no DNA code that determines your race, there is not a gene in your DNA that says you will be a certain race. Your genes determine your suite of characteristics, and then society decides which race you’ll be assigned.

February 15: Closely Examining Race

When forensic and physical anthropologist Charles Preston Warren began his career, racial categories were incorrectly considered to be permanent, unchanging, and biological. Warren focused his research on a group of darker-skinned communities in the Pacific who were misunderstood both biologically and culturally. His work was an early example of disproving the biological reality of race by utilizing holistic research.

Warren conducted research across parts of Southeast Asia and the Andaman Islands with a specific focus on darker-skinned communities in that region. These groups were erroneously considered by anthropologists to be one, discrete race and they were named by a racial slur in the dominating scientific literature of the time. Warren was able to establish the fact that these groups actually had great biological diversity (in skin color and hair type), that their cultural and linguistic variations were diverse, and he studied archeological sites in order to track the cultural evolution and migration of these groups (Baldwin-Jones 2018). At the time of his publications on this matter, Warren was the only anthropologist to holistically study the phenotypes, culture, and artifacts of these people (ibid). Warren aptly commented that physical anthropologists had every reason to push back against his conclusions because anthropology, itself, had “locked itself into a racist methodology” that limited the field’s ability to approach an unbiased study of race (ibid).

Before establishing himself as a pioneer in theoretical and applied forensic anthropology, Charles Preston Warren’s education was interrupted by World War II where he served as a staff sergeant in the United States Army Air Corps (Chicago Tribune). Throughout his service, Warren witnessed countless tragedies first-hand including the inability to identify the bodies of loved ones who lost their lives fighting for their country. As the longest-serving military forensic anthropologist, Warren helped identify fallen American soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War (Baldwin-Jones, 33). In June of 1975, Warren received a Meritorious Civilian Service Award for his work in Thailand, identifying soldiers from the Vietnam War (Chicago Tribune). Warren published and presented his research findings from the war at various academic conferences (Baldwin-Jones, 33).

As we know from the work of Charles Preston Warren and others, race is not biologically real. However, people are still treated differently based on their race which clearly demonstrates that race is socially very real. the impact of racial identity on a person’s lived experience is closely examined by anthropologist Dána-Ain Davis.

When people are separated from society’s basic resources based on their identities, anthropologists call this structural violence. People experiencing structural violence suffer negative physical consequences that impact their health and well-being when they are unable to — for example — receive healthcare, healthy food or medications, education etc. Unlike direct violence, structural violence causes harm by preventing people from meeting basic needs. When one gender experiences this type of violence anthropologists call this structural gender violence. Legally forcing non-consenting women to suffer the incredibly dangerous and painful experience of childbirth by limiting access to reproductive healthcare is an example of structural gender violence. And, when we consider the role that race plays in these situations, it becomes even more complicated.

Dána-Ain Davis is an anthropologist who primarily researches the intersections of gender, race, reproductive injustice, and welfare reform. Davis has influenced feminist ethnography with her research on prejudicial systems women endure such as inaccessible welfare programs and the medical racism Black women face when it comes to their reproductive health. The research of Davis and others consistently reflects the reality that Black women are more likely to suffer traumatic birth experiences regardless of their income level or educational level. By examining the experiences of Black women across various socioeconomic circumstances, social scientists are able to understand that race is the commonality tying these experiences together. Davis connects this problematic trend in structural violence to the history of medical racism whereby Black women were regularly experimented on without anesthesia based on the racist belief that Black people felt less pain than white people. These deeply ingrained racist beliefs cause Black women to be believed and supported less often in medical situations.

Davis’ research predominantly focuses on the lived experiences of Black women in the United States. Davis illuminates the societal inequity Black women face, such as inadequate support for government assistance, complications as a result of domestic abuse, and discriminatory medical practices. Her publications reflect her interviews and participant observation to retell these women’s stories.

Dána-Ain Davis’s book, Battered Black Women and Welfare Reform: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, was published in 2006. In 1998, Davis interviewed and worked with residents of a battered women’s shelter to understand the hardships they endured. Many of the women qualified for government assistance to escape their abusive partners or support a child with health complications. Of the twenty-two women she interviewed at the shelter, thirteen were Black. And yet, these same women were offered resources at a disproportionately lower rate than their white peers.

This research highlights the reality that race is an integral factor for survivors of domestic abuse. Davis wrote, “Essentially permission has been extended to case-workers to discourage people from applying for or continuing to receive assistance. In order to receive whatever meager resources they can secure, women are subjected to various degrees of humiliation and degradation in their interactions with institutional personnel” (Davis, 2006). Government assistance policies, Davis argues, imply that applicants are undeserving, which exacerbates the harm to already vulnerable women.

Dána-Ain Davis’s work shines a light on previously ignored social issues. It is undeniable how vital Dána-Ain Davis’ research on reproductive injustice, race, gender, and welfare is.

February 16: Vindicationism

Anthropologist Ivan Van Sertima researched pre-colonial technologies to combat the myth of African inferiority. Due to colonization, genocide, slavery, and other destructive forces, the general public has limited knowledge of what life was like in many pre-colonial countries. In African history, for example, many people can only recall as far as the arrival of Europeans. Meaning that various African lifestyles before the 15th century have been neglected in academia. Van Sertima sought to deconstruct the “myths about [Black] fundamental inferiority” through his research and publications on the African presence in the Americas prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus (Cush, 2009).

Throughout his time of research in the sixties to mid-eighties, his ideas were regarded to be outside of the mainstream. Though, Van Sertima continued to share his work through his publications and teachings. He argued that early Africans possessed intellectual technological capabilities that were seldomly represented by western academia. In addition to his most popular argument regarding Africans in the New World, Van Sertima also asserted that early Africans also had substantial influence in Asia and Europe. His research finds that in some “historical periods”, early Africans were found in both continents as “creators, masters, teachers, invaders and traders” not “as servants” (Miller, 1987).

The practice of challenging damaging racial stereotypes in this way is called vindicationism. This term was coined by anthropologist St. Clair Drake and was similarly embraced by anthropologist Louis Eugene King.

Vindicationism is a scholarship designed to address historical omissions of the contributions and achievements of members of the African Diaspora (Drake 1990; Foster 2008). This type of work is intended to address the negative psychological and political impacts that a lack of historically-accurate representation has had upon this community.

This approach toward cultural research questions and re-examines the mainstream narratives that establish and perpetuate dangerous hierarchies of race, gender, and beyond. In Drake’s view, good scholarship inevitably leads to transformative social action (Baber 1999). In other words, the scholar cannot uncover unequal social systems without also taking practical action to address inequality and injustice. Through his meaningful research, publications, and mentorship, Drake had a profound influence on the field of anthropology and upon future generations of anti-racist scholars and activists.

Modern anthropologists and students of anthropology are encouraged to move away from the colonial tradition of “speaking for the other.” When we study a community to which we do not belong, the danger of oversimplifying or misrepresenting the lived experiences of our informants persists. Postmodern anthropologists like St. Clair Drake overcome the power imbalance between anthropologist and informant by putting an emphasis on the informant’s own expertise and perspective. Drake focused on amplifying the voices of historically marginalized communities as Willie L Baber wrote in his memory, “An approximation of total knowledge is impossible if data derived from the experiences of any known group are unavailable.” In other words, the social sciences cannot ever claim to possess an empirical, holistic understanding of the human experience as long as the voices of historically marginalized groups are not brought to the forefront of the conversation on their own terms.

Anthropologist Louis Eugene King similarly saw anthropology as an opportunity to achieve “cultural vindication” (research used to correct harmful stereotypes). King was far ahead of this time: he was the first Black Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, he studied under Franz Boas, and he established the idea of “cultural vindication” in the 1930s. Facing both the racism and extreme financial challenges of the Great Depression, King still managed to pursue meaningful anthropological research that offers a helpful perspective on the role of anthropology today.

One of Louis Eugene King’s major contributions to the literature was to debunk the idea that the innate intelligence of people could be determined by a universal metric. In his dissertation, “The Negro Life in Rural Community,” he challenged the prevalent, bigoted misconception that Black people in the northern regions were “smarter” than those in the south. From 1927 to 1931, he conducted his research in West Virginia, which was the northernmost state still considered “southern.” King’s groundbreaking argument was that the results of an “intelligence test” could not be considered valid without considering the cultural context and environment of the test subject. An objective test of innate intelligence would have to take these factors into account.

February 17: Applied Anthropology

Modern anthropologists know that no racial or cultural group is truly homogenous. When we conduct fieldwork, it’s essential to seek out diverse members of any given community in order to ensure that we are examining the cultural experience from all possible angles and circumstances. Anthropologist Vera Mae Green identified research shortcomings in anthropology by highlighting the fact that the vast diversity within the African Diaspora was not fully recognized in anthropological research. Ultimately, she argued, anthropology’s biases were present in the way that Black people were both researched and represented.

Green’s article titled, “The Confrontation of Diversity within the Black Community” (1970), argues that contemporary scholars focus on the lower economic classes and apply these findings universally rather than acknowledge the diversity within the Black population. In her research, sociologists and anthropologists were shown to choose to only research slums and ghettos as the only type of Black community. This lack of diverse representation limited the social scientist’s ability to gain holistic or realistic understanding of the diverse realities faced by the African diaspora.

According to Green, social science lacked attention to varied types of Black families. It was groundbreaking work as one of the first articles to demand acknowledgment of the heterogeneity of Black communities. Articles like this, combined with Green’s other highly regarded contributions such as her book Migrants in Aruba (1974), where she critiques the prevalent methods of studying Black and Caribbean communities, are what truly make up Green’s lasting legacy that should be studied and remembered for generations.

Green’s work is considered to be applied anthropology or anthropology with a practical application. Applied anthropology can impact a variety of areas of human society including legal cases and government policies. We can see both in the works of Allison Davis’ and James Lowell Gibbs.

Anthropologist Allison Davis studied the intersection of race and class in American culture and offered his findings to the courts considering Brown v.The Board of Education. Specifically, Davis’ research highlighted cultural and racial bias present in intelligence tests that were widely applied in American schools and advocated for the end of school segregation.

One of Allison Davis’ most prominent research findings was that of the “caste-and-class” framework. The “caste-and-class” framework categorized social class in reference to how varying racial groups were raised in different cultural settings. He drew parallels to caste systems to shine light on the fact that there was, and still is, a form of racial hierarchy in the United States. Davis found that even though a Black person can be in the upper class, they would still be culturally considered lower on the social ladder than a lower-class white American. He expands upon this framework of ideology in his book “Deep South”.

In addition to his notable accomplishment of Deep South, Allison Davis wrote other publications like Social-Class Influences Upon Learning, and Children of Bondage both of which expound upon his initial thoughts in Deep South and further contribute to the field of social anthropology in the areas of race, class, and education. Addressing such issues in social policy meant that his views often went against the grain of public opinion. One such example was his work in leading quantitative and empirical studies regarding the cultural biases of intelligence tests (Varel, Pittenger, 2015, P. 353). This work was integral because it helped change current testing practices and gave new opportunities for the lower class and minority groups (Varel, Pittenger 2015, P. 353).

Showing a passion for equality within education, Davis also played an important role in the school desegregation process which came to a head in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board (Varel, Pittenger, 2015, p. 353). Three areas of his research went on to make cases against segregation, the first being his analysis of racial caste in Deep South. He went on to showcase his ideas of “culture-and-personality thought” in his work Children of Bondage which showed that racial caste and the segregation that followed set hard limits on the lives of Black youth which formed a second case in Brown v. Board (Pitenger, Sutter, 2015, p. 405). Finally, Davis’ explanation of how segregation halted lower class and minority children from being able to learn the dominant American middle-class culture and that it also affected more privileged Americans by stopping them from engaging and learning cultures and associated skills from other social circles (Varel, Pittnger, 2015, p. 405). All of this encompassed his prominence in the anthropological community.

Anthropologist James Lowell Gibbs similarly focused on legal structures and proceedings in order to positively impact his community. As part of his research, Gibbs spent time in Botswana closely examining their legal traditions. He went on to author the groundbreaking, “Law in Radically Different Cultures” which forged the way for an entirely new approach to comparative law at Stanford Law School. In Gibbs’ work, four primary areas of cultural variation required close examination including: inheritance, embezzlement, honoring contracts, and population control (Brown 9–10).

Gibbs uses his expertise to take social justice and civil rights action across the Bay Area (Browne 12). His community service ranges from participating in anti-discrimination commissions, founding the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, tutoring students in literacy (ibid), and serving as the Stanford University’s first dean of undergraduate studies (Stanford). In all, Gibbs’ life and career reflect that of a professional anthropologist who uses his knowledge of cultural disparity to enact meaningful and real-world change.

February 18: Anthropology and Abolitionism

As applied anthropologists seek to use their expertise to enact change in academia, policy, and the world at large, many anthropologists who closely examine the American judicial system have embraced an abolitionist framework within which to better explain inequalities in the American judicial system. Abolitionism is applied as a critique of the judicial system that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities.

Karen G Williams is an American anthropologist who focuses her research on the wide-reaching prison industrial complex that touches all areas of American life. Williams emphasizes the experiences of historically marginalized communities across America throughout her research, she calls attention to social policy as she highlights the interconnectedness between all the parts that make up our rapidly moving society. Illicit policies and immoral legislation that have sought to disenfranchise marginalized communities throughout American history constitute for these parts, allowing for the consistent preservation of a system that bolsters some and hinders many others.

In addition to her ethnographic research at Midwest state prisons, Williams has also advocated for mindfulness and meditative practice as a means to cultivate compassionate engagement with the challenges facing society. Having led workshops in building sangha to better understand the relationships that individuals share with systems of oppression, race, gender, and class, Williams provides alternative avenues in which people of color can explore to better respond to their dissatisfactions with societal inequalities.

Considering the quadrupling of America’s prison population since 1970, Williams centers evidence-based policies and practices (EBPs) that correctional facilities implement to highlight the ways they influence the influx of prisoner reentry. If we are to dissect such evidence-based policies within a broader context we must ask: are these practices working for the greater good of the institutions? Is the institution prioritized over the well-being of individuals? We must consider the fact that most correctional facilities utilize these EBPs to manage their populations in manners most cost-efficient (Williams 4–10).

This fixed focus on monetary budgets sanctions correctional institutions to cut vital corners in regard to inmate rehabilitation, compromising the competencies of released individuals to properly self-govern once outside the facilities. The lack of such crucial skills upon reentry to society impels these individuals back into harmful habits until the system sees their rearrest, adding to the alarming contemporary rates of prisoner reentry on behalf of America’s carceral system.

Anthropologist and poet Savannah Shange similarly critiques the prison and justice systems in the United States throughout her work and publications. Shange’s work titled, “Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco” focuses on the role that schools play in perpetuating anti-Black punitive culture. Shange argues that even progressive institutions can be steeped in a cultural tradition of antiblackness that fails to liberate young people.

February 19: Critical Thinking and the Production of Knowledge

At this point, you need to understand how important critical thinking is in this class (and, indeed, in all classes). Each anthropologist that we read and study in our course will have a political viewpoint, personal bias, and academic agenda. All people are steeped in a particular worldview and this worldview will inevitably come through in our work. Some anthropologists have historically worked to construct groups of people as subhuman while some modern anthropologists might fail to fully recognize a damaging cultural practice within a community. Please prepare yourself to critically examine everything that you read and learn in this course and in this text. Anthropologists are humans studying humans and our perspectives will always be present in our work.

Anthropologists recognize the importance of examining power dynamics in any given institution, tradition, or social situation. Across all fields and areas of human life, the conceptions of reality that we know and experience are frequently designed and reinforced by groups with the most cultural power. When people or institutions are considered to be experts in a particular field, the designation typically reflects some amount of experience, trials, or training resulting in a position of authority (we see examples of this process in our medical professionals, religious leaders, politicians, etc.). Claims of expertise are questioned and critically examined by social scientists on a case-by-case basis.

The cultural concept of the “expert” is typically someone who has the power to define facts or develop public policy. While sometimes very successful in their work and sometimes not successful, experts play a central role in our society as they often have the power to drive cultural change. Anthropologists call this “the production of knowledge” whereby individuals, groups, or institutions are granted the authority to define what is “true” for the larger public. Of course, textbooks, articles, and publications are similarly examined by social scientists as claims of expertise that require critical examination. The way knowledge is produced impacts the lives of people and proves to be a fruitful area of anthropological research.

Consider, for example, when a government or charitable organization seeks to address poverty in a rural area: who should be considered the “expert” to design development plans? Should we turn to local community members to express their needs and ideas for economic development? Or, should we trust the analysis offered by foreign economists who may have never experienced the local culture? In most cases throughout modern history, the latter is offered the power to define policy and — increasingly — anthropologists have highlighted how problematic — and often, unsuccessful, foreign development projects actually are (for more, see: “Discourses of Development” by Grillo or “Malawi Versus the World Bank” by Patten).

Anthropologist Faye Harrison’s research (conducted in the Caribbean) draws from creative practices that aim to democratize the transmission of knowledge (Maddox-Wingfield 2020). In other words, Harrison’s work produces information that is more accessible to more people.

The voices of people of color, particularly those of Black women throughout the African diaspora, are emphasized in Harrison’s work (Smith 123). Intersectionality is asserted by Harrison’s idea that “Black women ‘[seem] always to live this sort of dual existence’” (Smith 2020, 124). Harrison draws upon ethnographic methods and ideas employed by other prominent Black women, namely Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham who analyzed communities through the lens of performance and theater, which are used to help “translate” the experiences of women of color (Smith 123).

Harrison asserts that:

“If anthropologists are to contribute to the study of race and its intersections with gender, class, and ethnicity, then they would benefit from revisiting and critically building upon a body of knowledge produced by anthropologists who were generally forced to work and struggle in an intellectual periphery.” (Harrison 1991, 4)

This collaborative effort is a call to action to include the work of historically underrepresented anthropologists in the dominant narrative of anthropology in order to transform anthropology from a “Western intellectual tradition” — i.e. a discipline that only values and validates European perspectives and schools of thought — to a discipline that showcases the views of a diverse world (Harrison 1991, v).

Faye Harrison’s work is revolutionizing anthropology by approaching the discipline from an actively anti-racist and feminist perspective in which she uplifts the contributions of women and anthropologists of color Her standards for inclusion set precedents that foster diversity and are utterly vital to have an accurate picture of humanity.

February 20: Power and Story-Telling

Much of our understanding of the world around us is framed by the stories that we are told. In classrooms, from news desks, and at the dinner table, stories shape our sense of self and — often — our sense of morality. Anthropologists know that the most powerful in any given society typically define the narratives that shape our culture’s ideologies. Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot paved the way to closely examine power and story-telling by fusing together his expertise in both historical and cultural analysis.

In his book, “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History,” Trouillot argued, “narratives are necessarily emplotted in a way that life is not. Thus, they necessarily distort life whether or not the evidence upon which they are abased could be proved correct. (Trouillot 6).” In his work, Trouillot rightly pointed out that human lives are not fictional stories written by a singular author. His work demonstrates that life does not have an inherent plot structure but that, rather, the traditional plot structures that we rely on for storytelling are constructed by the human mind. Of course, in order to make sense of seemingly random and confusing elements of life, human beings apply a plot structure to past events. We tell stories about ourselves in order to make sense of what has happened to us.

Trouillot’s work closely examined the relationship between culture, identity, and stories. His work challenged the powerful Western hegemonic framework which allows for social scientists and citizens to tell their stories as a vessel of understanding themselves. In his book, “Global Transformations,” Trouillot wrote, “historical narratives necessarily produce silences that are themselves meaningful. What are the major silences in the history the West tells about itself? (Trouillot 1995)”

Trouillot illustrates this by offering his readers the example of The Alamo. The Battle of the Alamo was, as Trouillot explains, a great defeat to the Texans who sought to defend the fort. The chant “Remember the Alamo!” re-framed the military loss as a story of martyrdom to a bigger cause. This slogan was used as a powerful rallying cry that motivated more people to join the fight, ultimately fueling the defeat of Mexico in favor of the Republic of Texas (Trouillot 2–3).

Trouillot’s work demonstrates the important intersection between history and power. He reminds his readers that only the most powerful typically write our history books. He asks, who decides how we remember our history? In Trouillot’s view, the historical erasure of the experiences of less powerful groups serves the function of shaping our global culture and global mentality, always favoring the most powerful. Trouillot argues that writing history itself is making history. In other words, the way that we recall our collective pasts can directly shape our belief systems in the present and future choices.

February 21: “Slave Bible From The 1800s Omitted Key Passages That Could Incite Rebellion”

How have religious texts been altered throughout history to maintain power? Listen to NPR’s story titled, “Slave Bible From The 1800s Omitted Key Passages That Could Incite Rebellion” to learn more.

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What types of material were removed from this Bible? What portions were left in? What does this tell you about the way that myth was used to shape behavior and worldview within these colonies?
  2. Have you seen something like this in your own life? How do people include or exclude religious excerpts in order to meet a political agenda today?

February 22: Intersectionality Reflection

Watch Kimberle Crenshaw’s Ted Talk to better understand intersectionality.

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What does Crenshaw mean when she speaks about “frames”? How do these frames tangibly impact our cultural lives?
  2. What is the “problem” that Crenshaw proposes? How can a new word (intersectionality) help us understand the reality of this problem?
  3. How is this an example of gender blindness? How is this an example of racial blindness? And, why must we remember that these two trends are not actually separable?

February 23: “Towards a Native Anthropology”

Using your institution’s credentials, download and read Delmos Jones’ “Toward A Native Anthropology.

Then, see if you. can answer the following questions:

  1. Using specific examples from the text, explain why the traditional view held that “insider” anthropologists could not conduct reliable fieldwork. Please properly cite your evidence in-text.
  2. How does Jones address “the problem of point of view?” What are some strengths that the “insider” has when entering the field?
  3. How does “participation” resemble “solidarity” in the eyes of the community? Give a specific example as explained by Jones.
  4. Ultimately, how does Jones view the power of the “insider’s”and “outsider’s” views?

February 24: “Teens Dig Into Black History As Urban Archaeologists”

How can anthropological work bring historically marginalized stories to light? Listen to NPR’s story titled, “Teens Dig Into Black History As Urban Archaeologists.”

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What does this story tell us about native anthropology (the practice of studying ourselves)? How might you be able to study your own local community in an equally powerful way?
  2. What can anthropology students offer to our field? What unique perspectives can the next generation of anthropologists bring, in your opinion?

February 25: “Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet”

Using your institution’s credentials, download and read William S Willis’ “Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet.”

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. Using specific examples from the text, how did Willis view the shortcomings of anthropology’s claims of anti-racism?
  2. What was anthropology’s role in the establishment of racial hierarchies? Use specific examples from the text.

February 26: Study Guide

Define the following concepts in your own words:

  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Biological Anthropology
  • Biological Determinism
  • Anthropological Archaeology
  • Tulsa Massacre
  • Restorative Justice
  • Linguistics
  • Applied Anthropology
  • Four-Field Approach
  • Holistic Perspective
  • Intersectionality
  • Black Feminist Anthropology
  • Worldview
  • Colonialism
  • Armchair Anthropology
  • Scientific Antiracism
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Cultural Relativism
  • Azande
  • Antisocial Behavior
  • Positive Ethnocentrism
  • Participant Observation
  • Emic Perspective
  • Etic Perspective
  • Native Anthropology
  • Ethnography
  • Collective Memory
  • Race
  • Racism
  • Gene
  • Allele
  • Discrete Trait
  • Continuous Trait
  • Rule Hypodescent
  • Pencil Test
  • Melanin
  • Structural Violence
  • Structural Gender Violence
  • Medical Racism
  • Vindicationism
  • Caste-and-Class Framework
  • Abolitionism
  • Expert
  • The Production of Knowledge

What are the four steps of participant observation?

What are the Seven Principles of Professional Responsibility in anthropology?

Briefly summarize the arguments of these social scientists:

  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Caroline Bond Day
  • Alicia Odewale
  • John Wesley Gilbert
  • Mark Hanna Watkins
  • Irma McClaurin
  • Johnetta Betsch Cole
  • Faye Harrison
  • Rachel Chapman
  • Niara Sudarkasa
  • Franz Boas
  • William Shedrick Willis Jr.
  • Sheila Walker
  • Bronislaw Malinowski
  • Delmos Jones
  • Glenn Jordan
  • Katherine Dunham
  • Pearl Primus
  • Charles Preston Warren
  • Dána-Ain Davis
  • Ivan Van Sertima
  • St. Clare Drake
  • Louis Eugene King
  • Vera Mae Green
  • Allison Davis
  • James Lowell Gibbs
  • Savannah Shange
  • Michelle Rolph-Trouillot

February 27: Anthropology and Black History Quiz

Instructors can import the quiz from Canvas Commons. Need the quiz questions in an alternative format? Email Amanda Zunner-Keating (

February 28: Your Favorite Anthropologist

If you pursue a career in anthropology, what would you like to research? If you’re assigned a research paper in your anthropology course, what will you be researching?

Write 5–10 sentences connecting your future research topic to the work of one anthropologist from this module. Use this task to help brainstorm your own research and to build your work upon the work of others.

Consider addressing any of the following:

  • Which anthropologist had the most interesting and/or useful approach, in your opinion?
  • How might you build your own anthropological research upon their research?
  • What areas of research did this anthropologist focus on that are similar to your own research?
  • How did your anthropologist-of-choice blaze the trail for you to study anthropology?

In this module, you’ve explored the accomplishments and legacies of anthropologists from throughout our field. At this point, you should have an idea about what areas of anthropological research interest you the most. Is there something misunderstood about your own culture that you need the world to know? Or, is there something about the world that you need to understand better? Start developing your own questions for a unique area of study.

Representations is collaboratively researched and written by student authors: Khaleesa Alexander, Brun Mac Ámoinn, Courtney Azari, Corey Blatz, Brandon Cho, Ysabella Colwell, Lukas Daniels, Megan Diane, Mary Eberle, Aaron Ebriani, Donna Edry, Nadia Evans-Lambert, Santia Gutierrez, Lucas Guerrero, Roni Haziza, Haidee Hernandez, Ashley-Marie Hinds, Emma Horio, Nazmiayh Jamil, Zoe Jensen, Maria Juarez, Michael Kidd, Lindsay Kramer, Jacquelyn Macias, Charlie Lanza, Deanna Lazaro, Paula Malian, Shahd Mahmoud, Meghan Matuszeski, Anna Ramazyan, Ian Ramos, Arlene Rodriguez, Viviana Rojas, Ysabelle Salazar, Jared Seow, Elyssa Venerable, Melissa Zamora, Alexandra Zysman. Faculty authors include: Amanda Zunner-Keating, Lisa Matthies-Barnes, Heather McIlvaine-Newsad, and Lindsay Donaldson. Reviewed and edited by Lara Braff, Ciarán Brewster, Travis DuBry, Duke Feldmeier, Erin Hayes, Lisa Matthies-Barnes, Roxanne Mayoral, Irma McClaurin, Heather McIlvaine Newsad, Brian Pierson, Jessica Proctor, Ken Seligson, Yasmine Shereen, Laurie Solis, Jeanelle Uy, Lisa Valdez, and Marina Cunin Borer. Recording and instructional design by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Published under a Creative Commons License Published under a Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

Some material is adapted from Beliefs and from Frank, Pierson, and Stein’s Lab Manual.

NPR links on this are linked NPR’s website with permission from NPR. All NPR content (audio, text, photographs, graphics, videos) is protected by copyright in the U.S. and other countries. For more, visit NPR’s Rights and Permissions website.