Historically academic organizations have made statements at times of peril in particular communities across the world to signify their official stance on the events taking place. From UNESCO’s statement on race in 1950 to the most recent academic organizations’ statements on the oppression of Palestinians and recent media attention brought to Ferguson and other cases of police brutality. But unfortunately these statements don’t necessarily materialize into anything of substance in the academy. Academic organizational statements have not been resulting in changing the racial politics in these departments.
At the 2014 American Anthropological Association conference in Washington, D.C. a number of Black women anthropologists organized a die-in to demonstrate solidarity with protestors across the United States who were speaking out against police brutality. I as a Black biological anthropologist looked onto these images from the die-in and the statements from anthropologists at the AAAs on twitter and squirmed with discomfort. Why? Because I know for a fact that there were white anthropologists at the AAAs that do not support Black anthropology graduate students or colleagues. I looked onto these images with white bodies laid across the floor (in attempt to mimic the necropolitical consequences of anti-Blackness) knowing that in one of these pictures was the same white male anthropology professor who stole my research work and won a $20,000 grant with it. I looked onto those images knowing that this die-in would never change the fact that I can’t get my dissertation proposal on the contribution of social, political, and economic inequality to dental health disparities among poor Blacks in the United States past my committee.
As I waited in the hallway on September 4th of last year for the oral defense of my advanced exams I hear one person on my committee & a faculty member who isn’t on my committee who invited himself to my committee talk about their problems with me pointing out racism in my work. So I walked into the classroom to my oral defense ready to defend my answers and be boldly engaged in the practice of an intersectional biocultural anthropology. I suffered for it. During my advanced exams my committee spent 3 hours attacking the politics of my work, claimed that the people I cited weren’t real scientists and they instead praised “scholars” who are known for engaging in quite frankly eugenic science. I stood by my work. During my advanced exams my committee never ever critiqued the actual work, just instead claimed that I still needed to learn how to be a “real scientist” and not a sociologist. I was told that I needed to acknowledge the “biological differences between Blacks and whites” in my work. When I refused and stated that I would not engage in “biological determinism” that professor set on a path of rampage and attacked every scholar that I cited and then told me to defend those scholars. My favorite comments included: “shouldn’t all hypotheses be colorblind?”, “there’s no reason to study racism, racism is decreasing”, and “it hurts my feelings when I get called racist”. I passed my advanced exams on the condition that I learn take a class on scientific methods, learn the biological differences between the races, and learn to write colorblind hypotheses. I took the pass and worked to try to find a way to change my committee and I got black balled by the entire physical anthropology department. My committee was not going to approve of my dissertation proposal without me compromising my work and practicing a eugenic anthropology. This means that I can’t graduate with a PhD in physical anthropology. I was told I would have to change my sub-discipline aka my degree track in order for me to finish.
VIOLATION OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Unfortunately the bad experiences don’t end there. When I confronted the professor who stole my research question about his racial insensitivity, deleting my context section out of the final draft of our paper, and the lack of a critical race theory in the paper he got defensive. I told the professor I wanted to ensure that the work was theoretically, methodologically, and contextually accurate. A white anthropologist, told a Black anthropologist that she doesn’t understand the community she lives in and grew up in. My response was simple: “Every time I manage to communicate an issue about how things are being done some misgivings surface about my capabilities or the validity of my expertise.”
He responded by requesting a meeting with the department chair & I received an email from the department chair saying he wanted to meet with me: “Dr. X has informed the Director of Graduate Studies and myself of your request to terminate work with him. Are you available to meet with us in my office regarding your request?” Mind you I never made such a request.
During the meeting, Dr. X, the department chair, and the director of graduate studies they communicated that they think I should finish working on the paper with the professor & then depart from the project. I told them I wasn’t walking away from a project with a research question that was designed by me. I was concerned with my intellectual property. Their biggest concern was that this professor is up for tenure review and they think I should just let everything go. The department is helping this professor cover his tracks. Sadly, I know I am not the only graduate student this has happened to. But what I am willing to do is tell my story, speak up and out. Anthropology departments needs to be held accountable.
Fact is, Black lives and minds do not matter in anthropology. Black lives and minds do not matter in American anthropology departments. I need AAA to move beyond die-ins. Black graduate students are being robbed of their work and opportunities right in their departments and white anthropologists are doing nothing about it. And its not just anthropology departments that are guilty, all of academia is guilty. Unfortunately my experiences aren’t unique. The reality is that there are physical anthropologists who still practice eugenic science. When I initially told the DGS about having my work stolen, he said it was typical academic practice. Why is this okay? Why don’t I have anyone to go to? When will AAA’s statement on race materialize to anthropology departments across the United States? When will the fact that anthropology is a white public space be addressed? When will the labor, lives, and minds of Black anthropology graduate students matter? When will #BlackLivesMatter become praxis in academic departments? These are questions we must ask ourselves and aim to answer. Unfortunately I cannot afford to believe AAA, or any other anthropological organization. My experiences and the reality of the subjugation of Black knowledge in anthropology don’t allow me the privilege of being naive.