Have you ever loved to do something you were no good at? I’ve had to work really hard at languages and physics. But at least it doesn’t feel like a waste, as does being good at something one dislikes. I’ve a knack for and really don’t like Monopoly, for instance. And anthropology.
I really wanted to like anthropology, and I think I could have. A large part of the reason that I attended (what I have likely on this blog turned into) my infamous school was that I wanted to learn about why and how dominant Australian culture and the Christian faith made so many of my friends tick. It was a six year anthropological study, it was tough and strange and I loved it. I considered doing it as a career.
So I went to university and took a few classes. The first assignment in my first course was on how the white male forerunners of the profession, especially at our university, had messed up on their ethnography around Aboriginal Australians. It was pretty good, the staff tried quite hard. I sometimes have trouble with Western reckonings of time, and when I realised I couldn’t attend university on a day when I was to give a presentation, my tutor good naturedly allowed me to reschedule. Cultural difference modifying the study of cultural difference. It was nice.
But the staff I was taught by were all white, and that really governed how the courses were run. It wasn’t as bad as with the cultural studies people who would talk of “our culture”. (The rs in that phrase very prominently evoke the Australian accent, a doubled marking of “real” Australianness which used to drive me up the wall in particular.) Whose culture, precisely, and why is it singular, and of what origins is it comprised? And, back to anthropology, whose perspective? We got to study white people a couple of times, sure, but it was all US fishermen in relation to Japanese businessmen, and New York mothers in relation to black nannies.
The students were told that anthropologists should aim to understand cultures on their own terms. But my fellow students would say things like that they didn’t think that it was really possible to have a culture that structures its thinking outside binary oppositions. After a few stumbles and false starts, me, right next to him, existent: ‘I take exception to that as someone from one of those cultures’. It was okay in its way: it’s hard to come into understanding another way of thinking, especially when the dominance of your own as a white person is made invisible by racism and supremacy. We were there to learn. What I really couldn’t stand is when the people with PhDs who were meant to be teaching us about cultural difference couldn’t do the same. It took me weeks to make this breakthrough with my last anthopology lecturer: it’s important to accept the terms people apply to their own genders and sexualities rather than privileging existing academic terminology from white, Western, straight scholars.
I wanted someone to talk about what it is like to be an other from the perspective of being othered, rather than a normative academic seeing fit to speak for a marginalised group. I came to regret this when a trans academic came to speak to one of my classes, and afterwards all my classmates wanted to talk about were her breasts. These students were used to having the dominant perspective, and the way the courses had been structured reinforced the idea that they were there to study, to examine, to objectify, to lay claim. They could never have understood a study of difference from the perspective of those constructed as different. The department had failed their students and us all.
But there was something else I wanted, too, apart from the perspective of people like me, or in political alliance with me. I wanted the staff and students to understand that the other wasn’t the only person and cultural position that needed understanding. I wanted to turn the lens back on people like them. Partly, this was vindictive – see how you like being a fascinating specimen! Mostly, however, I think it’s an important political project. I felt it, though I didn’t yet know that this was what was going on, when I was a primary school girl who wanted to understand the whys and wherefores of the dominant culture around her. Examining whiteness is important because that’s how you come to understand how dominance happens, that’s how you simultaneously examine and do away with the invisibility of that position, because it levels out the direction of the lens. It’s important for people like me to do it for reasons that the staff in my courses couldn’t fathom, that their courses didn’t take into account: because the other is as capable of examining, understanding, and learning as anyone else. Because difference takes more than one party to be formed, and you can’t locate it in the othered party if you know what you’re about as a scholar or a compassionate human.
In anthropology, I scored marks so good they were almost unheard of, because I played the system. Anthropology as it was taught in my university was about understanding whiteness as much as the cultures we were studying. I simply had to push the buttons whiteness and other kinds of normativity like, the ones to which the staff hadn’t learned to apply their own understanding. The kinds of insight they thought excellent were routine for me, because they came from a lifetime of being an other. In short, anthropology historically assumed that white people have access to all knowledges, and that the other is not capable of this kind of study, and people like me were facing that heavy legacy even while the nice white people were convinced that they had turned it around. I didn’t enjoy my time as a budding anthropologist at all.
I’m still interested in studying whiteness, but I’m doing it with staff members in other departments who actually understand and care about what I’m talking about. (Even if they have a blanket policy against giving marks over 90, ahem.1) There are heaps of anthropologists, white and not, all around the world, who are rehabilitating the harmful legacy of anthropology and turning it to the needed work for which it has so much potential. It’s not for me. What my university’s anthropology department needs so badly, and what the profession needs in general, is people of colour to provide proper understanding of people like us, and to turn the lens back on people like their colleagues.
1 For context, in universities here, or at least in this part of the country, marks over 75 are considered very good. As someone who went through high school berating herself every time she got under 93, this was a little bit of an adjustment.