Town Hall Remarks by Dr. Celina de Sá (June 2020)
I’d like to reflect on the connection between us as university community and the most recent instance of anti-black violence that the world is responding to with a resounding “never again.” Many people are asking themselves, “What is it that actually happened in Minneapolis on May 25th, 2020?” I want us to shift the focus from the planned, systematized, and state- sanctioned killing of a man, George Floyd, that sparked global protest movements, in order to look at the broader context in which we can understand not just what happened, but what has always happened, and continues to happen.
We must remember how we got here. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest instance of forced migration in human history, displacing people from across the African continent to Europe and across the Americas. While we have come a long way from the enslavement of black people, many tend to believe this is evidence of a slow but steady, in other words, inevitable progress in the way of racial discrimination. This is far from the truth. Anthropological theory has, in fact, at times, been at the forefront of dispelling myths of modernity, development, and progress being natural processes that inch forward day by day. The dominant political, economic, and social structures under which we live—namely capitalism, liberal democracy, and neoliberal reforms—are rooted in white supremacist ideologies because they are historical structures developed in part for the advancement and protection of whiteness.
We have to also realize there are dangers during this moment to scaling out too broadly. Time and time and time again, black people calling attention to anti-Black racism are told to make room for other forms of discrimination, to other causes. Dwelling on issues pertaining to communities racialized as black is a luxury we are rarely afforded. At the same time, it is also crucial that we remember to appropriately scale out to the entire global African diaspora, realizing that so-called “black issues” such as police brutality speak to the experiences of communities that exist in every nation-state on the planet, and that so-called “black issues” are the issues of the legacy of slavery, colonialism and imperialism, immigration, gender and sexuality, class and disenfranchisement, or any other social and historical issue you can imagine. Does all academic work have to be “political”? This is a question I have received from several of my students in the past from various institutions, particularly white students taking their first course having to do with race or the African diaspora. There is no such thing as neutrality in knowledge production. Neutrality is actually energy spent reproducing the privilege of some scholars to be able to stay out of the political limelight. It reinforces the reality that POC have to take on the extra labor of theorizing and solving the world’s social problems. Anti-Black racism is at the core of all issues pertaining to humanity and injustice.
Anthropology links lived experience with systems of power. However, it was a discipline founded in part as a handmaiden to overseas and domestic colonial rule. Early anthropological work focused on the study African colonial subjects, and other external and internal others to empire and the imagined nation. That also means that black anthropologists and allies have a unique opportunity today to reckon with our disciplinary past. As my advisor has often argued, anthropology has at least been one the most self-critical disciplines in the academy, and we can take advantage of that continual effort to be better. Anthropology has never fully succeeded in the white supremacist, positivist missions of its early days, in part because of the intimacy of ethnography as our method. We spend time in contexts that are often not our own, building relationships in order to understand someone else’s experience, and to better understand our own.
When I was a grad student, many of my peers were hesitant to being fully indoctrinated into the academy, an enterprise they considered elitist and distant from the issues of the “real world.” I remember one such question directed at Africana philosopher Lewis Gordon, who responded by asserting his belief that every society needs its thinkers, those who take time to evaluate the shape and impact of history, and the unfolding process of the present. Those who reflect on and critique our world at every stage. This is a sacred enterprise for any society, and the perspectives of marginalized people must be in the conversation. The opposite of a scholar that is driven by an ethical commitment to exposing power structures, is not an objective scholar, but rather one that upholds the status quo.
This moment in our history is a lesson in universalization and particularization, debates that anthropologists have been grappling with for over a century. Think about the messages circulating in the last few years: the notion that “Black lives matter,” which sparked a retaliatory “All lives matter” and “Blue lives matter,” a reaction which is based on an assumption that outcries against violence were merely black people “making everything about race” or “making everything about themselves.” Now we see signs at demonstrations across the country saying, “Only when black lives matter will all lives matter.” Let me explain a bit further.
Activists themselves are theorists and critics of the social sphere in their own right. Most especially, because black people are systematically kept out of the “legitimate” production of knowledge. From our miseducation in underfunded public schools, to the traditions of racial nepotism and sexual harassment by senior white faulty, eager black minds are kept from advancing in the professorate. It is no wonder than many of our recent social movements are led by black women; queer, diasporic and young black women at that. Activism is the platform of the unheard voices. In recent years, movements led primarily by black women have worked to protect not only the lives of Black people, but of all people from the scourge of police brutality.
Just as the black lesbian activists of the Combahee River Collective fought for the liberation of all racialized and gendered people. Just as the Civil Rights Movement led to the foundational Civil liberties and protections enjoyed by all in the United States to this day, and so on. Scholars who see the political and social relevance of their scholarship as an imperative, have been at the forefront of calling out unjust systems of oppression. Sociologists, anthropologists and geographers like Angela Davis, Faye Harrison, Christen Smith, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. They interrogate issues such as mass incarceration, which involves private and public systems that that serve as a continuation of the enslavement of black and brown people. They have done so when there is no media or social media coverage, no political trends or mass support. In 1967 amidst the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, Noam Chomsky similarly wrote that, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.” Like activists, so too are all academics charged with the responsibility of social justice, as knowledge producers embedded in the educational institutions in this country. As students and teachers, we are tasked with ethically producing knowledge that shapes the stories we tell about our past and our present, that shapes what is revealed about our social reality, and what gets minimized, disregarded or even silenced. We have a form of power, and power can never be neutral. So too can it be a force for good. People often mock academics for using complex words when simple words will do. But naming the unnamed, reframing things that are hegemonically understood a certain way, is a productive disruption of norms. Concepts like “marginalization,” “structural violence,” and “systemic inequality,” these frameworks point to systems that are deeper than the words, feelings, or attitudes of any individual person deemed a “racist,” or any singular “bad apple” in a police force. And the danger is in seeing these issues as individual, isolated instances. “Humanization,” another concept productively emerging through critical scholarship, that is what we see with the movement to “Say her name” “Say his name” “say their names.” This points to the invisibility of how the victims of racialized state violence are de- humanized, meaning, abstracted from being seen as human beings. We see this in the fabric of our daily lives when we are so used to hearing, “a young black male between the ages X and Y,” which is a staple of mainstream media in the US.
The careful study of racism has taken the bravery of black Anthropologists and others to do it. While black people have been objects of study since the inception of the discipline, we have also always been knowledge producers within it. What does it mean to take a critical approach into your lives in college and beyond? What is needed now is not just “Random Acts of Whiteness” (as my mother, who herself is white, began calling support messages from allies of black people). What is needed now is a commitment to decolonial, anti-racist “practices” in our everyday lives.
Today, we also need the bravery of black, white, and other students of color like you all, to work to understand racism, and to take seriously the long tradition of those who are experts of it. To listen to POC, not just when they share their experiences of discrimination, but also asking them questions even if they don’t. And what’s more, we need to see your bravery in asking questions of fellow white and other non-black friends, members of your community, and most importantly your family and yourself: What role do you play in combatting or contributing to the problem of racial inequality? What have your barriers been to having open conversations, and what would it mean for you to forfeit your comfort zone in order to have them? What does it mean to interrogate the privileges you enjoy under a system of white supremacy, at the heart of one of the strongest white settler colonial empires in history, and to do so in order to stand in solidarity with some of the most oppressed people in the world?
In the time of social media, when there is a lot of posturing online or through written statements or lawn signs, remember that every generation has a moment that crystalizes the particular forms of injustice that plague their times, and that an opportunity always presents itself to reflect on your position in relation to it. Are you going to address or ignore it? Are you going to find a way to contribute time, energy and other resources to supporting the dismantling of injustice? You don’t have to become an anthropologist to do this, although as you know, we hope many of you do. But I would encourage you to take what your major and what critical race theorists have to offer in your careers and personal lives moving forward.