Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"Are we othering you?" The elephant in the room when we talk about minority inclusion in Biological Anthropology

Yeah... I can relate to that. From

The first year of my master's I was friends with a grad student who would make odd comments about my appearance and identity. There would be comments about my skin color, or comparisons to Parminder Nagra, or about how our friend group was "so diverse" because there was a blond, a redhead... and me. And they were followed by the question "Are we othering you?"

Today I would call those comments microaggressions, and recognized the challenge in that question to actual call her out. I didn't, and it took a lot more overt bullying and eventually ostracism for me to realize that she was not a genuine friend. But as I read the recent article on Race and Diversity in Biological Anthropology, and especially Savannah Martin's commentary on "Othering" that was cited within it, those words echoed in my mind.

I've experienced more of those microaggressions from other anthropologists than I've ever experienced from non-anthropologists. And I suspect that's because anthropologists have an idea that they "know" about race, because, hey, they talk about and teach about it, right? But their discomfort ends up bubbling out, in jokes and odd comments and weird treatment. That discomfort was obvious when I was a TA for an archaeologist teaching an introductory class on biological anthropology and archaeology. On the way to teach the "race" lecture, he told an anecdote about his young niece, who was half-Indian. "She's Indian. Dot, not feather!" He looked me in the eye and laughed at his joke, while the other TA and I exchanged panicked glances as we wondered how he was actually going to handle talking about race in class (spoiler alert: it was pretty bad).

These are the sort of things you have to just brush off if you are a racial minority within anthropology. Of course, even with trying to ignore them, the accumulated toil of those comments can negatively impact mental and physical health. But when those may be the people serving on committees who decides who gets into graduate school, who passes comprehensive exams, and who gets tenure-track jobs... is it any wonder that so few minorities make it through the gauntlet from undergrad to tenure-track and tenured positions?

Anton, Malhi, and Fuentes review many of the issues that serve as impediments to racialized minorities within anthropology, especially highlighting the impact of "physical" anthropology's racist origins, and the problems inherent in the name of the discipline. They present survey data from 30 anthropology programs that suggests that biological anthropogy loses minorities at two key junctures: from undergraduate to graduate school, and graduate school to faculty positions.
Figure 1 from Anton et al, 2018. Minorities get a pretty tiny slice of the bio anthro pie.

They also review some of the programs that the Committee on Diversity has implemented to increase recruitment and inclusion, and suggest priorities for the future. Some of these are focused on recruitment to graduate programs, such as suggesting that departments eliminate GREs as a requirement for admission. They also discuss the need to improve retention, through methods such as mentoring and valuing service and outreach.

Utimately, my cynical opinion is that these solutions are not going to fix the underlying problem. I'm not so optimistic about recruiting more minority students just to expose them to a gauntlet of microaggressions and exclusion. And while mentoring may help in forming supportive networks, it still puts the burden on "solving" the problem of minority inclusion on minority students and faculty.

Yeah, let's just recruit more students of color to run the gauntlet...
From Swedish artist Emanu

A few years ago, I was on a campus interview where the search commitee emphasized how much they value diversity, and their goal of making the campus environment more inclusive. The next day, I had breakfast with the one minority professor on the faculty, who wasn't on the committee. She warned me that although they give a lot of lip service to the idea of "diversity", they don't actually "want" diversity, because it makes them uncomfortable (spoiler alert: I did not get the job).

THIS, right there, is the problem. Until the white majority of biological anthropology faculty actually confront their own discomfort around racial and ethnic minorities, we are not going to be actively included. We will always be the "other," and never part of the "us." The message is clear that we are not wanted, no matter how much lip service is given to "diversity" and inclusion.