Dr. Brianna Farber (PhD, Class of 2018) has written an article, titled "Dismantling White Supremacy Starts Inside", published in Anthropology News.
What prompted you to write the article on dismantling white supremacy?
My colleague Luzilda C. Arciniega was an editor and contributor for the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology and AnthroNews at the time and asked me if I'd be interested in writing a piece. I shared some of the self-reflection around white supremacy and antiracism I had been doing via social media, especially through writing prompts provided by Leesa Renee Hall and Layla F. Saad. Through those offerings, I was realizing that while I might understand racism intellectually, I wasn't grappling with how I personally contributed to white supremacy and oppressive systems as a white person or my part in dismantling it. So I was doing these writing prompts, and I wanted to share what I felt this self reflection was doing for me. I wanted to have people to do this with and build community around antiracism. Anthropology had prepared me in some ways to do this kind of critical self-reflection - I’m thinking about our discipline’s emphasis on positionality and use of participant-observer for research. We are always supposed to consider ourselves contextually in relationship to other people, and vice versa. I hoped the article I wrote could encourage other people, especially fellow white people and anthropologists, to personally reflect on and commit to racial justice, and draw on anthropological skills and research.
Who are some of the anthropologists and thinkers who have influenced your views on racism?
I think many anthropologists and thinkers have deepened my understanding of racism with their work. Specifically, though, I’ve been thinking about the people who create room for thinking differently, provide theoretical tools, and provide alternatives for the current white supremacist system. Franz Boas, as American anthropology’s founder, created room for our discipline to work differently during his time and into the future. His theoretical approaches–historic particularism and cultural relativism–are in direct opposition to scientific racism, methods and theories which were used to justify enslavement, colonization, and other kinds of oppression. Being of German Jewish descent, he endeavored to create ways to study other cultures that would not jump into analyses and assumptions before doing exhaustive descriptive research. I think about how many times I have relied on cultural relativism to challenge myself and others to consider another person’s way of life. While historic particularism didn’t last too long since Boas’ students doing description without analysis didn’t prove satisfying in the long run, I think he set the precedent for understanding cultures in their specific, detailed historical contexts. Resmaa Menakem (whose work I detail more below) talks about how people create room for growth by their actions that are antiracist and anti-oppressive. I think Boas gives one example of that - that we have to create room in anthropology for antiracism, which he did through descriptive fieldwork and reliance on cultural contexts.
I also feel indebted to scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins. Crenshaw’s articulation of intersectionality combined with Collins’ matrix of domination have been powerful theoretical tools that helped me understand multifaceted identity and experience within societal power dynamics. I used Dr. Crenshaw’s TED talk often to demonstrate intersectionality and how social perceptions of race and gender impact Black women and girls, in her examples, through police violence and erasure/silence around this violence. I remember introducing intersectionality to my students in the last class I taught, and they were so invigorated to have the lens of intersectionality to think through what they were learning and already know about the world. So these scholars impacted my views on racism by demonstrating how to understand the complexity of race and racism.
Finally, I feel immense gratitude to practitioners like adrienne maree brown and Autumn Meghan Brown, Resmaa Menakem, Mia Mingus, Mariame Kaba, and many more, whose thinking and activism have profoundly shaped my life. They all advocate for and demonstrate alternative ways for our society to work that is life-affirming. One role the Brown sisters have is as social justice movement facilitators, and their podcast How to Survive the End of the World has exposed me to the alternatives they work on (like worker’s co-ops) and their guests’ work, including political activists, science fiction writers, witches, farmers, and more. Resmaa Menakem is a trauma therapist who specializes in what he calls somatic abolition, using body-centered practices to unpack and challenge white supremacy. His work builds on what we know about historic trauma and how that gets passed down genetically and in people’s bodies. Mia Mingus works in transformative and disability justice, and I use her “how to give an apology” all the time. It’s all about accountability for harm done and how accountability is a part of caring for each other. And finally, I mentioned Mariame Kaba, an organizer and educator who works in prison and police abolition. Learning about abolition has exposed me to how to create cultures of safety and support that don’t rely on punitive systems like jails and prisons. Based on an activity designed by organizers with Carolina Youth Action Project, I used a short story she wrote in my classes to challenge students to consider alternative forms of justice (which you can find in her recently published edited volume) and write their own science fiction pieces imagining a future without a social problem they had been working on all semester. All of these people have critiques of white supremacy, but they also work on alternatives. That’s been invaluable to me.
Were there any Anthropology classes at UofSC that influenced how you discuss race?
Many of my courses included some reflection on race, racialization, and oppression and resistance. The most influential classes for me were the ones where I was a Teaching Assistant for professors. In Kim Simmons' African American Culture class, we read Sister Citizen by Michelle Alexander, and that stuck with me - the harmful nature of stereotypes, including things we'd praise people for like strength, and I used Patricia Hill Collins' "controlling images" often to show how stereotypes limited people's full access to their humanity. Courtney Lewis, who I TA'ed for over several semesters, spoke frankly and straightforwardly about race, racism, and cultural appropriation. She provided clear definitions as well as solution-oriented resources like Baker's Primer on Cultural Appropriation, which provided guidelines for assessing appropriation. That resource helped both students and me shift from consuming culture without thought to asking ourselves questions and supporting artists and entrepreneurs from that culture. Having to explain my understanding of race and racism, and hearing how professors discussed it, influenced me. I learned from my students, too. I saw a shift in students' openness to discussing racism and race as I taught over my graduate career.
Also, while this wasn't at USC, my Ethnographic Field School experience with Lance Gravlee, the Health Equity Alliance of Tallahassee, and my wonderful cohort impacted me. Learning from and working with activists who had organized during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, interviewing community members about race and racism, doing a workshop with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, being in Tallahassee during George Zimmerman's acquittal for murdering Trayvon Martin, witnessing the rise of the Dream Defenders, as well as a collective Black grief I could not really understand as a white person--I carry that whole experience with me. It has taken me several years to unpack those experiences to the point of acknowledging my own role in oppression. So my biggest influences seem to be moments of praxis - moving what I learned and experienced into more of my conversations, research, action.
In your article, it's mentioned that, during self-reflection, you discovered that you "lacked in tangible, consistent antiracism action". Since that time, how do you measure consistency in antiracist action, and do you feel consistent at the moment?
Great question. I haven't figured out an internal metric yet. The truth is my antiracist practice is both never enough and I have had to recognize my limits. It's a balance between figuring out if I am getting burnt out and/or not doing something because I'm uncomfortable. It's a level of discernment I'll be practicing my whole life, I think. I've found a lot of help in Toni Cade Bambara's statement to make the revolution irresistible and other people's work that is rooted in joy, pleasure, and rest (like from adrienne maree brown and Tricia Hersey, i.e. the Nap Minister) or finding ways of antiracism practice I'm comfortable with, ones I admire and have to challenge myself more to engage with, and ones that I lift up others who flourish there (drawing on Deepa Iyer's Social Change Ecosystem). A lot of people I know are trying to figure out how to make antiracist and social justice practice more sustainable for themselves and each other because this is a lifetime commitment. What has helped me feel more consistent and tangible is having people and communities I feel accountable to. It's also clearer how to imagine collective access to joy and rest within groups for me. The accountability isn't always easy - this is muddy with feelings of guilt and obligation as well as a connection, care, and gratitude. It has made a huge difference though to show up and be consistent with my groups. I have two groups who I'm reading and practicing Resmaa Menakem's My Grandmother's Hands with, one group organized through my local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice and the other by the Rooted Global Village. I've also been a part of mutual aid organizing, which has been really fulfilling and hard (for one resource on mutual aid, see Dean Spade and the Big Door Brigade - but there are many more!). It's getting to know my neighbors, working to meet our needs as best we all can, and building better and different ways of caring for people who have been disenfranchised by the state.
How have your views on racism impacted you how conduct and/or view your specific field of research?
I had finished my fieldwork by the time I started this antiracist-oriented self-reflection. But considering now, I realize one reason I chose to work in Iowa with farmers and natural resource professionals partially because I wanted to understand white Americans' connection to the land and environment, and Iowa has 93% white-identified population. I had been reading really interesting, beautiful studies of indigenous ecological knowledge and land practices, including agricultural contexts (for a recent example, see Whitewashed Hope from a dozen indigenous-led organizations on the limits of regenerative agriculture. Also, Robin Wall Kimmerer's work, like Braiding Sweetgrass). And I think I wanted to understand how industrialization and capitalist production affected ecological relationships, which felt very entwined with whiteness for me in retrospect. While I was there, I did see and experience similar systems of denial that people like Tema Okun have described about typical patterns of behavior and belief for many white people and unexamined white supremacist ideology. I remember being completely baffled that a narrative was circulating that soils cause water pollution when what that research actually said was that the corn and bean farming systems created bare soils, which contribute to pollution. It felt like a way to deny human accountability for ecological damage. But overall, I don’t know how my views on race and racism affected my fieldwork beyond what I’ve mentioned. In my current position as an AAAS STP Fellow at the Department of Energy, I try to center energy and environmental justice and equity as the outcome for everything I work on. It's been difficult because I still have a lot to learn about what justice-centric outcomes look like, how these outcomes can fit into federal bureaucracy, and my own unconscious biases that I am unaware of. That's why collaboration with diverse groups of people feels so powerful to me. But I do think acknowledging that all work should aim for equity and justice and that I need to be in collaboration are part of my antiracism work, and it has made an impact.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
For anyone who would like to learn more about anthropological considerations of white supremacy and race, I've included a list of mostly recent scholarship. I'd also encourage people to look into joining or starting a group to learn about and practice antiracist reflection and actions with. Somatic approaches have been especially helpful for me. In addition to Resmaa Menakem, I’d also encourage learning from Prentis Hemphill and Daria who created Accountability Mapping. Books like Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score and Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome may also provide guidance.
Public articles on white supremacy and anthropology
- Kimberly McKinson, Dear White Anthropologists, Let Not Symbolism Overshadow Substance, AnthroNews
- Chelsey R. Carter, BIPOC Survival: A Conversation about the Malignant Intersection of Narcissism and Racism in Anthropology and Academia, Footnotes Blog
- Luzilda C. Arciniega, Six Ways Anthropologists Can Challenge White Supremacy, AnthroNews
- The Ground on Which We Stand: Making Abolition, Devin Burns, Lauren Dominguez, Rebekah Gordon, Laura McTighe, Lydia Moss, Gabriela Rosario, Journal for the Anthropology of North America
- Anthropology of White Supremacy, Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesus, Jemima Pierre, American Anthropologist
- Anthropology and the Riddle of White Supremacy, Junaid Rana, American Anthropologist
- The Jungle Academy: Molding White Supremacy in American Police Recruits, Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesus, American Anthropologist
- Interrogating Racism: Toward An Antiracist Anthropology, Leith Mullings
- Race, Racism, and White Supremacy website from American Anthropologist
- How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality, Clarence Gravlee, American Journal of Physical Anthropology
Photo Credit: Oluo, I. [@IjeomaOluo] (2019, July 14 ). The beauty of anti-racism is that you don't have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it's the only way forward. [Tweet]. Twitter.