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The Years That Ask Questions: Epistemologies of Liberation and the Post-Charlottesville Imperative

By Donna Auston
Rutgers University

White supremacy is deadly.

A black sign emblazoned with four bleak words in white block script perched atop a protestor’s shoulder played a dual role: it communicated the urgency of the spectacle to preoccupied shoppers and passing motorists on this busy avenue in the Bronx at the same time that it shielded her dark brown face from the intense heat of the August sun.  It was the one-year anniversary of the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, nearly a thousand miles away in Ferguson, Missouri.  In spite of the geographic distance, Brown’s death was unfortunately all too near, all too familiar—to so many who gathered that day to mourn and protest, including myself.

I covered the march that day ostensibly as an anthropologist—a scientist of sorts—collecting data for eventual syntheses into working hypotheses, and ultimately, into a set of conclusions about “the way things work” that are appropriate and digestible when offered up for professional consumption by students and colleagues in classrooms and academic journals.  Only it’s considerably more complicated than that: for this anthropologist, who is, among other things, a person of color, a woman, a Muslim, my knowledge of the deadly potential of white supremacy is primarily experiential, rather than theoretical.  Detangling a set of usable insights regarding the intricacies of race and protest in the era of Black Lives Matter, Trump, and the resurgence of the type of aggressive, explicit white supremacy on display in places like Charlottesville from the overwhelming cache of experiences “in the field” is an undertaking that does not permit me the luxury of paradigms of analytic detachment.  There was a time in my academic career when I worried about this a lot more—not because I believed my perspective was an invalid place from which to launch rigorous scholarly inquiry, but mainly because I knew that I would need to be prepared to convince many in the academy that the types of knowledge produced by the inhabitant of this body had every right to enter into conversation with centuries of academic discourse dominated by the perspectives and aspirations of white males.  It was ultimately the work of black scholars that reassured me, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, St. Clair Drake, and others—whose myriad disciplinary innovations were made possible precisely because they employed epistemologies of liberation—producing novel and profound academic knowledge that began with the radical postulation that full humanity existed outside of whiteness, too.

Knowledge production has always been, for better and for worse, intimately connected to its direct impacts on the life chances of actual human beings, a fact that becomes obvious to far too many of us only in times of “crisis.”  Anthropology’s checkered disciplinary history of racial, and often racist, epistemologies are sufficient evidence to bury the notion that the tentacles of white supremacy do not reach beyond the frightening chaos of the lynch mob.  Many of us will, in this historical moment wonder how it is that we might effectively adjust our teaching to speak to the resurrection of problematic ideologies many thought were long dead.  We will work hard to fashion strategies for unpacking the racism that exists out there—a necessary task to be sure.  But what is also required of us in this moment is an examination of the ways that racism operates inside academic institutions as well: including the ways that the epistemological constructs we use to think with so often reproduce systemic inequities and are therefore deeply complicit in the perpetuation of the same deadly ideologies.  What is imperative post-Charlottesville is more than perfunctory attention to the ways in which our institutions exclude, erase, and invalidate scholars of color as a matter of course. If we are serious about shifting gears at this critical juncture, everything ought to be up for grabs, including perpetuation of analytical frameworks built around the end game of replicating the status quo. This work needs to go beyond the moment of ‘crisis’—the perceived rupture of Charlottesville is possible precisely because white supremacy is a chronic, systemic ideology that operates in far less spectacular ways than Nazi salutes and tiki-torch lit gatherings.

Donna Auston is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University. She has been a member of the AAA and the Association of Black Anthropologists since 2013. You can learn more about her in her I am AAA profile, and more about her work in this video interview with University of Queensland’s World 101X.

Find more resources about race on the AAA website at www.americananthro.org/understandingrace.