Fieldwork and Privilege Part 2

I wanted to reminisce about a fieldwork experience that happened to me while going to interview a scientist in DC, and how I felt about it.

Sometime in mid-September of 2013, I went to downtown DC to interview a scientist for my dissertation research. At the time, working as graduate student body president while also doing fieldwork did not provide me with the ideal/traditional situation of anthropological fieldwork, but I did what I could (see this post for more background on that). One positive thing from that was that my elected position allowed me to have a very flexible schedule while actually doing something that I enjoyed.

Yet I felt like my time was always a commodity, and I lived by my calendar. The drill was to read an email, put an appointment there, and then forget it until it was time for the meeting. My job was dependent on me attending all of those meetings, and I rarely got stood up.

And so this time in November, I got stood up. I was disappointed and upset. The main reason I was upset because I had gone to DC in peak hour to attend this interview (and thus the metro fare is more expensive). But I think that it was mostly that I felt that I wasted my time going there; two hours that I wouldn’t get back… also, it didn’t help that the interviewee holds a higher rank than me (PhD).

The main issue I think was that I funded my research with my assistantship. So, in my case time the cliché of time is money is literally true in the sense that I lost money and had no data to show for it.

In hindsight, I now realize that I never got that upset when people at the clinics left me waiting, or even stood me up. Maybe it was because I could do other things at the clinic in the meantime, like ‘participate’ and ‘observe’, which I obviously couldn’t do in downtown DC. Maybe it was because I already met some of the people at the clinic, and actually understood how hectic their schedules were. I also have biases against academia, so without giving too much away, being stood up felt incredibly uncomfortable.

And that’s why I thought of privilege; I gave way too much thought to this, but I thought it was because of the privilege this person held over me. As a professor, he can stand me up (even if he didn’t mean to) and not much changes for him (if anything). When this person forgot about me, I had to reflect on whether my being upset was a reaction to the transgression of my academic standing and perceived importance, or if it was truly the time/money that I lost?

Fieldwork and Privilege Part 1

P.S. I realized that I haven’t talked much about my research, so I will do so in a future post. In the meantime here is a link to my profile in the University of Maryland, College Park Anthropology department website which has some info about my research.

Time to travel to the near past…

I remember a particular conversation I had in a bar with a friend (intemperate indian) who’s a fellow anthropologist. We were chatting after some sort of department event we attended, and our conversation shifted to privilege and its discomfort.

We had a moment (as we often do, since we don’t think very differently )in which we talked about how if you don’t feel discomfort as an anthropologist in the field, then there is something wrong. And it’s probably you, and probably there might be some privilege that needs to be checked. Mainly because when I go to the field I’m going to study a lot of things that are outside my experience—because I’m educated, because I’m not one of the people under study, because I’m not a woman, because I’m a US citizen, because I’m studying reproductive health, because it’s just awkward to ask these women questions that they weren’t even thinking of answering when they came to the clinic…etc

Within this fieldwork, there is a level of advocacy that is implicit. Yet, when trying to carry out the advocacy efforts through research, I encountered problems in the field, with the topics of my questions. When I was carrying out interviews in the clinic, I was trying to do so as to get their perspective on the topic of male circumcision and decision making; at no point I was trying to make the clinic look bad by pointing out that they rarely discuss male circumcision. This was in fact a rich point of the research itself! Without going too much into what I found in these interviews (which is what I’m currently working on now) I quickly noticed that the perception was that circumcision was not talked about much. But more telling is that before beginning my interview process, those troublesome encounters have been brought to my attention by white people who to their defense said they were trying to defend their clients. I actually believe this to be true, since they were worried how my questions will bias the women in the clinics and then perceive that the information they are not receiving can be harmful to their children. Put another way, they wanted me to reframe my questions as to not frame the clinic as the sole responsible entity for giving the patients’ information about circumcision, so that the women seeking services did not feel they were missing out on something. I’m not trying to jump to conclusions about what this actually means for my research, yet I found it very interesting. The fact that the rest of the Latino staff apparently feel comfortable enough with my presence and trusted my intentions and the goals of representing a particular perspective with this research. The fact that some of the staff actually mentioned how happy they were about my visits—and mentioned how glad they are that a Latino student is doing a PhD—is a stark contrast to the comments and criticism-not necessarily negative, but still criticism- I received from the white staff.

Discomfort and fieldwork are evidently related in my experience, especially when I am an anthropologist whose background has been impacted by colonialism. Yet I’ve never made the connection before as to what that meant in terms of my own privilege. It’s an interesting position within the us/them dialectic, since my entrance to the field has definitely been helped by the fact that I somewhat look (and to some extent talk) like the majority of the staff in the clinics. But I still need to be vigilant and to not take for granted in the ways that I pass, and the times I need to get checked.

Award

Note: The tone and style of this post is very different than the others; I rarely write like this, so I feel a bit out of my element.

This past Sunday, I received The University of Maryland Graduate Student Distinguished Service Award. I was nominated by my advisor, and one of my closest friends early this semester, but until  Sunday night I only knew that I was a finalist among a group of equally deserving graduate students.

Among the finalists, were two other colleagues that I have worked with before. I felt in good company, and I knew they were deserving of the award as well.

They told us ahead of time that if one of us won, we had a chance to give a 30-45 second speech; this was only done with the last 4   awards of the night. I decided that in that short time I wanted to share part of my story and honor the road that brought me here.

It was a very emotional experience for me; I barely kept it together. I cried in joy, and I wished my mother could have been there:

I’m really proud to have been nominated along with these other graduate students who are such givers of their time and resources, and also deserve to be recognized. (I added how overwhelmed I was at the moment).

Growing up in a poor neighborhood, I learned from a young age the importance of service to others. I owe my service orientation to my family, especially my mother.

She lived her life so selflessly, that when she got cancer and couldn’t work anymore, her coworkers paid for her health insurance out of gratitude; and when she died, the whole neighborhood took care of my sisters and me.

So I have never taken for granted the fact that sometimes I had food in front of me because of strangers’ kindness, that I was able to finish college with the help of others… And that I was able to come to grad school because in that same spirit of service, others saw potential in me.

So I want to thank my family away from home, my advisor Judith Freidenberg and my friend Nadine Dangerfield for nominating me. I hope to keep giving back to others, so they can be as fortunate as I have been. This is for my mami.

I was surprised to hear from some people that it was not until then that they had actually heard my story. Which is why I’m sharing this bit in a post. I think it’s important for others to know of the success stories of people like me, and bask in them, since we so often only hear the bad experiences and the struggle.

Mami
Mami

Nobody looks like anything (or the day I come out of the clóset)

Puerto Ricans on the island, by contrast, didn’t have full consciousness of being a minority because they’d never had to live as one.” (P.159, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor)

You can say that some people have a “something something”, like in the context of “claiming someone”. But more than often, you see the opposite, where some try to distance themselves from their afro-roots.

Reading Junot Díaz novels, watching Black Dynamite, and my book The Afro-Latin@ Reader have made me think more carefully about what it means to be dark skinned and Latino in the US. This is nothing new to me, as I always fluctuate my conversations around topics of race, gender, etc… Which has made people associate my presence as the “race person”- and I don’t mean like good friends, asking another friend about a particular hairy/racist situation and trying to get some insight- in a microagressive matter, in which they turn to me if they want to learn something “multicultural”. Sometimes this is ok…sometimes it’s not, mainly because it’s not my purpose in life is to educate them; there’s resources out there, so learn them.

I do been thinking about how this actually affects my daily life, and I’ve come to realize that I actually walk a line between several identities… One of which, it seems I was in a weird denial phase, which sounds awfully familiar to one of my other identities – queer. I’ve become racialized in the US, and as such I’ve come to experience certain things different than my home in Puerto Rico. As much as I can empathize with my fellow Latin Americans, I have privileged that they’ve not because of my colonial heritage (i.e. citizenship by the 1898 invasion). I can relate to other Hispano parlantes, because I grew up in an idealized pan-Latin@ identity. Immortalized in songs by Rubén Blades, Juan Luis Guerra, Violeta Parra; marked by spilled blood by Bolívar, Ché Guevara, and Ramón Emeterio Betances; declamado in poetry by José Martí, Julia de Burgos; and so on…

And we learned about the Taínos, and the Spaniards that came over… And yet, our African foreparents were dedicated a page in our history books (see Godreau and Llórens, 2010 for more info). And lately, I have paid more attention to that. My dark skin has made more aware of what I am, and what I am not. But mostly, what I have found, and haven’t found in my ancestry (thanks for nothing Ancestry.com).

Yet, while we heard so much about amazing people like Celia Cruz, Rafael Hernández, among others that have been recognized as Latinos some people seem to gloss over the fact that they were afro-descendants; that they were dark skinned… the ever elusive black word.

So, while as a Puerto Rican I have in fact a lot of ‘races’ in my ancestry, I always dragged my feet regarding my afro heritage. It was always there and never hidden. Yet, in Puerto Rico racism is more subtle, so I never thought of actually having to come out regarding my blackness; even though society (my friends, neighbors, ex boyfriend, etc…) never let me forgot that I was indeed black because of my skin color, my wide bridge-less nose that wasn’t made for “regular people” glasses, and my butt… *le sigh*.

So here it is, I’m afro descendant everybody. I’m an Afro-Latino. I am the byproduct of colonialism. I am dealing with it. I am proud of where I come from.

Fieldwork and work…

As I sit here, with a cough and talking to my friend, I realize that at some point after I finish my degree, I need a break.

I need a break because things have been really hectic lately and I feel like, in small ways, my physical and mental health have not been where they should be. I don’t think I’m in a position to complain, because I’m still pretty healthy (overall) but I am worried about where this might take me.

In our conversation, my friend reminded me that what I’m doing is not what we are taught to do. Traditionally, anthropologists went alone and did research; away from their “home”. In my case, I’m doing research at “home” while also working as a graduate assistant. While this might be normal in a lot of disciplines, I don’t think my discipline prepared me to cope with it; anthropology pushed me to find funding and not do anything (work)  at “home” while conducting it.

I didn’t notice this issue earlier, because I’ve just been used to it for a while now. Also, funding has been scarce and I’ve simply been doing what I can to avoid paying the high cost of tuition and, most importantly, graduate. So far, my strategy of working as a GA on campus while also doing research is paying off; honestly, it was the best case scenario after continuously getting rejection emails for funding.

I also know that I’m not the only one in this situation. Other classmates are doing what they can to do their research and survive. I know some of us have more advantages than others, and somehow that’s ok. I’ve been working hard, and gone through a lot of challenges that have delayed my “dream graduation date”, but at least I have found funding through a graduate assistantship. But when will I get to enjoy one of those coveted grants?

I’m still engaged in discussions as to what resources are necessary for students like me: English as a second language, student of color, queer, etc. But I would also like to engage in discussions as to how the anthropology degree should adapt to the realities of funding nowadays.

Now, let me return to nursing myself back to health, ’cause my health needs me of late.

Passing, and my presence in the field…

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the laundromat. I’ve been going to this particular place to do my laundry, because it is in the community where I’m doing research, and is very close to where I live. This particular laundromat is frequented by Latinos in the area, among people of different ethnicities. Kids running around, TV’s blasting, and two barbershops/hair cuttery place add to the picture. Two very interesting things happened while I was there: I found a novel way to learn about my research, and learned that I pass as Latino.

First thing was that one of the TVs was showing a rerun of a case from the court show Caso Cerrado. The case presented was about a man suing his pregnant wife, because she did not want to get vaccinated against Influenza H1N1. The man brought his wife’s brother in law to back up his ‘suit’, against his wife and his sister in law. The outcome of the show is a bit irrelevant, insofar as it is not what I’m trying to focus on here. I thought that this particular episode was very interesting given that it involved a pregnant Latina woman, her husband, and her family; all vying to influence some sort of decision making in what can be regarded as prenatal care as it pertains to the wellbeing of this pregnant woman. Before today, I didn’t give much thought to see how media, like TV, can influence a particular group of people in an important topic such as prenatal care.

I say this because it is a show on a major Spanish speaking network, and watched by many (including my own abuela back home). I disagree with how the show talked about the topic, but the judge (host of the show) did a good job in bringing in different doctors, as well as experiences from different people on which to draw an opinion for her ruling.

The second major thing that happened, was that once again, I was spoken to in Spanish while I was there. In my head I was happy, because somehow, something about me was reflecting this internalized experience of being racialized as Latino; as someone who came from Puerto Rico; and speaks Spanish. I was glad that others saw how my outward identity very closely reflects my self identification. This is great news for my research in a sense, because it makes me less of a stranger.

But later on, I felt bad. I felt sick to my stomach, because I was celebrating the fact that I was Passing – “I’m passing! People talk to me in Spanish!!”…

The fact is that I am trigueño, have curly hair, and have some some sort of passing privilege because of it. I also have academic privilege, Puerto Rican privilege, and light skin privilege. I am trying to be always aware of my positions in the field and how I am perceived. So it’s bittersweet because I feel bad about the idea of me using the concept of passing to further the needs of my research. This will definitely be part of my dissertation.

Confronting race in anthropology

Anthropology has a rich history with regards to colonialism and race. The discipline has reflected extensively on how culture and biology interact, in order to arrive at the current knowledge of what race means today. The story of race, and how anthropology has addressed it, still needs work. With this short essay, I want to elucidate a potential alternative in addressing race holistically by tending to the concept of privilege.

“Check yo self before you wreck yo self.” – (Check yo self, Ice Cube 1993)

The social sciences are rich in theoretical approaches that look into privilege and intersectionality. While anthropology has borrowed these terms from its kin disciplines, it has not taken these theories and their respective examinations of privilege into its core, nor have anthropologists incorporated them into everyday academic lives. The same discipline that examines foreign elements, and places ethnocentrism as a core topic within its pedagogy, methodologies, and theories, does not engage race in more complex ways outside of this framework; to engage beyond ethnocentrism is to reflect on how participants are treated, as well as the treatment of our fellow anthropologists.

Privileged practices are the result of othering, and individuals do not need to acknowledge privilege’s systematic advantages to benefit from them. Privilege takes many forms. Yet, given the context and history of anthropology, I will focus on white privilege, as a way to elucidate this confrontation of race with the discipline.

Not much time is spent in classrooms discussing white privilege. We must ask, how do our white anthropology professors engage their own instances of privilege? Black Anthropologist Lynn Bolles’ recently published article dwells on the issues of reflexivity and white privilege in academia, and how black female anthropologists, and their contributions, are rendered invisible (2013). Her article suggests that white privilege (while taught in few instances) is not internalized by those who teach it; the privileged power relations are as pervasive in the home department as they might be in the fieldwork setting. Yet, non-anthropologists seem to ‘school’ us on the matter: Carperter-Song and Whitley (2013), while not anthropologists, used anthropological approaches to reflect on how power and privilege affect their research methods. Their collaboration with an HBCU, and an African-American research population, made them think about how their collaboration could address historically exclusive practices and groups. Theirs is just one example of the potential of our own methods to reflect on white privilege, and to account for the unequal biases in the research methods themselves.

The goal is to understand how privileged anthropology really is

Confronting race means that we need to strive towards an understanding of race as an objective, not as a discrete goal. There is not one discrete goal that achieves an understanding of race and how to address it. Institutions of higher learning struggle to balance and understand race by having discrete goals of diversity within their own ranks.

But anthropology is not engaging enough with the topics regarding race; not much is done beyond addressing the issues raised by those of us who are people of color (POC) and minorities. Confronting race must entail more than merely letting minorities and POC take care of ‘their’ issues of race, while white anthropologists see race as beyond their scope and expertise. White privilege, in this case, is seeing race outside of one’s topic of study, and implying whiteness as the default.

Race needs to be at the core of learning theoretical frameworks and methodology. As of now, race is a special topic to those who study non-whites; that’s when race is suddenly relevant. When the participants (or the researchers) are white, the issue of race is minimal or non-existent.

Confronting anthropology means white anthropologists should examine and be upfront about their privilege; minorities and people of color in anthropology have been vocal about these issues, and yet they must also acknowledge their academic privilege – which already happens in other theoretical frameworks within anthropology (Alcalde 2007; Narayan 1997; Zavella 1997). The work of anthropologists of color (including their participants as minorities) often confront race in more natural ways in the methodology and theory, since they do not take for granted their role in the process. Unfortunately, white privilege suggests and encourages anthropologists of color to be the sole voices representing their own race, as well as others minorities (Bolles 2013). Intersectionality needs to be more prevalent in our discipline, and we need to be more cognizant of it as as more of us do fieldwork ‘home’.

The classical definition of fieldwork has forced anthropologists to think in dichotomies that, by definition, exclude those that study their own ‘culture’; it puts unequal praise on those that study ‘others’ in ‘other’ places. Those who choose to examine their privilege and race, in addition to conducting research within their in-group, stand out too much; they attract too much attention to themselves, disturb the most senior members of the discipline, and create chaos and disorder (Weston 1997). The disturbances of intersectionality and the confrontation of racial issues have to be distanced from arguments that deem them as ‘being political’, since they greatly enrich theory and methods.

Conclusion

Accounting for privilege and race in one’s research must always be a component of the research process. In the same manner that anthropologists of color (and those who study their in-group) are considered part of the research process in such ‘disturbing’ ways that their presence must be accounted for in order to justify their findings, the same must be expected of white anthropologists to account for reflexivity.

“U.S. culture and society, (and) the efforts of decolonizing feminist anthropology, entails doing homework in every field of endeavor, particularly at home, in the office, and at the university” (Bolles 2013:69). Race as a social construct is pervasive enough in US society. Anthropology needs to check its privilege, because its present colorblindness does not foster growth in underrepresented minorities.

Race needs to be part of anthropology from the beginning of the training process, and throughout our careers, much in the same manner that ethnocentrism shapes our knowledge and methodology as an underlying concept in the discipline. Reconfiguring our approach from the beginning of our training, at the undergraduate level and throughout graduate school, has the potential to transform the intersection of race in anthropology. The topic of race, in its broad definition, needs to be re-appropriated so that it is not exclusively identified with politics and political correctness, but as a part of the examination of privilege of the (mostly) white discipline of anthropology in the US. Similarly to those institutional review board statements where we explain why our research is excluding minorities, women, and other understudied groups, we need to start asking anthropologists why their research is thought to be outside the scope of race.

References

Alcalde, M. Cristina.  2007. Going Home: A Feminist Anthropologist’s Reflections on Dilemmas of Power and Positionality in the Field. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 7(2):143-162.

Bolles, Lynn.  2013. Telling the Story Straight: Black Feminist Intellectual Thought in Anthropology. Transforming Anthropology 21(1):57-71.

Carpenter-Song, Elizabeth, and Whitley, Rob.  2013. Behind the Scenes of a Research and Training Collaboration: Power, Privilege, and the Hidden Transcript of Race. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry:1-19.

Narayan, Kirin.  1997. How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist? In Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life. Lamphere, Louise, Ragoné, Helena, and Zavella, Patricia, eds. Pp. 23-41. New York: Routledge.

Zavella, Patricia.  1997 Feminist Insider Dilemmas. In Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life. Lamphere, Louise, Ragoné, Helena, and Zavella, Patricia, eds. Pp. 42-61. New York: Routledge

What does Latin@ mean?

I got my reviews back from my grant proposal to the NSF, and this is what I think about a specific piece of feedback that I received. Overall, the feedback was good, yet I felt uneasy about something. I don’t think I’ll be able to flesh this out in the most coherent way possible, but here it goes anyway.

Two of my NSF reviewers criticized my ‘monolithic’ use of the word Latino in regards to my study population. They mentioned that defining it in such narrow terms was appropriate for a grant to the NIH, but not for NSF. Finally, they mentioned that by defining it the way I did, I erased and minimized individual differences from people that come from different backgrounds, countries, and ethnicities from Latin America and the Caribbean. They actually were not that eloquent when saying all of that, but I translated it as such from my own reading of their feedback.

As an anthropologist, I understand this concern; as a Latin American queer person of color, I LIVE THIS! One of the things that we often do in anthropology is unpack and deconstruct terms such as Latin@. Yet, lately I’ve been thinking about what does that mean for the participants and others who identify as such. I agree that not everyone means (and internalizes) the same thing when they say Latin@, but such a social construct exists. We might not agree with it, but as anthropologists we can’t will it out of existence just because it seems to simple for our messy and complex theories.

How do we expect to engage the public, and the people that we collaborate with in our studies, if we believe ourselves to be so above their colloquial use of a term. I am aware of the political implications of the word Latin@, yet, what do we make of the people in my research community that actually use that word to describe themselves as a dyasporic community in the US? What do we make of the use of media like Univisión and Telemundo, trying to craft pan-Latin American identities in their shows and telenovelas? Is that not part of the world that we study?

So thanks, but no thanks NSF reviewers and your high horse definition of Latin@. I prefer to engage with the community; my community. I prefer to do research that actually helps. it would’ve been nice to get a bit of money, but I learned a lesson here.

Weekend

Weekend

 Wiki * IMDB

Review aside, the movie showed three instances of CCTV cameras, which made me think even further about the nature of suceptability of queer people (someone mentions a gay guy been beaten for cruising in a park), the suckiness/rite of passage characteristic of coming out, and the different kind of queers out there (which then have different types of gazes upon them).

First time there is a security camera near the building where Russ lives; the shot is a couple of seconds long and the camera pans from side to side. Being out sucks sometimes. It does have a liberating sense in which you are aware and feel empowered on how you are going to feel and how you will respond to others out there. But is painful sometimes too because it leaves you exposed to all the bullshit that bigots out there presume about your life, what you want to do with it, and how you behave. Russ says he is happy in his home, but his semi-out self feels uncomfortable sharing his uneasiness, as well as his feelings being queer with his close non-queer friends.

The second time is at the train station; the PA system reminds everyone that everything is being recorded for security purposes. Coming out (which is something you do for the rest of your life) does feel like a rite of passage. At this point, my choosing to share with someone about my boyfriend does little to the fact that I am indeed exposing myself to a non ‘tolerating’ opinion about who I am. As Glen helped Russ have that experience, I felt like I was also helped by several catalytic events in my life that pushed me to those moments. Regardless, I am happy they happened and I am glad the way they turned out.

The third time is right at the end of the movie; we see the CCTV camera again on top of the building when we see Russ in his window. No matter if you are the loud queer who talks and closes down a party everytime you get the chance about your struggle as a queer person of color, or the quiet passive one that chooses to pass by, the gaze is always there. Sadly, this is the gaze that turns some of us off, whereas it evokes a desire to speak in others. The gaze is sometimes too much to bear, like when you have to live in a time where the government decides the best way you get to enjoy your life living as who you are. The gaze is always there, and it is always watching how we comply…or not.