When You Are The Demographic You Study: Interrogation of Self versus Going Native

One of my least favorite academic concepts is the anthropological “going native“. This idea that one can become so immersed in the culture or phenomena one is studying that they lose objectivity is rife with cultural, imperialist, racist ideas of knowledge, understanding, and science. But, I have to give anthropology credit for at least articulating that belief. It is pervasive across academic disciplines but usually operates implicitly and as a result is arguably more powerful.

In a workshop a few weeks ago I made the rather pedestrian observation that there is a stigma attached to black scholars who study race. My white colleagues were aghast at the suggestion. Actually, they asked for citations that such a thing occurs. I rolled my eyes. You do not get a Naomi Schaefer Riley eviscerating black studies as inherently inferior, because in it black scholars study black realities as social fact, without a long institutional history of the soft power of disciplinary norms.

Despite knowing this, I still negotiate with myself the value of what I study because of my position in relation to who and what I study.

I had cause to mediate on this today as I watched Alondra Nelson discuss her work on race, health, and the history of social health programs founded by the Black Panther Party.

image from University of MN Press

I am a product of the complicated interplay of social status, class, and race that Alondra talks about in her book “Body and Soul”. The story of how I got here – a doctoral student studying stratification — is tightly bound up in the history of racialized structural change and black social movements. I am yet learning how to use what I know and how I came to know it in doing what Zora Neale Hurston called formalized poking about, or research.

My family is rural, very rural. Until recently, there was one stop sign in Shannon, NC and my great uncle put it there. As people from such places are likely to do we reference the next largest town, Red Springs, as home when talking to outsiders. Eastern North Carolina has long been economically overshadowed by elite interests in developing the western part of the state. As a result, Charlotte is the second largest banking capital in the country and the air in Red Springs, NC smells like chicken plant refuse.

My great-grandmother raised my mother and her first cousins as their parents left rural America for Harlem, as did millions of other black folks during the great migration. Extended family networks mirrored the immigrant experience of the Mexican families that have begun to rapidly change the racial demographic of Red Springs, NC: those who could work in the industrialized North wired weekly wages back home to prop up the erosion of local farming economies, the result of international geo-politics and privatization. I am not always sure that shared experience is recognized today by the folks in places like Red Springs but it is interesting how capitalism makes history and policy cyclical.

There were two ways out of eastern NC for my mother’s generation, and perhaps still today. You went to work in the North or you got yourself to a school. My mother graduated valedictorian of her high school class. As is often the case with the educational decision-making of poor people, a calculus of resource investment was made and my mother benefited (she was smart and too lazy to pick tobacco and she can’t cook: it was best to send her to college). The town, the church, our extended family made sure she made it to the historically black college in Winston Salem that accepted her. Historically black colleges were the primary means of class, geographic, and status mobility available to smart black people when white colleges thought such beings were oxymorons.

When she arrived at college, the black arts movement and black power movements, a cultural response to the progress and limits of the civil rights movement, was in full swing. A young woman at college on a one shot deal, as the beneficiary of an entire community’s largesse, had an interesting choice to make. Should she use her new status position to agitate for legal, economic, and social justice? Or, should she keep her head down to make good on the gamble her family and community had made to get her this far? It is a choice familiar to many first generation and working class students today. When you have a student loan refund and your parents are being evicted, how do you determine your loyalties? How do you order your priorities when they are not entirely of your design? When we study the complicated decision-making of similar students, especially those who make seemingly irrational choices to enroll in expensive for-profit colleges, it is important to remember how individuals are embedded in social networks, themselves the product of historical and structural processes.

My mother chose to agitate. She went to school during the day and at night she earned an EMT license at the community college two municipalities over because it was the one that would accept black people. As a member of the black panther party she wore her fair share of afros and raised hell but she was, like Angela Davis, more than just a hairstyle. She was primarily an organizer, like the thousands who were members of the party. She ran dispatch at night and my play aunts and uncles (see: fictive kin), like Curtis and Nelson and Larry,  drove the ambulance.  Most of the iconography of the Party has erased the social and public health activism they sacrificed for but when a poor kid eats school breakfast or the local ambulance is obligated to respond to inner city victims of violence, they owe a debt to the Black Panther Party.  Also, there’s a note here about how bureaucracies absorb disruptions, like labor movements and community programs, to stifle dissent and protect its legitimacy as the “official” provider of public services.

But, it was not a sacrifice entirely without individual pay-offs. Because of her experience organizing, fundraising, and EMT license my mother was later hired by the city to work for the 911 dispatch. That was the same bureaucracy that had once intentionally refused to prioritize ambulance service to poor blacks. My uncle Curtis was also eventually hired by a local bureaucracy: he became a school principal. Larry became a lawyer and Nelson became a politician. Their activism eventually translated into credentials that offered entree into the primary means of black middle class attainment in the 1970s and 1980s: public sector jobs. Sharon Collins details how critical bureaucracies were to the minimal gains blacks made into the middle class, fragile though they may have been (and eventually reversed through policy and neo-liberalism). This reminds me, always, that as much as racialization is a state project, as Omi and Winant point out, it is also potentially most sensitive to redress through state policy. We have proof of this in both cross-sectional data and in the lived experiences that produced me.

And that is what I was meditating on today. Studying the experiences that produced your experience is often looked down upon by academics because it is wrongly conflated with the imperialistic project of falsely adopting the social mores of “native” inferiors. Studying your position in the social structure is not the same but we resist it all the same. I suspect that is due, in large part, to the resistance to studying the structural and historical forces that produced the majority of academics: whiteness and power. We really do not like to study either of those. But those things did not make me, not directly. I am the product of social movements, economic policies, historical trends, health policy, and state projects, just to name a few. And my scholarship has only benefited from attention to my position to these constructs. Indeed, I dare say I would not be a sociologist today were it not for these experiences. I certainly would not have transferred into the discipline mid-graduate school and passed my comprehensive exams less than a year after taking my first sociology course had I not been intimately embedded in the sociological knowledge I was mastering as a student.

Further, I know for-profit colleges exist because of my relationship to the demographic for-profits serve. Without that, my line of inquiry might devolve into polemics and more “objective” positions that cast for-profit students as either idiots or pawns of brilliant corporate innovation.

I wish for my colleagues who take refuge in the false security of distance and neutrality to embrace interrogating who they are in respect to what they study. We are all better for it and so is our formal poking about.

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