Anthropology students of color meet with department to discuss equity within the major

By Esther Chong

At a student-led forum, anthropology students of color addressed racial and colonial dynamics within the foundations of anthropology and shared anecdotes of being culturally objectified in classroom environments at Western.

Almost 40 students and faculty members packed into the anthropology department lounge in Arntzen Hall, on Feb. 27, following the release of a Western Front article regarding Paul James, an anthropology instructor who used the N-word slur in his Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class.

“[James] was just the catalyst of a much bigger conversation,” third-year student Robyn Caylor said.

According to Caylor, the forum was organized to be a space for students of color to discuss how anthropology has historically harmed communities of color and how the study continues to be harmful for anthropology students today.

“I really feel a need for all of the anthropology students to move away from [the word] ‘culture’ and start reconceptualizing it as other people’s realities,” Caylor said.

Students of color and organizers presented four proposals the department needed to initiate:

1. Funding an anthropology speaker series

2. Updating the anthropology library with a variety of resources and books for students, that come from a lense of decolonization. Similarly to the center for equity, inclusion, and diversity library located in Miller Hall.

3. A course on careers that extend outside of academics

4. Restructuring the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course

Students said lower-level anthropology courses needed to be restructured with a decolonized perspective, specifically in Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, which seats about 180 students every quarter, according to ClassFinder.

“So many students take [Introduction to Cultural Anthropology] to fulfill a GUR,” Caylor, who felt the theories and concepts she learned from the class were either not applicable or dismantled in her upper division courses, said. “A lot of anthropologists and anthropology students forget that the people giving you the privilege to study them are still people. They’re not just your research subject.”

Students asked if there was mandatory trainings for faculty in managing classroom discussions, and if not, how trainings could be implemented to hold faculty accountable in class discussions and discussion groups. Anthropology Department Chair Todd Koetje, James and other faculty members from the department were there to answer their questions.

“[There’s] no formal training. There’s discussion and consensus amongst faculty but that’s about it,” Koetje said. He explained there was a possibility of trainings through Western’s Human Resources, but said he found the trainings to relate more to personnel decisions as opposed to classroom situations.

Josh Fisher, an anthropology associate professor and human resources workshop facilitator in social sciences, said there is optional inclusivity training for faculty members through HR, however, many faculty members do not see the value in classroom inclusivity workshops.

“One of the things we emphasize is what it means to have an inclusive classroom. How to design syllabi, considering authors, books, structures of the discussions and discussion leaders,” Fisher said.

According to Fisher, about 15 people attended his workshop.

Kate Kolpan, a visiting professor from the University of Florida, said it felt like checking off a box that covered a liability issue rather than creating an inclusive classroom environment.

Judy Pine, a senior instructor in the department, said the problem with optional workshops is that it’s a self-selection process, and many instructors do not want to admit they need help creating an inclusive classroom environment.

“We came up in a system that assumes that we can just teach,” Pine said.

Fifth-year biocultural anthropology student Daniella Navarro felt that the department offered excuses rather than solutions at the event.

“Where’s the follow-up? Who in that space is going to be the ones pushing this forward?” she asked.

Students said the department needs to integrate more research from anthropologists of color, without tokenizing their work.

“To include one or two articles that aren’t written by white men isn’t necessarily allowing the space for students to engage with it. It’s not enough for you to check off a box and say ‘I’ve done my part,’” fourth-year anthropology student Pauline Elevazo said.

Some students of color sat on the floor and in the hallways of Arntzen Hall during the forum. After the event, many said they felt the white students present were not conscious of the space they took up in the conversation, even the seats they sat in.

“It changed the space and made it an educational purpose for them,” Navarro said.

Caylor was hoping white students and faculty would sit back and listen.

“That didn’t happen,” Caylor said. “A couple of the white students who showed up were expecting us to educate them.”

At the forum, a white anthropology student asked the people of color present if they had any advice on what white students could focus on in class.  

In response, Navarro said asking that question is asking students of color to speak on behalf of an entire community.

“My experiences versus Pauline’s, versus Anne’s, versus Jose’s are all completely different. That’s an example of white privilege, saying ‘I need someone to come help educate me,’” she said.

Multiple students of color spoke about times when faculty asked them to speak on behalf of their communities in class.

“We cannot be looking at cultures and communities as an object. These are beautiful parts of life, it’s not just chapter seven of your textbook,” Navarro said.

Multiple students said textbooks written by white anthropologists are used as a tool of colonization, by objectifying communities of color to educate other white people.

“For some people it’s something you study, for others it’s something that’s part of your daily experiences,” Navarro said.

Students also pointed out that most of the work being done to initiate change was being done by people of color, and that the responsibility falls in their hands to recognize racist behaviors in class.

“Why do I always have to educate you and tell you? Why do I always have to be in a position to tell you that this is inappropriate? Why can’t other students step in and acknowledge that what they’re saying is not okay?” fourth-year biocultural anthropology student Julia Ide said.

Following the event, Elevazo reached out to Koetje via email to see what steps would be taken to meet the needs of students of color.

“It would be a shame for nothing to come out of the forum,” her email read.

In response, Koetje said he did not have the authority to make diversity trainings required for faculty, but that he would provide access to resources and advising for appropriate training. He made it clear the department did not support James’ conduct in the classroom.

“We have moved to get the tenured instructors of 201 (Introduction to Cultural Anthropology) together to create a more standardized curriculum centered around a decolonized approach, and implement that for the fall,” Koetje said. “Meanwhile, individual instructors are being encouraged to rethink and begin modifying their courses with the same things in mind.”  

Koetje also mentioned the department has been involved in hiring a tenure line instructor, reviewing and recruiting candidates of color with a focus on mentoring students of diverse backgrounds.

Caylor and Elevazo worked together to organize the forum. Caylor had reached out to Elevazo, who shared the same passion for decolonizing the study, long before James’ article went to print. A space was booked for the event and scheduled around instructors’ availability a day after James’ article was released, Caylor said.

“Students who create initiatives don’t get paid. We just get to say we did this, but at the end of the day, at what cause?” Elevazo said. “This is emotional work and labor that I’m accustomed to, rehashing our traumas for the sake of academia. At this point I’m really accustomed to it, and it’s kind of messed up.”

Caylor did not expect the emotional toll the forum would take on herself, and was grateful for the students of color who shared a part of themselves to people they didn’t know.

“If we didn’t do it, it wouldn’t have ever happened,” Caylor said. A Facebook livestream of the event can be found on here.

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