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Out from the shadows of racist anthropology (Guest Post)

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Guest post by Michelle Munyikwa

Human skull inscribed for phrenological demonstration

The skull was smaller than I expected it to be, shockingly light in my hands. Despite its yellow-stained surface it had the appearance of being well kept, almost as if it had been polished. On the forehead was a simple label: American Idiot. As if that told us everything we needed to know about the person whose thoughts it had once held. I stared at it for a while, then passed the skull on to the student next to me.

In the center of the class of bright-eyed first year grad students stood a cart containing specimens from a large collection of skulls owned by the university. They had been collected by Samuel George Morton who was famous for his craniometry studies, in which he classified human races by skull size. His ultimate argument was that “Caucasians” had larger skulls (and therefore larger brains) than the other races that he had studied.

We were discussing the complicated relationships between anthropology and race. After having spent weeks reading the works of early anthropologists, many of whom wrote about the “savage” and compared them to the “civilized,” we were beginning to understand the sometimes uncomfortable history of our field.

As we passed the skulls around, reactions ranged from shock to curiosity. We read their labels. Simple, yet meaningful phrases. Lunatic. Negro. Anglo-American. Child. Some skulls had tags indicating the fate of their owners, or other hints about their lives.

Representative skulls were passed around the room, giving us insight into the classification systems that anthropology once helped to create and uphold. To my eye, the skulls looked the same, but in the past, these very specimens were used as evidence that races were separate species, each falling in a different stage along an evolutionary path towards civilization.

Though this was not my first time seeing a human skull, it was the most significant. Now, as I reflect upon Black History Month it is impossible for me not to also wonder about the history of the disciplines that I am becoming a part of.

As a black woman straddling anthropology and medicine, I am constantly negotiating my relationship to these disciplines that do not necessarily have the best track record when it comes to race. Although they have improved in recent years, we still have many years of histories that have erased the perspectives of people of color, exploited them for information, or strived to uphold the superiority of some groups of people over others. We will have many years of educating students about injustices past and present before we can come out from underneath the shadow of heavy, heart-sinking wrongs.

Learning these histories fundamentally changed my relationship to this work. As valuable as I think it is, it is hard for me to read these histories.  Sometimes, as I struggle not to nod off while doing my reading, I am angry. I wonder why I must read the works of those who would have believed me lesser, my brain inferior because of the continent on which I was born. I have tossed aside many a paper, filled with the rage that scientific racism has inspired in me. Why should I honor these scholars as “forefathers” of the discipline, when the anthropology I want to do more resembles Zora Neale Hurston than it does Lewis Morgan.

But then I remember that in order to be a part of a better future for anthropology, we must be aware of its past. We must understand the intricate relationships between power and knowledge, and remember that these legacies are connected to us, lest we be lulled by the myth of objectivity.

Critically looking at the past can help us to build a better future.

~~~~

More from Michelle Munyikwa: Be vital. Be involved. And at Absolutely Maybe.

Photo of Zora Neale HurstonMore about Zora Neale Hurston, “A Genius of the South,” novelist, folklorist, anthropologist in Alice Walker’s classic tribute, “Looking for Zora,” in Ms Magazine from 1975. Hurston is the author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”


Photo of Michelle MunyikwaMichelle Munyikwa is guest blogging at Absolutely Maybe this month. Her next post will explore trauma and the embodiment of racism in the United States. She studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and has her own blog at Michelle Munyikwa. You can follow her on Twitter: @mrmunyikwa.

Note on human remains: The importance of repatriation and burial of human remains is recognized in Article 12 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990) governs the process of return of remains from federal agencies and museums in the United States. Other countries need to negotiate for return of remains from the United States, for example Australia.

The image of the inscribed, unidentified skull is from Wellcome Images.

The image of Zora Neale Thurston is from the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hilda Bastian About the Author: Hilda Bastian likes thinking about bias, uncertainty and how we come to know all sorts of thing. Her day job is making clinical effectiveness research accessible. And she explores the limitless comedic potential of clinical epidemiology at her cartoon blog, Statistically Funny. Follow on Twitter @hildabast.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. cgosling 10:16 am 02/25/2014

    Great article about the polished skull. Brings back memories of college days In the early 1950s, when I too fumbled through trays of skulls in anthropology and museum classes, wondering about labels. I sculpted my own skulls of representative primates for comparison. Today, I teach kids about evolution with a collection of skulls and primate faces, hands, and feet I cast from cadavers.

    Link to this

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