Cultural Anthropology

As an undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), I found myself taking Introduction to Cultural Anthropology from a young woman from Nigeria who had recently graduated from Wellesley (or Bryn Mawr or Smith or some other Seven Sisters college).  Apparently, a professor at one point had persuaded her that she would best serve “her people” by making herself an outsider to them, by learning to look at them and their ways critically, and so help them to become (I am not making this up) more sanitary.  I consider VCU’s hiring of this professor to be one of the great gifts of my undergraduate education, in that it took students who were curious about (perhaps even interested in) cultural anthropology, and ended up making them highly suspicious of the whole anthropological project.  We learned what it was like to be “them” – the ones studied by a person who stands outside the group in erudite amusement – the ones generalized and therefore misunderstood.

In the early to mid 1990s, in the hierarchy of Virginia Public Universities, VCU was the second cheapest, second easiest to get into school in the state.  Most students were transfers from other schools that either they couldn’t afford (me) or where they couldn’t “cut it” (also me) – or else they were returning students, getting their degree in the 30s or 40s or 50s, or they were students whose parents knew from the beginning they couldn’t afford to send their kid anywhere else.  What our professor, educated at an elite institution in New England, saw were simply American college students – which in her mind meant (again, I am not making this up, but actually reporting on the perceptions she spoke out loud to us in class) our parents lived in a Dynasty / Falcon Crest type reality, and we could order out pizza whenever we wanted.   Whereas (speaking for myself and the people I hung out with in my first years at the school) we were mostly, in reality, students who for one reason or another found eating out a simple cheese sub once a month to be a splurge, and who had located a couple of places in the city where we could get a bottomless cup of coffee for 50 cents, so that we could in the cheapest way possible find a place apart from our dorm room or student union or apartment to sit.  The year that I was informed that I lived in an opulent “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” fantasy world was the same year that machine gun fire broke out at 2am under my apartment window. Another afternoon that semester I witnessed a shooting while writing a paper for my social work class.  (The police were sufficiently overworked that year that they weren’t interested in my statement.  “Let’s wait and see if he dies,” they said.  Over the phone, because it didn’t really warrant a visit.)

So what do the natives do when confronted with an out of touch anthropologist?  First, they protest, “No, we can’t just buy a pizza whenever we want!!”  That did not so much work for us, though (and it so seldom does.)  She was the educated one, and so she knew us better than we did.  She shook her head patiently, and said that in fact we could.  I had seen my bank statement, but nevermind.

So the next step is to strike back, to make a fool of the anthropologist by feeding them the sort of data they will believe.  And so we gave her any number of wild tales about what our life, and the life of our city was like.  The one that I remember to this day is our invented etymology of “Powhite Parkway.”  It is locally pronounced (as a native of Richmond, VA will tell you) “Po – (h)ite” and is one of the many Native American derived names in the area.  But one day, when she asked why it was called the “Po’ White Parkway,”  we told her (okay, it was I – I told her – but I recall that my compatriots were delighted by my transgression) that the safest way to get south of the river, where we, the wealthy north of the river Richmonders, had ghettoized all the poor white people (colloquially known as “po’ white trash”), was to take the Po’ White Parkway.  And she nodded knowingly and smiled and moved on with our “lesson” – which none of us paid much attention to, having demonstrated how little she knew about our city and our culture, and thus casting suspicion on her knowledge of any culture not her own.  Actually, not even her own, which she saw as backwards and disease ridden, because of the practice of eating from a common dish.  (It made me wonder, later, if she had ever seen eucharist with a common cup, and if she had allowed herself to conclude that Episcopalians were likewise backwards and disease ridden.)

When I was in Divinity school, it became clear to me that much of undergraduate education is intended to sanitize us, in a sense – to set us apart from any culture – even our own culture, and view it with erudite amusement.  To be set apart is a definition of the word “holy” – and certainly graduates in the “liberal arts” are a sort of priesthood of rational materialism.

But lately I have been wondering if Divinity school might not do the same thing, sometimes.  Create an us and them between the ministry professionals and the laity.  And if that is so, how can we minister to people – how can we rightly love people – that we prejudge?  Certainly I have not been known to be a particularly patient person.  I understand how, arriving in a parish (or a non-profit organization, or a seminary, or…) it can be tempting to plow right on ahead and give the people what they “need to hear” – to give them the benefit of our wisdom, not least our analysis of their situation.

Ironic then, that I’m blogging.  Just sending this stuff out into the ether.  I have very little idea who you are, reader, and what you are looking for.  It is hard to do this without envisioning an audience – but I know that I must be envisioning you wrongly.  Please forgive me.

And I ask God to forgive me for misleading that professor regarding the Po’ White Parkway.  I didn’t see her as a person, but only as an enemy – and I never did pray for her.  Or for myself, that I might see her rightly.  I might then have recognized that she and I were alike in our refusal to see one another.

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