Review: Reversed Gaze, Chapter 2: Tripping On Race

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Tripping On Race”. In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (pp.24-51). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Mwenda Ntarangwi’s Reversed Gaze is the first in-depth ethnographic account written by a non-Western anthropologist that I had the chance to read. I also deliberately chose to read this book because its author is a non-Western anthropologist, an interesting fact which I think should be kept in mind. In this post I review the second chapter of the book, titled Tripping on Race, which touches upon questions of segregation, racial and class integration, discrimination, and the problem of studying up. Ntarangwi opens the chapter with a series of questions regarding race and anthropology, fieldwork and historically-determined racism. Such series of questions occur at strategic places in the book and are refreshing as they open different streams of thought. Ntarangwi readily admits that there are no unique conclusions with regards to the answers these questions might create.

The argument in this chapter is that “anthropological fieldwork has predominantly been shaped by the asymmetrical relationships that attend between the anthropologist and his or her subject as framed within race” (p.24). Ntarangwi’s conclusion is that “the power dynamics attendant in anthropologists’ own cultures present fieldwork challenges that in turn may make research in “other” locations more tenable” (p.25). This explains why Western anthropologists tend to prefer fieldwork abroad rather than in their own communities. Ntarangwi also questions his own fieldwork “advantage” as an international student in the United States and how his own skin color might have helped him, or not, in his fieldwork.

The reader will appreciate Ntarangwi’s new look at seemingly mundane events. In this chapter per example, Ntarangwi reflects on his experience as an international graduate student in an American university, more specifically on a group research project on race in a low income neighborhood inhabited by a large proportion of African-Americans. Ntarangwi recalls a step-by-step account of the process of doing a team project with four other graduate students and the different approaches to fieldwork by members of the group. Ntarangwi is as interested in the group project as in the group dynamics. He discusses the “fieldwork ritual” (p.26) and how each person had his or her own perspective on what should be the focus and on the kind of information to collect (p.26). Later in the text he writes about teamwork: “our own individual interests were taking precedence” (p.35) and that the group members “should have focused more on the project than [their] personal issues” (p.37). However, despite the tensions and divisions among the group, Ntarangwi writes that team members were “determined to make the project work” (p.47) and that ultimately they receive a high grade for their work.

A very interesting section of the chapter is concerned with Ntarangwi’s account of how he came to discover the “shifting nature and fluidity of the field site” (p.37) when a man standing in line at McDonald’s begins to talk to him. They end up eating together, and the man later becomes an important informant to Ntarangwi. It is at this point that the author comes to realize that he had assumed “that there was a need, and even the possibility, to separate “research” from “real life” (p.33). Ntarangwi is especially interested in “the logistical and personal challenges that anthropologists face in the field as a result of their subject positions marked by race” (p.25). The group project gives him the opportunity to reflect on how his own subjective position as international student and as a Black man influences his relations in the field: “My skin color may have endeared me more to the people I was making contact with – besides the fact that I was a foreigner” (p.38). As far as the reader knows, Ntarangwi is the only student of his group to actually interview Black persons, many of whom approached him directly without being aware of his anthropological work most likely because of their shared skin color. Ntaranwgi writes that “As a foreigner I was not part of the dynamic of race relations in the American academy and, as a result, may have been more welcome in a conversation with African Americans about race than my White colleagues would have been” (p.39). I am not sure just how much the “foreign” advantage weighted compared to Ntarangwi’s own skin color in the context of fielwork in a neighborhood mostly inhabited by Black people. On the other hand, I do reckon the “foreign advantage” described by Ntarangwi is a significant component of fieldwork. It also raises interesting questions: should we select anthropologists most apt to reach out to the people studied so as to get more information?

However, Ntarangwi also realizes that his “foreign advantage is short lived” (p.39) when the women in the group decide to hold a meeting without the men and he is confronted to the “gender thing”, adding another layer of complexity to fieldwork and team research. At another time, everyone but Ntarangwi has been informed that a group meeting has been cancelled, and he alone shows up at the meeting venue, experiencing isolation from the group (p.47). I wondered if the women of the group might have felt isolated from the field. When Ntarangwi recalls how a female member of the group “said that going to church was not dangerous, even though she wondered how it would feel to be the only White person in church” and that he told her “it did not matter, but she seemed a little disconcerted” (p.36), I can understand why the student felt this way. It did matter to her since she voiced her concern. Another episode is the group going to the American Legion (p.47), where the non-Black female members of the team experience discomfort and uncertainty. I think anyone will experience a feeling of estrangement and discomfort when being the single representative of his or her kind among a larger group and surely this influences fieldwork as well. Finally, as Ntarangwi points out, “perception of the area [are] shaped by experiences and identity, especially [by] social class and educational backgrounds” (p.32). Similarly, George Orwell writes in the Road to Wigan Pier that “It is in fact very difficult to escape, culturally, from the class into which you have been born” (2001(1937):209).

The last section of the chapter relates to race as a topic of classroom discussion (p.49). In a class where the students were to discuss Ruth Frankenberg’s White Women, Race Matters (1993), Ntarangwi notes a certain level of discomfort in the classroom. He resents the fact that there had been no honest conversation about race (p.50) and wonders: “Were the students too greatly implicated in the study that the only way to deal with the data was to dismiss it? Is this common practice in an anthropology classroom?” (p.51). Interestingly, one student in our seminar mentioned before the class that he expected that we would probably not even “talk about race”, and after the class remarked that we had indeed not talked about race. I am not quite certain what it really means to “talk about race” but I admit that I do not recall a specific moment in our own class discussion when we explicitly discussed race. We did talk about different cultures but not specifically about different races, if this is what it means to talk about race. The fact that we did not go in depth in the subject as we might have if one of us had actually raised the matter perhaps has something to do with the culture of our own multicultural city. Race is a sensible subject and like Quebec’s two referendums and the language question, we tend to try to avoid it when possible. Maybe due to an overdose of half-covert public debate on linguistic and religious rights of cultural groups, we have come to completely dismiss the question of race.

Later in the book Ntarangwi criticizes academics that recycle their field notes and produce ethnographies that present cultural groups as historically fixed. Yet, Ntarangwi reflects on his experience long after it happened, based on notes and diaries he wrote at the time of his graduate studies (p.9). I do think, however, that distance in space or in time is sometimes necessary to clearly understand what has happened. It might be that we never really stop processing the information we absorb. Ntarangwi also observes that “Many of the nationals in […] post-colonial locales have never seen Westerners in subordinate positions and especially under local authority” (p.24). This reminded me of another novel by Orwell, Burmese Days (1934), in which the character of Dr Veraswami, an Indian doctor, constantly argues for the intellectual superiority of the British over the Indians. The fact that this Western “research advantage”, Ntarangwi argues, is what “makes Western anthropologists choose “other” field sites than those in their own communities” and that research funding also tends to be dominated by these structures (p.25) certainly deserves further inquiry.

I am glad that Dr Forte put this book in our hands at a timely moment. The book is titled Reversed Gaze and on the cover there is a face: two eyes and the arch of a nose. Many passages make me think of certain aspects of my own life as an anthropology student to the extent that at some point I had the feeling that “reversed gaze” not only meant the gaze of the Kenyan ethnographer onto America, but that the book was actually looking at me. It is an interesting book and I think it perfectly fits in the context of our seminar. It truly opens up on new directions in anthropological research by asking the reader to consider his own subject position in the field as well as the fact that ethnography is clearly dominated by Western thought.

 Additional references

Orwell, George. (2009). Burmese Days. New York: Penguin Books.

Orwell, George. (2001). The Road To Wigan Pier. New York: Penguin Books.


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