The Dangers of White Anthropologists

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Poetry for Peace And of Course Misguided White Privilege.

Why is the face of black liberation consistently white?
Why is the voice of pain and war and brutality and war shared through a white anthropologists experience?
Why do we continue to accept this?

Last night I attended “A Poetry Reading for Peace and Justice In a Time of War and Discrimination”, a reading and book launch for Our Eyes Are Wide Open: Poems of The New American Century; a new anthology of poems by authors writing on peace and justice.

I went with a friend to support one of the poets he knew well and to listen.There were five readers sharing their work –
Martin Espada, Adrie Kusserow, Bunkong Tuon, Affa Michael Weaver and Teresa Mei Chuc.

The readings were powerful and moving – from Espada’s poem dedicated to the undocumented fast food workers who lost their lives on 9/11, BK’s stories as a refugee living under the Khmer Rouge, Afaa’s children who were abducted from Africa and let loose in Cuba and Teresa’s incomprehensibly powerful stories of Vietnam and Palestine – the work left me feeling…It left me feeling, and I guess that is what art is meant to do.

The readers shared with us a piece of their souls and for that I am grateful. Their honesty turned the event from a reading into ceremony.

But unfortunately I am not writing about them. I have to dedicate this to the work of a (hopefully) well meaning but desperately confused white woman. Again.

Adrie Kusserow was the third reader. She is a professor of Anthropology at St. Michael’s College and teaches “Refugees”.
In her intro she spoke of how her “humanitarian” work in South Sudan has impacted her life and how her poems spoke to these experiences. “White people need these refugees”, she said, “and I’ll speak to that in my poems.”

“Uh oh.” I said. And hoped for the best.

So she began to read.
An excerpt from her first poem:

“Arok Deng, hiding from the Arabs in the branches of a tree,
two weeks surviving on leaves,
legs numb, mouth dry.
When the mosquitoes swarmed
and the bodies settled limp as petals under the trees,
he shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands
sliding into it like a snake,
his whole body covered except his mouth.

… South Sudan, pockmarked with bombs,
skull trees with their necklaces of bones,
packs of bony Lost Boys
roving like hyenas toward Ethiopia…”

The imagery in her poems was all snakes and hyenas and lions and crocodiles. War and Rape and Pain and I could almost see her foaming at the mouth, holding the power of such violence and pain in her hands, in the words she had contorted from someone else’s mouth. Bony lost boys like hyenas moving like snakes.

Anthropology is an inherently racist field. When you are studying other people they are no longer people, they become experiments. A strange introduction to another human that leaves you already on a superior standing than them. It was like colonizer 101. It was so funny it was almost cliche.

The second poem was much like the first, but telling the story of a woman who was raped, and described the family who took her in. They forced her to pour out her stories again and again, getting full from her trauma, her experience a “bouillon cube of horror” that flavored their boring lives. An ironic way to describe the experience since this was exactly what she was doing with her poetry.

Africa is not a small dark monolithic exotic caricature of rape and war and safari animals. It is a massive and distinct continent full of all the elements of life, and like everywhere in the world, war.

These are not her stories to share.
In a platform where the other four poets shared their own stories of war, peace, racism, growth, resistance and survival, the lone white woman chose to go to Africa to share the ugliest, most painful, co-opted stories of the devastation of war.

I do not know where Adrie was born or raised, but does she have no stories of her own?

The way in which she shared these stories, that were not her own, used all imagery and metaphor of animals. These people were not people anymore, but dark ‘primitive’ metaphors of loss.
The black river of bodies that were the lost boys on their way to war.
As she was reading I had several instinctive reactions. The first was to laugh.
The second was to jump up and ask her to stop reading. The third was disgust. No one else visually had the same reactions, so I didn’t say anything during the reading.

After the reading she was the first poet I approached to share with her my thoughts on her co-opting these stories to try and flavor Western Mass with others’ bouillon cubes of horror. And my sheer disgust.

A few older white people went over to talk to her, I’m assuming to congratulate her on her great humanitarian work and selfless reading. I approached her to share my thoughts because she does not see the danger and what is so wrong in her work, and maybe no one has ever told her that turning other people’s suffering into some kind of would be cathartic artistic experience is not okay. But it’s not enough. And I am writing this because I doubt that she took anything from my words, and will probably in fact just turn them into another poem.

There’s a strange phenomena that I see where white guilt becomes so strong that some white people feel this need to become victims rather than deal with it. There are many ways it manifests, but one is the classic White Savior Complex. I do not want to de-value the work that Adrie has done sending money to build schools in South Sudan, but I cannot abide one more white person lavishing in the pain of suffering ‘black africa’ or even black america and using it as an excuse to deal with their own feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

I don’t want to pour all of my frustration at a system of capitalism and colonization on Adrie as she is not the cause of the problem but another product of it. Adrie is paid to teach on “Refugees” and “Modern Day Slavery” and social change, but I wonder how much have the people from her poems been paid? What do they gain from her painting bloody poems with their stories of survival?

I’m assuming that with her book, “Refuge” and her recent publication the purpose of sharing these stories is to horrify others into taking action to help the poor suffering people of Sudan. That is an even bigger offense. I too, want to spur people into taking action to change the crazy world we’re living in, but we’re going about it in pretty different ways.
The people who came to Smith College in cushy Western Massachusetts to listen to the reading don’t have so much to offer. Best case scenario they can donate money to the organization to help build schools. Worst case scenario, a bunch of other rich old white ladies will hop on a plane to Sudan to help these ‘poor refugees’ themselves and start a thousand more non-profits to help the starving shell – shocked Africans.

I am tired of the face and voice of Africa coming through the mouth of paid white Anthropologists and well meaning teachers. I suppose she is an expert now in “war” and “refugees” since she has studied it in college and in real life, like in the field! Um, actually, let the refugees speak for themselves.

The only change we can really ever enact is in ourselves. I do not think that Adrie and whatever group she is working with are going to stop war in Sudan. Caricatures of pain painted through the lens of a professor. She is getting paid to teach students this bullshit?

If you want to help refugees in Africa, here are a few helpful tips that you can do in your own country:
-Don’t join the military or let your children join the military – this will prevent future people from turning in to refugees, thus eliminating the need for you to study them like science experiments to become the next topic for your poetry book.
-Check yo self before you wriggety wreck yo self – think about your privilege and take a moment for gratitude that you are not living in war and didn’t have to grow up in a refugee camp and please please deal with your white guilt, you’re literally killing the rest of us.
-Remember that humans in one place are just like humans in another place! Treat people like people. Imagine.
-Work on your addiction to violence – stop getting high on people’s stories of pain and suffering.
-It’s called ‘suffering’ not ‘super fun awesome times’ and when people are suffering they are not enjoying it. Stop enjoying it. Go be happy somewhere, and do good, and treat people well, and if you are moved by the suffering of war (on another continent) create a space for these people to share their stories to spur people in to action, or share your own damn stories from your experience working with them.
-Don’t go to Africa.
-America is the country of endless war – it’s been at war since it was first stolen and founded, yo! Work on that for a minute. Remember that colonialism and capitalism have created most of the problems in the world that we’re seeing now. Work to dismantle colonialism right here, where you live! Remember that a bunch of people were taken as slaves from Africa and that resources and human labor are why these governments and corporations are going to war in the first place – cause they can! Remember that poverty is man made and people going to war are not doing it for fun! It’s called war, not the happy days!
-Don’t go to Africa.
-Buy black people tickets to Africa. I’ll take one.
-Pay me to teach your damn class.
-Stop telling other people’s stories.

Yeah, war is awful. We all feel bad about it. Do work in your own community, and please, dear god, stop writing about people from Sudan. It’s not okay at all.

I hope that Adrie took something from my words. I doubt it though. And I somehow feel like she is going to continue to get acknowledgement (and money) from vomiting up misconstrued stories of other people’s pain.
Gross.

  • ulture Illness and Healing
  • Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking
  • Refugees
  • Social Inequalities

– See more at: http://www.smcvt.edu/Pages/Get-to-Know-Us/Faculty/Kusserow-Adrie.aspx#sthash.tHuUINha.dpuf

  • ulture Illness and Healing
  • Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking
  • Refugees
  • Social Inequalities

– See more at: http://www.smcvt.edu/Pages/Get-to-Know-Us/Faculty/Kusserow-Adrie.aspx#sthash.tHuUINha.dpuf

  • ulture Illness and Healing
  • Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking
  • Refugees
  • Social Inequalities

– See more at: http://www.smcvt.edu/Pages/Get-to-Know-Us/Faculty/Kusserow-Adrie.aspx#sthash.tHuUINha.dpuf

 

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