Statement on Anthropology, Colonialism, and Racism

No form of scholarly enquiry is neutral, and anthropology is no exception. Anthropology began as a colonial science, the product of a settler colonialism uniquely focused on the study of the languages, history, culture, and biology of non-European peoples seen as ‘primitive,’ or ‘ancient’ all around the world. Anthropology was, until recently, primarily the study of the exotic ‘other’ in space or time, an orientation that presumes an unmarked normative ‘self’ -- white, Euro-American, and often male -- positioned as the distanced and ‘objective’ observer. While this conceit has been thoroughly discredited, it helped obscure the field’s historical implication in projects of domination, rule, and control. Even those scholars with lofty disciplinary ideals nevertheless often used extractive approaches that positioned Native American, African, Asian, Latin American, and other human subjects and field sites as objects or sources of data (cultural practices, language, artifacts, or biological material), rather than as partners in knowledge production or legitimate owners of their own bodies, voices, histories, and cultures.

In the last few decades, we have seen intensive scrutiny of the discipline’s colonial roots, reimagined forms of ethnographic research, strengthened institutional controls on informed consent in ethnographic, biological, and archaeological studies of contemporary communities, and have established new regulations and practices surrounding the acquisition, display, and disposition of human remains and other cultural materials. These self-critiques and redressive actions have changed our practices, improved our collaborative research efforts, and have enhanced our understandings of the world. The painful processes of critique and change have not been easy or smooth nor are they close to complete. The first step is to acknowledge and apologize for the damage we have done, which we do here now.

One legacy of anthropology that is especially painful to confront is its connection to and complicity with so-called ‘scientific racism,’ in which the University of Pennsylvania played a key role. Anthropologists and other scholars used ostensibly ‘objective’ procedures to advance various forms of racism, by placing humans on a graded scale of civilization, and advancing fraught theories of ‘cultural evolution.’ These programs were presented as scientific findings and used to support racist agendas. The damage caused by this kind of work was extensive and significant, reinforcing racial inequality, and undergirding arguments for the inferiority of non-European ‘others.’ ‘Scientific’ racism, like other imperialist archaeological and anthropological research, inspired the creation of a vast archive of field notes, measurements, photographs, material collections, and human remains. Some of these, such as the Morton cranial collection, came to be held by museums; while this collection was used to educate against the racist views that generated it, we agree with the recent Penn Museum decision that this is insufficient and that it is time to repatriate these individuals. The Penn anthropology department is coming to terms with its own part of this history. While NAGPRA has forced museums to reckon with the collecting of Native American human remains and cultural property, there is a tremendous amount of work yet to be done to address this larger legacy, work we have only just begun.  

We in the Penn anthropology department acknowledge this history and dedicate ourselves to confronting the legacies of our field, to striving to remake it and adapt our practices to embrace the values of anti-racism, understanding, and justice. Cognizant of the legacies of systemic racism, institutionalized violence, and other violations of human rights in the discipline and in the world at large, we amplify calls for Black Lives Matter, Native American rights, Asian-American rights, Latinx rights, LGBTQ rights, and the rights of the disabled. We reject racism, sexism, ableism, exploitation, oppression, and other manifestations of structural power that continue to produce worlds of injustice and inequality. We do not condone research that promotes racial injustice, or that otherwise violates standards of ethical conduct and informed consent. As a department, we are taking specific actions to advance those goals. As a community of intellectuals, we strive to conduct all of our future our teaching, mentoring, research, publications, and public outreach with integrity, fairness, and respect.