Opinion: Studying anthropology helps combat racism

The field examines and counteracts ethnocentrism, which is beneficial for anyone interacting with another culture.


The Daily Iowan; Photos by Katie

Outside MacBride Hall, one of the main sights of the Archive Crawl to be hosted Saturday Feb 24, 2018. The UI Main Library, The Natural History Museum in Macbride, the State Historical Society of Iowa and others will be celebrating local history through a day of tours, demonstrations, and lectures.

Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Editor

Shambaugh Auditorium’s seats filled with students before the event began. Some, such as myself, were eager to sit in the front row while others trailed off to the thoracic and lumbar parts of the room. The professor was the last one to enter the room, and looked as though he were about to embark on a mountain climbing adventure. Little did I know that four weeks later, I would ascend on a learning adventure through my newly declared second major: anthropology.

Not everyone’s encounter with anthropology is the same as mine. It’s not always love at first sight, nor is it something that all students eventually learn to love. But it is something that everyone can value, because it opens the minds of ethnocentric — and even racist — students.

One of the first concepts of the major’s introductory courses teach you is ethnocentrism — the belief that your culture’s way of life is superior to that of others.

Everyone can be prone to this mindset, and it’s prevalent in the U.S. It may seem like a simple viewpoint to get across, but it’s actually tough to convince someone. Some groups don’t eat pork because it is seen as dirty. (Yes, even bacon.)

These tendencies can also evolve into racism as the ethnocentric thought process becomes chronic. These beliefs build on blocks of ignorance and an unwillingness to tear down one’s mindset of being superior to another on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, or race.

Over generations of study, the field turned into a subject that examines cultures with respect and commonly debunks racists theories as to why some groups dominated others and why others didn’t.

Anthropology works to counteract racism through its four main subfields: linguistics, archaeology, cultural, and biological. In order to impede racism, anthropologists and students must also acknowledge the fact that the subject was founded on racist ideologies.

The study of anthropology picked up its pace in the mid-19th Century with many traveling to study hunter-gatherer tribes, or “primitive people” as they would call them. Scholars would study only those they thought lesser than themselves, and claimed that people of color are biologically inferior to them because they were white.

Franz Boas, known as the “father of anthropology,” emerged academically in the late-19th Century to the early 20th Century and contradicted those ideas, and formed the theory of cultural relativism, in which one’s society is not better or worse than another. Basically, he opposed the ethnocentrism common to his time.

Over generations of study, the field turned into a subject that examines cultures with respect and commonly debunks racists theories as to why some groups dominated others and why others didn’t. Richard Diamond’s famous and ingenious book Guns, Germs, and Steel is just one of the many authors to explain why the continent of Eurasia henpecked the rest of the world.

The one-worded question “why?” is central to anthropology. Asking that question is what makes someone not only a good anthropologist, but also a good person.

If we’re to help dissolve our incredibly racist society, we need to start asking “why?” with the intention of being well-informed after the why is answered. We need to stop neglecting and suppressing the answer — like many do — anthropology helps us do exactly that.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.