by R. Asmerom
“Behind The Research” is a new series that explores the dynamic work of African-American professors around the country.
Being a cultural anthropologist certainly sounds cool and complex. For Dr. Sabiyah Prince, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C., working as an anthropologist involves examining the dynamics and relationships between race, class and culture. She received her doctorate from City University New York and is the author of Constructing Belonging: Race, Class and Harlem’s Professional Workers. Prince is currently examining the cultural history of her native Washington DC.
How did you a develop an interest in history and anthropology?
I’ve always been in avid reader. Growing up, I always had a book in my hands. Usually it was fiction, and then as I got a little older, I did start getting interested in African-American history and culture. I was born in 1959 in Washington DC, a majority black city, but there is a lot that we didn’t know and as I started to learn things, I got more and more excited. And I also realized that I had a lot of curiosity about different societies and their cultural practices.
What attracted you to anthropology?
I had already finished college and I was actually working as a sales secretary for a hotel chain. I had gotten an undergraduate degree in Communication Arts, so that prepared me to be a secretary apparently because I really was at an impasse in my life. I wasn’t very happy with what I was doing. I knew I was meant to accomplish something, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was, so I was feeling really frustrated and also looking at that point for my way out of being a secretary and taking orders from people.
What attracted me and what moved me towards anthropology and away from history was that anthropology is contemporary. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be about the present more so than the past. I always just wanted to chat with people and find out a little more about where they’re from and what they’re up to and that sort of thing, and that’s what anthropologists do.
What are you working on now?
I’ve done research over the last five years and right now I’m writing for my book which is about how Washington DC is changing demographically and how African-Americans are affected by the changes, how they are interpreting the changes and how they are responding to the changes. The African-American population in DC has been gradually decreasing since the 1970s.
How do you integrate your personal insight into your research?
When I first started doing my research, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at. I knew I want to address how DC was changing in some way, but I wasn’t sure specifically how I was going to go about addressing it. You probably know that you can’t just have some broad sprawling idea; you have to have some parameters around it in order to get people to think it’s worthwhile.
So I go out there and I started talking to people and I started to get my ideas from them because I started hearing how people were complaining that ‘DC isn’t black anymore, DC is changing.’ I realized that, “Wow! This is important.” I mean, I could see it myself. I’m native Washingtonian.
I’m sure my perspective is involved but I always work hard to be mindful of that and one of my approaches to prevent my own ideas from overshadowing what other folks have to say is that I’ve been very careful about introducing the subject of race. I’ve realized that if I said to people, “I want to talk to you about…” and then kind of lay it out with a very specific , that would somehow influence what they say, so I thought I would be more general in asking “What do you think about DC and how it is changing?” as opposed to, “You know, Black people are decreasing precipitously. Are you angry about this?”
What’s one of the more interesting things you’ve learned or discovered since you started even studying cultural anthropology?
One would be European imperialism and colonialism and how that shaped the world and more specifically how, in some societies, European colonialism affected the status of women. It lowered the status of women. In some Pacific Island cultures, women had access to important resources and they had female equivalent of chiefs or kings that negotiate for women’s sake or on behalf of the issues of women were concerned about.
There is just so much more to continue to understand in our world. I don’t think we even understood where race comes from. It’s everywhere, but I don’t think many of us take the moment to consider how we even came to refer to human beings as racist within these supposed categories and how that came to be such an important framework for viewing humankind.
What in the news inspires you or gets you riled up?
The whole tea party phenomena troubles me on a number of levels. I don’t feel that those people, who were part of the anti-war movement when the Bush administration decided to go into Iraq were even given the level of respect and attention that these people are getting.
I’m also frustrated by some of the more racial and reactionary aspects of their methods, some of which have been stamped down a little more now. It frustrates me that these people were given such a free ride, number one, and now they have been elevated to this level of legitimacy.
There are criticisms of them in the mainstream media, but if this thing is really moving and getting mainstream political representation, I find that to be really an aspect of white privilege, if you will, because there are alternative parties and political orientations of minorities too that don’t get this level of attention and credibility. It’s disturbing, it’s insulting and it makes me want to look away, even though part of my job is to be aware of the climate in the US and to be able to talk about it with my students and to be able to understand it.