Barack Obama and Maya Soetoro with their
mother Ann Dunham and grandfather Stanley Dunham
in Hawaii (early 1970s).
‘Ruth Behar, a filmmaker, poet, and anthropologist based at the University of Michigan, offers an interesting take on the fact of Obama’s anthropological matrilineage — and uses that fact to make a policy plea:
“The fact that Barack Obama’s mother was a cultural anthropologist has been noted with curiosity and amusement. A few commentators dismiss her anthropology credentials by describing her as part of a radical American fringe, while others represent her favorably, but as ‘unconventional’, ‘free-spirited’, or ‘bohemian’. That reputation is based on her two brief (and interracial) marriages and her wanderings through Javanese villages in an era when the stay-at-home mom was the public model of the American mother. Many now find it difficult to comprehend her passion for her adopted culture and her desire to live for years among the subjects of her research and advocacy work, though what she did was nothing out of the ordinary within anthropology.
“As a cultural anthropologist, I think Obama’s family background is something to celebrate. But even more important, I think the time is ripe for cultural anthropology to become a fundamental part of American education and public culture. Anthropology needs to be taught alongside math, science, language arts, and history as early as elementary school and definitely throughout the high-school years. Its insights about the perils of ethnocentrism, racialization, and exoticized stereotypes need to become part of our everyday vocabulary.” ‘
via Chronicle of Higher Education
Did his mother’s anthropological roots contribute to Barack Obama’s thoughtfulness and genuinely multiracial embrace? Arguably; and I agree with the implication that anthropology, often dissed as the stepchild social science because of its jargon, politicization and general self-indulgence, should be a core part of education, given its potential to impart cultural sensitivity and an appreciation of relativism. My undergraduate degree was in social anthropology (as I have written here before I was lucky enough to live in several indigenous cultures doing ethnographic fieldwork for my undergraduate thesis) and I think it has shaped my thinking in a pivotal way, informing my cosmology, spirituality, epistemology, and politics as well as my practice of psychiatry (which in some ways I approach as a cross-cultural exercise).