Cultural Anthropology, the Middle East, and White Women in the Library

The field of cultural anthropology, especially the study of subjects in the present, has significant value to understanding our civilizations and how communities form in different areas of the world around different ideologies. However, the lens through which historians (particularly white, Western historians) view other cultures may serve as a thin, unconscious veil for validating misconceptions and maintaining a power structure. In the 1980s, the late historian Edward Said proposed that Western cultures adopted an “orientalist” attitude towards the Middle East, dictating that it was barbaric, homogenous, violent, etc. Particularly, he received pushback on his assertion that scholars of the Middle East from the West committed a certain type of damage: though under the veil of scholarship and objective observation, their conclusions were influenced by their Western biases, and the scholarship itself was an assertion of the power structure with the “Orient” as the subjects for the West’s observation. Thus arose the question, “Does cultural anthropology of other cultures ever capture an accurate description of subjugated ethnicities/cultures, and does it even benefit those it studies?” Similar questions arise in “A Conversation about Bread”, as Edwin questions his role as a ethnographical storyteller for an experience that is not is own. Yet, what I think may be more telling is the role of the white woman in the library. The woman takes notes, presumably as another ethnographical academic exercise, on the interaction between Edwin and Brian, two black scholars. Notably, her reactions to their conversation and the notes she takes reveals certain prejudices she harbors towards her subjects; note her surprise at Brian’s correct use of “monolith”. Therefore, this character may serve as an allegory to the Western cultural anthropologists Said warns against: maintaining a power structure of subject vs. object under the protection of scholarship, despite her clear biases, and never benefitting those she studies.

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