Mobilising patriarchy for comfort: confessions of a white male anthropologist of India

This post is written as part of our March series on ‘Experiences in Diversity’ by Rich Thornton, a PhD candidate in Anthropology. Rich is currently conducting fieldwork on the subjectivity and subjectification of teachers and social entrepreneurs of education in Delhi, India.

My girlfriend Jasmine loves to tell a story about how we met. It was the first day of fieldwork for my Master’s in Cultural Anthropology: Delhi, India, February 2016. Eager to meet the school team, I perched on a plastic primary school chair and said to the teachers, ‘Hi! I’m Rich’. Which for them was absolutely hilarious: because I was a white British man sitting amongst a group of younger Indian women and telling them I am ‘rich’.

Rich and his ‘girlfriend’, Jasmine.

Jasmine loves to tell this story probably because people here do find it funny; and perhaps as a way of reminding us both that despite how much we try to hide from it, cultural difference will always be present in our relationship. But some things actually aren’t about cultural difference (says the anthropologist nervously), and this piece explores how, in response to being socially produced as different, and by using my role as ‘anthropologist’ as protection, I have been discovering how I mobilise patriarchy as a way of producing myself as a valuable and valued subject.

Before I go on, two things must be said. First: I use the term ‘relationship’ and ‘girlfriend’ here because those are the terms I feel describe how Jasmine and I interact. Jasmine avoids those labels, and doesn’t want to define the relationship we share. Second, in my experience of contemporary Delhi, white privilege looms big and large. And there seems to be a distinction between how me as a white foreigner is imagined and how any darker-skinned foreigner is thought of and treated. Despite this blog’s theme of ‘diversity’, we must be clear that racialism and patriarchy remain violent socially-produced realities, and that difference is always hierarchical. And it is indeed through my mobilisation of patriarchy that I have unconsciously committed violence during the first few months of my PhD fieldwork. Here’s two examples of how.

Good little anthropologist that I am, I have sought to immerse myself in Hindi communities in order to learn the language and ‘get the culture’. In Hindi, there’s a very common swearword that translates as ‘sister-f*cker’. Some say it’s no longer a swearword as it’s used so commonly, but of course, the word carries heavy patriarchal overtones. I began to notice that if I used this word, especially with groups of men, it would get a laugh and I would receive appreciation. Subconsciously, I began to use it to gain trust and momentary respect. But at what cost? When Jasmine questioned my use of it, I admitted that it was patriarchal and that I wasn’t proud of myself for using it, but I also used some flippant casuistry to intellectualise my way out of guilt. I said that I felt lonely and that also as an anthropologist I needed to ‘fit in’, I needed to build bonds with people.

The point, that Jasmine was clear in expressing, was that my attempt to intellectualise my use of the word, and to produce my own victimhood by saying I felt lonely, was of course also deeply patriarchal. This intellectualisation allowed me to stand back from the event and see it as ‘part of research’, the part when I ‘adopted patriarchy’ as a route to being accepted and learning a language. Jasmine had none of this, and I tasted a bitter truth: how many times, much before I had the context of fieldwork and language-learning to shroud it, had I mobilised patriarchy (e.g. laughed at sexist jokes), to help myself ‘fit in’ during anxious social situations?

Rich with local school teachers in Delhi, India.

And I was about to do it again. In short, Jasmine and I are both part of the same very close network of arts-based educational practitioners in Delhi, and indeed, Jasmine is and has been the conduit through which almost all of my now snowballing research connections have come. As Jasmine works freelance, I recently suggested that she could take on the paid-role of ‘Research Assistant’ in my fieldwork. In this way she would be recognised as an important contributor to my research and also get remunerated for that work. She was understandingly appalled. ‘Research Assistant? How about Research Mentor! Or at least Research Collaborator?!’ She couldn’t believe I would cast her in the role of ‘assistant’ after she has and continues to be such an essential partner to ‘my’ work. And she was right, in my hasty attempt to ‘help’ her, I’d adopted a classic patriarchal label from the history of patriarchal social science and unthinkingly tossed it to her as a weak attempt at forging equality. After sitting with her feelings for a day or two, she responded to my offer with a question: Would I ever have asked Zishan (a male friend and colleague) to be a research ‘assistant’? And indeed, I quickly remembered how, only days before, I’d asked Zishan whether he would like to ‘collaborate’ on some research together. Patriarchy in action once again!

I am slowly realising how, despite the glaring patriarchal structures and practices of contemporary India, I bring my own subtle, insidious, but no less powerful patriarchal ideologies into my relationship with Jasmine. Through the colour of my skin and culturally-nuanced way of being, I feel produced as an object of difference by the gaze of the Delhi locals. True, I am often invested with unwarranted respect, but as a human who fears isolation, this investment is something I want to shed in favour of social invisibility, and for the possibility of being ‘one of the team’. And what I notice, as I try to produce myself as both ‘part of it’ and ‘valuable’, is that I mobilise patriarchy. I use patriarchal swearwords to be one of the boys, and attempt to widen my professional capital by trying to hire my girlfriend as a research assistant. The awkward cultural isolation of fieldwork has magnified my latent propensity to use patriarchal structure to make myself feel more comfortable in the world. I am grateful to have a ‘girlfriend’, or as she would see it, ‘friend’, who is sensitive enough to locate, and will put in the emotional labour to explain, the violence of my actions.

Drama in Education jam in Delhi, India.
Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *