BIPOC Survival – A Conversation about the Malignant Intersection of Narcissism and Racism in Anthropology and Academia

[This article was co-authored by Anar Parikh and Chelsey Carter. Please cite accordingly.]

Content Warning: The topics discussed in this piece share experiences of racism, narcissism, and abuse; especially for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals.

Chelsey:  The American Academy is a behemoth of narcissism. In my opinion, the establishment itself breeds narcissistic behaviors among undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.  The type of narcissism I’m thinking about is much deeper than a few negative traits that make a person “difficult” or “toxic.” And way deeper than the stereotypical obsessively “vain” colleague that makes every intellectual conversation a moment to talk about their own research and by proxy themselves. The type of narcissism I’m talking about is the deep malignant narcissism that Dr. Ramani Durvasula defines as “a pattern characterized by entitlement, grandiosity, lack of empathy, validation seeking, superficiality, interpersonal antagonism, insecurity, hypersensitivity, contempt, arrogance, and poor emotional regulation (especially rage)” (Durvasula 2019, 5). In her book, “‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’ How To Stay Sane in An Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility”, Durvasula outlines how the narcissists in our culture(s) cause prolonged and extremely detrimental effects on the mental health and psyches of those who encounter their patterns of behavior as family members, friends, colleagues, or even interlocutors. For you, what experiences have you had with narcissism?

Anar: I see narcissism come up in so many ways in both my professional and personal life, but it’s so slippery. All of these patterns Dr. Durvasula identifies serve to manipulate us, shrink us in service to another person’s sense of entitlement and grandiosity. I started noticing it first, I think, in my fieldwork. It’s not something I write about because I am not really trained in any of those fields like psychoanalysis, or psychological anthropology, but these are some of my most vivid ethnographic memories. For example, When I was working on my MA in Ahmedabad on some initiatives to get the city a World Heritage City designation from UNESCO, a lot of my interviews eventually turned to the issue of people’s ego. They wanted me to know how important THEY were to whatever preservation work was happening or whatever recognition the city was getting for its history and heritage. For example, in one interview, the president of a university heritage club told me “this is a small city with big egos.” And later, when I talked to one of the prominent architects behind the city’s bid for World Heritage City status, he said to me, “What happened in Ahmedabad was not a fluke. The whole thing that is happening did not happen on its own. This was a designed intervention by me.” It was like he was diminishing the validity of my inquiry and taking credit for this entire enterprise at the same time.

Chelsey: This is fascinating. Thank you for bringing up what we are “trained-in” as anthropologists. But honestly,  do we need to be “trained” in something in order to write about it if we’ve experienced narcissism in our professional or personal lives? I’m not suggesting that I personally have the expertise to diagnose or treat someone that shows patterns of narcissistic personality disorder but we, as anthropologists and humans,  absolutely can (and should) identify narcissistic patterns and characteristics in the people we interact with— like your story in Ahmedabad. I think we have to be careful as anthropologists, especially BIPOC anthropologists, not to dismiss our own knowledge due to some white supremacist notion that we don’t have specific “training” or authority to engage in a topic. I’ve never written about narcissism outright, but I remember working on an upcoming piece with American Ethnologist  where I wrote: “Since then I have experienced heartbreaking betrayals and narcissistic abuse at the hands of my ex-partner, a Ferguson activist.” This was then changed to: “Since then I have experienced heartbreak in a relationship with a Ferguson activist.” As a deeply personal and reflective essay recounting my experiences before and after the Ferguson Uprising,  I was troubled and frankly annoyed that this would be removed from my writing without an explanation. I found a lot of power in naming the actions and behaviors of my ex-partner as a narcissist and admitting to the abuse(s) I endured.

Anar: I’m sorry that your experience with that person was undermined in the editing of that piece. It’s not easy to talk about those experiences, and it can be even harder to name it as such. The two sentences have very different implications. While one suggests you experienced heartbreak during a relationship with a Ferguson activist, the other is about how complicated our relationships are, and how much the personal, professional, and political are interwoven. There’s this idea that brilliance, among other qualities, negates or neutralizes harm. To me, however, work that is produced in conditions that harms others simply cannot exist outside of that harm.

Chelsey: My personal experiences with narcissistic abuse directly impacted my homework (read: fieldwork, for some) and now shape who I am as a scholar–how I think, how I interpret, how I write, how I network, etc. It was truly a formative experience during my dissertation data collection process.

Anar: I couldn’t agree more. I have a lot of work to do in naming the specific people and behaviors in my personal life, but I feel very sensitive to it. It’s almost like I am allergic.

Chelsey: Why is it important to think about narcissism in the work we do as anthropologists?

Anar: Once, I reached out to a prominent anthropologist in my field–one who several faculty in my department recommended I speak to–and asked to meet with them. We arranged a time to meet at AAAs, and the first thing they said to me as we approached each other was, “so what do you want to ask me?” I was really taken aback. I wasn’t confident about whether I had a reason to be reaching out to this person, and I felt rather embarrassed. But then, they handed me promotional material for a section conference, and encouraged me to apply. It was weird. Now, I can tell this with a little bit of levity, but I think the whole scenario illustrates how a culture of irreverence and self-importance are so much a part of our professional lives. The hill I’ll die on is that anthropologists are absolutely terrible at recognizing how the very systems they are so precisely trained to follow in their field sites also play out in their own lives. Narcissism is one of those things.

Chelsey: It really is! And the fact that you were embarrassed at a meeting because of that scholar’s sense of entitlement and desire for admiration is really unfortunate. I wonder how many scholars have had similar experiences and then leave the academy because they are deemed “too sensitive” or that they need “thicker skin” in order to survive academia.

Anar: The completely absurd part of this entire encounter was that she encouraged me to apply to a conference in the same breath. The moment I realized I was being undermined. I was presented with an “opportunity” that made me question whether I was accurately gauging the situation. I am learning that this is precisely how these patterns Dr. Durvasula identifies are reproduced. The moment you realize you’re subject to someone’s grandiosity, you’re simultaneously made to doubt yourself.

Chelsey: During my second year of graduate school, I was taking an advanced social theory course and one particular week we were reading Judith Butler. I keenly remember that the week prior the course instructor encouraged us to use graduate level seminars as an opportunity to dissent,  “throw the book on the table,” and really debate with our colleagues (like our instructor had done at their Ivy League institution during graduate school).  Naturally, I felt like Butler was the perfect week to accept this provocation, and I leveled my critiques regarding the inaccessibility of her writings and her influence in activist-led movements. I remember saying, “If her writings helped influence aspects of the LGBTQ movement, why does she write in a way that isn’t universally accessible? We should write in ways that even the person at the bus stop can engage with.” The instructor defensively responded that the role of academics is to “be the conduit to the people at the bus stop” in order to make Judith Butler more accessible. I vehemently disagreed, commenting that our job ought to be to educate everyone and not just “certain” populations. They replied, “If you’re this cynical. Why are you even here?” and then stormed out of class. Later, I heard from the instructor and other faculty that they felt I questioned their authority as a scholar by pushing back on Butler’s writings and their decision to assign them for the semester. Which, I wasn’t.

Anar: What you’re describing here is almost an inverse of the interaction I had at AAAs. In that situation, it was as if the scholar was chipping away at my confidence only to then encourage me to participate in a conference they were organizing. In this case, you were given a prompt that encouraged dissent but the moment you exceeded the parameters permitted by this instructor, you were treated punitively. I think when we talk about narcissism as it relates to the work we do as anthropologists, we need to be able to recognize how these seemingly discrete phenomena are tied to something much bigger and more insidious: how narcissism–and the attendant traits Dr. Durvasula identifies–inform knowledge production in our discipline.

Chelsey: Yes! And, I’ve witnessed that the insidious phenomena you mention is often tied to forms of knowledge production that imbue racialized ideologies. It has been well documented that academia and anthropology are racist, but I haven’t seen an explicit link between narcissism and other systems of oppression like racism. If academia was founded and simultaneously is maintained by white supremacy, patriarchy and settler colonialism, then it’s not at all shocking to draw a link between racism and narcissism.

Anar: This is something worth breaking down because I think what you’re getting at–and perhaps even what we’d like for folks to take away from this piece–is that narcissism is an interpersonal dynamic that is informed by white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonialism. In other words, these systems of oppression inform how we interact with and treat each other. How we treat each other, in turn, is crucial to the forms of knowledge production we legitimate.

Chelsey: Many of the individuals whose narcissistic behaviors I’ve endured have been white people. Does that mean all white people in academia are narcissists? *sigh* Absolutely not. My ex that I referenced above was a Black gender non-confirming person. All narcissists aren’t racist. But I do want to argue that all racist are narcissists. I do not want to “chicken or the egg” narcissism and racism. But I do fervently believe we have to think about how/why academia actually functions the way it does when the people in power that we ask to decolonize their syllabi, their thinking, their actions, and their research, fundamentally do not care. Through their apathy, they benefit from racism, narcissism, and unequal and inequitable power dynamics. Can they really even hear us when their tethered racism and narcissism necessitates that at their core they have no empathy or concern for the negative experiences that BIPOC scholars face? What happens when the spaces we try to create for BIPOC scholars aren’t just racist but are also narcissistic?

Anar: I mean, last week, a white woman, and historian, admitted (read: she was found out) that she’d been pretending to be Afro-Latina for most of her academic career. When the story first came out, it was like, “Okay, yet another person co-opting Blackness for personal gain, and this time it’s in academia.” But, over the course of the day it became increasingly clear how much of her career and maintaining this false identity was contingent on abusing and gaslighting Black women. It’s really too on the nose. So, sure, we can couch it in all the caveats we want: 1) no, of course not all white people in academia of are narcissists; 2) yes, people who are marginalized by heteropatriarchal, settler colonial white supremacy can also be narcissists because they also get trapped in these violent structures. But all of that would be to miss the point: white supremacy is contingent on morally, ethically, and intellectually legitimating white people’s words and actions. And, it does so by eroding others’  self-worth through fear, manipulation, and subjugation. In these conditions, it can feel (and often is) impossible to create meaningful spaces for collective healing and uplifting.

Chelsey: Exactly, Anar. Two of my friends (both Black women) have been personally harmed, harassed, and abused because of Krug’s actions. I was completely undone when I learned that she actively engaged in citational politics and discussed in her classes that the writings of BIPOC are subjugated in academia, while she was actively perpetuating the same process. Just like the MeToo Death Hoax, white women pretending to be Black or Indigenous women know that co-opting Blackness has currency. They believe that after they study, cite, and abuse BIPOC women for their own personal gain, they can then “cancel themselves” and declare that their mental health challenges and trauma are the cause of their egregious and deplorable behaviors. That’s narcissism personified. And as someone that deals with mental health concerns due to lifelong trauma(s), I’m insulted that individuals that engage in these behaviors believe they can hide behind their mental health to justify their anti-Blackness and narcissistic tendencies. You know who is now more famous than she ever was before? Jessica Krug.

Anar: There is a severe cost too. So many students looked up to Krug as a model for how to be a certain kind of scholar. The fact that our role models might be people who capitalize on and co-opt marginality is so disturbing. Meanwhile, BIPOC women are burdened with a brunt of the service work, their authority is constantly compromised by both their students and their peers, and they take on the emotional labor of caring for their students with identities on the margins. They are treated as dispensable bodies in academic departments and institutions. They are not guaranteed professional success or recognition for this work. To the contrary, it comes at the expense of their well-being and livelihoods.

Chelsey: BIPOC scholars have to take so much care to ensure their success doesn’t threaten this established order.  These dynamics are ripe for narcissistic abuse by aggressors who never really wanted to make space for BIPOC scholars at the academic table. The lack of empathy and care for scholars, especially BIPOC scholars, is one of many reasons people continue to be abused by the system, endure substantive mental health crises, and ultimately drop out of their graduate school programs or prematurely end their academic careers. 9 times out of 10 those are the people that we really need in academia. Those are the people that walk around with actual imposter syndrome and can’t write a single word because they fear their words will be deemed too subjective and not rigorous scholarship. Those are the people too afraid to walk into academic spaces because they are dark skin, fat, queer, and are not white passing. These are the people we should take care of better.  But, on the other hand, maybe those are the people with some sense. Those are the people that said a proverbial “uncle” to an anti-Black, racist, sexist, classist, ableist, colonial, settler, neoliberal regime that would use them, eat them alive and then not even apologize. And ultimately….they said enough is enough. They set a healthy boundary for themselves but at what cost?

Anar: Whew, yes. Honestly, my own stance on whether the only way out is to get out changes every day. I’m really not sure. But what I feel strongly about is that we can’t rely on racist, narcissistic institutions, or the people who inhabit them, to take care of us. We can, however, take better care of each other.

Chelsey: Our survival necessitates it.

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