Anthropology professor of, and above, diversity


The friendly, relaxed demeanor of James Matory immediately engaged the audience at his guest lecture Thursday — he held a beer bong and asked, “Does anyone know what this is?”

The Harvard professor of anthropology and African American studies presented issues from his upcoming book, Of the Race but above the Race: Racial Stigma, Ethnicity, and the Hidden Social Curriculum of the University as part of the UI African American Studies Seminar Series.

“Food and drink and the way we consume them reflects a great deal about our society,” Matory said in his presentation to a crowd of about 30.

He emphasized the ways in which beer bongs and pizzas — two items commonly found on a college campus — are evidence for the communal atmosphere of universities.

This view of community as well as the interactions between people of different ethnicities held the focus of Matory’s speech.

He discussed different ethnicities, such as Nigerians, African Americans, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and Louisiana Creoles, and the ways in which people of these ethnicities interact in such social settings as universities.

UI sophomore Annischa Cook said she had looked forward to hearing Matory speak and learning more about his book.

“I was particularly interested in the Caribbean African diaspora and how he related it to the topic, because I came from the Caribbean,” she said.

Richard Turner, a UI associate professor of African American world studies, said Matory’s book, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro Brazilian Candomble, has significantly affected teaching and research on African diaspora religions and identities in the Americas.

Matory said people’s identities are based upon the desire to remain distinct from other cultures, though noted it is extremely difficult for people to stay culturally distinct the more they interact with others.

He said students cannot help losing some of their ethnic diversity when they come to a predominantly white college like the UI, but feels it is a “win-win” situation.

Matory drew examples of this good cultural interaction from his own Iowa City bar crawl Wednesday evening. The professor’s high level of acceptance was evident as he told stories of conversations he had with strangers in different restaurants.

“I love being around people different from me,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”

But Matory admitted stereotypes are still cripplingly present in society.

“The opportunities kids are given are what they take up,” he said, concerning the issue of the high number of black student athletes. “There is much in the discriminatory structure in society and the media in the society that convinces black kids they are under-qualified for achievements in school.”

The professor also commented on the number of sexual assaults on college campuses, such as the alleged incident involving former Iowa football players Cedric Everson and Abe Satterfield.
He said long running cultural stereotypes suggest black students are more inclined to be involved in sexual violence, but on college campuses there is actually a disproportionate number of assaults by athletes, regardless of ethnicity.

“When you expect to see something, you are more inclined to see it,” he said.

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