Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2010 (March 24, 2010 at 12:00 am)

Talking with Lisa Anderson-Levy

March 24, 2010 at 12:00 am
Lisa Anderson-LevyAssistant Professor of (cultural) anthropology

Q. Tell me something cool that few people know about what you do.

A. What’s cool to me is that I grew up in Jamaica, and yet there’s a whole part of Jamaican society I had no clue about [before studying cultural anthropology]. I grew up feeling secure in terms of race and class … in a middle-class family in a country where people who look like me are the majority. So I grew up feeling that race as a category that disadvantaged people didn’t apply to me. When I went back to Jamaica 20 years later to do my research, I discovered that many, though not all, white Jamaicans separated themselves socially from black and/or working class and poor Jamaicans. There are entrenched ideas about color and class and appropriate kinds of behaviors, but I didn’t realize how tied some of that was to color. When I returned to Jamaica to do my research, I felt like I was in a completely different place.

Q. What are you teaching at Beloit?

A. I teach introductory courses to cultural anthropology, ethnographic writing, and other theoretical courses like culture theory. Beginning in 2010, I’ll teach an ethnographic field school in Jamaica. The senior-level seminars are more geared toward my research areas. My dissertation was about the construction and re-production of whitenesses in Jamaica, so my theoretical areas of interest are race, gender, and sexuality, specifically critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, citizenship, and nationalism.

Q. What is the field school focus in Jamaica?

A. It’s designed to be a field school that teaches ethnographic technique. The first is planned to take place during winter break of 2010.

Q. What drew you to cultural anthropology?

A. I was interested in cultural anthropology before I knew what it was. I came to the United States after high school, and I kept having bizarre interactions with people. Twenty years ago, for example, I was a teller in a bank where I was the only person of color. Some of my older customers were curious about my country of origin and would mark this difference between what they saw as my blackness and American blackness. So I started thinking about that. I also had a military career, so I came to academia via a different route than a traditional student. By the time I started undergraduate studies full time, I thought I wanted to do psychology until I sat in my first anthropology course, and I thought “Ah! This is the place where I can put my interests together.”

Q. You were in the military?

A. Yes. I retired from the Air Force after 20 years. I did four years of active service and the rest in the reserve.

Q. How does teaching at Beloit differ from other places? Or does it?

A. The difference sounds cliché, but the students are different. I’ve found in general that they are very open to the work that I do. I’ve taught an anthropology topics course called The Invisible Visibility of Whiteness once so far, and the students in it were great. They were willing to take the journey with me, to be vulnerable in the classroom in a certain kind of way because that’s what is required to read and understand some of the histories about how the racial politics are the way they are. And that’s the big difference—a sort of willingness to go through the details; to be in the mire for awhile and not panic about it. This is a course that shifts the world under their feet, that points out that some of what they have learned has either been partial or untrue. That’s huge. I’m shifting somebody’s world view on something, and I never know how that’s going to go.

Q. What are your interests outside of anthropology?

A. I have two small children, 6 and 8, so I don’t really have time for many hobbies. Outside of really liking the community of the College, I also enjoy living in the city of Beloit. In terms of percentage, this is the most diverse city in which I have lived in the United States.

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