Elena Garcia is from Madrid, Spain. Garcia has studied philosophy, anthropology and international aid with a focus on gender issues. She has experience working with migratory populations in Spain and providing aid assistance in Colombia, Senegal, and Equatorial Guinea. As a woman of African descent who has lived on three continents, she addresses the growing outspoken criticism of anthropology and development aid work by anti-racist activists.
The following insights are shared below:
AfroFeminás (AF): Anthropology is a social science often discussed from a de-colonial perspective. What do you think of the criticism? Is it an issue that stems from anthropology or the anthropologist?
Elena Garcia (EG): It is true that anthropology emerged from a particular historical moment and was used for expansive, colonialist and oppressive means, especially in its early days. However, I believe this has been the case for several other sciences, so I find that critique unfair at times. Anthropology, like other sciences, is evolving to include other voices and perspectives, so I don’t believe we should stick to an obsolete nineteenth-century image.
AF: Is it possible for ‘de-colonial anthropology’ to really thrive as a study?
EG: Of course it's possible. Anthropology is not a colonial science by default, although it has been used in certain contexts for specific objectives.
In its broadest definition, anthropology is the study of human beings. I would look to the example of Cheikh Anta Diop, who raises interesting and relevant awareness about contributions of Black African culture that have often been ignored or undervalued by the west.
Cooperation and development: a problematic exchange
AF: You’ve worked for a long time in international aid, another controversial sector. How do you think this reputation developed?
EG: Above all, development aid is controversial because it functions as another method of Western imposition of culture and thought toward other parts of the planet. The aim is not to improve living conditions of beneficiary populations, but to introduce them into the system. This is a dangerous mistake.
One of the clearest cases with regard to this is seen in gender equality and women’s empowerment projects that are so in vogue these days. It starts from the premise of white, western feminism, without questioning the institution, and is therefore considered “advanced” and aimed at creating “achievements” which very well may not be.
AF: Could better partnerships in this area be a solution? What about South-South cooperation?
EG: Yes and no. Partnerships are complicated. Sometimes they consist of conscientious organizations seeking to improve the living conditions of the populations they assist, but most of the time, the vast majority are engines of the machinery. Populations have learned to deal with westerners by telling them what they want to hear, showing them what they want to see and even, as perverse as it sounds, acting as intermediaries between organizations and communities in a way that benefits them; organizations have become a kind of intermediary elite who look out more for their own interests than the real demands of the beneficiary populations.
South-South cooperation is essential, but as it always serves the interests of the countries involved it is carried out in a serious and aggressive way, because it is also sometimes used as a method of expanding the national interests of large emerging countries. This is a problem we are facing now.
Identities and contexts
AF: You are Afro-Spanish and have lived in two African countries, along with one American country with a large population of African descent. Do you believe that has influenced your reception there?
EG: I wouldn't know how to convey it exactly. I partly believe so, especially in Latin America where there is some mutual recognition and pairing off among people and communities of African descent.
It's different in Africa, one of the things that surprised me the most in Africa is that people call me white. At first that was a real shock to me.
AF: I imagine when you arrive in Africa you stop being perceived as African and start being seen as a “Toubab” (Central and West African name for a person of European descent). Is it difficult to rebuild an identity via external context?
EG: Exactly. It is very difficult, because one goes about their lives with the idea of feeling recognized a certain way, but that doesn't always happen everywhere you go. On the contrary, you often end up being viewed as “responsible” for a history that is so much larger than you and that, in some way, you are also the result of.
In the end, we mestizos are strangers everywhere and it is something we learn to live with.
AF: Speaking of your Afro-Spanish background, how have your multiple identities fit into a country like Spain? And how has Spain responded in turn? Could it be the subject of an anthropological analysis?
EG: It is not easy to be different in a country like Spain, and it is not easy not to feel recognized within your own country.
I will say that Spain itself has passed through different eras with respect to her African descended population. At first, when I was little, it felt isolating and curious, and people would do things like congratulate me on speaking “Spanish so well.” Around 2000, being of African descent was irremediably associated with immigration and shrouded by negative implications that affect women in particular. Today I want to believe that we are in a different phase, with greater empowerment, visibility, and recognition of African descended populations, although there is still a lot of ignorance.
It should certainly be the subject of anthropological analysis as it is quite a pertinent subject.
AF: What projects are you involved in right now? What do you have planned for the future?
EG: Right now I am going back home. I am focusing on the processes of African descended community empowerment that are happening, especially in Madrid. It has been nice to come back here and find so many active movements with which I share a common experience and desire for change. It is very interesting what is happening, very enriching.
I would like to focus more on the integration of migrant populations in Spain. At the moment I would prefer not to work outside it for a while, because I love Madrid and I have missed it very much, but you never know. Life always surprises us.