The Underlying Hope of Anthropology: Reflecting on the Work of Jane Hill

This past week, the world of linguistic anthropology – and the world in general, though that world is presumably less conscious of the loss – lost a giant with the death of Jane H. Hill, Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Arizona. It is an odd thing in academia when a person whose ideas loom large over a field of thought passes away, much like the death of a more popularly influential artist makes some of us return to their work with a renewed sense of its meaning and impact on the world. I never met Jane personally, though my academic lineage traces back to her in a very short line (she was the PhD supervisor of my PhD supervisor). By all accounts I’ve ever heard, in addition to being a brilliant scholar, she was a wonderful human and mentor, and I can only imagine how that loss is felt by the people closest to her. At the time of this writing, her faculty page at the University of Arizona is still active, and on it, she invites students to “join [her] on the tightrope”, where, as she puts it

I attempt a precarious balancing act among diverse commitments: to the detailed documentation of languages and cultures and specialized expertise in technical tools such as comparative linguistic analysis, to the understanding of the scope and diversity of human history that is the glory of anthropology, and to using what I learn to advance social justice and mutual respect among human beings.

In a case of social media producing something right, anthropologist Anthony K. Webster (@ethnopoetics) suggested to the American Anthropological Association on Twitter that, in light of Hill’s death, the organization could provide access to her publications for free – and they did! For six months, any of Hill’s articles from the considerable library of publications housed at AnthroSource are available to access free of charge. Anyone interested in the broad areas of language, culture, and social justice should absolutely take advantage of this opportunity.

This blog is not really the best place for me to even try to highlight the value of these contributions (the upcoming AAA meetings in San Jose are sure to include many such reflections), but I will make a few recommendations about what to read, from that list, as well as additional work.

  1. The Everyday Language of White Racism – I am starting immediately with a book, which is not, of course, made accessible through AnthroSource, but which is too significant not to lead with. This is the book I always go to whenever anyone asks for the one recommendation from my field that I think everyone should read. Hill wrote this book late in her career, based on analysis of online discourses and commentary about various racial issues manifested in language, including slurs, appropriation, and “gaffes”. The title of the book makes clear what this is about – whiteness, and the quotidian ways in which a white racist social order is maintained. Now ten years old, it is dated only in some of the technological details, and I have found that the tools she uses with reference to US contexts are equally relevant for understanding racism in Canada.
  2. “Language, Race, and White Public Space” – American Anthropologist, 1999. This article previews some of the analysis presented in the book above, and fortunately is available for free online. Here, Hill focuses on how language is used not only to construct a negative racial view of non-whites, but also “whiteness as an unmarked normative order”. The discussion of “Mock Spanish” that originates here has become a staple of linguistic anthropology courses, especially in the US, because it so powerfully demonstrates the multifaceted political and social underpinnings of what is initially easy to dismiss as an offhand, casual joke.
  3. “‘Expert Rhetorics’ in Advocacy for Endangered Languages: Who is Listening, and What Do They Hear?” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2002. This is the article that I refer to most in my own work – without checking, I would put money on it being probably the only piece of writing that I have cited in literally everything I’ve ever published. Hill started her career working with speakers of Mexicano (Nahuatl), and continued her work with Indigenous language advocacy in the Southern US and Mexico throughout her life. In this article, she takes a critical eye on how we talk about Indigenous languages, and how in our efforts to convince people that they should care about this sometimes difficult-to-articulate issue, we inadvertently reinforce colonial power structures and the very marginalization that we aim to counteract. This is an example of the best kind of anthropological critique, to my mind: while we can often become cynical or righteous in ‘tearing down’ the efforts of well meaning folks around us, a call to re-examine how we do our work, from a place of love and valuing of the goals of our advocacy effort, is often needed.
  4. “The Grammar of Consciousness and the Consciousness of Grammar” American Ethnologist, 1985. This one is for those of you who are fully on board the linguistic anthropology train already, as it includes a lot of theoretical discussion of how to think in relation to both structural grammar and political economy. It is, however, definitely one that is worth engaging with in order to gain a more advanced understanding of these interrelated systems of power, and it’s a reminder for those of us who are students of language, in whatever form (linguistic, anthropological, or otherwise), that our object of study is one that is deeply intertwined with a political world.

Hill’s writing is definitely with an academic tradition, but it’s relatively accessible. I’ve used all but the last of the above articles in my undergraduate classes, and even included chapters from The Everyday Language of White Racism in a first year course. Revisiting her work reminds me of why I do what I do, and to keep in mind the “balancing act” that she highlights, with a commitment to creating a more just world acting as the centre of gravity that orients my study of both linguistics and anthropology. The echo and imprint of her time in the world is a great one, and it gives me something to aspire to.

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