How can we imagine and create speculative futures beyond whiteness? What can anthropology teach us about design and technology? And how might autoethnography and dance allow us to imagine otherwise?

In episode 56 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with dancer and ethnographer Elizabeth Chin about the simultaneous freedom, fun, and vulnerability inherent in writing about oneself, how dance is fantastic preparation for academic work, how she makes space for her whole self amidst a busy academic career, and how teaching kids how to make stuff is how she imagines otherwise.

Guest: Elizabeth Chin

Photo of Elizabeth Chin, text reads "Elizabeth J. Chin, Imagine Otherwise podcast episode 56"Elizabeth is a professor of Media Design Practices at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Her work spans an impressive range of topics—from race and consumption to ethnography and Barbie—but nearly always engages marginalized youth in collaboratively taking on the complexities of the world around them. She is the author of three books including Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographic Ethnographic Futures; Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture; and most recently, the provocative and unique autoethnography My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries, about Elizabeth’s relationship with consumer goods and anthropological methods. Elizabeth has current projects in Los Angeles, Uganda, and Haiti and has engaged nonprofits, public schools, and other partners across these diverse locations. A specialist in Haitian Folkloric dance, Elizabeth has performed professionally and still occasionally teaches dance. Taking writing very, very seriously, her work increasingly investigates the ethnographic voice with an eye toward decolonizing anthropological knowledge as it appears on the page.

We chatted about

  • Elizabeth’s newest book My Life with Things (02:07)
  • The fun, freedom, and vulnerability of personal writing (07:21)
  • What Haitian folkloric dance taught her about learning to learn (09:28)
  • How dance informs her academic work (11:50)
  • On choosing to intellectualize ourselves or not (14:28)
  • Elizabeth’s current projects on wearable tech in Haiti and Black Lives Matter (16:23)
  • Imagining otherwise (25:42)

Takeaways

The unique form of My Life with Things, an autoethnography of consumption practices

“I just wanted to be more writerly about it—that was one motivation. The other one was just to have fun with it. I just let myself go down a real range of rabbit holes. I started with diary entries, in which I would just sit down and think about something and just write it as free-flowy as possible. Marx serves as the touchstone for most thinking about consumerism, commodities, and capitalism….But I really wanted to think about him and his family as consumers in his moment that was as striking as this moment, or extended moment, that we’re in at the turn of the 21st century.”

Vulnerability and personal writing

“It’s okay to be scared. And of course you don’t have put everything into public that you write. So letting yourself be free in the writing lets you at least get it out. Then you can decide whether it should go out into the world. Worrying too much at the outset about what people are going to think is just a recipe for disaster. At the same time, I think it’s not a tell-all confessional kind of writing. That mix of rigor, criticality, and being personal is really challenging. It might take some experimentation to find how you as a writer want to explore that for yourself—allow yourself to take that time.”

How Haitian folkloric dance informs academic practice

“The discipline of dance and the discipline of performance that one has in preparation and training have shaped the way I work and teach quite a bit. Haitian dance has also taught me so much about improvisation. [This kind of dance] is similar to jazz where there’s structure but you improvise within the structure. When I first started taking Haitian dance, I would be in class and Jean-Leon Destiné would be showing us something and I would ask ‘What count does that start on? What foot is that?’ He would just say ‘I don’t know, just do it.’ Learning to learn that way and learning to move that way, learning to have that conversation that defines all forms of African diasporic dance…has been incredibly important. It’s about being responsive to what you’re faced with and to what’s in front of you, rather than following a straight line.”

Design and technology beyond whiteness

“My project called the Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology started because design is a really white field and art school is a very white institutional space. As someone who studies race and institutional inequality, at a very basic level I said ‘I wanna get some color up in here!’…Through the lab, I’m trying to provoke questions: Why does technology look the way it does? Why can’t technology be covered with beads? Why can’t you wear your GoPro on your head on a church hat that says Black Lives Matter?”

Imagining otherwise

“That question always takes me back to Margaret Mead, who said that people always used to ask her “what’s the best society?” And she would say that the best society is the one that values every human gift. That’s what I wish for…a world where the diversity of what people can do and think and be excited about is  invested in at every level.”

More from Elizabeth

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 56, and my guest today is Elizabeth Chin. Elizabeth is a professor of media design practices at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Her work spans and impressive range of topics from race and consumption to ethnography and Barbie, but nearly always engages marginalized youth in collaboratively taking on the complexities of the world around them. She’s the author of three books, including Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture, and, most recently, the provocative and utterly unique autoethnography called My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries, which is about Elizabeth’s relationship with consumer goods and anthropological methods.

Elizabeth has current projects in Los Angeles, Uganda, and Haiti, and has engaged nonprofits, public schools, and other partners across these diverse locations. A specialist in Haitian folkloric dance, Elizabeth has performed professionally and still occasionally teaches dance and we talk about this in our interview.

[01:32] Her work increasingly investigates the ethnographic voice with an eye towards decolonizing anthropological knowledge as it appears on the page.

In our interview, Elizabeth and I chat about the simultaneous freedom, fun and vulnerability that’s inherent in writing about oneself; how dance can actually be fantastic preparation for academic work; how she makes space for her whole self amidst a busy academic career; and how teaching kids to make stuff with their hands is a key part of how she imagines otherwise.

[to Elizabeth] Thank you so much for being with us.

Elizabeth J. Chin: It is my pleasure.

Cathy: So you’re the author of a really exciting book called My Life with Things. What does that book address and how did that project changed over time?

Elizabeth [02:19]: Yeah, so the book is an autoethnography of my consumer life. I’m a scholar of consumption, among other things, and I was bothered by a kind of snobbery that I felt that I saw in a lot of scholarship on consumption where these people are writing about it and judging other people as if they themselves never obsessed over a pair of pants or a China pattern or any the other things. I really felt like I wanted to examine that very closely, not just from a critical point of view but also was very human and. We’re all fallible and we’re all subject to it. My first book was on the consumer lives of poor Black kids and I felt that turning the lens on myself was in some ways what needed to happen next.

Cathy [03:24]: One of my favorite parts about that book, and it’s gotten a lot of press and a lot of conversations going, is the format because it’s quite different than traditional scholarship. And that’s why it’s so fun to read. It has a very different kind of reading style—it’s part memoir, part autoethnography, part analysis, part love note to objects. And some notes in there as well. I’m curious, why’d you go with such an unusual format?

Elizabeth [03:50]: It really started off as a….When I first started the very first entries, blogs weren’t even a thing yet and probably if I had started later, it might’ve started as a blog. But it really started as these meditative emails that I would send out to a small group of people. When I began to think, okay, this is going to be a book or have a more rigorous project of some kind, I really wanted it to be super personal and not on my high horse and very just very real I guess. I had tenure at that point and I didn’t have to prove anything anymore or do what I call my “imitation of a smart person.” So I just wanted to be more writerly about it and that was one motivation.

[04:51] But I think the other one was to really have fun while I was doing it and so I just let myself go down a real range of rabbit holes. So I started with the diary entries, which I would sit down and think about something and just write about it, sort of as free flow away as possible. And then I got really interested in Marx. He was a sort of the touchstone for thinking about consumption and consumerism and commodities and capitalism and why that stuff is all so complicated and bound up. But I really wanted to then think about him and his family as consumers in his moment that was as striking in some ways, if not more so, than this extended moment that we’re in at the turn of the 21st century. And so got very caught up in reading all his family correspondence and looking for clues about how they were living their lives and buying things and worrying about money.

[05:57] I wanted partly to make that same point, that he came up with all this theory and everything, but he was very committed to a bourgeois lifestyle and kind of had to be because he lived in his moment. One of their big concerns was how do we get our daughters married properly and they couldn’t just throw the rules out the window. Again, as a way of recognizing how we’re all limited by these circumstances that we live in I kind of wanted to have fun. Writing academic work can be really anxiety-producing and difficult and writing in general can of course, but I let myself not adhere to some sort of outside set of rules about what a person is allowed to do as an academic writer. Yeah, I just kind of allowed myself to not worry about that.

Cathy [06:56]: A lot of guests that we’ve had on this podcast and I have been curious about this kind of more personal or more memoir or autoethnographic writing, depending on the fields that they’re working in. But they also talk about the flip side of that. They’re keen to the scariness, the vulnerability, the fact that you’re writing about yourself and people are reading it. That’s not something that the academy trains you well for. Do you have any advice for listeners who want to do more of that kind of writing or want to explore the possibility of it, but who are maybe feeling a little bit scared?

Elizabeth [07:28]: Yeah, I mean it’s okay to be scared. And then, of course you don’t have to put everything into public that you write. So letting yourself be free in the writing lets you at least get it out and then you can decide whether it should go out into the world. I really think that worrying too much at the outset about what people are gonna think is just a recipe for disaster. At the same time, I think it’s not about being a tell-all confessional. I think that mix of rigor and criticality and being personal is really challenging and it might take, again, some experimentation to find how you as a writer want to explore that for yourself off and on again. Allow yourself to take that time. There are some great places where you can look for a writing residency or that kind of thing where you really treat yourself as a writer and less as a scholar. I think that can be really helpful—you know, the old “go to the woods and take long walks and be with yourself and, and your writing.”

[08:51] I’m lucky I come from a writing family and so I saw that around me all the time and still do. My dad sits down at his computer every day and writes all day long. And so that was always the way to be a full-fledged adult in my family. I had good role models. I think finding other people who you can look to for support or to provide feedback is also really crucial.

Cathy: So in addition to scholarship and public writing, you also have a very long history in dance and performance. What kind of dance do you practice and what draws you to it?

Elizabeth [9:50]: I do Haitian folkloric dance and I do the dances that come out of the Vodou religious practice. It started in many ways as an accident. I had studied ballet as a young person and in the early ‘80s in New York, a friend of mine dragged me to this Haitian dance class. I was first like, “I don’t want to do this weird stuff.” And then a couple months later, I wasn’t doing anything else. It was an amazing time because most of the national company had left Haiti because of the political situation and the founder of the national ballet had been in New York for a very long time. He came a very important mentor to me.

All during undergrad and graduate school, I kept dancing and I kept it very separate in my mind and in my practice. I never mixed them—my anthropology brain and my dance brain—until the early ‘90s when a good friend of mine went to Haiti. She ended up living there for 10 years and it suddenly dawned on me that I could go to Haiti. I could learn Creole. I could be a little bit of an anthropologist about this. And it’s kind of amazing because it turns out that the woman who owns the very first ballet studio that I went to as a child is Haitian. She’s now 99 years old and she calls me up and she says, you know, you’re coming to teach, right? So I got back in touch with her when I started going back to Haiti. So it’s this kind of amazing, full circle experience.

I don’t really teach Haitian dance anymore. My hips hurt too much, but I still find it a powerful source of grounding and knowledge. I think I still don’t want to really write about it. That’s not what it’s there for, for me in my life, but it’s a super important part of my life.

Cathy [11:54]: Are there any particular lessons that you’ve learned in dance that have maybe spilled over into your activism or your academic life, even if you aren’t writing about dance per se?

Elizabeth [12:02]: Totally. And it’s an old chestnut. The discipline of dance, that discipline of performance that you need to have in preparation and training, have really shaped the way I work and teach quite a bit. Haitian dance has taught me so much about improvisation. It’s similar to jazz in the sense that there’s structure, but you improvise within the structure. I remember when I first started taking Haitian dance, I would be in class and Jean-Léon Destiné would be showing us something and I’d be like, “What does that start on? What foot is that?” And he would say, “I don’t know, just do it.” Learning to learn that way and learning to move that way, learning to have that conversation that is in all forms of African diasporic dance—it’s a conversation between you and the drums and the drummers and the dancers and those conversations move in both directions—has been incredibly important. Really it’s about being responsive to what you’re faced with and to what’s in front of you, rather than having that straight line that you decide you’re going to pursue and going straight no matter what because that’s the path that you’ve set for yourself.

Cathy [13:35]: I want to go back to the point that you made earlier about not wanting to write about dance because I noticed just in conversations this pattern show up again and again with friends, with colleagues, with folks who have something that they do in their life that’s super meaningful. If in this case it’s dance, it might be in others cooking, it might be poetry, it might be, you know, whatever it is for individuals. But they very clearly do not want to bring it into their scholarship. But then there’s also a ton of people who wind up almost inadvertently doing that, right? Like they didn’t want it to come into their scholarship, but that’s how we’re trained—to turn everything into a thing to study. And it seems striking that we want some piece of ourselves that isn’t put under that kind of scrutiny.

Elizabeth [14:24]: Yeah, we do. And again, as you say, at the same time we’re encouraged to make our whole identity about our work at that level of what’s my research, what do I write about, what do I think about? I have a piece of it where I do write and think about Katherine Dunham, who was an African American anthropologist and dancer and who I was very lucky to study with briefly, so that’s the touch point for me where I was able to bring that thinking into my academic practice. Through that work I continue to experiment with being performative in my academic work by not investing in that line between what is art and what is academic. That thing about not letting your whole self be taken up by academia is so important because

—[aside, interrupted by sound] My dogs are barking.

Cathy: We’re whole people!

Elizabeth [15:30]: We are people and there’s something kind of inhumane about this idea that everything is work. My husband’s English and so he thinks the weekend is for the weekend and work ends when you leave the office. I’ve learned a lot from him about how to take the weekend off and how to go on holiday. Having that space for yourself is really crucial, as is not just being a work machine. Having these things that you don’t turn into resources for exploitation is a part of keeping yourself human.

Cathy: So you mentioned a current project that you’re working on. What other kinds of projects do you have happening?

Elizabeth: The main things that I’m working on right now in some sense are a spectrum that are all held together by a set of concerns. So at one end of the spectrum is this work I’m doing in Haiti with a small school called [inaudible] in a little rural village. This is an amazing school that’s about 20 years old and is a national leader in teaching in native language, so they teach in Creole.

[17:00] The school is also very much a community resource and a community hub where my colleague and I, two years ago, went and started electronics lab and have been working with a curriculum that my colleague Casey Anderson has really developed over his own practice. He’s an experimental composer who works a lot with electronic things that he makes. Ahe curriculum is arts-based so that you start by learning how to solder with paperclips and then you move on to making games, making contraptions that can become a kind of orchestra, and then taking apart really inexpensive toys and pulling out the electronic bits and repurposing them to make something else. So we started that. We had two weeks there and it was super exciting because we worked in the morning with teachers and in the afternoon with students. Our hope was that with what we were able to take there in terms of materials—which we left—but also knowledge and techniques, that they would be able to take that ball and run with it.

[18:10] We were really lucky that one of the teachers really, really wanted to do that and that was just so exciting for us. And so he actually moved from being the English teacher at the school to being the art teacher because he got so excited with this stuff. We’ll be going back this summer to continue working with him and take some more additional materials. Part of the real point there, aside from doing something fun, is that so many technology projects in the developing world take an opposite approach, which is about bringing expensive pretty things, dropping them in, and taking pictures of yourself giving nice things to the people. And then you leave and it’s in a room that’s locked and only one person knows how to use it or has access to it.

[19:10] But our approach is very much based on the idea that we want the materials to be cheap, locally available, and replaceable. So if something breaks, you can get a new one and somebody or somebody knows how to fix it. The whole point for us is we don’t need to be there for it to happen. If we needed to be there for it to happen, that’s when it would be broken. So we’re really trying to model for people who do technology work in the developing world that it’s not about bringing the most sophisticated thing to those poor people who need that. It’s about finding strategies to create an enhanced situations where people can build up their own skillsets and expand and grow.

[20:10] So that’s one end of it. And then on the other end, I teach now in a design department that is very technology forward. I have learned how to solder and I have learned how to make some simple electronic things. So the other end is this project called the Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology, which I really started because design is a really white field and art school is a very white institutional space. As somebody who studies race and social inequality at a very basic level, I just said “I want to get some color up in here!” We’d been traveling to Uganda for our curriculum and I was buying textiles by the bucket load (because I love textiles) and I decided that our laboratory suits would be made of these Dutch wax fabrics. And so that was sort of a first step to start making these kinds of lab clean suits, complete with protective booties, out of those fabrics.

What we’ve been doing lately is beginning to build technologies into the suits or working with other kinds of wearables. I’m very influenced by Afrofuturism and other forms of futurism that come from what I called beyond whiteness. So we recently, with a colleague, we did a big event called Different Tomorrows, where we surveyed as much as we could find of futurism, visions of the future, from beyond whiteness.

[21:32] In design, the future has a very consistent look. Design is very much a visual field. And my colleague Sean Donahue does this hilarious talk where he shows these pictures of the future as it looks in design and it turns out the future is blue and it has light bulbs in it. And there are hands that point. That’s what the future looks like.

Cathy: Stock photos!

Elizabeth: Yeah, it is. I mean if you do a Google image search, which is one of my new favorite research tactic, on design+future, you’ll see that the future is blue. There is no question. And of course you’re confronted with what a limited, an unimaginative future that is, even though it’s supposed to be very innovative.

[22:25] So through the lab, I’m really trying to provoke these questions of, why does technology look the way it does? Why can’t technology be covered with beads and why can’t you wear your GoPro on your head on a church hat that says Black Lives Matter? So the stuff we’re making right now is very much in a Black Lives Matter vein. The prototype I messing with now is a Hands Up, Don’t Shoot! glove where when you lift your hand up into that position, the camera begins to take photos which are then sent to the web. The object itself is a provocation, both of the conditions that create the potential need for that object, but also the ways in which people’s imaginations around technology really are quite limited. Even though we have this language of innovation and “it’s all new,” and “it’s all exciting,” nobody’s making technology that actually protects Black people from being killed by the police. The Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!, Black Lives Matter glove.

Cathy: It reminds me a lot of the Unstoppable project. Do you know that one?

Elizabeth: No.

Cathy [23:46]: So misha cárdenas, who was a guest on a previous episode, and Patrisse Cullors, Edxie Betts, and Chris Head are working on this project called Unstoppable, which is various versions of bulletproof clothing, kind of violence-proof clothing more broadly, for Black people in the context of police violence. So, it’s coming from that art perspective, that creative, innovative design. So like it looks cool in addition to it having this very explicit political intervention at its core

Elizabeth [24:20]: [inaudible]. I think for me what’s been really fun and exciting since coming to a design department is the challenge I’ve set myself: How do I make my ideas? Because that’s what designers do—they make things. And how do I use materials to explore as well as try to answer some of these questions?

There’s this other project that I just found that’s really great called Bail Blocked, made by these radical technologists, that uses cryptocurrency. You give part of your computing power over and it generates energy towards this cryptocurrency that is then used to get people out of jail. So again, taking this notion that is used for other things and saying, well, why don’t we use it for this?

Cathy [25:08]: In many ways all of these projects are all such fantastic examples of how art meets with activism meets with academia and how this all kind of swirls together in some really fun ways. I think this dovetails kind of nicely into my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which I think we’ve talked around in different ways, but I want to address head on: What is this all adding up to for you? What kind of world do you want?

Elizabeth [25:35]: Oh yeah. That question always takes me back to Margaret Mead who has this wonderful thing that she said. People used to always ask her, “what’s the best society?” And she would say, “the best society is the one that values every human gift.” That’s what I would wish. Birds and flowers, right? It would be lovely to see no suffering, but I think also a world where that diversity of what people can do and think and be excited about is something that is being invested in at every level.

Cathy [26:17]: Thank you so much for being with us and sharing your version of imagining otherwise. 

Elizabeth [26:21]: Thank you.

Cathy [26:27] [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]