An Open Letter to Alice Goffman
Regarding her book, 'On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City'
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ~ Lilla Watson
Dear Prof. Alice Goffman,
Before anything, before even introducing who we are or where we come from, it seemed vital to begin with a quote by a woman whose words set the tone for what we will address with you. Inspired by Lilla Watson, this open letter outlines concerns we hold about your most recently published book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (2014). Beyond your research and writing, our concerns speak to the longstanding race- and class-based problematics of research in fields of anthropology and sociology, within which we are also situated, and to those aspects of the politics of knowledge production more generally. We hope you take seriously what we have to say. We invite you to approach your research differently in the future.
With that, let us introduce ourselves. We are a small small group of students enrolled in Ethnographic and Qualitative Methods with Professor Jaskiran Dhillon at Eugene Lang College at the New School. Some of us are older, some younger. We are immigrants, we are locals; We are Global Studies majors, we are fashion students; We are Black, Latinx, white, and variants in between. We are writing to you because your book deeply unsettled us all. We are writing to you in hopes that you will consider our call for critical self-reflection and a greater charge to push beyond the scholarly status quo. We are writing this letter as an urgent call for a fundamental shift in knowledge production within the social science fields that have critically acclaimed your work. We — the next generation of scholars, artists and organizers — are writing this letter as a form of protest, as a call to action, as a collective refusal to follow in your footsteps.
We were assigned your book On the Run as homework to be read throughout the week — at home, or on the subway, or during between periods of extracurricular activities. When we first encountered it, we did not know it was a dangerous text. Our professor, Dr. Jaskiran Dhillon, had told us it was “a controversial read,” disputed by some. She chose not to expand upon who found your book objectionable or the reasons why they might. She allowed us to arrive at our own conclusions independently.
That Wednesday morning when we met for class, the room sat differently. The air felt thicker, and the lights more fluorescent. We sat facing one another, momentarily shifting in our seats, collectively holding our breath. Nobody wanted to be the first to come out and say it: something, many things, about this text felt wrong.
Our professor posed the first series of questions.
Who is Alice Goffman?
What do you know about why she wrote this book?
What work does she think the book will do in the world?
How does she position herself as a researcher in relation to the topic?
For a few minutes, we talked through these questions, but around the elephant in the room. Finally, someone murmured:
I don’t know if I trust her.
Professor Dhillon pushed.
The room was sacred again as we spoke in waves, voicing the reasons for our discomfort, locating the roots of our skepticism and distrust in different passages of the book.
On the Run purports to provide an ethnographic “account of the prison boom and its more hidden practices of policing and surveillance as young people living in one relatively poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia experience and understand them.” This effort at understanding lacks certain critical elements, however. The book’s meager 8-paged introduction does little to contextualize the content of On the Run within a larger history of black resistance and dispossession in Philadelphia. The author invokes the full use of the N-word repeatedly with no explicit discussion about her positionality vis-a-vis this word, her intentions behind using it, or any critical reflection on the larger implications of her usage.
What is the author’s positionality?
A young white woman — the daughter of a renowned sociologist — wrote this book. She had grown up in one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest areas, earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Ivy League institutions. She admits she had “only a vague sense” of what the War on Drugs or the War on Crime were prior to undertaking her “project” (Goffman xvi).
What is at stake with this work?
Building from our places of unease and distrust, our professor urged us to grapple with that important question. Soon, we built a shared undertanding: this is a dangerous text — in more ways than one.
We identify your published, widely lauded, easily obtainable book as dangerous, Prof. Goffman, because it divulges tactics that the subjects of your inquiry intentionally coded for surviving life under siege. On the Run holds the potential to directly harm the community in Philadelphia that you merely claim to “chronicle.” Your book, in effect, translates insider knowledge and decodes painfully developed survival strategies, allowing them to fall into the hands of police and other state agents. And it does so in a manner that erases the pervasive structures of white supremacy and racial colonial capitalism that created the material conditions described above in the first place. You position your “findings” as “new,” largely ignoring decades-worth of Black scholarship that has taken up “fugitivity,” carceral logics, and militarized surveillance.
We wonder, who did you understand your intended audience to be, Prof. Goffman? It could not have been people from West Philadelphia. Not Mike, not Chuck, nor any of the other young men, women, and children from “6th Street” whom you wrote about but with whom you admittedly maintain minimal contact. Your book could not have aimed to benefit materially Black communities in Philadelphia, or similar ones throughout the larger country.
Did you write On the Run for people like yourself? For white researchers, scholars, and educators, to provide them a voyeuristic view into realities they never otherwise see? Did you ever consider that people such as these historically have (and continue to) ignore and perpetrate the very same violence against Black communities which you claim to bring to light?
You’ve been lauded as the “brilliant fieldworker and smart analyst” whose book “should be required reading for everyone, including President Obama, Congress, and public officials throughout the nation.” This worries us deeply, Prof. Goffman. On the Run must not stand as a barometer for “good” ethnographic research, participant observation, and immersive scholarship. Christina Sharpe expressed similar sentiments in her 2014 critical analysis of On the Run for The New Inquiry, entitled “Black Life, Annotated”:
With its frisson of “authenticity,” On the Run may have a long and varied life ahead…shaping misperception and abetting black narrative and material subjection. I already know that this book will be chosen for First Year common reading programs and that all over the US, historically white colleges and universities with small black undergraduate faculty populations will read and then reproduce as truth On the Run’s ethics and methods; which is to say its relations and practices of power. In the neoliberal “engaged” university, On the Run is sure to be a primer for how to do immersive “urban” ethnography. And so continues, into the next generation, within and outside of the university, what Sylvia Wynter has called our black narratively condemned status. (Sharpe 11, 2014)
It is not something that other scholars should aim to emulate. As members of the next generation of ethnographers, sociologists, anthropologists and artistic knowledge producers, we cannot accept the status quo standards of the social sciences, as they are dictated and maintained by current structures of neoliberal white supremacy.
On the Run was published on April 4th, 2014, nearly a full year after three radical Black organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — officially established the Black Lives Matter movement in July of 2013. This allowed you almost ten months to recraft this work, Prof. Goffman. Black Lives Matter might have inspired you to stop and think harder; to reach out to local organizations that serve communities like 6th Street in Philadelphia (organizations which remain entirely unmentioned throughout your book); to ask whether this book should be published as it then stood, rather than assuming that it should.
Did you conduct any additional research outside of your fieldwork to enhance your understanding of the historical and political contexts of Philadelphia and the carceral state? Did you establish lines of communication and accountability to 6th Street community members before and after the publication of your book? How did you obtain and maintain consent? How did you demonstrate a political commitment to the community?
Have you considered, Prof. Goffman, the price of your success may be the safety of the children, youth, and families of 6th Street? You entered their homes, their neighborhood, and their lives. They welcomed you because you were a ride, a couch upon which to sleep. You were white and wealthy, and foreign. You decoded and exposed the tactics they have been forced to create in order to survive amidst the carceral systems that continue to oppress and abuse them.
In closing, Prof. Goffman, we pose this question: should you have ever attempted this book in the first place?
For us, the short answer is ‘no.’ The long answer — an affirmative answer — would require a deep and thorough consideration of whether it’s possible to formulate an ethical, anti-colonial model of ethnography suitable for a project of this nature.
It would require much more of the ethnographer. It would necessitate engagement with those who directly address the politics of knowledge production in the academy from an anti-colonial standpoint: Christina Sharpe, Aimee Meredith Cox, Sara Ahmed, Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Audra Simpson, and Sandy Grande, to name a few. And it would require a much more explicit code of ethics and transparency, as well as lines of reciprocal accountability so that the study might benefit “researched” people and communities, not only the author.
What we learned from your book, Prof. Goffman, is that your readers are also involved in various modes of knowledge production. Readers — especially those who are white like yourself — must engage closely with the critical questions raised above in relation to On the Run. And they must ask hard but essential questions of critical self-reflection in their own research. What is actually at stake for those involved or implicated in the work I’m doing? How does my own identity, lived experience, and positionality vis-a-vis the community or issue I’m studying influence what and how I am able to do the work? Where do my lines of accountability lie, and how can I honor them, both immediately and in the the long-term? How may I be reinscribing colonial relations of domination through this work? What are the anti-colonial methods that inform my approach to research?
-The students of Eugene Lang College enrolled in Professor Jaskiran Dhillon’s Ethnographic & Qualitative Methods course, Global Studies Program, Spring 2018
Goffman, Alice (2014). On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.
Sharpe, Christina (2014). “Black Life, Annotated.” The New Inquiry .
This post has been corrected. In the original letter it was asserted that Alice Goffman no longer maintains contact with her research participants. The corrected version asserts that Goffman maintains only minimal contact with her research participants.