Distraction Free Reading

Between the Bitterness of Anonymity and Ethics is Racism: Reflections for Anthropological Research on Science in the ‘Backyard’

A reception area with tiled floors, a few chairs against the wall, a table in front of a green counter, and a simple black silluette of a tree on the wall.

The entrance of the room where the Mocambo group works. Photo by the author.

This essay is one of the results of a roda de conversa (a conversation circle) that took place at the University of Brasilia, Brazil, in December 2023. Professor Soraya Fleischer had the idea and invited her advisees: two men and three women. Since all of us were, in different ways, doing research with researchers that were also working at the University of Brasilia, the roda de conversa had as a guiding theme the following question: what is it like to conduct research with interlocutors who share the same “institutional house”—who work in the same “backyard”?

In my case, my research focuses on psychological science, specifically on the training of psychologist-psychotherapists in Brazil and the lack of attention to the needs of Black people, who make up the majority of the Brazilian population. To explore this, I observed the operations of a psychotherapy service and internship group for Black individuals, which I will call Mocambo to maintain anonymity. Through participant observation and interviews conducted between April and December 2023 at the university’s training clinic, I identified the difficulty in publicizing the knowledge generated in the field due to the institutional racism directed at the project. However, as noted in the Brazilian tradition of institutional anthropology and power practices, institutions are not transcendental entities but are created by power relations and managed by individuals and their subjectivities.

Therefore, my contribution to the discussion circle was to challenge the idea that we conduct research “at home” or “in our own backyard,” as my interlocutors and I were constantly reminded in the field that this was not our place, much less our home. This highlights the constitutive nature of racial relations in these dynamics, given that my interlocutors and I are Black researchers, while all members of the institution were white. Reporting the racism we experienced could lead to reprisals against the project, but at the same time, it goes against my antiracist ethics as a researcher. This essay addresses this dilemma.

When Soraya first proposed the idea for the circle, something latent in my research immediately came to mind: the bitterness of anonymity. In this sense, presenting a dissertation without contextualizing, that is, without territorializing, racializing, and naming the violences and the interlocutors, would be like presenting a meal without a plate, without using the traditional spices of this biome, in an attempt to please taste buds averse to the flavor of feijoada, but fond of cassoulet. Although it was a theme of reflection during the planning of the research, I did not anticipate the flavors that would complicate the development of the research and the presentation of this meal to the public. This complexity extends not only to the reception by the renowned chefs who will evaluate my work but especially to the consideration of the cooks with whom I shared the kitchen and, quite literally, from whom I learned my craft, as well as the possible sour political repercussions if I serve the dish with all the spices I deem necessary for a good meal. These spices were collected from the garden, where the frequent use of pesticides was observed and ingested in the field—something that even caused me symptoms of poisoning (CID F43.1),[1] given that it is a poison.

To give you context, my master’s research is about racism, science, and mental health in psychology, my area of expertise. I start from the understanding that racism and sexism are foundational to colonization and coloniality, impacting the subjectivation and mental health of black and white people, men and women, with science historically reinforcing racial and gender violence, while also having the potential to reduce inequalities.

I conducted fieldwork between April and December 2023 with Mocambo, an internship group and psychotherapy service for Black university students, aimed at training psychology undergraduates and providing therapy for Black students from other programs. This group operates within the university’s training clinic and was created in 2017 following reports from Black students about illness within the university environment, a demand addressed by two volunteer Black psychologists who started offering psychotherapy and formed an internship group. It is important to note that I graduated from Mocambo and the University of Brasília, making me an insider.

At Mocambo, given that I helped build this “backyard,” I first imagined an easy and quick integration. In practice, though, it was not so simple. This was not due to ill will; rather, the coordinator had many demands and often delayed responses to text messages, which I attributed to a generational gap since she is over 65 and I am under 25. This contrasts with the training clinic, historically seen as an overly bureaucratic environment with little political will, reflected in the actions of the coordinator and staff. Although the fieldwork began in April with the aim of attending clinical supervision meetings, there were many challenges along the way.

If these challenges were simply casual and non-systematic, one could, perhaps, situate them as normal to the research world. But that was not the case. In a conversation with Tiago, one of the supervisors from the last semester, we discussed how isolated experiences of these setbacks could mean anything, but it is through the combination of coincidences that things take shape. And this is where a symptomatic characteristic of Brazilian racism comes in: its capillarity and insidiousness. Tiago pointed out that during his time at the training clinic, he relived what he called something “between a breakdown and paranoia,” a sensation of persecution by the institution shared among the interlocutors. However, it does not constitute paranoia precisely because this perception is shared: these patterns were also being observed by the group and by me.

These patterns included difficulties in scheduling a room for supervision, infantilizing treatment, and frequent obstacles in carrying out activities. For example, during a public event to discuss racism and mental health, the institution refused to promote it because “they wouldn’t have control over who entered the building.” Yet, for a similar event on a topic of interest to the coordinator, the promotion was done without issue. Revisiting the notes from my field diary, I recalled that the guest speaker of the first event was poorly received and addressed in diminutive terms by the same coordinator, something seemingly simple but, as a psychoanalyst, he quickly noticed the insidiousness of the language.

These challenges had already been faced by the group in 2017, when two volunteers founded the Mocambo. When the two volunteer psychologists founded Mocambo and presented this proposal to the then-coordinator of the training clinic, they were snubbed. As they presented the proposal, the woman walked around, showing little interest. However, the scenario changed when a new coordinator took over the training clinic. As Antônio, one of the founders of Mocambo, points out, she was a person with political will, and bureaucratic difficulties were quickly resolved under her leadership.

Despite seemingly resolving everything with a “smile on her face,” in practice, the current coordinator acted contrary to the group’s demands, placing insurmountable obstacles. The technical psychologists at the training clinic used and abused norms, bureaucracies, and professional ethics to their own interests under the invisible cloak of the institution. This behavior, in Tiago’s view—who, in addition to being a psychologist, has a degree in law and is a public servant—involved various bureaucratic impositions that lacked legal basis: “the important thing is that it sticks.”

Still in this dialogue, we recalled the obstacles related to my research, where I was removed from the field on two occasions. The second time, I was removed under the justification that “it is unethical for a person not affiliated with the training clinic to be listening to confidential cases,” and they also mentioned that I was there as an anthropologist and not as a psychologist. This caveat occurred even after having the approval of the internship group, the research ethics committee, and the training clinic board.

These events already seemed strange to me, but recalling how they unfolded gives me a lump in my throat. I remember that in individual meetings with closed doors and a passive-aggressive tone, “ethical” issues regarding my research were raised by people without expertise in the subject. They would say things like, “I’m not on the research committee, but I am the coordinator.” Moreover, they even questioned the quality of the research committee and the board for having approved my research, as I detailed in my field diary:

Lucinda [the coordinator] took the opportunity to recall the evaluation process by the training clinic’s research committee, stating that she had personally contributed to the rejection of the first evaluation, based on a CNS resolution on health sciences from the last century. After the adjustments I made, the research received a favorable opinion and was approved by the board, but without Mariana’s presence, as she was on medical leave. This seemed to make Lucinda uncomfortable, and she stated, “It scares me that they approved it like this. I fear they didn’t know exactly what it was.” (CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? There’s a research committee and several people on the board, including doctors, but she insists the approval was a mistake). She was also unhappy that I had requested from the vice-coordinator, Pedro, during her leave, the inclusion of my project’s evaluation in the next board meeting, following the unusual delay in the second evaluation. So I asked her if, in the coordinator’s absence, the vice-coordinator would take over the function—”Isn’t that how it works?” She confirmed but added that he “doesn’t know the day-to-day operations of the institution.” I then argued, “Well, but are you on the research evaluation committee?” She replied, “I am the coordinator.” To justify this scrutiny, she claimed that it was her name “on the line if the Ministry of Education or the Regional Council of Psychology came to inspect.”

As a solution to the ethical impasse, in addition to being a volunteer, Mariana suggested that I should have support from a faculty member at the Psychology Institute of the university “because the training clinic is linked to the IP,” or just being a student in one of the IP’s graduate programs would suffice. This made me ponder whether this research truly was in my own backyard or if I was really considered an insider in the field, or rather, if I was perceived as one. While at the beginning of the research, my undergraduate degree in psychology from this same institute was seen as a facilitator for the development of the research—”thank goodness he’s a psychologist.” During the research, though, this fact was quickly dismissed, and I was labeled as an anthropologist “conducting psychological case studies.” I recall the category used by Luciana Dias (2019), of being seen as “almost family,” “almost a psychologist,” meaning I am not part of the inner circle, hence this backyard does not belong to me.

Furthermore, I want to emphasize that I understand these dynamics are not a personal attack against me but rather an expression of a system of oppression and the maintenance of privilege. I deduce that such dynamics would also manifest similarly if another person with the same social markers as mine proposed to conduct such research. In this sense, the challenge I bring to this essay is how to write and publish these findings.

As I signaled at the outset the theme of anonymity was something latent in my research; from the beginning I let it marinate in my mind, trying to think about this topic as the weeks went by. It was particularly during my participation in the IX Meeting of Anthropology of Science and Technology (ReACT), in Goiânia in 2023, that this reflection gained more defined contours. This was especially true after attending the opening keynote by my personal friend, Ana Mumbuca, where I had the opportunity to exchange more ideas in the corridors, as well as participating in the Thematic Symposium (ST) on Psi Knowledge. Additionally, gossiping and discussing my research with my friend Ana Clara Damásio, whether in the event environment, in bars, restaurants, or even in the room where we stayed, further solidified this reflection. During Ana Mumbuca’s opening keynote, she spoke about the anthropological process with traditional populations and the almost intrinsic division between subject and object. She elaborated on what I understood as ethics—not merely as a malleable, institutional, and bureaucratic tool in service of science, but as a political commitment to those with whom research bonds are established. In my case, these bonds were not solely those of research but also of pre-existing friendship and gratitude before entering the field.

Ana Mumbuca exemplified this commitment regarding the secrets accessed in the field, emphasizing that while some contents may be significant ethnographic findings, publicizing them could contribute to the vulnerability of the group. It is in this dilemma that I find myself, at the crossroads between publicizing the experienced racism and anonymizing the field, or naming the significant work of Mocambo on a national scale concerning racially informed training and service yet relinquishing the opportunity to write about the racism that stifles and violates the project and its members.

Immediately after the opening keynote, Ana Clara, colleagues from the PPGAS/UnB, and I went to a bar to try pequi and drink beer. Since not everyone knew each other and anthropology was our common thread, we began to introduce ourselves and talk about our research. Influenced by Ana Mumbuca’s lecture, I spoke about my topic and the dilemma regarding the use of anonymity. Faced with my uncertainty and the justifications for it, I recall Ana Clara Damásio commenting, “Wow, friend, you seem to be caught between two ethics,” as while I should prioritize protecting the interlocutors, the ethics of a professional psychologist require non-condonation of prejudice, racial discrimination, and unethical professional practices, with formal reporting being appropriate.

The next day, during the second session of the thematic symposium on Psi knowledge in interaction with anthropology, one of the coordinators, Arthur Leal, a psychologist who also works in anthropology, commented on a commonly contrasting attitude between psychologists and anthropologists when faced with field frictions: “Psychologists tend to be more eager to provide responses and referrals, while anthropologists tend to hold back a bit longer.”

However, the turning point came during a session of analysis with my psychoanalyst. It was precisely while connecting and giving meaning to what was experienced at the conference and in the field, a period during which he had been accompanying me, and even experienced an episode from the field: he was the guest at the event who was poorly received and addressed in diminutive terms by the coordinator of the training clinic. If Ana Clara Damásio identified the conflict between two ethical orientations—one of research and the other professional—I include a third, mentioned by Ana Mumbuca: the anti-racist ethical commitment. Therefore, I chose to maintain anonymity in order to protect the interlocutors, but with a bitter taste, precisely because this could expose and undermine the project even more, providing ammunition and putting a target on Mocambo’s back. Furthermore, exposing the experienced racism would hardly lead to legal consequences; quite the opposite. As always reminded by my advisor, Soraya, I was the weakest link in this institutional dispute.

In this sense, I point out that when conducting research, it is always necessary to consider the positionalities of both the researcher and the interlocutors. Researching alongside scientists, psychologists, white individuals, and researchers in bureaucratic roles, something quite common, almost resembled an experience of the tradition of studying up (Nader 2020), even though we legally belonged to the same institution. Although we were in the same backyard, my interlocutors and I were frequently reminded that it was not our home or that it should not be. Therefore, I will have to live with the bitterness of anonymity. While research is always tainted by the researcher’s subjectivity, I believe it makes sense to relinquish certain principles to prioritize encounter and responsibility, especially from an ethical standpoint of anti-racist commitment. However, the principle of naming, racializing, and contextualizing seems highly aligned with the ethics of anthropological practice, though it takes on new contours and dilemmas when the subaltern engages with anthropology—meaning, the hierarchical relationship between subject and object is no longer intrinsically determined by a radical dialectic. In Brazil, whiteness holds more value than scientific endorsement.

In the end, the pesticide present in the garden indeed burned my tongue. But I’d rather have my tongue burned than those of the cooks who taught me how to cook. And who says food needs to be served on a porcelain plate? To challenge the palate accustomed to cassoulet and averse to feijoada, I can use a jambu-infused cachaça as an appetizer to “whet the appetite.”


[1] CID F43.1 is the code for the diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in the International Classification of Diseases. 


CARTER, Robert. Racism and psychological and emotional injury. The Counseling Psychologist, 35(1), 13-105. 2007.

DIAS, Luciana. “Quase da família: corpos e campos marcados pelo racismo e pelo sexismo.” Humanidades e Inovação, 16(1): 8-12. 2019.

NADER, Laura. “Para cima, Antropólogos: perspectivas ganhas em estudar os de cima.” Antropolítica – Revista Contemporânea de Antropologia, n. 49, 2020.

1 Comment

  • Luther Blissett says:

    FYI A paper on anonymity and pseudonymity in anthropology has recently been published in the journal Social anthropology
    Luther Blissett. 2024 ‘The hau of the paper and dividual authors: Reimagining authorship in anthropology’. Social Anthropology Anthropologie Sociale 32.2: 20–41 doi:10.3167/saas.2024.320203

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