Passing of Dr. Karen Greene, Former Berkeley Medical Anthropology PhD and Folklore MA Graduate

May 29, 2020

Dr. Karen Lisa Greene has passed away at a hospital near her home in Kampala, Uganda, of cerebral malaria. Dr. Greene was a superb, rigorous, and passionate scholar whose impact both as a teacher and critical innovator in child rights has been international.  She leaves her daughter Whitney and close friends and family worldwide.  

Dr. Greene did her MA in folklore and PhD in medical anthropology at Berkeley.  She was learned, with additional training in education, in critical theory, in Khmer language, and in the governance of refugees and rights. 

At Berkeley, Greene created memorable spaces for dialogue and debate.  Her doctoral research examined how children survive and are cared for by institutions in post-conflict situations. Through long-term fieldwork in Cambodia, she studied the post-genocide emergence of a body of expertise on proper parenting, care and attachment, and child rights, targeting young adults who were raised in the Khmer Rouge years.  With her fieldwork focused on poor children and their families, Karen explored the biopolitics of humanitarianism as these were operationalized through non-government organizations.  A major finding was that street children sent to beg for cash by their mostly war-traumatized single mothers were viewed by NGOs as orphans. Turned into wards of humanitarian organizations, these kids unwittingly became figures in NGO criticisms of Cambodian parenting. The work revealed deep bias and racism toward war refugee families. 

Dr. Greene showed how transnational expectations of good parenting thus depended on consistently racialized presumptions of abandonment, producing a new post-war politics of the child, of transnationally legible familial relations, and of political communities.  In many ways, she anticipated later scholarship on humanitarian and rights-based governance and their limits, and did so through a powerful and hard-won analytic apparatus closely engaging the work of the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and others.   

After receiving her PhD, Dr. Greene returned to work in Cambodia.  She adopted an extraordinary girl, Whitney, who herself had survived significant loss,  and together they built a worldwide community.  Karen and Whitney then moved to Africa. Karen was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Kinshasa, Congo,  in 2016-2017, and then the family settled in Uganda, Karen teaching and Whitney in school.  This past month, both Karen and Whitney developed celebral malaria and because of Covid-19 related challenges they had difficulty getting immediate access to hospitalization.  Karen passed away on May 23.  Whitney has come through this illness, and is staying with the family of a friend.  More information on Karen's life and communities and on ways to help support Whitney can be found via her Facebook page.