Are archaeologists racist?: Part I 2

How does structural racism effect cultural resource management?WARNING: This blog post is probably going to make you very emotional. The principal emotion you are likely to experience is anger. Before you start rampaging in the comments box, please, read the entire article. Then, take three deep breaths and think about where this anger is coming from. Then, go ahead and email me or express yourself in the comments box.

This post is the outcome of an active Facebook group conversation about race and cultural resource management archaeology that was initiated by the CRM Archaeology Podcast #51—Diversity. Podcast host Chris Webster simply posited on Facebook; “How do you think we could get more minorities interested in a career in archaeology?

The ensuing conversation revealed the primary reason why there aren’t more non-white archaeologists—structural racism and its general denial by most white archaeologists.

The whiteness of archaeology is widely known

The uncomfortable awkwardness caused by this fact remains unstated/unknown.

Historical archaeologists have been grappling with race for over 30 years now. In a landmark monograph, Robert Schuyler et al. set the pace for archaeologies of race when they finally said out loud that people in the past were categorized by race and that these racialized people helped create archaeology sites in the United States. From the get-go, archaeologists have been uncomfortable discussing race. The volume edited by Schuyler that acknowledged what we knew about race in the archaeological record but it didn’t actually use the word “race” in its title. Archaeological Perspectives on Ethnicity in America: Afro-American and Asian American Culture History (Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., 1980) set the pace for archaeological research of race, but the monograph didn’t transparently state this goal in the title. Instead, it was up to the reader to guess that, while Afro-American and Asian American ethnicity was the topic, it was black and Asian race that was the real subject.

Sidestepping the issue of race in archaeology is commonplace. Several archaeological authors have forged entire careers discussing race in the archaeological record simply because the paucity of dialogue on the topic. The entangled nature of race, ethnicity, and class as seen through an archaeological lens remains a fascination of archaeologists in the U.S. and, increasingly, Europe, Australia, and Africa. Discussing race using broken glass, flaked stone, and ceramic sherds is like untangling a Gordian Knot—you can dig and write until you get carpal tunnel without having to connect your work to real people that lived in the real world or folks that are living today. I’m just as guilty as anyone else. I’ve been writing about archaeology of race for over 10 years and never run out of things to say, ways to analyze sites, or papers to write. I also haven’t done a good job of using my work to help descendant communities reclaim their heritage or help minorities get jobs in archaeology. It’s one of the things I’ve spent the last couple years trying to remedy.

While the archaeology of race has been an increasingly popular topic since 1980, the number of archaeologists of color has changed very little. The field of archaeology is overwhelmingly hyper-white. Membership of the two major U.S. archaeology professional organizations– the Society for Historical Archaeology and Society for American Archaeology– is over 95% white. Over 99% of U.K. archaeologists identify as white. This is not news. I’ve talked about the whiteness of archaeology before. So has Doug Rocks-MacQueen. So has Dr. Anna Agbe-Davies and other African American archaeologists. It’s a continuing topic for the members of the Society of Black Archaeologists.

The question is: Why is archaeology so white while other social science fields (sociology, cultural anthropology, ect.) are comparatively more diverse? Understanding structural racism is the key to answering this query.

Revealing structural racism

Structural racism (A.K.A institutional racism) n.—any kind of system of inequality based on race.

By race I mean social group characterizations that are based on real and/or perceived physiological differences. Structural racism exists primarily because many of the core institutions in the United States were created hundreds of years ago in order to benefit rich, white people. Our governments, education system, corporations, and nearly every long-lived organization was created during a time when rich white men discriminated against women and non-whites. So, the organizations they created were designed to make sure political power, money, the legal system, and overall life chances would benefit first, the rich, second, white men, third, their spouses and children. We all live with the legacy of this organizational architecture.

Class, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are all entangled with race. Races can also have ethnicities. All Americans self-identify with an economic class. Religious groups and sexual orientations include members from both genders and all classes, races, and ethnicities. This makes conversations about race difficult because it is hard to focus the discussion solely on physiological differences without including aspects of these other memes.

Our nation has taken great lengths to create the racial divisions that are recognized today. Almost as much effort has gone into dispelling them. It has taken over 400 years to get race and gender equality codified in law. We are still trying to extend this equality to the organizations within our society, which is why racism still exists.

In my experience, most of the time, when I talk about structural racism with white people or Europeans they: 1) acknowledge that some other people are racist; 2) acknowledge that it is messed up/wrong/intolerable/should not exist, and; 3) start talking about how they themselves are not racist and that racism is something that exists at the individual level.

When I talk about structural racism with black people or Native Americans, they tend to: 1) start talking about how racist white people are, highlighting all the fu*ked up things white people have done/are still doing to us; 2) continue talking about how racism is rampant throughout society, and 3) acknowledge that it is messed up/wrong/intolerable/should not exist without acknowledging the ways minorities help perpetuate racism.

(I haven’t discussed the topic with Jewish, Asian, European immigrants, or Hispanics so I don’t know how the conversation would go. My guess is that colonized people of color would relate to the second narrative while people that identify with European colonizers would follow the first script.)

There are a lot of problems with both of these narratives. White people and people of color come at the issue from two different perspectives but are victims of the same system of racialization. Whites tend to focus on the actions of individuals without acknowledging the fact that structural racism exists in the United States. They try to distance themselves from racism by highlighting the fact that other people discriminate; it’s a problem, but they aren’t the cause. Black people and people of color do not see racism as just the actions of individuals. We tend to see it as perpetuated by a monolithic “white people” who are all conspiring to prevent us from succeeding in life. We also tend not to see the racist things we do, including lumping white people into a single, non-descript group.

Race discussions can easily degenerate into emotional tirades, no matter who I discuss the issue with. This is because race is not based in objective reality. It is a subjective designation that plays upon emotional, irrational identifiers. Homo sapiens sapiens is a single species that has used real and perceived physiological differences to divide itself into multiple races. Initially, anthropologists helped reinforce racial designations (craniology anyone?). Now, we say there is no such thing as race, that it is not based in biological reality, and that we should all just forget about it. As a country, we actually are trying to get over race but it is so deeply entangled in our society it will take multiple generations to stamp out these deeply entrenched racial categories.

Our emotional responses further complicate the issue because of the different ways we are socialized to realize and talk about race. Whiteness has been poised as the de facto race of America. Our social organizations were created to emphasize the superiority of people of European descent. This is supposed to be accepted as fact by all Americans; however, today, few of us believe this story anymore.

Whiteness works because it irons out the long-standing ethnic and racial designations that had divided European peoples for thousands of years. The Founding Fathers realized that poor European immigrants and indentured servants had more in common with African American slaves and Native Americans than they did with the colonial aristocracy. The whole American-corporatocratic experiment would do down in flames if poor whites joined forces with the dispossessed. This is why our nation’s founders created the concept of the Melting Pot, which was used to turn English, Germans, French, Spanish, Dutch, and other European immigrants into white people—a race that did not exist until European expansion in the New World. Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and other non-whites were not allowed to be part of the Melting Pot. It was assumed that if the “others” were dropped into the pot, it would ruin the whole soup (i.e. end rich, white hegemony).

The creation of a monolithic racial category is important to the creation of whiteness because it is used to conceal the class-based differences that actually dominate our society. Whiteness is cast as the opposite of non-whiteness (blackness, Indian-ness, Asian-ness, ect.). In order to be white, you have to be part of the people without a race because whiteness is portrayed as the normative value for Americans. This is a major reason why, if you ask most white people what race they belong to, they will say they don’t have a race, will downplay the existence of their whiteness (I’m just white), or will call upon the nationality of their ancestors. Non-whites are clearly aware they have a race because we know we are not white. Our identities have been created in opposition of whiteness. Hypothetically, I would probably not consider myself black if there were not for the existence of white people. Conversely, whiteness, as a racial construct, is taken for granted, unstated, and unacknowledged most of the time which is why it is usually invisible in our daily discourse. To be white means you don’t have to think about your race.

Whites can easily get indignant whenever it is mentioned that they might be contributing to racism, especially college-educated white folks. Nobody wants to be called a racist. It is a very negative, unsettling accusation. Many white people infer that they are being called racist whenever non-whites frankly discuss structural racism. Most white people today do not like remembering slavery or the Jim Crow Era. They are rightfully ashamed of the actions of preceding generations of whites and do not want to be associated with these activities which is why they quickly disassociate themselves from racism by turning the discussion toward overtly racist individuals they have heard of or know. Also, they do not want to believe that their hard-earned lifestyle was the result of anything other than hard work. Nobody wants to acknowledge the head start they’ve gotten simply by being born in the United States, growing up with a middle-class background, or being born white. White folks are no different than the rest of us, which is why their rebuttals revolve around individualism.

Most of the time, when I talk about race with my white friends and colleagues, nobody is calling them racist (unless they actually are being racist and we’re trying to nip that behavior in the bud). But, whiteness comes with historical baggage and most of this baggage is negative. Whiteness is also associated with concept of white privilege—which is the result of generations of structural racism that has generally benefited a particular race in this country. Nobody wants to think they are unworthy of the life they’ve created, so white people tend to downplay the effect racialization has had on their lives. It’s understandable and they are justified in having this perspective and those emotions.

Finally, it is difficult for white people to accept the existence of structural racism because the principal ideology of our national identity are intrinsically linked with the racialization of white people. Americans are portrayed as rugged, individualistic, capitalistic, and hard-working and our national narrative has long promoted the idea that white people embody these ideals (Don’t believe me? Who’s on Mt. Rushmore, our money, and in charge of most of our biggest companies?). Because whiteness is considered synonymous with “the American Way”, including these ideals, it hard for white people to accept the fact that the way our society is structured actually works against people of color; People that are saddled with stereotypes and have been cast as the opposite of whiteness (i.e. the opposite of these valued American ideals). It is very easy to say that black people should just work harder and they’ll reap the benefits of middle class American life. It is also easy to believe that Native Americans should give up their dying traditions and embrace American values or that Hispanics should stop sending so much money to family back home so they can afford to buy more stuff here. But, after 400+ years of being in the United States, many non-whites are nearly as downtrodden as they were after the Civil War. Structural racism has played a major role in preventing non-whites from accessing the things that can help improve their socioeconomic status.

It is easy for archaeologists, who are overwhelmingly white, to say that minorities should just work harder, go to college, write journal articles/technical reports and they’ll be accepted among our ranks. This has, generally, not succeeded in increasing the number of minorities in archaeology largely because our society is structured in such a way that it is difficult for minorities to meet the requirements of a professional archaeologist. Furthermore, many are not attracted to archaeology anyway (joining a 95%+ white group is a turn off for many minorities) and, when they get there, they feel isolated, alone, and not always welcome. The simple fact that we’re trying to figure out how to get minorities involved in archaeology shows that there is clearly a problem within our field.

We can’t blame this all on the “white man”

Structural racism was initiated by white folks but, today, white people are not the only ones that help perpetuate structural racism. Minorities also play a very important role too. I’m African American so I’ll just focus on my own race but I’ve seen Native American, Mexican American, and Asian folks who do many of the same things I’m about to discuss.

First, perpetuating the “blood quantum” racial definitions is literally killing our chances at moving the race forward. Black people are known for judging people within their own race based on how much non-black ancestry can be revealed in an individual’s heritage. For example, my mom is white and my dad is black therefore I consider myself black. But, there are a large number of African Americans who would not consider me black (I get this from some of my own family). Also, black folk who do well in school and earn a college degree are told they’re “acting white”. Why is academic success synonymous with being white? How does continuing this belief perpetuate structural racism and stunt the race’s intellectual growth? How does this keep black people from becoming archaeologists?

We need to do less exclusionism and judgment and more reflection on why black people are so willing to cast aside members of our own race. Why are we so willing to exclude other black folk rather than embrace the full spectrum of blackness? The future of African America and our ancestors on the Dark Continent depends on solidarity and inclusionism. Blood quantum reckoning perpetuates structural racism because it maintains the racial characteristics that have been used to keep us as an underclass for centuries.

Second, black people need to stop perpetuating self-limiting beliefs. I mentioned this on the CRM Archaeology Podcast episode on Diversity. We need to realize that we have the same potential as any other American and must stop limiting ourselves just because a given field is dominated by a certain race or type of people. A good student is not “acting white” because they excel in school. Just because archaeology is 95% white does not mean “black folk don’t do archaeology”. It just means we haven’t broken that barrier yet. If black people can go into space, they can do archaeology.

Third, white people are not the enemy. Structural racism is. The worst enemy we have is our beliefs. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t march only with black people. Those Freedom Riders weren’t all black. The Black Panthers didn’t refuse to work with white folks that truly believed in the cause. It wasn’t black folk that fought the Civil War alone or signed the Civil Rights Acts. In the United States, black, white, Native American, Asians, and immigrants of all colors are connected through the American Experience. We have lived alongside each other for hundreds of years, for better or worse, through good times and bad. It is myopic to believe that the white man is out to hold us back.

While the black and white experiences in the United States are not at all the same, they are not entirely different. White people suffer from the same dehumanizing racialization as black people do, except they suffer in a different way. Whiteness is burdened with guilt, a lack of cultural identity, and historical baggage that prevents them from relating with non-white causes in mutually beneficial ways. Being white keeps white people from addressing racism because whites do not tend to feel comfortable being around non-whites, do not think they have anything they can add to the cause, and do not think racism is their problem. Whiteness prevents white people from joining the discourse on race because, in order to do so, they would have to recognize that they have a race and that the racialization process has kept a large portion of their own people as a perpetual underclass–preventing them from fully participating in the American Dream just like it has done for people of color. Because of our antiquity in the United States and history of anti-racism advocacy, black people can play an important role in helping white people understand what racialization has done to this country and how structural racism has kept us all from living to our full potential.

Finally, black people need to stop blaming our lack of progress on structural racism. The reason it’s hard for white people to understand our plight is because many of us have not done a good job living up to those American ideals I mentioned before. I know it’s hard to make it out of the ghetto. I know the cards are stacked against us, all of us, and that structural racism has disproportionately benefitted the rich and the white. I know about slavery. My ancestors were slaves. Some of my white ancestors may have owned my black ancestors. This saddens me deeply. I know it’s hard to break into an overwhelmingly white field, to do things that are considered the stuff white folks do, to not be accepted by some members of your own race, and I know we don’t have too many good role models for our kids to emulate. It’s time for that to change.

Success is hard for everyone. If it was easy, everybody would be wildly successful. We black people can no longer claim that the white man or racism is keeping us back anymore because there are literally millions of us that have escaped high-crime neighborhoods, gotten educations, started businesses, and risen to high positions in white-dominated organizations. One of us even became President of the United States, something my parents and I never thought they’d see happen. Structural racism isn’t the problem. Our own self-limiting beliefs are the thing that holds us back.

Now that I’ve had my say on how structural racism shapes white/non-white relations and prevents non-whites from becoming archaeologists, I have an idea of how we can combat this problem. Racism is learned. Living in a structurally racist society is not the only way to live. We are all Americans and have to figure out a way to come together in opposition of discrimination of all kinds, including racism, because our future literally depends on it.

My plan on creating an anti-racist society comes from a pretty unlikely source. You will have to just keep reading if you want to hear what I say next.

How do you feel about this? Is structural racism effecting archaeology? How does racism effect cultural resource management? What can we do about it?
Write a comment below or send me an email.

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2 thoughts on “Are archaeologists racist?: Part I

  • Chris Webster

    First, great post with some excellent insights. Second, we’re all racist in just about everything we do and it’s really difficult not to behave that way, even if on a small level.

    I don’t watch popular sports on TV. About the only thing I usually watch are sports where there is a single person competing for themselves. I like the Olympics and cycling, among other things. That’s not to say I don’t like football, basketball, and baseball. I like playing them and would do so in a second. They’re fun games to play. Watching them, however, makes me sick. The way people get so involved is slowly, psychologically, destroying our world. The same goes for european football. This is called “tribalism” or “nationalism” and it’s all about favoring one people, team, or whatever over something else.

    Tribalism is a deep seated trait of the human race. It’s in our nature to favor our own family over someone else’s. There isn’t much wrong with that, but, we’ve extrapolated the idea out to sports, religion, and race.

    Race, it seams, is just the lazy culmination of tribalism. Race is easy because you can make a snap judgement in a nanosecond. Race is easy because we have deep-seated stereotypes that come to the surface with little provocation.

    How can we fix all of this? First, it can be just as simple as ignoring race. Easily said by a nearly 40-yo white guy, I know. But, if we do away with labels like “African-American” and “Asian-American” we can move one step closer to changing those finicky synapses that fire every time someone of a different color is in front of us. What do those labels even mean, anyway? How many African-Americans are actually from Africa or are even within a couple generations of Africa? Is a white person born in South African an African-American if they move to America? Technically, yes. In reality, no one would see them that way. The title is tied to color.

    So, before we can even talk about archaeology and what it would even mean to be “diverse” (how many non-whites does it take to be diverse anyway?) we have to change our perception of the people around us. We have to stop getting angry at EVERY group that is different from, or opposed to, us. That includes sports teams and other countries. Any time we apply a label to an entire group of people we are flat out wrong.

    Anyway, great post, Bill. I’ll go back to my own blog which is clearly better than yours. I win!

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      No joke. How many non-whites does it take for a group to be diverse?

      We are all at a crossroads where our heritage is slamming against the wall of our future at top speed. It’s causing havoc all around the world because we’re being forced to change centuries of tradition in less than a generation. The diversity push has resulted in a constant expose of structural racism. The first non-whites in an organization are now starting to tell the group about all the things that are racist in the world and folks that weren’t aware are starting to realize just how embedded the whole concept is throughout our society.

      It will take work to get rid of the terminology but it is clearly something we’ve got to start doing. We also need to be aware when people start stereotyping based on the new group labels that will inevitably arise. Dispelling discrimination is what its all about.

      Thanks for reading, Chris. Now I’ve got to read your latest post.

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