Are archaeologists racist?: Part II 2

Our interconnectedness is the key to eliminating structural racismThis is the second of a two part series focused on structural racism and archaeology. I encourage you to click here to read the first part.

Again, I have to warn you 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.

One potential cure for structural racism

I hate diatribes that do not end with some sort of resolution or suggested solution. Structural racism is not going to go away overnight. It’s not going to end this year or even this decade. I’d be surprised if I saw it stamped out in my lifetime.

Dispelling racism is an intergenerational campaign. The seeds for anti-racism advocacy were sown by abolitionists over 200 years ago. We are simply the next progression in this long, long chain of advocacy. Diversity efforts have succeeded in making our society the most diverse in United States history. Millions of minorities have benefited from race-based scholarships, hiring quotas, and business set-asides. An even greater number of white people have benefited from working and living alongside minorities. Soon, more than half of all Americans will be non-white. This is already the case in many communities. People of color have reached higher levels than ever before. This is good. It has helped expose structural racism and forced our country into a situation where we are forced to deal with it.

However, the social structures and organizations that created this country have not yet become fully inclusive and color blind. Structural racism exists. It is our job to help end it.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: We have to realize it will take all of us together to change structural racism. We are all victims of the dehumanizing results of the racialization process that benefits certain races over others. We are anthropologists that understand that we are all part of the same species. Our interconnectedness is a blessing. We can use our familiarity in the human experience to help change our society. It is in our best interest for all of us to have an opportunity to live our lives to the fullest and have full participation in society. We have all dug archaeological sites of inequality and have seen the consequences in the skeletons and houses left behind by past people. These unique insights give us a particularly useful role in dispelling racism.

My plan for eliminating structural racism has its origins in Buddhist thought. Buddhism does not have dogma, per se, but it is based on the teachings of the first Buddha—specifically the Four Noble Truths. After taking an anti-racism workshop at #SHA2015, I became convinced that structural racism is too entangled and thorny of a problem to be dealt with using traditional means (marching, fellowships, trainings, minority set-asides, ect.). Those things are useful and play a role, but we can’t just eliminate this through more diversity hires and minority scholarships. Ending structural racism requires a total reprogramming of our thoughts in the same way Buddhism causes a reprogramming of our lives, our society, and, even, our reality starting with our thoughts.

In order to combat structural racism, a committed cadre of anti-racism activists needs to reprogram their minds to be more inclusive and use every moment to push against the prevailing racial paradigms in our country. An anti-racism agenda based on the Four Noble Truths can do much to help archaeology become a more inclusive and diverse community of practice.

Truth 1)  Structural racism exists: There are many Americans who do not believe structural racism is real. They think that everybody in the United States has the exact same chances and that, through hard work, dedication, and persistence, anyone can accomplish whatever they want.

This is only partially true. For example, it is far easier for a middle class child that was born into a family where both parents were college educated to become a judge or lawyer than a child born into a household where neither parent had gone to college. It is much easier for a millionaire to become a multi-millionaire than it is for a person on welfare working two jobs just to make ends meet to make a million dollars. It is very difficult for a minority to break into a predominately white industry and stay there long enough to pave the way for other minorities or change the corporate culture to be more amiable to non-whites. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the environment you are born into plays a major role in your overall life chances. The beliefs inculcated by the environment in which you grew up plays an even bigger role. Structural racism works by working at the level of the physical and mental environment and both of these aspects are what perpetuate the system.

Structural racism has done an excellent job at maintaining a poor white and non-white underclass that, unwittingly, helps enrich and aggrandize the wealth and power of elites. Today, the nation’s elites are more diverse than ever before but the system stays largely the same. One way archaeologists help perpetuate this system by requiring a formal education for all its professionals—a requirement that is beyond the reach of many low-income minorities. Furthermore, we prevent ourselves from connecting with minorities because we disseminate most of our findings in such a stodgy, disconnected manner that makes them inaccessible to undereducated minority groups. Our results would do much to change racial narratives in many parts of this country, but the people who need access to our results can’t usually read our writing. This is just an observation about archaeology as a field, not a judgment. If we weren’t academicians at heart, archaeology wouldn’t be what it is but we still need to find a way for our interpretations to reach the various publics in which we work.

Acknowledging that structural racism exists and acknowledging that it effects our society is the first step in dispelling it. We need to understand that the system wasn’t created by people living today, but today’s people do much to maintain its existence. We also need to recognize how structural racism has created a disparity in life chances between whites and non-whites.

Truth 2)  Structural racism causes suffering: Structural racism has dehumanized all of us as a people. Whiteness allowed the atrocities of the antebellum period and the near-extermination of Native Americans because, in order to create a dichotomy between whites and the others, white people had to decide that non-whites were not even humans. For centuries, the people of this nation perpetrated atrocious acts against non-whites, the ramifications of which are still reverberating throughout our society. The creation of whiteness has also forced poor whites to work against their best interest and support rich elites who fail to invest in poor white communities, schools, and families. The racialization of all Americans has pitted us against each other, forced us to compete, and has prevented us from joining together for collective action.

Structural racism is what has allowed archaeologists to indiscriminately dig up the human remains of other people with little consideration of the impact of our actions on descendant communities. Before NAGPRA, we harvested Native American remains for scientific studies that did not benefit Native American communities. We’re still able to do the same thing for black, Asian, and poor white human burials. Structural racism also prevents most of us from collaborating with descendant communities because we do not consider them equals. As long as we get the data we need, there is little incentive to motivate us to collaborate with the locals or conduct ourselves in a manner that addresses their needs. Self-policing isn’t doing the job, especially in CRM archaeology.

This conduct is changing, but, again, it will take at least a generation before we widely embrace collaborative community archaeology as de rigueur.

This insensitive behavior hurts everyone. It does not benefit white people when a large portion of our nation’s citizens are not helping make this country a better place because of poverty, discrimination, or limiting beliefs. Structural racism causes suffering because it perpetuates a savage society where the underclass serves the needs of the upper classes. By failing to connect our work to the communities in which we work, our work does not help eliminate the racist beliefs that maintain structural racism—perpetuating suffering.

Truth 3)  Structural racism exists because of the way we think: Race is not a biological reality (see the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Race). Anthropologists have long understood that there is more genetic variation within races than between them. We have also understood that the unscientific, subjective manifestation of race has served to limit the life chances of a huge portion of our population. Race is real because we believe it is.

Our thoughts are the beginning and the end of structural racism. We keep the system going by playing into the narratives we’ve been fed for hundreds of years. We perpetuate stereotypes. We feel like we cannot understand the viewpoints of individuals from other races because we think they’re too different. Most importantly, we think that the system in which we live is the only one that works. It’s what we know, so it’s what we grow.

Archaeologists have historically been bad at integrating alternative viewpoints into our work. Until the last few decades, we rarely collaborated with descendant communities or thought about the impact our work has on the people that live in the areas where we work. We still fail to consider how our own thoughts get incorporated in our interpretations. Because the field is so white, we’ve had a very hard time understanding why minorities have little desire in becoming archaeologists and why they are complaining so much about how our professional organizations operate. We have spent little time reflecting on how the structure of our field is not amenable to the incorporation of non-white research questions and narratives.

These thoughts have to end if we are ever going to eliminate structural racism and live in an inclusive, anti-racist society. We have to rethink how our organizations function in society and reorient them toward providing benefits for all, including minorities and poor white people. Archaeologists need to help facilitate this transition.

Truth 4)  Ending structural racism will require mindful, reflexive action: In order to combat structural racism, we all need to start thinking reflexively about our thoughts and actions. How do our negative thoughts about a certain person’s race effect our behaviors and decisions in the real world? How do our actions perpetuate structural racism? How has our acquiescence in the face of race discrimination contributed to the perpetuation of structural racism? How has our recognition of racial categories served to maintain those categories? How has our failure to incorporate the perspectives of non-white descendants in archaeological interpretations helped maintain structural racism? How do we as archaeologists keep this system going?

The fourth Truth is where the rubber meets the road. By acknowledging our role in perpetuating structural racism, we are cultivating within our minds a seed of dissatisfaction in the status quo. This seed of dissatisfaction will grow as long as we keep paying attention to how our actions contribute to such a negative aspect of our society. Soon, this dissatisfaction will cause us to act.

No anti-racism action is too small. For example, not laughing at racist jokes is an easy place to start. Trying to understand why there is a need for #blacklivesmatter events will force some major mental gymnastics for some. Not automatically thinking that the new professor was hired simply because she’s Asian is another step. Taking a couple seconds to try and understand why the Native American archaeological monitor is making “such a big deal” over encountering a potential cremation is a really big step. Most of these actions don’t take very much effort, but, over time, they slowly chip away at the façade of structural racism and move us all closer towards anti-racism and inclusiveness.

Over time, you may even actively support or participate in anti-racist activism. You may see the need for your company to have anti-racism workshops and force your supervisors to arrange these trainings. You may be motivated to give a talk to minority high school students and encourage them to go into archaeology. You may even take the time to try and teach white archaeologists about how racialization affects us all and what can be done to end it (FYI: This blog post took me about 7 hours to write). You may even try to teach your children and their friends the truth about race and how it shapes your lives is, perhaps, the best thing you can do.

Ending structural racism will not be quick or easy. It’s probably going to take decades to eliminate, but it may not take that long to create meaningful change in archaeology since the field is so small already. Already we have seen the rapid expansion of women in the field. Some Facebook group commenters have noted the expansion of Native Hawaiians and non-whites in CRM in Hawaii. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen an increasing number of Native American archaeologists in CRM on the mainland as well. I’ve also seen an increase in the number of women in conceiving, planning, managing, and reporting CRM projects. These are all good signs.

Since the 1490s, science, law, business, and American culture have clearly told us that white people (not European immigrants; White folks) were large and in charge. The Civil War did much to dispel this concept, as did the Civil Rights Movement, but we still have a long way to go. The diversity push that has taken place over the last few decades has done much to bring non-whites into the field who have highlighted the presence of structural racism in organizations, businesses, and government agencies. During this time, archaeology has become much more reflexive and has taken on the sticky topic of race. Now, it is time for us, as archaeologists, to become anti-racism activists and use our training as anthropologists to start wearing down racist structures in our society.

Now that you’ve read both parts of this post series, I’d love to hear your comments. What do you think? How can we get rid of structural racism in archaeology?

Please, write a comment below or send me an email.

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2 thoughts on “Are archaeologists racist?: Part II

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for commenting. In Part I, I discussed the fact that anthropologists have also come to the conclusion that race is not real. But, our everyday world recognizes race which makes it real. That’s why people are so emotional and irrational about race, because it is not based in reality.

      It’s all about dialogue and moving toward a place where we can all agree that race is not real.

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