Does CRM archaeology mean whiteness?

Last week, I was listening to the Episode 20 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast (Women in Archaeology, Part II). In the first few minutes of the podcast, the panelists were discussing how acknowledging the prevalence of male privilege in CRM archaeology could give way to a larger discussion of other inequalities in the industry. The panelists also mentioned that archaeology, as an industry, is overwhelmingly white. For some odd reason, discussions of whiteness in archaeology has been a frequent topic in my recent conversations. In just the last couple weeks:

–          I’ve been finalizing my application for the Ford Predoctoral Fellowship, which is dedicated toward increasing diversity in academia and is reserved for non-white applicants. The process has made me think deeply about white privilege and reverse discrimination.

–          I gave a presentation on the social construction of whiteness in one of my classes.

–          I wrote a blog post announcing the SHA’s Diversity Field School Competition, which is dedicated to promoting diversity in archaeology (i.e. including non-white people in field schools).

–          In October, Doug Rocks MacQueen wrote an oft-discussed blog post called “Archaeologists- the Whitest People I Know” that I’ve been talking with other people about.

–          I’ve been doing research for my SHA 2014 presentation entitled, “Memoryscapes, Whiteness, and River Street: How African Americans Helped Maintain Euroamerican Identity in Boise, Idaho.”

–          And, I submitted an application to a student travel grant for this SHA presentation that emphasizes the importance of including the racialization of white people in archaeological interpretations.

I don’t know why but the stars have aligned in such a way that I’ve been talking a lot about race and archeology recently. Specifically, about white people and archaeology.

White People, CRM Archaeology, and Historic Preservation

It makes sense that white people would be involved in archaeology today. The field is an outgrowth of anthropology, which was invented to study the differences between people—specifically, the differences between Europeans and “others.” These “other” groups were also created by anthropologists, not based on existing differentiations as seen by non-whites, but based on anthropometric characteristics recorded by white anthropologists.

While significant efforts have been taken to reduce the racism inherent in anthropology, and, by extension, archaeology, the overwhelming number of white people in archaeology inadvertently perpetuate some discriminatory practices. Before you throw me under the bus for writing that last sentence, let me explain. The archaeologist’s craft is based on humanistic scientism in a manner that is not widely applied outside the Western World (the “West” meaning countries and territories that were created by European colonists or have always been inhabited by Europeans). The embrace of science by European societies began after the Renaissance and has changed the way they view the world. This scientific objective view of the world is central to archaeology.

For instance, Native Americans view the world from different perspectives that does not always correspond with archaeological perspectives. This has been a big hurdle that has stymied fruitful collaborations between archaeologists and Native Americans for decades. While other ethnic and racial groups socialized in the West tend to view the world in an objective, science-oriented manner similar to the perspective of white people (specifically African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics), anthropological archaeology is still not necessarily aligned with the needs of these groups. “Minorities” do not benefit from archaeology the same way that white people do (read Vine Deloria’s 1992 article “Indians, Archaeologists, and the Future” in American Antiquity [57(4)595–598] if you want a more articulate discussion). The money in CRM does not benefit these communities either. Obviously, black people and Hispanics would love to be hired as archaeologists when CRM work is going down in their neighborhoods but this happens less often than it does in Native American country. Also, there is a large segment of archaeologists that make their living by conducting work in ethnic neighborhoods that see little of the financial gain that comes from CRM or archaeology. How much of that NSF money actually goes to the communities where archaeology is conducted? Is the money minority communities directly receive a reason #WhyArchMatters?

Since cultural resource management has degenerated into “contract archaeology”, our attempts to objectively view the world have colored the interpretations we make as cultural resource managers. Because anthropological archaeology has roots in European scientism, it has a strong tendency to reinforce concepts that are valued by its largely Euroamerican founders and practitioners. In Episode 4 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast, Tom King discussed the way traditional cultural properties (TCPs) in the Mojave Desert have been discounted in order to make way for the huge solar projects that are now underway. Archaeologists were central in determining that the impact of these solar projects would not adversely effect a traditional landscape prized by Native Americans. Basically, the Euroamerican archaeologists told Euroamerican bureaucrats that the project could go forward because the landscape wasn’t going to be affected even though the Natives that have lived there for thousands of years believed there would be adverse impacts (NOTE: King also mentions that the project was being pushed forward by the Obama administration, which suggests at least one African American was willing to overlook objections by another ethnic group in order to further his own goals).

The values enshrined in the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) also reflect an science-based, objective view of the world. These regulations were created to protect “resources”—cultural and natural—that were defined, bounded, and have material existence. While the NHPA gives a token nod to intangible aspects of these resources like “feeling”, any possible intangibles are evaluated under a rubric that reflects a worldview not held by a significant portion of the country’s’ population. This is important for CRMers because the legal toolkit we use reflects a worldview that was born from Euroamerican thought and scientism.

This Euroamerican origin of CRM archaeology also matters because of the way we apply it to resource evaluations. Oftentimes, a site is more significant because it is associated with non-white people. Prehistoric sites are frequently recommended NRHP-eligible simply because they are prehistoric, regardless of the true research value of the site (Seriously, I’ve always had trouble considering 44 plainware prehistoric sherds an archaeological site when clearly it is an isolated archaeological occurrence [a broken olla] that has been smashed into enough pieces that the State of Arizona considers it an archaeological resource). Other non-white sites are also recommended eligible simply for the fact that they are associated with non-white peoples. In a recent conversation, I recall a CRM archaeologist retell the story of how he lead a project where the NRHP-eligibility of several African American farmsteads was scrutinized in detail while Euroamerican farmsteads of the same period were resoundingly considered ineligible.

Sometimes, the opposite is true. In her article “Race, the National Register, and Cultural Resource Management: Creating a Context for Postbellum Sites,” Kerri Barile (2004) recalls that, while a greater number of African American farmsteads had been recorded, only two of them had been recommended NRHP-eligible in a 15 county study area. This contrasts with 14 Euroamerican NRHP-eligible farmsteads (2004:94). She explains that the CRMers evaluating these sites probably did not consider the African American sites significant because of their lack of architectural remains and the small number of associated artifacts. CRMers were discounted the small African American farms because they were looking for an archaeological signature more similar to what is commonly associated with the larger farmsteads, which were usually owned and operated by Euroamericans. This had a big effect on protecting properties that documented the African American history of that area.

Whiteness also effects CRM in a number of other ways. The overwhelming whiteness of the field is a real deterrent to non-whites that may be interested in entering CRM. There aren’t many of us that want to be the only one of our race in the entire company. CRM also has a public relations problem because of the race of most of our practitioners. Many communities do not trust white people and are suspicious of their “true” motives, especially community elders that could be extremely influential in historic preservation decisions. This is a problem for collaboration, preservation, and communicating which resources are important. Most importantly, the overwhelming whiteness of our field is not reflexively examined by most CRMers. It is common for white people to be unaware of the effects race has on their own lives; indeed, many white people are unaware that they even have a racial identity.

Increasing diversity in CRM will do much to combat these problems in our field. Native American CRMers are highly sought after, primarily because of the perspective they will bring to the practice. But, it is also important that other persons of color join the field for the same reasons. White CRMers need to take some time and think about how they have been racialized in order to get an idea of how that may be influencing the decisions they make as cultural resource managers. We all know racism in the workplace is bad, but how often do we think about how race effects our worldview and everyday decisions? There is an expanding field of “white studies” that is researching whiteness as a racial identity and highlighting the effects of the racialization process on white people. The goal is not to make white people feel bad about slavery or what happened to Native Americans, but to encourage them to think about the fact they have a racial identity that plays a role in their lives and greater society. Reflexivity within the Euroamerican archaeological community will go far and will result in a more robust discussion on how to better preserve our nation’s heritage.

Let’s expand the discussion of whiteness in archaeology. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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