Is it an archaeologist’s job to educate racist construction crews?

Should archaeologists have to dispell racism in the workplace?This week, a discussion was sparked on the Facebook Archaeo Field Techs’ Group (FYI: If you’re an archaeologist or an aspiring one and you have a FB account, you need to join this group. It’s an excellent way to stay current on happenings in the industry). The conversation focused on how to handle racism in the workplace, specifically, how to work with racist construction crew members. There have been a lot of amazing suggestions, but they’re all based on the following scenario.

If you work in cultural resource management archaeology long enough, you’re going to find yourself wandering into this sort of a conversation:

Construction Crew Lead (Lead): Addressing the crew. “Today we’ve got an archaeological monitor at the work site.” Looks your way. “Wha’d ya say your name was again?”

CRMer: “Bill.”

Construction Crew Member (Member): Rolls his eyes when he looks your way. Seems indignant at your existence.

Lead: “Evidentially we’ll be digging near an archaeological site or somethin’ this week. So, I’m going to need you guys to cooperate with Bill. Whatever he says to do, we do. You guys got that?

Everyone on the construction crew agrees. Except, that one guy still seems offended by the fact you’re there.

Later that day, Member approaches you.

Member: “What’re you lookin’ for? Indian bones? Arrowheads?” There’s a snarky tone to his voice.

Bill: “Well, some archaeologists found a prehistoric site around here like 10 years ago. It had stuff that was over 2,000 years old. Your company is excavating within the site boundaries so I’m just here in case you guys dig up anything.”

Member: “So what do you think we’re going to find?”

Bill: “I don’t really know. The site had pieces of broken ceramic jars, arrowheads. There was even an old pithouse.”

Member: “Just broken stuff, eh. Anything worth some money?”

Bill: “I don’t think it was anything you could sell on Ebay, but we learned a lot about what was going on in this area a couple thousand years ago from that site.”

Member: “A bunch of broken junk, huh?” Laughing while, turning toward another crewmember. “Some professors from the local university find some dead Indian’s broken pots and we’re supposed to pay for an archaeologist to stand around and spy on us digging.” Now he’s laughing in your direction. Looks right at you and says, “Must be nice getting paid to just stand around out here, huh? How long did you go to college just to land this gig, professor?”

Bill: Smiling. “I went to college for over 7 years and I’m not a professor. I’m a cultural resource management archaeologist. This is my job.”

Member: “Oh, so it’s your job to stand around looking for broken Indian garbage? How much you getting paid anyway?”

Bill: “Just enough to pay my bills. Probably less than you make, though. By the way, that garbage you’re talking about is protected by federal laws. I’m out here because it’s required by law.”

Member: “Is that so? You went to college for 7 years just to stand in the sun and make less than a construction laborer? What a rip off. Boy are you a sucker.” Trying to add insult to injury. “And, for your information, your federal laws just stand in the way of us getting our work done. Those Indians bellyaching about their ancestors is nothing but a roadblock in the way of honest men trying to get honest work done. It’s just some big government red tape that plays to the ego of whiny minorities…”

The tirade continues for a few more minutes before Member stops acting like a member and gets back to work. For the next month, Member keeps goading you about your job, government spending, and the fact you have a graduate degree but make less than Donald Trump. He continues denigrating Native American heritage and complaining about minorities. Basically, he’s trying to get a rise out of you just for the hell of it.

Is this racism or ignorance?

While you may get pissed off whenever you find yourself in conversations like this, it’s important to try and think about the motivations behind this behavior. Could be a lack of understanding different cultures but it could also be race-based discrimination. Here are some possible motivations:

Teasing is part of being ‘one of the guys’— This is particularly difficult for women to understand unless they grew up with brothers or have been exposed to workplaces where men make up the majority. Guys make fun of each other. We think up uncouth nicknames. We say inappropriate stuff when amongst friends just to get a laugh. We joke around. Sometimes racist stuff is said in an attempt to get some laughs. We even do this stuff when we’re around women that are considered ‘one of the guys.’

The problem is: Some people don’t know when to turn off this kind of behavior. Politically incorrect joking around is okay in certain situations with certain people, but this kind of monkey business is never allowed in the workplace. Some construction crewmembers haven’t gotten the memo.

Some people are simply racist— This is difficult for college-educated folks like me to understand, but some Americans are simply racist. They discriminate against others simply because of real or perceived physiological differences. It still happens.

The problem is: Racism has deep roots in American society. An archaeological monitor working for a few weeks with a racist is probably not going to change his/her worldview enough that they are no longer a racist but you can break down their resolve a little bit. Racism is based in ignorance and unfamiliarity with other cultures and people. Most people are racist because they’re ignorant. Some are racist because it furthers their personal goals and worldview, even though those views are based in unfounded ideas.

Dispelling racism is one of my personal agendas. I feel like it is very, very important to strike down racism whenever it rears its ugly little head. There is one particularly effective method I’ve used on work crews in the past (This strategy is described below).

Cultural insensitivity is similar to racism— Some people are largely unaware that there are other cultures out there. They don’t watch NatGeo or associate with anyone outside their ethnicity/race/culture. This means they are unaware when their comments and behaviors are racist.

These people are probably the easiest to train not to be racist. They’re simply ignorant of their behavior, so, sometimes, anecdotes or stories about other cultural beliefs can go a long way.

Whenever cultural resource management archaeologists have to work with construction crews that are acting racist, the question we’ve always got to ask is: Are these guys racists or simply ignoramuses? The answer is usually that they are a little of both.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Racism in the workplace is not limited to construction crews and clients. Sometimes CRMers also work with other archaeologists who are racists. Sometimes these archaeos know they are racist; most of the time they don’t. Read the post “Are Archaeologists Racist, Part I” if you want to learn more about racism in archaeology. The post “Are Archaeologists Racist, Part 2” describes a long-term strategy for dispelling racism in archaeology.)

Here's how you combat racismWhat do you do when this happens?

Dealing with racism coming from a CRM client is a very tricky thing.

  • First, these folks are not working with your company so the organizational anti-racism guidelines for your company typically don’t apply for them.
  • Second, a lot of time, you’re dealing with ignorance so dropping some knowledge can go a long way. It may not end the racism, but it will expose the racist to a different perspective they may not have been aware of.
  • Third, complaining about the issue too much may make you hated by your client. This may affect your company’s bottom line. Your boss might get scared if she/he gets a call from the client about how you’re causing problems at the job site. Out of fear, you might get pulled from the job or “replaced” (i.e. laid off or fired).
  • Finally, it’s a lot of work to combat the racism that is deeply incised into American culture. We are all victims of memes put into motion hundreds of years ago by our ancestors.

I know it’s tough to confront this kind of behavior in the workplace, but it must be done. We cannot afford to turn our heads when somebody acts racist. They key is to confront the situation in a tactful, unemotional manner.

Once again, I draw upon Buddhist philosophy in order to create a mechanism that will help us strengthen our anti-racist agenda while weakening the resolve of racist people.

In the book “Understanding our Mind” (2006), Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh addresses the way seeds tucked away in our consciousness influence the way we think, speak, and act. Hanh, who was a role model for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., explains that the seeds for all of our thoughts are stored deep in our consciousness and subconscious. From this perspective, the mind is like a garden where the seeds for compassion, understanding, and happiness are buried beneath the surface alongside the seeds for anger, ignorance, and racism. Our job is to diligently water the seeds of positive manifestations while allowing the seeds of negativity to wither away.

He also explains that these thoughts do not come out of thin air. Hanh writes (2006:34); “Some seeds are received by us during our lifetime, in the sphere of our experience. Some seeds, however, were already present when we were born…seeds of suffering and happiness that were transmitted to us by many generations of our ancestors.” Of course, Buddhists believe in reincarnation so this has a different meaning to Hanh than it does to most Americans. Even if you do not believe in reincarnation, it is pretty easy to see how this concept relates to race and racism in the United States.

Race-based discrimination is over 400 years old in our country. It was part of the foundation upon which our Republic was built. None of the people alive today is responsible for the creation of ethnocentrism, negative stereotypes, racial hierarchies, and structural racism. These memes were around long before we were born. They have found a way into our minds through our lived experiences as Americans.

This is, perhaps, the most important thing to realize about racism. We didn’t create it. It’s not the fault of anyone alive today. Unless you are actively perpetuating race-based discrimination, it is not your fault that it exists.

In my experience, talking about race and racism makes white people feel uncomfortable because of the role Euroamericans played in slavery, Native American genocide, and the discrimination against dozens of other peoples from around the world. Thinking about these things does not water the seeds of happiness in the minds of white folks or anyone else. Because Euroamericans are used to feeling like this is their country (i.e. They carved it out of the wilderness), discussions about race tend to make them feel like they are the ones who created racism too. There is a certain truth to this argument, but most white people alive today are not overtly perpetuating racism through conscious effort.

Ignorance of the role white privilege plays in society and the resistance toward tackling this uncomfortable topic is the principal way white people keep from ending race-based discrimination. Exposing the reality of racism and relating race-based discrimination to lived experiences is the only way an anti-racist agenda can make progress. Archaeologists have the power to relate the past to the present, so we bear a disproportionate responsibility in helping dispel racism within our society.

Steps for dispelling racism in your construction crew

Initially, I told the Facebook group that archaeologists should just give the racist workmen a surly stare that showed our displeasure at their statements. A look that says, “You’re pathetic,” to the person who utters a racist statement sends the message that their insensitivity is not welcome. It can also do much to keep them from saying disparaging remarks in the future. Nobody likes getting “The Stare”, so the offender usually stops offending.

But, “The Stare” doesn’t stop the person from being racist. Those seeds are still getting watered. They are probably still acting racist whenever you’re not around. Dropping knowledge is the only way you can water the seeds of understanding and help them grow stronger. Here’s how I usually do it:

1)  Take a breath and control your emotions—Flying off the handle when you hear anti-Native American statements is not going to solve the problem. Remember, they’re probably trying to get a rise out of you anyway. Don’t give them the pleasure.

It’s not what’s said that matters. What matters is how you react to what is being said.

2)  Try to learn more about the racist— You need to collect intelligence in order to act intelligently. Find out where the racist’s from. Where did he grow up? What kind of household did he live in as a child? What are his political tendencies? What’s his ethnicity? White people in the United States are almost never just white. They all harken back to an ancestry somewhere in Europe. Everything that has ever happened to African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and any other ethnicity has also happened to people of European descent at some point in the past. Chances are their ethnicity was discriminated against.

Simple conversation works wonders. After you’ve calmed your temper, figure out what makes him tick.

3)  Tell a story about how his people have been victimized— Americans love the underdog and we’re all underdogs. Most of us have some sort of tale about how we’ve overcome obstacles to get to where we are today. Poor people are preyed upon by the rich. The middle class is getting squeezed. Rich people are getting robbed by the government. Whites are losing ground to minorities. Minorities are getting screwed by everybody.

Pretty much every community in the United States has a historical story about a certain class/race/ethnicity/nationality getting discriminated against by another one. Pick one that relates to the racist’s heritage and tell him/her about it.

4)  Relate that victim story to the current situation— If he’s saying insensitive stuff about Native Americans, just make him aware of the way that past injustice wrought upon his people also happened to the Indians. The Irish were literally worked to death in Boston. So were Native Americans. Germans were rounded up and put into work camps during World War II. That happened to Native Americans long before that. Poor people had their children taken away and put into orphanages if they became homeless. Native American kids were taken away too. You get the idea.

You need to figure out a way to relate this person’s personal history to the one he is denigrating. This is the best way to help them understand the universality of the human experience.

5)  Highlight how his racist statements can also be levied upon his people— Nobody likes being called a racist. The immediate reaction to that remark is defensiveness that erects a wall between you and the person you’re trying to change. Once you’ve shown the racist how the minority he’s disparaging shares some similarity with his people, you can address how negative thoughts and statements like the stuff he was saying have been used to keep other people down, including members of his ethnicity. In the past, others kept his people down in the past by saying the same racist stuff like what he’s saying about the Native Americans.

Neither of you wants to work around negativity. Racism is negative and it only begets more negativity. So, in order to squash negativity, you need to stop racism.

Remind the guy that you’re not doing this for you or for Native Americans. You’re doing it for him. Not being a racist makes him feel better and look better to other people. It is in his best interests to stop saying racist stuff because he doesn’t want to be associated with the same enemies who kept his people down in the past.

6)  Keep doing it—Practice makes perfect. Repetition is the key to slowly starving the seeds of racism. This technique also helps make the racist aware of the ways we are all part of a common heritage. When he perpetuates racism, he keeps everybody from living to their full potential.

Believe me, this does work

Most of the time, a bunch of simple 60-second conversations can whittle away at years of racist thoughts. Enough of these enlightening talks can actually stop racists from being racist. Going back to our conversation with Member, here’s how you can start the process:

Member: “Then we’ve got Bill standing over there spying on us. Tellin’ the cops whenever we find a broken pot. Ain’t that right Bill?”

Bill: “I’m telling you, Member. It took a lot of years in college to get to the point where I get to stand around in the blistering heat with the likes of you. Hey, weren’t you telling me your great grandmother was from Prussia? Isn’t that part of Germany today?”

Member: “Probably. I think so.”

Bill: “That’s crazy. Those Prussians were some of the baddest soldiers in Europe. They fought in like every European war either for their king or as mercenaries.”

Member: “Yep. My great, great, great grandfather fought Napoleon or something like that.”

Bill: “Cool. Once I worked on a construction project that went by some German prisoner of war camps in Pinal County, Arizona. Some of those dudes were Prussian. During World War II, the U.S. Army sent German POWs to Arizona to pick cotton in the fields. They were only let out to pick cotton in the sun and had to go back on lock-down at night. Those guys thought they’d landed in hell. I read some of the memoirs written by the guys that survived it. Rattlesnake bites. Dehydration. Intense heat. Some of them even died out there. Most of ‘em were so scared of the desert that they didn’t even try to escape. Pretty brutal stuff, man.”

Member: “Hey, that’s a crazy story. Didn’t know that.”

Bill: “Yeah. Makes you wonder what it was like to grow and pick cotton in that same area 2,000 years ago? Same intense sun, except you didn’t have the kind of food networks we have now. No grocery stores. Just the corn and beans you grew yourself. And, some cactus buds or cholla. Those ancient Native Americans were pretty tough to survive out here.”

Member: “You’d have to be. I mean, those prehistoric Indians were just living off the land. They were pretty tough.”

Bill: “Yeah. I guess we’ve all got some tough ancestors, huh.”

Now imagine me doing that to the guy several times a day, every day for an entire monitoring project.

Using our understanding of the human condition is the best way cultural resource management archaeologists can whittle down the walls of racism in the United States. We can tactfully inform the racists among the construction crews we work with about the similarities between their ancestors and the ones we’re studying through archaeology. It can be tedious but it’s worth it in the end.
What do you think? Is it our job to whittle away at racism in the workplace? How can we best combat this problem? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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