Unearthing the Uncomfortable: Reflections on the Continued Lack of Diversity in British Archaeology

The following text is a transcript of a talk I gave in April 2022 for the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society’s Community Archaeology Conference, held at the University of East Anglia. Please note that I use terminology such as BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) throughout this talk – this is mostly done for ease of understanding as this term is used widely and I am addressing the issue of racial and ethnic diversity broadly,  but I also acknowledge that it is a problematic term that erases the individual experiences of racialised people. That said, I want to stress that I can only present my perspective on issues of diversity in the field, and that the individual experiences and opinions from racialised archaeologists will vary on these issues.

Some questions I posed at the end of my talk for white archaeologists to consider as part of tackling the lack of diversity in the field (from the original slides).

British archaeology has a diversity problem.

More specifically, British archaeology has a racial/ethnic diversity problem – the most recent Profiling the Profession survey has revealed that as of 2020, 97% of archaeologists in the United Kingdom are white (Aitchison et al. 2020). It’s a shocking percentage, but also technically a small sign of improvement, as the last survey from 2013 indicated that 99% of the workforce was white (Aitchison and Rocks-Macqueen 2013). As though to further highlight this severe lack of diversity within the field, the authors have noted that numbers for BAME archaeologists were so low that, for the sake of keeping anonymity for respondents, responses could not be publicly published for specific ethnic groups (Open Past 2021). Similar low numbers can be seen in adjacent sectors such as museums, where 93% of the workforce is white (Arts Council England, 2021), and in heritage spaces such as Historic England, which reported that 96% of its staff was white in 2016 (Singh 2016). 

The diversity problem in British archaeology is also not just a representational problem, either. As White and Draycott (2020) acknowledge, a lack of diversity is not only indicative of barriers in education and employment for BAME students and workers, but also has larger implications for how archaeology influences the narrative of the past as it is currently understood. A non-diverse archaeology is liable to perpetuate attitudes that harken back to the discipline’s colonial roots; it lacks the accountability to avoid shaping our understanding of the past in a way that can be weaponised for oppression, it lacks the cultural intelligence to tackle sensitive subjects in a nuanced manner, and ultimately sets the discipline back decades, if not centuries, in progress. More importantly, we now understand that the British past is far more diverse than was previously thought – we lose out on truly exploring the complexities of the past when the people who are shaping our understanding of it lack diversity of thought and experience.

With these low percentages of BAME archaeologists in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are few diversity initiatives specifically centred on British archaeology that focus on racial and ethnic diversity. Arguably the most relevant group is the European Society of Black and Allies Archaeologists (ESBAA), although their work covers the entirety of Europe. Similarly, there are many other organisations with more international coverage, such as the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA) and the Indigenous Archaeologist Collective (IAC). But with regards to British archaeology specifically, there are no currently existing initiatives or organisations to represent or support BAME archaeologists. 

Of course, this isn’t to say that there are no diversity initiatives in the United Kingdom at all for archaeologists – but these tend to be either very broadly focused on equality, diversity, and inclusion strategies and/or almost entirely led and populated by white archaeologists. Again, this is not surprising as there is already such a lack of BAME archaeologists in the field. But white people – even those who are from marginalised backgrounds – are still white, and thus able to perpetuate racism and uphold white supremacy, even unconsciously. As such, it may be difficult for BAME archaeologists to feel comfortable, or even welcome, in “diversity” spaces that are not only predominantly white, but also predominantly led and shaped by white people.

I have spoken many times at length in the past regarding my personal experience in British archaeology and the ways in which I have experienced various forms of marginalisation as a queer, disabled Chinese American migrant woman. Instead of discussing the details of my journey, I instead want to frame my experiences with the resistance I have faced in trying to make space for myself in a discipline that was never originally made for people like me.

Unsurprisingly, I have received a fair amount of harassment, both online and in-person. Although it has come in a variety of “flavours” (ableism, sexism, queerphobia), I will focus on the racism that I’ve experienced in relation to my presence in archaeology. At its worst, I have been called slurs, faced general anti-Chinese sentiments and mockery, have been told outright that I do not belong in the field, that I am ruining archaeology and should be deported, and have also been referred to as an “anti-white racist” and a “bully”. 

These examples are outrageous, perhaps, but they are supplemented by the many microaggressions I have faced as well – surprised reactions at my presence at conferences (especially when I am the only ethnic minority attendee), disbelief at my credentials or expertise, questions regarding my “real” place of birth, scolding me for being too angry or bitter, or attempting to goad me (and only me!) into debate regarding racism, colonialism, or cultural appropriation.

Although some of these interactions have been in-person, it bears emphasising that most have been through digital communications – Tweet replies, website comments, direct messages, and emails. In fact, this has ultimately resulted in all of the contact features on my website being shut down. And although it is tempting to simply dismiss this harassment as the work of anonymous Internet trolls or other non-archaeologists, some of these interactions have actually been with people working in the field.

These experiences are mine and mine alone, of course, but they are not too dissimilar to certain experiences shared with me by BAME colleagues. That said, I want to reiterate that I can only speak for my own experience with racism in British archaeology, and that my experience is one of specifically anti-East Asian racism – I cannot say that I speak for all BAME archaeologists, although I sometimes feel as though that is expected of me when I am asked to speak on diversity in British archaeology. And perhaps this microaggression is the most painful of them all, as it places a heavy burden on my shoulders to “represent” a diverse set of experiences in a way that is “respectable” to majority white audiences. Perhaps it is not something that others think about, but these talks can often feel as though you have to constantly compromise with yourself – how much of your actual ethical and moral obligations to you ignore in order to present such a sensitive topic in a way that is more palatable to people who have never experienced the sort of marginalisation you constantly face in the field?

I wanted to frame my personal experiences through this lens of resistance against my work (or, in some cases, just against my existence in the field) because I do not want to present a whitewashed version of what it feels like to be a minority in British archaeology. To be honest, I have tried this approach in the past, catering towards audiences who do not want to be unsettled or made uncomfortable, and it ultimately does not achieve anything besides perpetuating the continuation of doing the bare minimum without addressing the pervasiveness of racism and how deeply entrenched it is into our field since its conception. I no longer want to dismiss my own experiences – and the experiences of others – by saying that it is only a few bad apples, that it is only a few uncomfortable moments here and there. It is the constant feeling of having to fight for your own space, to know that you are already placed at a severe disadvantage compared to some of your peers, that you are being asked to justify why you are here, in this field, that is not for you. I do not set out to make my own struggles my identity, but how else do I get people to care beyond a shallow-level understanding? What more can any marginalised archaeologist have to say to get others to not only sympathise, but move beyond that towards tangible action?

To end this paper, it would be expected perhaps that I would have to discuss the potential solutions to this major problem – but in writing this, I reflected upon the amount of times I’ve been asked this question myself. And frankly? It is very often – particularly as I think about how many times I’ve been asked to sit on panels to discuss the issues I face as a multi-marginalised person in archaeology. So instead, I want to frame these potential solutions with questions that I think white archaeologists should be reflecting upon…

Is your “diversity” initiative led entirely by white people?

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, many diversity initiatives began to appear across disciplines and sectors; since then, however, there has been much scrutiny and criticism of these initiatives – that many were simply tokenistic and performative (Afrifa-Tchie 2021), that many still centred whiteness (Gassam Asare 2021), and similarly, that many were predominately white spaces (Phipps and McDonald 2021). Many of the criticisms could also apply to initiatives in British archaeology, but I do want to focus on the last point – that diverse spaces primarily populated and led by white people can be more problematic and harmful than helpful.

A relevant example of this is white feminism, which has permeated most mainstream discourses on sexism and patriarchal harm. White feminism ignores the intersection of race in discussions of gender, centring the experiences of white women as universal in a way that erases women of colour, as well as the racism of white women and how they perpetuate white supremacy (Moon and Holling 2020). This is not to say that all white feminists are guilty of producing “white feminism”, but that it is potentially far more likely to slip into white feminist thought without the input of women in colour in a diversity initiative. 

Of course, this should not be misconstrued as a demand that there are no white people in diversity initiatives – obviously this is not even feasible in British archaeology given how few BAME archaeologists are in the field. That being said, if you are a white person in a diversity initiative, you should be constantly reflecting upon and challenging your positionality in the larger power dynamics and whether or not your actions are working in favour of increasing and supporting diversity in British archaeology. For example, if you are working in a leadership capacity, is your position more suitable for a BAME archaeologist with similar experience in leading? Can you give your platform up to someone who would not be given a chance to speak their truth elsewhere? 

That said, we must also avoid putting all of the responsibility for “solving” British archaeology’s diversity problem on the shoulders of BAME archaeologists, an issue that has also been observed in diversity initiatives elsewhere (Bhopal 2022). And if they do take on this work, we must consider how we compensate that work fairly, which leads us to the next question to consider. 

Are you actually paying people to do diversity work?

Again, this is an issue that extends beyond British archaeology, but is important to consider. Diversity labour is often unpaid, physically and emotionally draining, and expected to be done on top of other work commitments (e.g., Nance-Nash 2020; Doharty et al. 2021, pp. 237-238). Such unpaid labour is extractive in practice, and thus only continues to perpetuate marginalisation. Equality should not, and cannot, come from exploitation. Resources and funding need to be set aside and dedicated to the support and progression of diversity initiatives, as well as for properly compensating people for their work.

Do you still get offended by people talking about whiteness?

I previously discussed the pressure to present issues of diversity and racism in a way that is palpable to white audiences, which is connected to this question regarding what is often referred to as “white fragility” (Di Angelo 2011), or the defensiveness of white people in reaction to the “minimal amount of racial stress” (ibid, p.57). 

To be blunt, we cannot continue to centre white feelings in this work. These feelings, which include indignation and guilt, are not helpful. Instead, it may be more productive to turn inwardly and self-reflect over why you feel this way, and begin to reconsider the ways in which whiteness has been able to inform your perspective of the world, and how it ultimately frames your archaeological theory and practice.

Diversity work and anti-racism work is uncomfortable work, and to feel otherwise means that you might not be doing the work as deeply as you should be. And I can sympathise with feeling reluctance in working through entrenched notions that will cause discomfort as you progress – for example, I am still working to unpack the anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous racism that are deeply entrenched in my upbringing as a non-Black, non-Indigenous settler on Massapequas land. It is uncomfortable work, yes, but it is necessary work. 

What are you doing besides telling Black, Asian, and minority ethnic archaeologists how “brave” they are?

This is something I have often experienced, particularly after participating in diversity panels or events. And while it is appreciated…it does not do much to combat racism in our field. So, in other words, what are you, as a white archaeologist, doing to materially and tangibly support anti-racist initiatives and diversity initiatives, as well as the BAME archaeologists who are entrenched in the work? 

The European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists have already proposed some solutions to this question in their recent manifesto (Brunache et al. 2021), which I highly recommend that everyone reads. They highlight the need to make changes to the recruitment and internal structural support of BAME archaeologists in order to actually retain them, including mentorship programmes, better pay and working requirements, and better mechanisms for reporting harassment. Providing tangible and material support to BAME archaeologists to not only be successfully recruited into the field, but to remain in the field as well, should be centred in diversity initiatives that seek out to address the lack of diversity in British archaeology. We have moved far beyond just words – we must be taking action.

Do you know why it is important to diversify British archaeology?

With this question, I would like to return to the start of the talk. Diversity is much more than representation, particularly for archaeology – it is about the way in which knowledge is produced, shaped, and shared by our field, which in turn colours our collective understanding of the past. A more diverse archaeology is not the end of all problems in the field, of course, but it provides us with further means to combat the perpetuation of archaeology’s colonial characteristics, to decentre white perspectives that have controlled the narrative of the past for far too long, and to let archaeology develop and grow into a field that is actually transformative and perhaps even radical in its praxis.  


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