The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in British Archaeology)

It’s not the entire issue with regards to the lack of intersectionality in making archaeology inclusive and diverse, but white feminism is certainly an issue.

At this point, it’s not at all shocking to declare that there is a real problem with regards to race within British archaeology; the most recent Profiling the Profession survey shows that 97% of the field is white (Aitchison and Rocks-Macqueen 2021), and there has been a number of articles reiterating the lack of diversity among archaeologists in the UK (e.g., Rocks-Macqueen 2013, Dave 2016, White and Draycott 2020).

However, it does seem as though the field is slowly but surely beginning to act towards amending this lack of diversity, although I would argue that a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by BIPOC* in British archaeology; for example, see the incredible work of groups like the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists. But beyond ground-breaking groups such as the ESBAA, what else is being done? And is it enough?

Alongside the ESBAA, many other groups and initiatives have been introduced and developed to work on making British archaeology more diverse and inclusive. But, unsurprisingly, many of these groups are majority white – which is, again, unsurprising based on the demographic of the field. And while these people often are well-meaning and have good intentions, I wonder if there are internal conversations happening with regards to the fact that they themselves are potentially perpetuating the sort of environment that causes BIPOC to leave British archaeology.

Because it is hard to see these overtly white spaces without feeling the need to keep your guard up; personally, its one of the reasons why I have often avoided interaction with many of these groups. As a Chinese-American archaeologist in the UK, I have had my share of racist interactions: readers will note that I no longer have comments or messages enabled on this blog due to the amount of harassment I’ve received. And unfortunately, it isn’t just limited to random Internet trolls, either; in writing about racism in British archaeology and how I have felt that there has been a lack of urgency in the way the field handles racism, I have received angry responses from other archaeologists who felt that this perception was an attack of sorts. And it isn’t, to be honest – I truly do not believe that many archaeologists realise that they can inadvertently create environments that make BIPOC feel unwelcome. But on the other hand, I also don’t know what it will take for this realisation to occur, nor do I know if I have the patience to continue to wait, especially as I see friends and colleagues bear the brunt of constant microaggressions and other subtle forms of racism; for white people, these things may seem trivial and unimportant, but for BIPOC, it culminates and wears you down on a physical, emotional, and psychological level (Sue 2021).

And this extends into work on diversity and inclusion in British archaeology as well, something I’ve been thinking about even more as I transition my professional work into EDI research. For example, there has been a lot of important work done on further highlighting the women in British archaeology who were once obscured by the white, male “intellectual giants” that are so often associated with the field. However, as much as I can appreciate this work as a feminist, I am also unable to connect with it on a personal level; the needs and desires of a white feminism are not the same as my own. And perhaps that is selfish, and again, I understand on an academic and broadly feminist level why this work is important…but I’ve cannot seem them as “heroes” of mine, when we have very little in common. And its not just white feminism, either – when we discuss fieldwork safety, where are the discussions on the specific dangers that come with being Black or Brown in the field (Viglione 2020)? Or the compacted issues of being a queer person of colour (Poku 2020), or a disabled person of colour (Taylor, Smith, and Shallish 2020)? When we discuss inequalities in finances and the pay gap, do we contend with the ways in which the gap increases for women of colour (Almeida, Brodnock, and Lordan 2021)? How will British archaeology help to support the needs that come from the intersections of marginalisation?

These mixed feelings that I have had regarding British archaeology and diversity efforts in the field have been echoed elsewhere. Over the past few years, there has been a call for groups purporting to be doing diversity and inclusion work to look inwards and critically examine the usefulness of their work. Highlighted issues have included the constant centring of whiteness (Gassam Asare 2021), shallow-level politics of performativity (Morris 2020), and the corporatism and marketisation of DEI work (Newkirk 2019). I think there is an inherent knee-jerk reaction to criticising these groups, and on some level I can understand why…but if actual, transformative change is going to happen, it will require an uncomfortable level of examining biases and actions…even for the “good guys” out there.

With the problem being as pervasive as it is, what’s to be done to fix it? In some ways, it’s a circular issue: to attract a more diverse cohort of archaeologists, we need to provide them with a safe space for them to study and research, but can we do that whilst we have such an underrepresentation of BIPOC at the moment? Again, I know that many of my white colleagues are doing their best to unlearn certain behaviours and attitudes in the name of allyship, but the point still stands that an overwhelmingly white space may always be an unwelcoming space to others.

What I do know is that white archaeologists need to move away from focusing solely on representational politics; this is not to say that they should stop efforts to further diversify the field, of course! But it cannot be seen as the only way forward – there must be an equal amount of effort being put towards retainment as well. It is unethical, and arguably even an act of violence, to be enticing BIPOC into a space that continues to be harmful to them, whether or not said harm is even a conscious effort on behalf of our white colleagues. These sentiments can be seen in the ESBAA’s recent manifesto, which identifies three sets of barriers that must be dealt with in order to allow for BIPOC to access the field: access and recruitment, retention and support, and mentorship and allyship (Brunache et al. 2021). I would highly suggest that anyone, but specifically white archaeologists in British and European archaeology, read the manifesto, which provides a clear and succinct vision of moving forward with this discipline. To end this post, I want to echo the final remarks by the ESBAA in their manifesto: that, ultimately, we want the field to be better. That archaeology can only become something better and perhaps even more transformative and radical by broadening our field to include marginalised peoples from around the world. But only by doing this hard work together can we accomplish this.

*Note – Throughout this blog post I have used the term “BIPOC”, or “Black, Indigenous, People of Colour”. I want to also acknowledge the limitations of this term, as the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour are very distinct and that lumping us all together erases the harms that are inflicted within this broad group of non-white identities, such as anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous settler-colonialism. I want to reiterate that my perspective is from a Chinese-American one, formerly a settler on Massapequas land before migrating to the UK. Although I have experienced my share of racism since entering this field, I am still coming from a privileged position as a non-Black, non-Indigenous migrant from the Global North; please take this into consideration when reading this blog post.

References

Aitchison, K., German, P., and Rocks-Macqueen, D. (2021) Profiling the Profession 2020. Landward Research Ltd. Retrieved from https://profilingtheprofession.org.uk/

Almeida, T., Brodnock, E., and Lordan, G. (2021) Black women are missing in the UK’S top 1%. LSE Business Review. Retrieved from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2021/03/03/black-women-are-missing-in-the-uks-top-1/

Brunache, P., Dadzie, B., Goodlett, K., Hampden, L., Khreisheh, A., Ngonadi, C., Parikh, D., and Plummer Sires, J. (2021). Contemporary Archaeology and Anti-Racism: A Manifesto from the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists. European Journal of Archaeology, 24(3), pp. 294-298.

Dave, R. (2016) Archaeology must open up to become more diverse. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/2016/may/23/archaeology-must-open-up-become-more-diverse

Gassam Asare, J. (2021) Why DEI and Anti-Racism Work Needs to Decentre Whiteness. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/02/15/why-dei-and-anti-racism-work-needs-to-decenter-whiteness/

Morris, C. (2020) Performative Allyship: What are the Signs and Why Leaders Get Exposed. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmenmorris/2020/11/26/performative-allyship-what-are-the-signs-and-why-leaders-get-exposed/?sh=6574e3f222ec

Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity Has Become a Booming Business. So Where Are the Results? TIME. Retrieved from https://time.com/5696943/diversity-business/

Poku, C. (2020) As straight as a circle – my journey navigating STEM as a queer black male. LGBTQ+ STEM. Retrieved from https://lgbtstem.wordpress.com/2020/07/31/as-straight-as-a-circle-my-journey-navigating-stem-as-a-black-queer-male/

Rocks-Macqueen, D. (2013) Archaeologists, the Whitest People I Know. Doug’s Archaeology. Retrieved from https://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/archaeologists-the-whitest-people-i-know/

Sue, D.W. (2021) Microaggressions: Death by a Thousand Cuts. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/microaggressions-death-by-a-thousand-cuts/

Taylor, A., Smith, M.D., and Shallish, L. (2020) (Re)Producing White Privilege through Disability Accommodations. Spark. Retrieved from https://medium.com/national-center-for-institutional-diversity/re-producing-white-privilege-through-disability-accommodations-4c16a746c0dc

Viglione, G. (2020) Racism and harassment are common in field research – scientists are speaking up. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02328-y#ref-CR1

White, B. and Draycott, C. (2020) Why the Whiteness of Archaeology is a Problem. Sapiens. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/archaeology-diversity/


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Archaeological Accountability

Unsurprisingly, the current pandemic has got many academics, particularly those of us who are very early in our careers, rethinking our future plans. With many job opportunities cancelled or otherwise postponed, the idea of remaining in academia feels rather pointless, or at least a much bigger risk than it used to be.

I came across a Tweet that really hit me hard from Twitter user @cemicool:

“Academics #onhere are literally having realizations EVERY SINGLE DAY about how academia won’t save anyone and how they need to be less self-important. I find it….idk…obnoxious? Like, why? Either study, liberate knowledge, critique institutions, or don’t.”

As someone who has dabbled in theorizing decolonial and anarchist approaches to archaeology, this was certainly a wake-up call. It’s all good to write articles about how bad the discipline is, but what was I actually doing to fix this? And that got me thinking….what would accountability look like for an entire academic discipline? What would holding archaeology, as a discipline born from colonialist enterprises and is still used today as a tool of subjugation and marginalization, look like? And is it even possible?

A sign in front of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular from Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park…it has nothing to do with the blog post, but I couldn’t think of a good photo for this one!

The idea of accountability in archaeology isn’t new, of course, but what accountability in archaeology would look like seems to vary. For some, an accountable archaeology is about challenging perspectives and interrogating the ways in which whiteness and colonialism have written the past (Gorsline 2013, 2015), for others, it is an ethical practice of being transparent to shareholders, both academic and within the community, and funding organisations about the work you’re doing (Smith and Burke 2003, Heyworth 2014), and for many, it’s a combination of both (Ronayne 2008, Shepherd 2019, Cook 2020).

However, I’d like to focus more on the idea of accountability as practiced by activists and organizers across the world, and the ways in which this could be applied to archaeology as a discipline and service. In particular, I want to use the concept of “community accountability”, as used by practitioners of transformative justice. As described by the Audre Lorde Project, accountability here means to “aim at preventing, intervening in, responding to, and healing from violence through strengthening relationships and communities, emphasizing mutual responsibility for addressing the conditions that allow violence to take place, and hold people accountable for violence and harm”.

Accountability grounded in transformative justice acknowledges that it cannot undo the harm that has been caused – archaeologists, for example, will not be able to undo the pain of colonization through repatriation. But it is about, as Shira Hassan has put it, “what we can offer in a community accountability process [is] the beginning of healing and a feeling of the power being back in your hands” (Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha 2020). Archaeological accountability is letting academics redistribute their power to the communities involved, returning agency to the very people we often write about in a very detached, sometimes dehumanizing way.

Moore and Russell (2011) have discussed using “active accountability” as a means of circumventing perceived negativity of the concept, in which an organization or individual develops a series of actions that they want to be accountable for, where trust is built between groups that allows for consistency in their shared goals, as well as to avoid replicating oppressive actions and power dynamics. The example they use in their book comes from Clayton Thomas-Muller from the Indigenous Environmental Network, who outlines accountability as “[being] respectful of our unique needs as Native people. We need to be sure that they are not tokenizing our community leaders in campaigns and initiatives that build the profile and power of that particular NGO instead of helping to build the power and profile of the community. We push them to develop mechanisms to make sure that the free and informed consent of Indigenous communities is respected, and to make sure to involve all community stakeholders…including our traditional people, our hunters, our women, our youth, and not just the council governments”.

And I think it is that quote that really captures what archaeological accountability must be – not researcher led, but community led. And, more specifically, led by the impacted community – this could be the local community surrounding the excavation site, the cultural community associated with the site, or even the familial community and descendants associated with the site. As Kai Cheng Thom (2020) writes on being held accountable for abuse, “it is not up to you to decide how the process of healing or accountability should work. This doesn’t mean that you don’t get to have rights or boundaries, or that you can’t contribute actively to the process. It means that you don’t get to say that the person you have hurt is “crazy” or that what they are expressing doesn’t matter”. I’d argue that this point could similarly be applied to archaeologists in a way – although you as the individual may not have contributed to the oppression and marginalization of these communities, you are acting in the name of a discipline that has. To hold archaeology accountable, we must allow for community-led approaches that inform the archaeologists what we are needed to do – this could be approaching site excavation and interpretation in a specific way, or providing community access to archaeological reports and publications, or repatriation of artifacts and remains. Hell, it might even mean accepting that the community does not want any archaeology to happen whatsoever.

And what about teaching? Can we hold space for accountability in the ways in which we teach archaeology? I think so – for example, in engaging with students (particularly those from marginalized communities) who may disagree with the ways in which archaeology is currently being taught. Rather than clinging to the hierarchy instilled in the institution of academy, these moments of self-reflection and discussion could be incredibly vital for both students and lecturers alike (and be sure to actually credit these students when you, the senior academic with tenure, inevitably attempt to publish this as your own work! You know who you are…).

I think accountability – beyond just transparency and good ethical practices – needs to be much more of a focus in archaeology. Academia clearly does have a problem of performative progress – of discussing ideas of equity and progressiveness, without actually doing anything tangible about it. And, more importantly, I think accountability can help remove the ego that many academics have, especially under the guise of being progressive or radical – by putting the impacted communities first, and your research second (or third, or fourth…as far back as we can put it, probably), perhaps we can actually start doing the things we claim our research does on all of our grant applications.

References

The Audre Lorde Project (2010) National Gathering on Transformative and Community Accountability.

Cheng Thom, K. (2020) What to Do When You’ve Been Abusive. In E Dixon and L Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (eds) Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press.

Cook, K. (2020) Re-Coding Collaborative Archaeology: Digital Teaching and Learning for a Decolonized Future. Communicating the Past.

Gorsline, M. (2013) White Privilege and the Archaeology of Accountability on Long Island. The Digital Archaeological Record.

Gorsline, M. (2015) An Archaeology of Accountability: Recovering and Interrogating the “Invisible” Race. In CN Matthews and AM McGovern (eds) The Archaeology of Race in the Northeast. University Press of Florida.

Heyworth, M. (2014) The Future of Local Government Archaeology Services. Council for British Archaeology.

Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. (2020) Every Mistake I’ve Ever Made: An Interview with Shira Hassan. In E Dixon and L Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (eds) Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press.

Moore, H. and Russell, J.K. (2011) Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis. PM Press.

Ronayne, M. (2008) Commitment, Objectivity, and Accountability to Communities: Priorities for 21st Century Archaeology. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites.

Smith, C. and Burke, H. (2003) In the Spirit of the Code. In LJ Zimmerman, KD Vitelli, and J Hollowell-Zimmer (eds) Ethical Issues in Archaeology. Society for American Archaeology.

Shepherd, N. (2019) Archaeology in the Shadow of Apartheid: Race, Science, and Prehistory. South African Archaeological Society Goodwin Series.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.