Can Archaeology Make the World Safe for Difference? (or Confronting Race in Trump’s America)

A Serious Project: Confronting Race in Trump’s America

“This is a serious project,” Toni Morrison wrote in the days after Donald Trump’s election, in an essay entitled Mourning for Whiteness.

“So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

Toni Morrison’s words strike deeply into discussions of race over the past few weeks. To many, these are threatening words; they shake comfortable realities, are difficult to grasp and easy to dismiss. To others, they speak a deep truth that has been rubbed raw by the upsurge in bigotry and violence since the election.

This post discusses racial justice and archaeology, but it also discusses action. In the wake of just two weeks of uncertainty, violence, and fear, there is so much work to be done.

Black Lives Matter Rally, Washington, DC. (Photo: Trish Markert, 2014)

Black Lives Matter Rally, Washington, DC. (Photo: Trish Markert, 2014)

We have been inundated with liberal think-pieces about how and why we are faced with a Trump presidency. The Democratic platform failed to appeal to voters of color. It abandoned the white working-class in the small towns far from its urban, elite centers. White nationalism is more insidious, and more rampant, than many of (the more privileged of) us could comprehend. The Electoral College is a tragically broken system. If only they had chosen Bernie Sanders. Misogyny and fake news alike are running absolutely rampant. Trump-supporters quickly assert that they are not racist, while others bluntly point out that racism was not a deal breaker. Meanwhile, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ and others knew all along: there were no surprises, no bubbles of false security, only a new mascot for what has always been there.

Despite the chaos, the dissenting views, and the proliferating analyses of our current situation, there is one thing that we can be sure of – race played a role in this election. Perhaps not a singular role, but a prominent and pervasive one. One thing that we are collectively realizing is that far too many White Americans – liberals included – have little to no idea of what modern racism is. We’ve failed to listen to those who could tell us.

Now, we are witnessing the appointment of cabinet members than have openly touted white supremacy or engaged in racist behaviors in office. Hate crimes have exploded across the country. In Washington, DC this week, a white supremacist group held a conference and was filmed proudly using the Nazi salute. Women have been threatened for wearing their hijabs. As the cast members of the most diverse show on Broadway implored the Vice President-Elect to create an America for all people, indigenous, unarmed Americans were assaulted with freezing water in subfreezing temperatures, subjected to tear gas, hypothermia, and the resounding silence of the media.

This is the America in which we will practice our trade; but what is more, it is the America in which we have always practiced our trade. To see it so painfully and clearly now is our failure, but also an opportunity to do better archaeology – or rather, to make the archaeology that we do better for everyone, primarily those that face renewed threats to life and liberty from the highest seat of power to their neighbors at home.

Can archaeology make the world safe for difference? Short of asking Benedict herself, it is up to us to figure it out. Right now, we are faced with a world that is increasingly less safe for difference. Our practices in the present matter just as much, if not more, than our studies of the past. In the Trump era, regardless of regional or topical focus, we can all do archaeologies of and for racial and social justice.

This post will deal less with archaeological work that is being done or with theoretical trends, as I have in previous posts. Instead, I’ll focus on actions that we can take now, as archaeologists and allies, as we move into the future. This is just one post in a huge, ongoing conversation across the country – let’s keep it going.


Archaeological Approaches to Racial Justice

Exposing Racism

First, we can and must talk about racism, every chance that we get. Many people don’t believe they voted for a platform of hate – they voted in a way that made sense to them. Many of us watched Trump’s speeches and saw the racist rhetoric glaring, impossible to ignore. Yet others did ignore it; further, many of his voters watched those same speeches and did not see racism. This is the nuanced, subtle, and widespread manifestation of racial prejudice in America. While we fight the blatant displays of violence and hate, the appointment of white nationalists to the Cabinet, the physical assault and murder of people of color, we must not forget that this invisibility is something else that we are equipped to address. We need to talk about racism and make it visible – and then, we need to work together on ways to undermine and eradicate it, but more pressingly to support and defend those who are subjected to its violences.

Challenging White Privilege

Second, we need to start engaging – deeply – with our own privilege. Unabashedly. For those of us that are white archaeologists working on sites of non-white history, our white privilege needs to be addressed and grappled with daily. We need to recognize out loud the privilege in being able to choose to engage with marginalization in history while many are forcibly and violently marginalized in the present. To fail to do so is to contribute to that tradition of silence and silencing. To study race in the past without marching under the banner of racial justice in the present is a microagression. To speak the past through our lens of whiteness, and to leave that lens unmarked, is not giving a voice to those from whom it was taken; it is taking it all over again. There is nothing that justifies our presence in these spaces, except perhaps our willingness to face our own privilege down and then use it to benefit the communities with whom we work – not on our own terms, but on theirs.

We, white archaeologists, also need to work to better understand whiteness, its pervasive and toxic exclusivity, and the academy’s role in perpetuating it. We need to learn how to articulate it and challenge it – particularly when it emerges in our own words and actions. As importantly, we need to learn better how to listen. When we are reminded of our privilege, we need to learn to react with grace rather than in defense. As departments, we need to learn to recognize our failures in diversity and strive – through action as well as words – to rectify those failures.

On that note, this “Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves” is excellent – make sure to read the introduction.

Commitment to Teaching

Third, we need to teach. Carol McGranahan returned from the 2016 AAAs yesterday and posted to Savage Minds about #TeachingTheDisaster. On the collective anger and energy that was palpable at the meetings, she identified a theme:

“A commitment to say no to hate, to white supremacy, to destructive policies, and to act on these commitments. Teaching is part of our commitments.” (emphasis mine)

Her post provides links to several crowd-sourced syllabi surrounding Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Pulse Orlando, Welfare Reform, Trump 2.0, and more. These are the types of things that we can be incorporating into our classrooms and our fields – resources to discuss difficult realities with our students and our publics (hell, in some cases our families, our colleagues).

With our students in particular, let’s not let them leave our classrooms or our field schools without doing all we can to show them that the past, and the work of archaeology, is always directly relevant to present. For my students working at an African American tenant house when the Charleston shooting occurred, the most critical thing they could take away from that class was the understanding that there is a direct and unbroken connection between the slave-holding, and later tenant-farming, plantation beneath their fingers and the death of nine Black men and women at the hands of a young white man with a Confederate flag on his wall. Today, I cannot say with surety that we were successful in doing that, though those conversations did happen. But we need to be sure. We need to do better.

We Mobilize

And fourth, we mobilize. And we have been, from Facebook groups to national phone banks, to meetings to strategize real, on-the-ground service we can be doing in our communities. Seeing so many archaeologists, anthropologists, and allies come together has been inspiring and energizing, and I am excited to see what we can do together.

An important thing to remember, as we look towards action, is that many people are already on-the-ground doing it. More importantly, they know how to do it – they’ve been doing it all along. They are women, people of color, Muslim Americans, indigenous leaders, LGBTQ folks, immigrant activists – and they’ve been doing this work long before the country caught alight and took notice. Now is the time for us to seek them out and offer our support. They need it now, more than ever. Our collective action must be used to support and sustain the grassroots efforts started by the people who have lived and experienced – and continue to live and experience – the present-day evils we all want to fight. We should look to them for our starting point.

Within our own ranks, we can and should organize to create sustainable action. Bob Muckle just posted an article in Anthropology News synthesizing various perspectives on the role of archaeology under the new administration and posing relevant questions about the future of the discipline. Archaeologists Against Trump has emerged on Facebook as a hub for current action and strategies. There is planning around hosting teach-ins at conferences, conducting regular nation-wide phone banks, signing petitions, and promoting local action that can be shared with a national community. At a university level, Binghamton students have hosted fundraisers for #NoDAPL and organized a highly successful phone bank to demand change from our legislators. We are working towards service oriented community action, educational outreach, and local and national political action. Discipline-wide, we can begin using our skills – our knowledge about the past, our anthropological ability to talk to people, to understand multiple perspectives, to teach critical thinking – to create and sustain conversations with others, particularly others who hold different views.

So below is a list of ways to get involved – a far from complete list, but a start. Please leave other resources, links, and ideas for action in the comments below!


Ways to Take Action Now

Donate to the Medic and Healer Council at Standing Rock. On November 21, 2016, police attacked peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, mace, and freezing water, sending many into hypothermia and hitting others in the head and limbs with the rubber bullets. This is one action in the ongoing violence against the unarmed people protecting water and sacred lands.

At the Sacred Stone Camp website, you can find lists of supplies, ways to donate, and other actions to support water protectors, and well as frequent updates from the camps – which the media is largely silent on.

You can sign the ACLU action to demilitarize Standing Rock – and any other petition that comes your way.

Here is a list of pro-women, pro-immigrant, pro-earth, anti-bigotry associations that need support now and in the coming administration. Donate or volunteer.

Buzzfeed also provides a fantastic list of organizations to donate to or get involved in, including Showing Up for Racial Justice, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sylvia Rivera Law Project (for trans-rights), and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Reach out and get involved in Black Lives Matter: here, you can find a local chapter, read up on their principles, and find out about upcoming events.

Check with your university officials about their stance on becoming a sanctuary campus.

Check for and attend action-oriented or politically engaged workshops, sessions, and meetings at academic conferences. If you are going to the SHA, sign up for the GMAC Introduction to Systematic Racism Workshop (or the GMAC Second-Steps Antiracist Workshop, if you’ve attended the workshop before). You can sign up for these when you register for the conference. Also, keep an eye out for teach-ins on archaeological intersections with pressing political issues at the SHA and SAA.

On that note, get in touch with Crossroads Antiracism Organization & Training to read about their mission, donate to their cause, and learn about organizing an Antiracism Team in your institution.

This is a great list of calling scripts for various issues, including a weekly call to action, tips and strategies, and a built in list of representatives and their phone numbers.

This is our phone bank site with scripts for reauthorizing the Historic Preservation Fund, opposing Steve Bannon’s appointment, and supporting Standing Rock. Feel free to keep calling, even though the November 19 collective action has passed!

There are a lot of resources going around for engaging in constructive discussions with family members, friends, and others – here is an actual text-line with tips from SURJ. Though these actions are small and occur in our most intimate circles, they are important places to start to understand each other.

This concludes the MAPA blog series on politics, archaeology, and the 2016 election, the start of which seems like a world ago. But again, this is all just a beginning, and now there is work to be done. I look forward to working alongside you all to build a stronger archaeology, a better future, and a safer world.


1 Comment

  • Kellam says:

    Hi Trish,

    As usual, another great post that succinctly describes the challenges facing not only archaeology but the nation. The approaches you propose could combat the dangers of relativism, an important turn for anthropology in its time, but one that has perhaps outlived its usefulness as it is coopted by the right to justify the continued prioritization of white and/or male objectives over all others.

    I follow several message boards and Facebook groups that are popular forums among avocational archaeologists out West. There has been a significant backlash to the perceived “politicization” of archaeology in the past three weeks, mostly due to contributions from the professional/academic crowd. Of course, most academic archaeologists would tell you that the past is always political, archaeology is always political. But for many people archaeology is an escape from the political; or, as in the case of my government-employed colleagues, they are in the tricky position of making inherently political decisions about the past (what is “sacred” and what is not, to whom does a site belong, etc.) while working within a system that encourages them to have no official “political” opinion.

    How do we begin to reconcile archaeology’s re-emerging commitment to political action with the perceptions of our broader publics?

    As for the avocationalists, I’ve frequently pitched archaeology’s political agenda in terms of
    1) jobs – I have a job because we have collectively advocated for historic preservation legislation and that is currently a partisan issue, and one they need to consider when they vote if they enjoy archaeology; and
    2) descendant communities – if you like Indian stuff, you should probably be thinking about Native American communities that continue to have a connection to Indian artifacts and archaeological sites.

    But these are typically short-term conversation topics, not long-term objectives or solutions.

    So, what do you think? How does public archaeology defend its important political agendas in a nation wrapped in an ideology that seeks to politically neuter public engagement in schools, the workplace, and the media?

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