Diversity and Difference in SHA

In 2012 the SHA has been active on a number of fronts, and this month I want to examine two of those that I think are exceptionally important to the SHA in the coming years: one revolves around the diversity of the discipline in general and SHA in particular, and the other is the representation of archaeology in popular media.  Both are sufficiently complicated to deserve a posting of their own, so this week I take on the former and I will discuss the latter in my next post.

The Questions in “Diversity”

This year I have reported several times on the SHA’s effort to make diversity an increasingly articulate part of the SHA mission and our collective scholarly practice (compare columns on Global Historical Archaeology, Historical Archaeology in Central Europe, and Diversity and Anti-Racism in SHA).  There are a cluster of practical questions raised by “diversity”:

  • - What does it even mean to be “diverse”?  Many of us have become somewhat wary of the term “diversity,” so this demands some concrete definition;
  • - Why might we or any other discipline or professional society desire diversity?;
  • - What access barriers face various archaeologists and SHA members across lines of difference?;
  • - What are the international implications of diversity when we step outside the familiar lines of difference in America?

Many of these questions are to some extent rhetorical in the sense that they have no satisfying answer with utter resolution, but the honest, reflective, and ongoing discussion of all of them is critical.  The most recent discussion on these issues came in a Gender and Minority Affairs Committee Panel at the 2013 conference in a session that included Carol McDavid (Community Archaeology Research Institute) and Maria Franklin (Texas) as Chairs, with panelists Whitney Battle-Baptiste (UMass), Chris Fennell (Illinois), Lewis Jones (Indiana), and Michael Nassaney (Western Michigan).  They were joined by Richard Benjamin (International Slavery Museum, Liverpool) and Bob Paynter (UMass).  Some of the issues are familiar to long-term members, but Board of Directors’ goal is to produce increasing clarity and concrete action.  These thoughts are simply my own as an audience member in the session and a Board Member who is committed to an inclusive SHA.

Welcoming Diversity in SHA

The GMAC session revolved around, to paraphrase GMAC Liaison Carol McDavid, making SHA a welcoming environment to a variety of voices.  This is perhaps a more difficult thing to measure than mere demography of the membership, because it fundamentally defines diversity as a shared social and emotional sentiment.  Nevertheless, it is an absolutely worthy goal that consciously embraces curiosity about and acceptance of people unlike ourselves across time, space, and every conceivable line of difference.

A “welcoming” professional home ensures that colleagues with distinctive experiences and scholarly voices can have significant impact beyond little circles of specialists.  We should not underestimate the influence of even a single thoughtful voice, and SHA should be absolutely certain that such a voice feels welcome and supported and can secure a firm and fair foothold in our midst even if we disagree with their scholarly conclusions.  I very strongly believe that since the moment a group of 112 people gathered in Dallas in 1967, the SHA has been fundamentally committed to casting itself as a democratic, international scholarly organization, and we have long taken pride in archaeology’s capacity to “give voice” to historical agents who have been overlooked by other scholars.  I do not believe that this means SHA is not a “welcoming” professional environment, but some of our members are reluctant to become part of some scholarly discourses or SHA governance, so we need to systematically ask how we can create comfortable places and roles for all our members.  Many of the measures to fashion such an environment are apparently modest mechanisms that we can do now, and I have three general thoughts that came out of the GMAC session and broader discussions in Leicester and over the previous year.

Feeling and Being Diverse in SHA

First, I fundamentally agree that in North American historical archaeology in particular the absence of people of color inevitably risks compromising our scholarship.  Many of us self-consciously sound the mantra that the meeting seems aesthetically homogenous, which is an inelegant way of saying we are overwhelmingly White and do not appear to reflect society.  I am not in disagreement with this observation as much as I hope we can push it to some substantive action.  I do not personally think that any scholarly discipline actually “reflects” society in an especially substantive way:  that is, scholars gravitate toward the academy, academic production, and particular disciplines because we have specific sorts of creativity, experiences, and personalities.  Nevertheless, even within that aesthetic of homogeneity there are a breadth of class, ethnic, international, or queered voices who come to SHA through a rich range of paths, and a vast range of us partner with community constituencies.  During the GMAC session Tim Scarlett suggested that it may well be that one thing we need to do is more assertively tell our unacknowledged stories of difference to encourage others that their voices matter in scholarship and SHA governance: that is, being an SHA member is a mechanical act of paying dues, but feeling that we are each an important part of the SHA discussion may be different for our colleagues who feel most marginalized because of race, class, sexuality, age, disabilities, or myriad other factors.

International Diversity

Second, a question sounded in Leicester was what constitutes diversity as we move beyond the confines of North America?  As we grow and become a truly international, wired organization connected across increasingly complicated lines of space and difference, SHA needs to assertively work to advocate for all our members and the diverse worlds in which we all live.  Our international membership provides a rich way to confront Americans’ distinctive experiences of lines of difference, so I hope we will cast diversity in the most complex social, historical, and international terms that are compelling to all our members and make all of us feel welcome in SHA.  We are an international organization in a transnational moment in which many of us are increasingly threatened by the decline of jobs in the private sector, agencies, and the academy alike, and for many of us SHA provides a refuge and a voice for our collective scholarship.  We must always assertively and self-critically assess shifting lines of difference, so I do not believe what we call diversity will ever settle into a few neat categories.

Diversity as Good Scholarship

Third, like all scholars, we will continue to have standards of scholarly rigor we are all held to regardless of our demography or identity.  Some of our work will always be somewhat particularistic and descriptive, and not every project or research context needs to be focused on inequality or public engagement: lots of us need to do the fine-grained artifact and documentary research that makes historical archaeology so compelling in the first place.  Respect for scholarly rigor and difference alike breeds civility and personal humility that encourages talent and makes for good scholarship: multiple and often-dissentious voices constantly destabilize normative methods and narratives, while homogeneity simply reproduces itself and is at best boring scholarship and at worst socially reactionary.  It is absolutely true that we are all part of employment and educational contexts that have a variety of structural inequalities that risk yielding social and intellectual homogeneity.  We should be prepared to acknowledge when some standards hinder our colleagues, and in SHA I think this means always pressing to be transparent, respectful, encouraging, and clear about the scholarship, service, and communication done in our collective name.  We remain committed to diversity simply because a welcoming and creative intellectual environment produces the best scholarship.

Diversity as an SHA Value

Will SHA resolve all those questions I posed at the outset of this blog?  Of course we cannot resolve structural inequalities that took a half-millennium to develop and now have a rich range of international faces.  SHA is one professional organization, and while we advocate for a rich range of scholars and our members touch the lives of countless people beyond our membership, our mission remains focused on encouraging the scholarly study of the last half-millennium.  Nevertheless, in recent years the Board of Directors has undergone diversity training, a Gender and Minority Affairs Travel Scholarship has been created, and we have begun to examine the concrete ways we can invest the organization from top to bottom with an embrace of difference.  Now we need every SHA Committee to ask itself what its stake is in this discussion on diversity: If these moves are going to create genuine change in SHA, then diversity needs to be on the agenda for all committees and not simply the GMAC.

At the 1968 SHA meeting in Williamsburg, Kathleen Gilmore, Dessamae Lorrain, and Judy Jelks were among a very small number of women at the conference, which apparently included no people of color at all.  Today our membership is nearly evenly split between men and women and our Presidents have included 12 women, including 11 of the last 24 Presidents.  We continue to work to ensure that we are the best possible advocates for all our members because we carry an important role, and we should never underestimate the many lives each of us profoundly touch, sometimes without even knowing it.  While we will not resolve the inequalities that hinder access to the academy or scholarship, we can place these issues in discussion, embrace them as our core values, and persistently press to be a good example of inclusion, respect, and acceptance.  I truly believe SHA members have always been committed to a truly democratic scholarship, and I think in many ways we are simply continuing to articulate the values of many scholars before us.  It is important to keep articulating those values and doing all we can to move this discussion to the heart of SHA’s culture.

Diversity and Anti-Racism in the Society for Historical Archaeology

The epilogue of Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800 is a disarming and profoundly thoughtful account of his experience of life across the color line and how it informed his scholarly career.  Ferguson’s book is justifiably heralded as one of historical archaeology’s most important contributions to the scholarship of African cultural persistence in the face of captivity, yet we risk overlooking the provocative epilogue that situates such scholarship in Ferguson’s own experience and in broader historical archaeology.  Uncommon Ground’s succinct epilogue provides an important statement about the politics of historical archaeologies conducted across and along lines of difference, and a discussion about those politics can contribute to an increasingly rich and reflective scholarship and diverse archaeological community.

Ferguson’s epilogue relates a story of him and a boyhood friend watching an African-American railroad “gang” laying rails in a sweltering 1949 summer.  An elder member of the group lorded over the workers, singing in a “rich, melodious voice” in time with hammers driving the rail, an experience that left the two boys “spellbound and envious.”  That fascination and envy with African America has often been felt by many White people who have been equally spellbound if mystified by a rich culture that has persisted with strength, creativity, and dignity in the face of profound injustice.  Many White historical archaeologists—myself included–have devoted much of our scholarship to illuminating African America’s centrality in American life because we share Ferguson’s humility in the face of the African-American experience, respect for this rich heritage, and conscious complicity in a half-millennium of anti-Black racism.

Ferguson acknowledges that he and his friend “heard and felt that workday performance in ignorance,” largely because they “had few black acquaintances and no black friends.”  When his friend addressed the singer with a racist epithet, the boys were soundly rebuked and felt “rejected and confused.”  Ferguson admits that through his “teenage years the alienation continued, and I alternately and somewhat arbitrarily enjoyed, scorned, and admired `colored people’ without ever knowing a single African American.”

That concession of fascination and admiration in conflict with apprehension and confusion is an exceptionally rare scholarly acknowledgement of the complications of life lived along and across color lines (compare Whitney Battle-Baptiste’s June 2012 SHA Blog for a similar example from an African diasporan perspective).  Ferguson found himself in the midst of the South during the Civil Rights movement, and he recognized his White neighbors “struggled to rationalize away the guilt of imposing or accepting an inequality so familiar that most had never perceived it as unjust.”  He acknowledges that he “came to see that the movement was reinforcing justice and compassion as basic American values,” and he began to comprehend that a deep-seated cultural heritage “beyond the eye and mind of the white majority” fueled the Civil Rights movement and rested at the heart of American heritage.

That recognition that racism was silently situated at the heart of American life and aspired to efface diasporan heritage provides an articulate coda underscoring the political significance of Ferguson’s study.  Historical archaeologists have produced an enormous volume of illuminating, reflective, and even activist scholarship on the African diasporan experience and life along the color line for which we can feel justifiably proud.  Nevertheless, Ferguson’s revelatory honesty is the sort of politics that we rarely see in print, and while many of us can honestly claim good works in our own local projects they often do not become public knowledge or accepted disciplinary practice, and they are not especially clearly stated as our common philosophical and sociopolitical interests.

Our pride in a rich African diasporan archaeology or our disciplinary attention to historical social complexity should not blind us to the need to ask difficult questions about diversity in contemporary historical archaeology, and SHA has the opportunity to lead a challenging and transformative discussion about the ways in which equity, privilege, and race shape every dimension of our lives, scholarship, and practice.  We have collectively done an astounding amount of good research and community outreach, but we need to articulate that work in ways that acknowledge disciplinary inequalities; we should situate SHA in conscious opposition to structural inequalities in broader society; and we must continue to develop concrete mechanisms to make SHA a welcoming professional home for a broad range of members whose voices can shape archaeology and impact the communities in which we live.  A historical archaeology practiced by a rich range of scholars that assertively examine global diversity is simply good scholarship that is true to a breadth of experiences and systemic inequalities throughout the world over 500 years.

Certainly many of the first archaeologists who gathered in 1967 to form the SHA were focused on British colonial heritage and the spread of European cultures and materiality in the New World.  Questions about globalization and social diversity gradually trickled into the research questions and discussion: Charles Fairbanks, for instance, soon led archaeologists into African diasporan archaeologies, and James Deetz profoundly shaped the discipline by advocating archaeological attention to the many peoples ideologically forgotten in historical narratives.  Many of us continue to justifiably focus on colonial European subjects, but that work is inevitably enriched by a rigorous and reflective focus on diversity, just as archaeologists examining race need to push beyond archaeologies of African America.  For instance, there is the potential to do an exceptionally interesting historical archaeology of race among White consumers who often embrace—and routinely evade—the privileges of White subjectivity.  This attention to social diversity certainly does not discard all the illuminating historical archaeologies of colonial European contexts, but scholarship revolving around race, patriarchy, classism, sexuality, or ethnicity can be embedded into many archaeological studies that sometimes are conceived by us as being somehow “outside” diversity.  The “questions that count” in contemporary historical archaeology simply must address diversity to be rigorous and challenging scholarship.  The weight of such scholarship can have profound effects on how many of our neighbors view our collective heritage and in turn how they view contemporary lines of difference, so confronting disciplinary and SHA inequalities and embracing diversity among membership and in our scholarship are important missions for SHA.

SHA has underscored its commitment to equity and diversity in the last year, with the ambition of being an increasingly diverse membership that provides a welcoming professional home for a wide range of scholars.  One step in this process was my participation in a People’s Institute Undoing Racism workshop in Washington, D.C. in July.  Gender and Minority Affairs Committee Chair Florie Bugarin attended the workshop with me and about 40 people who worked for a variety of non-profits and community organizations as well as neighborhood folks from Washington.  This is quite a different group than virtually any scholarly conference, classroom, or excavation site, but in many ways it would be a familiar and illuminating discussion for the many historical archaeologists who conduct community archaeologies and are committed to engaged scholarship—often across color lines and power divisions.

Many historical archaeologists have given thought to the complications of scholarly/community partnerships, but we have not often considered how racism shapes such relationships or how White scholars exercise privilege without even recognizing it as such.  A 2011 SHA Newsletter piece by Michael Nassaney and Cheryl LaRoche, for instance, discussed the persistent impression of racism on American life and the ways it and White privilege inevitably have an impression on historic archaeology practice and the very organization of SHA itself.  Anna Agbe-Davies joined this conversation in the Spring 2012 Newsletter, arguing that Nassaney and LaRoche’s column underscores the need to encourage both organizational change in SHA and individual good works—for instance, as we transform structural inequalities vested in organizations like SHA, we can individually take small but consequential steps like those often-invisible trips to local elementary schools, the energy devoted to championing equity in our local institutions, and all of our voices advocating for an archaeology that reveals the historic roots of inequality.  The People’s Institute experience framed a larger discussion about how power is vested in organizations like SHA, how a broad range of members with different degrees of access and power are served by SHA, and how all of our members can secure genuine agency and grow professionally within SHA.

These discussions have led to a series of initiatives that are intended to make our mostly unspoken disciplinary and SHA commitment to diversity concrete and increasingly part of our structural practice.

  1. One of the first steps was a diversity training course at the June, 2012 SHA Board Meeting.  That training session provided an all-day experience for the Board and the GMAC Chair to begin discussing the specifics of what diversity actually means in the context of historical archaeology and SHA; what are our expectations for what a diverse membership does for the discipline; and how can we make diversity a structural dimension of all historical archaeology and SHA practice, and not simply a research niche.  I and Florie Bugarin then attended the People’s Institute Workshop a month later.  These discussions are simply beginning to move all of our disparate thoughts into collective space, but they seem an essential prelude to developing any genuine initiatives.
  2. At the June Board meeting two Minority Travel Scholarship Awards also were approved by the Board, and they will defray travel costs for two students attending the Leicester conference in January 2013.
  3. The Board agreed in June that President-Elect and Ethics Committee Chair Charlie Ewen will direct a revision of the Ethics Statement that will include an SHA Statement on Sexual Harassment, Gender Equity, Antiracism and LGTB Inclusivity.
  4. Directed by Membership Committee Chair Barbara Heath, a member’s survey will be conducted in 2013 to secure demographic data more recent and somewhat more focused on dimensions of diversity than the 2008 Member’s Needs Report.

Historical archaeologists have long embraced an archaeology of peoples who have been structurally silenced and ignored as their experiences are effaced from dominant narratives.  SHA is committed to supporting such work because it is simply good scholarship that is true to our collective heritage, and working to mirror the same diversity in our membership is simply true to contemporary social life.  As Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground epilogue stresses, lived inequalities inevitably shape our scholarship, but we have not often examined how our collective experiences become part of the structural fabric of academic departments, cultural resource management firms, or the SHA itself.  Many of us have had these conversations with colleagues for years on excavation sites, in department meetings, and even in the hallways of SHA conferences, asking ourselves how we can foster reflective transformations in institutions and everyday practice.  We need to keep moving that discussion into our shared disciplinary discourse and make it part of good practice, pressing to ensure that historical archaeology and SHA practice genuine equity in our scholarship and advocacy and welcome a breadth of voices.