September 2019

Toward An Antiracist Archeology

What does an antiracist archaeology look like and how can it be accomplished in a profession that remains predominantly white and continues to privilege whiteness?

By Mia L. Carey

What does an antiracist archaeology look like and how can it be accomplished in a profession that remains predominantly white and continues to privilege whiteness? [i] What does an antiracist archaeology At an invited and sponsored panel, “Our Practice, Our Lives: What Would  an Anti-Racist SHA Look Like?” at the 2011 Society for Archaeology Annual Meeting, panelists and audience participants set forth a number of recommendations to move the profession toward an antiracist institutional identity. This included developing an ethics statement regarding racial inclusion; having leadership participate in antiracism training; developing a grievance procedure; and conducting a self-study. While these were important steps forward, I urge my fellow archaeologists, and anyone in a related discipline, society, profession, etc. haunted by white supremacy, to head the words of Angela Davis: “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” [ii] The work of antiracism does not start at an institutional or profession level, it begins within committed individuals who are willing to confront the racist ideas and policies that continue to govern the profession and replace them with antiracist ones.[iii]

Despite the impressive body of work historical archaeologists have produced illuminating the people, especially black people, who have been structurally silenced and ignored throughout history, there has been a reluctance, it seems, to address provocative, even controversial topics. For the last 40 years, archaeologists have paid close attention to the racialization of the past and how racial hierarchies manifest within the archaeological record, yet have ignored the other side of racism—white privilege, that “invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks that white people can count on cashing in each day,” and white supremacy and their impact on the field.[iv] In 2008, Paul Mullins wrote, “ historical archaeology uneasily negotiates between African anti-essentialism and the evidence for African cultural persistence,” an observation which remains accurate.[v] Realistically, what good is a blue bead or a cowrie shell to a group of people who can be murdered for literally breathing.

As a black woman, who happens to be an archaeologist, it is hard for me to place the interests of the field above those of the diaspora—it is the sole reason I believe my life’s work is reeducate people who have a warped sense of who and what black people are truly capable of. It has driven me closer to the work of antiracist activism. As a result, I have begun developing a methodological framework that dismantles racism in archaeological training, practice, and community engagement, and truly commits to promoting diversity in the canon, in the field, and in professional societies. This can be done by unpacking systems of white supremacy found in historical research, both in historic contexts and past scholarship, and connecting them to present day inequities; exposing white privilege as an on-going process which silences the narratives and experiences of Black people; and examining the ways whiteness shapes archaeological discourse.[vi]

However, before this can happen, we must realize that as citizens under the embarrassing, outrageous, and racist presidency of “45” it is time to move beyond a simplistic definition of racism, and understand that the work of dismantling racism is a lifelong process.[vii] As James Baldwin once said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”[viii] Baldwin’s words ring true when we consider the U.S.’ original sin, the legacies of racism, and that regardless of our skin color we ALL have the capacity to be racist.[ix] There is NO neutrality in the struggle against racial inequality, you are either racist or antiracist[x]. To be antiracist is to set clear definitions of what it means to be racist and antiracist and believe that racial inequality is caused by racial discrimination.

As a profession, archaeology may not have the power to change racist policies or address the nation’s racial inequalities outside its professional organizations, until it can be completely self-reflexive, but, for now, it can challenge racist ideas within. In 2015, I had the opportunity to begin that process. Between June and November, the District of Columbia’s (D.C.) Historic Preservation Office completed the Yarrow Mamout Archaeology Project, an archaeological investigation of an Upper Georgetown property that was purchased by Yarrow Mamout, an emancipated West African Muslim, in February 1800. The first known property of its kind, the site presented its own unique challenges as it had been continuously occupied for two hundred years in an urban space. At this time, we have not found definitive evidence of Mamout’s presence on the site in the archaeological record, though, a full analysis of the artifact assemblage has not been completed.[xi]

Image 1: Portrait of Yarrow Mamout, Public Domain.

Before this project, there was little precedent for exploring the history of Islam among enslaved Africans and Black Muslims within the context of African American archaeology. Only two studies on Islam among the enslaved have appeared in historical archaeology literature, and neither study included archaeology, examined the history of Islam in Black America, or sought insight from contemporary Black Muslim communities[xii]. As a non-Muslim it was important for me to fully understand their history and legacy in America, so I consulted with Amir Muhammad, founder of America’s Heritage Islamic Museum in southeast D.C. as I prepared my manuscript, which builds upon the research in my dissertation. Most of what average Americans know about Islam in general, much less Black Muslims, has been distorted in the media by our politicians.

Though many believe Islam is foreign to the U.S., it has a long history on this continent, dating back to the arrival of Estevancio, the first identifiable Muslim in North America. Enslaved by the Portuguese after they captured his hometown in Morocco, Estevancio, a guide and interpreter, arrived in Florida in 1527 with the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition and later became one of the first native Africans to explore the American southwest.[xiii] While the religion by enslaved Africans had all but disappeared, for all intents and purposes, by the mid-19th century, its roots formed with the rise of Islam among urban Black communities in the North in the early 20th century who were seeking relief from racial oppression and seeking a new identity. My research centers on how Black communities appropriated Islam as a method of combatting white supremacy and racial discrimination—which unpacks the racist ideas about Black Muslims created by white supremacy.

My developing framework is a result of my own journey towards claiming an antiracist identity and a desire to change the culture of racism and white supremacy embedded into the discipline. The racism that I and other black archaeologists have faced led me to believe that it only was up to white archaeologists to teach themselves how to be antiracist and to move the field forward. Given Audre Lorde’s words that our, “…energy… might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future,” I realize we ALL have a responsibility in this struggle against racism.  Unlike changing the culture of an organization, claiming an institutional antiracist identity requires coming face to face with the myriad of ways the profession continues to privilege whiteness. The road will not be easy, but I have hope that we can take a giant step forward if we work to oppose racism in our systems AND within ourselves.

This project was made possible through the National Park Service in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

Dr. Mia L. Carey is currently a Mellon Humanities Post-Doctoral Fellow at the National Park Service with a focus on the legacy of the long civil rights movement. She is a graduate of The Howard University (Dual BA, Anthropology & Sociology, ‘11) and the University of Florida (MA’14, PhD ’17); a former National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, a former McKnight Doctoral Fellow; and a former Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program Scholar. Her current work focuses on antiracism activism and changing the culture of racism and white supremacy embedded into organizations.

[i] (Nassaney and LaRoche 2012). Conversations about race and it’s legacies have been on-ongoing since the appearance of Babson’s (1990) and Epperson’s (1990) articles in Historical Archaeology and the rediscovery of the African Burial Ground in New York; see Battle-Baptiste (2011); Franklin (1997); McDavid (2007); (Mullins 2008); Whiteness is defined as a “social construction that has created a racial hierarchy that shapes the social, cultural, educational, political, and economic institutions of society. Whiteness is linked to domination and is a form of race privilege invisible to white people who are not conscious of its power (Henry and Tator 2006)

[ii]  White supremacy, per, DiAngelo (2018, 30) is a socio-political economic system of domination that is based on racial categories that benefit those who are perceived as white.

[iii] A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in anyway (Kendi 2019, 20). A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups (Kendi 2019, 18).

[iv] (Nassaney and LaRoche 2012); (McIntosh 1988)

[v] (Mullins 2008)

[vi] (Graef 2018);  (Barnes 2011), archaeological discourse refers to how archaeology is done and who can do it

[vii] A simple definition of racism is intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals (DiAngelo 2018, 9),

[viii] Appeared in James Baldwin’s unfinished novel and in Raoul Pecks, I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

[ix] (Wallis 2016, xxiv); (Kendi 2019)

[x] (Kendi 2019, 9)

[xi] (Carey 2017)

[xii] (Allen 2009) (Davidson and McIllvoy 2012)

[xiii] (Muhammad 2001)

Allen, Kacie. 2009. “Looking East: Muslims Identity in the Archaeological Record of American Enslavement.” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 12 (3): 1-109.

Babson, David. 1990. “The Archaeology of Racism and Ethnicity on Southern Plantations.” Historical Archaeology 24 (4): 20-28.

Barnes, Jodi A. 2011. “Gender and Minority Affairs: Why Do We Seek Diversity.” SHA Newsletter, Summer: 20-22.

Battle-Baptiste, Whitney. 2011. Black Feminist Archaeology. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Carey, Mia LaShaye. 2017. “How Religion Preserved the Man: Exploring the History and Legacy of African Islam through the Yarrow Mamout (ca. 1736-1823) Archaeology Project.” PhD Dissertation. Gainesville: University of Florida.

Davidson, James, and Karen McIllvoy. 2012. “New Perspectives from Old Collections: Potential Artifacts of Diasporan Spirituality at Couper, Plantation, Georgia.” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 1 (2): 107-166.

DiAngelo, Robin. 2018. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Epperson, Terrence. 1990. “Race and the Discipline of the Plantation.” Historical Archaeology 24 (4): 29-36.

Franklin, Maria. 1997. “Power to the People: Sociopolitics and the Archaeology of Black Americas.” Historical Archaeology 31 (3): 36-50.

Graef, Aileen. 2018. Trump: ‘I am not a racist’. January 15. Accessed September 10, 2019.

Henry, Frances, and Carol Tator. 2006. The Color of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society. Toronto: Nelson.

Jackson. 2017. Doing the Work: White People Must Invest in Anti-Racism. December 26. Accessed 2019.

Kendi, Ibram X. 2019. How to be an Antiracist. New York: One World.

—. 2017. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books.

McDavid, Carol. 2007. “Beyond Strategy and Good Intentions: Archaeology, Race, and White Privilege.” In Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement, by Barbara J. Little and Paul A. Shackel, 67-88. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

McGuire, Randall. 1991. A Marxist Archaeology. Orlando: Academic Press.

—. 2008. Archaeology as Political Action. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McGuire, Randall, Maria O’Donovan, and LouAnn Wurst. 2005. “Probing Praxis in Archaeology: The Last Eighty Years.” Rethinking Marxism 17 (3): 355-372.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Accessed February 26, 2017.

Muhammad, Amir. 2001. Muslims in American: Seven Centuries of History (1312-2000) Collections and Stories of American Muslims. Beltsville: Amana Publications.

Mullins, Paul. 2008. “Excavating America’s Metaphor: Race, Diaspora, and Vindincationist Archaeologies.” Historical Archaeology 42 (2): 104-122.

Nassaney, Michael, and Cheryl LaRoche. 2012. “Race and the Society for Historical Archaeology: Steps toward Claiming an Anti-Racist Institutional Identity.” SHA Newsletter 4-5.

Wallis, Jim. 2016. America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

2 comments on “Toward An Antiracist Archeology

  1. Perri Zepeda

    A refreshing treatise, thank you! Sharing this!


  2. Pingback: A note on archaeology and racism – The city remains

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