Even as a child, I loved museums. Science museums, history museums – I could spend hours losing myself in intricately designed and curated exhibits that would transport me to another place or another time. One of my favorite parts of any major museum in the United States was the “World History” or “World Cultures” section, the area in which all of the non-Western, non-European artifacts were kept. Here, sometimes tucked away in a corner, I would find the Chinese cultural displays, places in which I could actually see items that resonated with my familial culture that often felt so different from my white friends and their families.
In high school, my biology class went on a field trip to the recently opened Bodies Exhibit in New York City. At the time, I was incredibly drawn to biological sciences, although I still had a soft spot for history as well (little did I know that bioarchaeological studies were a thing!). I was proud of how little revulsion I had over the idea of seeing real bodies on display, that I was so scientific in my curiosity. That was, until I finally saw the bodies…and that they looked like me. Eventually, our class would learn that the human remains were all Chinese, which unfortunately made me the butt of many racist jokes for the rest of the day. But more importantly, that specific experience – of seeing myself in the dissected, preserved bodies in a way that my (white) classmates could not – has always stuck with me.
That specific experience – of seeing myself in the dissected, preserved bodies in a way that my (white) classmates could not – has always stuck with me.
Today, I’m an archaeologist and PhD candidate in the United Kingdom. I wish I could say that things have gotten better, that I feel more comfortable in my own discipline and have a cohort of diverse peers surrounding me…but that’s not true. The field of British archaeology is predominantly white, perhaps most obviously whenever I attend a conference and struggle to find another archaeologist of color. Whether intentionally or not, I am always “Othered” – it’s easy to feel as though there’s an asterisk next to my name, that I’m not just an archaeologist but an *Asian American* archaeologist. Sometimes people will bring up my background and ask, in what they think is a “complimentary” way, “How does someone like you end up in British archaeology?” As though I somehow stumbled my way into this space, this white space, by accident!
During these past few years living and working as an academic and archaeologist here in the UK, I’ve reflected a lot on these tough experiences. I’ve written about them, I’ve vented about my frustrations on Twitter, and, luckily, this has led to making connections with other BIPOC scientists with similar struggles. Eventually, through Black and Indigenous colleagues that I’ve connected with online, I learned about the decolonization movement within academia and have become committed to approaching archaeology with this in mind.
The roots of archaeology as a scientific discipline are colonial ones. Regardless of how much I love being an archaeologist and doing my research, I cannot obscure my discipline’s violent past (and, in some cases, violent present as well). Across the world, Western/European museums hoard artifacts and ancestors from colonized regions, and although repatriation of these stolen objects and remains has become slightly more commonplace today, there are still many cases in which museums refuse to comply.
To decolonize archaeology is to center the voices of the Indigenous peoples, the colonized peoples in our research. When we decolonize archaeology, we uproot it from the grasp of colonialism and replant it in fertile grounds that are not tainted by a Western/European bias. And it has to be more than just empty words, too – Frantz Fanon (1963), Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012), each emphasize through their work that decolonization must be a transformative, even destructive act. One of the most freeing things I’ve realized as I’ve grown as an academic is that archaeology, as a discipline, can be radically changed into something so much better. And that, ultimately, I can’t wait for someone else to make change…along with like-minded peers, we can take an active role in starting this change.
When we decolonize archaeology, we uproot it from the grasp of colonialism and replant it in fertile grounds that are not tainted by a Western/European bias.
As of the writing of this article, I’m just about to start my final year of my PhD. My thesis is partially written, and I’m starting to think about my future. Not necessarily just about my academic future…to be honest, sometimes I find it hard to even concentrate on my PhD research these days, when the world is in an upheaval. At my most pessimistic, I often wonder…what good is my PhD if it can’t feed the hungry, or house the homeless, or stop climate change? But, I think that by committing to a decolonized archaeological practice, I am part of a larger movement that is working to end the marginalization and dehumanization of others. We are creating change in the archaeological world. For too long we have been curated by others, objectified in studies, and not given the chance to be the expert; now, we get an active hand in interpreting our collective past, and becoming our own curators.
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