Why Mansplaining Colonialism is No Joke

Yesterday, colleagues across the globe shared on-the-ground experiences from labs, field sites, and personal offices to debunk stereotypes about what archaeologists do in everyday contexts. Unfortunately, on this celebratory Day of Archaeology, our Fallopian tubes seemed to be all bent out of shape – at least that’s what one shovelbum might have you believe. This week, a “well-meaning” jokester (who happens to run a popular archaeology site) posted a photograph from a museum artifact contest, which ignited a “firestorm” of comments. The photograph included an image of allegedly phallic, wooden artifact in the background and the contestant’s guess submission scribbled on a form, which read: “Squaw pleaser”. The archaeologist evidently got a kick out dildo interpretations in the discipline and jumped at the opportunity to make a “dick joke”. The facebook comments that followed ranged from giggles, misogynistic justifications, and homophobic rationales, to thoughtful criticisms.

In honor of archaeology day, we want to consider the implications of the image and its associated comments. As we dive headfirst into the intellectual terrain of “dick jokes” and internet trolling, we want to discuss how social media commentaries police and debase marginalized groups. In doing so, we highlight the gravity of our ethical responsibilities to the communities we work and collaborate with. This post isn’t meant to be taken as a self-righteous attack on someone who made a thoughtless joke. It isn’t meant to be read as a “crucifixion”. We’re not coming at this wielding pitchforks or torches. We’re not being swept up by the delusional fantasies of “Hitler youth”. One misstep doesn’t necessarily negate the contributions that an archaeologist has made to the discipline. Instead, we want to accept the invitation (made by the author in question) to discuss why so many communities still feel wary of archaeology’s best intentions.

Etymology and Appropriation

To start things off, let’s tackle the social uses and abuses underlying terminology. Many people mistakenly believe that the etymology of the term “squaw” among certain Indigenous peoples justifies its appropriation by white settlers. Since European settlement and the expansion of Native genocide in the 19th century, Indigenous bodies have been rendered invisible and marked for violent elimination by the settler state. “Squaw”, a term for Native women, entered colonial vernacular as a means of sexualizing and racially subjugating Indigenous bodies. The colonial gaze reframed the term to set Native American woman apart from the white European community and “illustrat[e] a passive and sometimes eroticized framing of Aboriginal women” (Robertson, 2013). Use of the word ‘squaw’ served as a mechanism to justify colonial processes. ‘Squaw’ alluded to a “dirty, easy, uncivilized” woman who, in the eyes of the white settlers, was deemed less worthy and/or less important than other human beings. The image of the ‘squaw’ was largely developed within the context of “control, conquest, possession, and exploitation.” (Anderson, 2013)

Surprisingly, many of us still seem to let our own liberal-minded perceptions cloud our social privileges. We think that our anthropological training makes us more attuned to the discourses about race, class, gender, etc. But at the end of the day, most of us walk through the world with certain privileges. We ultimately make mistakes. We say the wrong thing. A few people who responded to the artifact contest image harkened back to the insignificance of race as a biological category. One man seemed to think that our shared humanity legitimized appropriation. This all-too-familiar belief that we live in a post-racial, colorblind society makes racial inequalities that much harder to combat. As anthropologists, archaeologists should be at the forefront of demythologizing these neoliberal attitudes. Moments like these remind us how even the most liberal-minded practitioners contribute to systemic forms of institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Racism, Sexism and Homophobia

If we dig a little deeper, the hetero-patriarchal project of settler colonialism becomes clearer. The phrase “squaw pleaser” isn’t just racist, it’s also sexist and heteronormative. In the 19th century, scientific discourses kept racial hierarchies in order by creating a sexually perverse image of non-white bodies (Sommerville, 1994). As Driskill (2010: 84) notes, “Homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny are part of colonial projects intent on murdering, removing and marginalizing Native bodies and nations.” An orderly colonial future hinges on heteropatriarchal tools ensuring the eradication of perverse bodies.

A glance at the facebook comments under the recent post reveals how sexism and heteronormativity work in tandem with racial subjugation. As soon as the “squaw pleaser” photograph started being followed on social media, a number of white archaeologists started hailing insults at women. After one woman shared her discomfort, the author of the image responded by demeaning her feminine oversensitivity and told her to stop getting her “fallopian tubes bent out of shape.” Another joke – this time hurled at women’s bodies. Another jab at Native women, already disproportionately affected by sexual assault. As we watched the the comments accrue, we recognized the subtext. Femininity was the culprit. Ridiculed Fallopian tubes stood for hysterical sensitivity, weakness, and irrational behavior.

The author’s next justification: every “woman”, “hetero or GLBTQ” has a stockpile of “squaw pleasers” tucked away in some clandestine drawer at home. According to this expert on female sexuality and queer proclivities, every archaeologist loves a good phallus. Supporters who rallied behind this amateur sexologist, trashed critics for being too soft, not being able to take a joke, and feeling hypersensitive.

One guy added this gem of wisdom: “If you hate life and your work so much that you can’t have some fun with it then you should jump off the nearest bridge because your taking your career way too seriously.” Women, queers, and other marginalized individuals are always the ones that just can’t take a joke. The invocation of sensitivity allows subaltern voices to be cast aside as frivolous. We get stuffed into the character of feminist killjoys.


Since the photograph was first posted, the author has publicly apologized via Facebook. The author owned up to the problematic use of the term “squaw” as a racial epithet, but has yet to acknowledge his own misogyny and heteronormativity. While we appreciate the author’s attempt to consider the ramifications of the image, the incident elucidates broader systemic issues we still face as a discipline. We’re used to this trail of hetero-patriarchal norms and systemic barriers to racial inequality in archaeology. Women have grown accustomed to having their linguistic patterns dissected and bodily mannerisms scrutinized. Privilege flares up in these moments when some people feel like they have the authority to open up our closets and make presumptions about queer intimacies. Marginalized voices aren’t the only ones saddened by these circumstances. Friends and allies speaking out about these issues help strengthen the discipline. This incident speaks to what some days in the life of an archaeologist mean for people who aren’t in positions of power. If we want to rescue archaeology from its colonial past, we need to hold ourselves accountable to the precarious communities we interact with rather than hiding behind flimsy “dick jokes”.


Additional notes on the colonial history of the term “squaw” (from Anderson):

  1. Native Women portrayed by the European colonizer as powerful as ‘Indian Queen’ combining the “magnificent richness and beauty they [colonizer] encountered” with concepts of American liberty, power and European virtue.
  2. Through the process of colonialism Europeans needed Native people to become more accessible, thus the Indian Princess– “a girl-ish-sexual figure” easier to dominate than the Indian Queen/Demi-Goddess tied to the land.
  3. Indian Princess = Virgin Frontier; open for consumption and appealing to the “European male wishing to lay claim to the ‘new’ territory”.
  4. “Squaw” developed as a term used to identify sexualized, young Native women objectified for the pleasure of “adventurous white men”.
  5. “Squaw” quickly became synonymous with ‘uncivilized’ – women in need of salvation, the antithesis of Euro American femininity – and was used as justification for the colonial process.



Anderson K (2013) The Construction of a Negative Identity. In Hobbs MH and Rice C (eds.) Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain, Toronto: Women’s Press, pg. 269-279.

Driskill QL (2010) Doubleweaving Two-Spirit critiques: Building alliances between Native and queer studies. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16: 69-92.

Robertson, CL  (2013) Indian Princess/Indian Squaw: Representations of Indigenous Women in Canada’s Printed Press. In: Mateos-Aparicio Martin-Albo A and Gregorio-Godeo E (eds) Culture and Power: Identity and Identification, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pg. 129-14

Somerville S (1994) Scientific Racism and the Emergence of the Homosexual Body. Journal of the History of Sexuality 5(2):243-266.


Queer Horizons

by Jamie Arjona

Social Media Rainbow

Last Friday, following the Supreme Court ruling on “same-sex marriage”, I opened my browser and started scrolling through a glitter-bombed version of my usual newsfeeds. Social media, news broadcasts, and even the White House all looked like they were reeling in the aftermath of a Pride parade. Aside from a few disgruntled posts, rainbows had overtaken the internet. Yet, I found myself feeling conflicted. I was at once elated and disheartened. As a queer person, the excitement was effervescent. Putting aside my critical stance on marriage for a few moments, I relived my own experiences of oppression – being harassed on the street, hearing homophobic jokes, receiving disgusted looks – and felt vindicated. I applauded allies for making their support public and cheered for friends who denounced homophobic responses on social media.

Photo Credit: a.b.w.7 through Creative Commons attribution license.

Photo Credit: a.b.w.7 through creative commons attribution license.

My cynicism reemerged when I realized that my vision of a radical queer politics faded into the background of assimilation. A whitewashed image of gay marriage had all the markings of homonormativity. Celebratory photos of white queers embracing each other on sidewalks overshadowed somber broadcasts from the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pickney, murdered in a terrorist attack on his Charleston church. A suite of corporations, including Twitter, Coca-Cola, and MasterCard, draped rainbow filters over brand logos to celebrate the landmark court ruling. Was this the type of change trans protesters at Compton’s cafeteria had imagined in 1966? Was this the future anticipated in the 1969 Stonewall riots?

Like many queer researchers, I’m critical of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) political organizations for their role in marginalizing minority community members. The fight for marriage equality has been a success because of its alignment with capitalism, globalization, and white middle class interests. Assimilating into the fabric of marriage strengthens the institutions queerness once stood against. Somehow discourses on marriage equality have eclipsed everyday forms of violence targeting queer groups. As Dean Spade (2011: 50) notes, the rhetoric of equality “turn[s] social movements toward goals of inclusion and incorporation and away from demands for redistribution and structural transformation”. Marriage equality has compromised a queer dismantling of the State. My criticism, however, isn’t meant to diminish what marriage means for many other queers – queers who spent lifetimes banned from hospital rooms, adoption centers, and probate courts. Instead, I want to channel the unruly energy of queerness, which agitates a docile queer integration.

This post attempts to share my ambivalence and take a moment to reflect on archaeology’s shortcomings in the realm of queer research. While I remain critical of these issues, my experiences in archaeology clarify how out of touch with queer studies the discipline remains. It’s difficult to articulate a critical queer perspective without a basic queer vocabulary. Archaeology needs to be queered, but to cultivate this disciplinary perversion we need to begin by veering outside the comforts of our Endnote libraries.

Perhaps beginning with a brief genealogy will help get the ball rolling. Although originally derived from Gay and Lesbian Studies, queer studies in the social sciences outgrew the confining boundaries of sex and sexuality . Recent queer scholarship embraces the boundless and ever-shifting essence of nonnormativity that renders queerness messy, unstable, and fluid (Boellstorff, 2007; Nash and Browne, 2012). According to Ahmed (2006) queer things and bodies “disturb the order of things” underlying Anglo American configurations of normalcy. Queer, in effect, disrupts heteropatriarchal structures that define what constitutes “normal”. Disorienting taken-for-granted values includes, but is not limited to understanding the social architecture regulating sex, desire, and intimacy. Contemporary scholarship in queer theory embraces a range of perverse intimacies existing outside social norms. The messiness of queerness makes it averse to definition. It operates against the familiar. As a vehicle for perversion, queer intimacies include things like disjointed temporalities, non-normative configurations of space, unsettling feelings, and uncomfortable proximities to pathologized bodies. Critical queer politics is about allowing ourselves to be seduced and transformed by these intimacies. Queerness messes up social arrangements rather than cleaning up to fit into an ever-expanding State apparatus.

As a queer researcher, I recognize the conflict between archaeology’s willingness to entertain queer perspectives and its reluctance to actually being queered. I’m deeply indebted to voices like Barbara Voss who pioneered a set of “queer archaeologies” (Blackmore, 2011; Dowson, 2000; Schmidt and Voss, 2000; Voss, 2012). Queer and feminist scholars stimulated my own interest in archaeology. Unfortunately, in spite of these foundational works, archaeology refuses perversion.
From my experiences in academic settings, I get the sense that archaeologists writ large relegate queer archaeological studies to a niche disciplinary interest. At academic conferences, queer presenters speak to sympathetically queer audiences. We end up talking to ourselves. This isolation likely stems from a lack of understanding about queer analytics. Part of the problem comes from a perception that queer is synonymous with sexuality. Modern conceptions of sexual identities obscure the mutability of queerness. I’m often puzzled by the absence of queer theory in academic circles.

Photo Credit: Micheal Kan through Creative Commons attribution license.

Photo Credit: Micheal Kan through Creative Commons attribution license.

Aversion to queer frameworks is demonstrated in case studies where its connections seem glaringly obvious. We acknowledge brothels, feminine hygiene products, dildos, and sensual artifacts without admitting their relationship to queer experiences. Archaeological finds like these go viral because sex sells. But it sells a history of “erotica” or “taboo” practices rather than queering modern conventions.
When I shift gears from academic spheres to field settings or department happy hours, hetero-patriarchal attitudes are harder to escape. As an archaeologist, I’ve been let down by peers, colleagues, and friends who claim to be liberal allies. I’ve seen men assume an effeminate gait for a few laughs. I once heard a colleague question the “manliness” of trans men. In the field, subtle forms of homophobia surface in microaggressions. Field housing assignments and a dearth of gender neutral bathrooms at conferences unwittingly ostracize trans and gender queer archaeologists. Over time, all the little things start to add up. And we’re all guilty of perpetuating these mundane traumas – myself included – because we’ve been indoctrinated into a hetero-patriarchal social landscape. A landscape where feminists and queers are killjoys. A landscape where a swishy affect still betrays the codes of masculinity. Refusing to laugh at the joke or being too confrontational comes with the threat of being a social pariah. The difference between speaking up and “knowing your place” can mean the difference between landing an optimal job and being pushed to the sidelines by a revolving consortium of white men.

Oddly enough archaeology seems oblivious to its very queerness. When I take a step back to reflect on archaeological practice, I see fetishism. I see a perverse intimacy with things. I recognize the queerness of our own anachronistic tendencies to get stuck in the past. Archaeology’s trans-temporal roots makes it an ideal conduit for transmitting queer histories. Past intimacies can disrupt the boundaries between people and things taken for granted in modern social assemblages. But to do so, we need to start confronting our own privilege. We need to probe our imaginaries for scenes that mess up the order of things.

Photo Credit: When Things Go Up in Smoke by Janina Peters

The same holds true for queer communities as we gain access to privilege. We need to remain attentive to the fact that queer people of color straddle precarious worlds. In 2014, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported the consistently alarming rates of hate violence and homicides perpetrated against LGBTQ people in 13 U.S. states and Puerto Rico over the previous year. The report, which documented 2,001 incidents of hate violence, found that queer people of color were 1.5 times more likely to experience physical violence than white victims (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2014). Furthermore, the report indicated that almost 90% of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color.These statistics indicate the tragic violence disproportionately affecting minority queer communities in the United States today. As many critical queer scholars point out, the majority of LGBT political groups in the United States addressing these issues include a predominance of white advocates that frequently fail to recognize how race and racism amplify marginality (Ferguson, 2004; Lorde, 1993; Nash, 2014). So, as we celebrate national and endemic victories, we need to stay focused on how far we still need to go. We need to reflect on our own experiences of oppression and confront our privileges. Maybe then we’ll get back to a radical queer politics that cringed at the thought of assimilation and found hope in bonds formed in the margins.

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