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.

 

Citations:

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.

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