A Deafening Absence

Their absence is deafening…

Melina Seabrook

Archaeology was and is a white man’s game. But the field should be proud to say it has diversified through gender, ethnicity, social status, and class backgrounds. I, however, am caught in a fissure, trying to make my way out of a population that archaeologists never considered to include openly. Black men and women are one of the smallest groups in archaeology, only totaling around 1.5% of PhDs in the subject (Montañez 2018). I write from personal experience, but I know I’m not alone or unique in my experiences, apart from being in different departments at different schools (#BlackintheIvory). I am currently the only Black woman in Harvard’s Archaeology Graduate Program. If all goes well, I will be one of two Black women to get a degree from Harvard Archaeology. This program prides itself as one of the best archaeology programs in the world that only accepts the top of the top students. What’s worse? That so few Black applicants apply, or that only two Black applicants have been “good enough” to get in?

Their absence is deafening.

White scholars have the luxury of feeling entitled to work anywhere in the world. I don’t get the same privileges. I feel guilty for not connecting to the Archaeology of early Black communities in the Americas. I am offended when it is assumed or implied that I should study African Archaeology. Then, I am embarrassed that should I choose to research one of the many, diverse African countries, I am fulfilling the expected stereotype. I choose to work in Mesopotamia because of my research interests. There is little that compares to the feeling of isolation of being the only Black person at an international conference on your topic. There is little that compares to the frustration of being able to count the number of Black people who work in this multi-millennia-spanning subfield of Ancient Mesopotamia if we can find each other at all. No one should feel pigeon-holed to study a specific part of the past because of who they are. Sometimes, it feels I will never have a voice. In this department, in academia, or beyond. I don’t have a diverse community here at Harvard, and I don’t have a diverse community in my subfield. I don’t know where my place is.

 Their absence is deafening.

I immediately worked to extend my overall network upon my arrival at Harvard. Many of these people have become some of my biggest supporters and allies. But underlying all my efforts is a deep fear. I know that I need to have as many people as possible to see me, see my hard work, show that I deserve to be here with them. Knowing one day, I might have to come to them, hoping it isn’t too much of an ask for their support when I feel the system has become too much for me to bear alone. Are my concerns being taken seriously, or do they think I’m overreacting? Can they see past their own relationships with these people to hear the differences in my singular case?

In some cases, the difference in the way I’m treated is visible to my friends and colleagues. In a way, this is a comfort, knowing I’m not overreacting, that I’m not crazy for feeling this way, even though there is no one else here experiencing what I am experiencing. It also comes with a deep feeling of shame, knowing they treat me differently enough that it’s noticeable. What might that say about me consciously or subconsciously?

Their absence is deafening.

The ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype still exists and still underlies so many interactions in the field. And I have a lot to be angry and frustrated about. I follow the unstated rules, but I am still directly confronted. I am held accountable more than my colleagues. I step up in leadership positions, but other colleagues are rewarded. I can’t have a bad day without potentially tarnishing my reputation in the department. I suffer in silence. Because I know my attempts at sticking up for myself or confronting the people hurting me will not be taken seriously or respected. I must rise above it all. I can’t just be average.

I second guess myself professionally and personally. Because race isn’t the most pressing issue in the department, it ‘doesn’t affect’ our department as much as others. Am I exaggerating my suffering as I write this? Raising my voice, speaking up for justice, talking about the faults of the department are far riskier for me. I continue to be fearful because of the subconscious racism that perpetuates society and academia does not stop or lessen at the gates of Harvard. My concerns are consistently downplayed as ‘not the worst.’ Why should I have to reach the bottom to be taken seriously? The few times I give into my vulnerability, admitting that I can’t handle this grad student environment, I come face to face with the harsh reality of being a Black woman in academia. I am not taken seriously. I am still expected to perform through all my pain, all my anger. Because we have to. There is no other option.

Their absence is deafening.

My Blackness is the biggest open secret I push past every day. Masquerading – trying to prove to myself and others that there are no differences to hinder me. Deep down, I know, I fear the inevitable confrontation of my differences. The tension in any new academic setting, wary that at any moment someone could derail me. I’m not supposed to belong, and that sentiment is ever-present in such white spaces. But I am a Black woman. My differences are visible; they help me make me the scholar I am. I cannot go on being colorless in this white department while the world burns red. I should never have had to.

If you’ve only been watching me, you will miss my story. I perfected my positive public façade years ago. My every action overly calculated to create a persona that will get me to where I want to be. I hide my insecurities, my concerns. I can’t allow anything to detract from the academic I want to be. I work incredibly hard to be taken seriously, to been seen as an authority- but I rarely am. I have to do more than my colleagues to stand out even if it means exhausting myself and, to some degree, pulling me away from my work. I fear anything less will continue to stack the deck against my already fragile odds. I hold myself to higher standards, knowing this is the only way I will genuinely be seen amongst many of my peers. When I then fall short of professors’ expectations, seemingly at every turn, I fall farther than others. How far can I fall until I fall out?

Their absence is deafening.

There have been many times I felt I wouldn’t make it through this program. My own internalized racism and the systemic, underlying racism all around. No one has ever thought to ask how being here, being Black, and being a Black person in this tumultuous time in America feels or has affected my work. How hard can I concentrate on research when police continue killing people who look like me with no repercussions? How can I feel safe and supported when people in our academic workspace see the protesters as “thugs” or “instigators.”  I don’t know where I fit in the world, in and outside of Harvard. 

I constantly weigh the options of failing the professors, failing myself, or losing myself to make it through. I want so desperately to be a role model in the future, but at what cost? The longer I am here, the easier it is to understand why there are so few Black men and women in our department and field. It is a hostile environment unseen by our white peers. I continue fighting a battle alone in a time where I absolutely should not have to. Why didn’t this department invest in diversity so long ago? We know how much diversity contributes to the intricate story, science, and interpretations of the past. Innovation in archaeology is not going to come from professors doing the same thing they have always done and training their students to do the same things. It is a cycle that has bred and continues to breed complacency and complicity. It has allowed the department to insulate itself, supposedly letting its research reputation speak for itself as if diversity would not contribute to pushing the boundaries of research. The Anthropology department is deeply entrenched in the systemic racism of Harvard. And it is your job, not mine, to make this space better. You fail to inspire Black students the same way you inspire others. Find out why.

Now, the department faces its three most significant issues at once: the persistent gender imbalance and inequalities, the real and ever-present threat of sexual assault, and the inherent racism and lack of diversity. These topics affect everyone in the department to varying degrees, some of us more than others. All three are equally as necessary to address, ignoring one is a disservice to us all and me. Maybe if you cleaned the wounds, they would not have gone septic.

Their absence is deafening.

You have left me unsupported and questioning if I’m strong enough to be here. But I am meant to be here. I will no longer devalue myself to secure my place here.  If I am to earn my prestige at Harvard, you must better help me get there. Thus far, you have utterly failed. I will not come out of this department on the same professional level as my male or white colleagues. Your failure to realize the inherently racist reasons hindering me further ruins my confidence in what I’m really accomplishing being here. My singular experience is one of the only first-hand accounts you can get. The few diverse voices you do have are going to be crucial to listen to if you want more opportunities for diversity in archaeology and this program specifically. My failure would be on your hands and the program’s overall inability to support women of color, but specifically Black women, in an environment that’s already so hostile and not made for us to succeed. I cannot ask you to diversify this program with more Black students. There are too few of us that make it this far feeling like academia is a viable option. More importantly, I would not want other young Black women or other women of color to suffer through the intense trauma and pressure of predominantly white academic departments like this one. I can only ask you to do better for those I will inspire. Do better for me. 

My absence would be deafening.

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