Early in June, I had a conversation with strength and nutrition coach Pennie Varvarides. I really admire her commitment to keeping her suggestions based in actual scientific research, and thus setting realistic goals. She has a really inclusive and holistic approach as well, covering body image and individual needs. (Yep, I’ve spent a significant amount of my lockdown time working out indoors.)
Growing from my lecture on myths about the Paleolithic, we chatted about what people in the Paleolithic actually ate, the hype about any diet, and old age in the archaeological record. Check it out on Spotify here or Anchor.fm here!
Originally published as a facebook note, and is now reposted on the Bi Pandas. Please note that few protestors are looting, and some looters are not protestors (and are being condemned by protestors). But that won’t stop people from making this argument.Others point out that people making this argument are derailing the narrative: yes, they are. But I think it’s important to address it since people keep pressing.
<Target audience: white people trying to make their white friends better informed and less racist. This contains my feelings and white feelings. CN: police violence, racism, stereotypes.>
A few people today have asked how I talk to white friends and family about the importance of confronting race-based discrimination. These are the people who comment on your feed “don’t all lives matter?” and “but I have two friends who are people of color!” and, this week, “I can understand the protest, but not the looting,” and sometimes try to quote Martin Luther King Jr. (incorrectly). They’re way behind where you are in your learning, but they’re not in the KKK.
I’ve previously worked in public engagement, in a job where I made the decision to confront topics that challenged strangers’ views. I was in a job where, because I was white, some people felt that I’d be on their “side” and that I’d agree with some pretty profoundly racist stuff regarding evolution, criminality, and eugenics. Often people just hadn’t thought very hard about what they were saying – for example, they’d seen on tv a conspiracy theory that aliens built the pyramids. I’d listen in, nodding along. I realised that I could correct them in two ways: I could say that that wasn’t true, that it was actual humans who did it; or I could deep dive and tell them that the alien theory was published by a white supremacist, and believing that would continue to promote ideas that dark-skinned people in the global south couldn’t have done it on their own. Sometimes, because I was working with collections of skeletons, they’d ask about finding out the race of the people I was working with. I told them that most of the skeletons had actually been collected in the early 1900s for the purpose of not just finding out race (which, biologically, is a nonsensical concept), but for supporting the goals of eugenics. Basically, they got an earful, because I thought it was important. Having these conversations multiple times allowed me to practice ways to convince people that they were wrong without them really noticing. (I have a lot of privilege as a tiny white femme with a middle American accent and academic backing, so I’m viewed as non-threatening.) I’m sure my team member and friend Arendse Lund has had similar experiences.
These tactics kind of fall into a schema called the spectrum of allies, which I learned about from activist Eddie DeHais. The idea is half a pie divided into five wedges, ranging from active opponents (let’s say these are people who actively hold racist views) to disengaged (“I don’t see how this affects me”) to active allies (people already working with you to make change). There’s no way you’re going to turn a racist into an ally overnight – the best you can hope for is slightly less hate. The goal of this system is to move your conversation partner/friend/family member one wedge to the left at a time, and different tactics work on different wedges. I also believe that at different points in your life you’re more susceptible to different kinds of arguments – think of re-reading a book you read as a teenager and finding it less meaningful now, or listening to music you’d always known about and suddenly loving it. We change as people, and need the right set of circumstances to experience change. If you’re having trouble convincing someone in your life, you might need to choose a different article to share or a different tactic.
An example from my life is prison abolition. I grew up believing that criminals went to prison, and only in rare instances do they lock up good people by accident. If someone had said that one day I’d be regularly telling people that we need to release all prisoners even if they committed crimes, I wouldn’t have believed it. I lived in a very homogenous suburb and only questioned things through reading. Then I learned about the inequality in policing. I learned more about how much wrongful imprisonment there is – my dad volunteers with the GA Innocence Project. Then I learned more about unjust, racist policing. Then I learned about unjust, racist drug laws. Then I learned about the school-to-prison pipeline. These were all puzzle pieces. Then I was introduced to the concept of abolition at the right time, by my friend and activist Emily O, who said something like “I don’t know what the answer is to society dealing with actual criminals. But the point of abolition isn’t to solve that, it’s to dismantle a profoundly racist institution” and I fully agreed. I listened to podcasts and read more, and now I can’t believe anything else. It took a long time, though. I wish it had taken less. I think I wasted a lot of time protesting things where I couldn’t actually affect change instead of things I could, and making mistakes along the way. (The concepts of privilege and emotional labor didn’t enter my life until after college.)
So, how many people have had conversations with well-meaning white people in your life that didn’t go the way you wanted? Do you want to move them to your wedge? It’s going to involve some things that are kind of antithetical to BLM – centering white feelings – and I’m truly sorry about that. Say you’re having a conversation and trying to convince your friend to support a bail fund. “Why would I want to pay money when they’ve been smashing windows?” they ask. “How can I make sure that I only pay the bail for innocent people wrongly arrested?” I know you want to yell just pay the money and shut up! Unfortunately, if you want to get them to pay up, you have to move them one wedge. Consider that they might be scared. I’ve received lots of messages from white people who were just emerging from sheltering in place and got an alert saying that there’s now a curfew. They’re not thinking about the disaster that is the shutdown of public transport before the curfew began. They’re thinking that they only receive these mass alerts when there’s a tornado or an earthquake. They’re not thinking about people marching for their lives. They know there are people out there protesting and smashing windows. They imagine Black people walking around with sledgehammers, smashing windows, and feel threatened. They’re scared for their own buildings, and for their personal safety. It’s possible to be a person who supports freeing prisoners and the right to protest but is also confused why people are smashing shop windows. We’re going to assume these people are “middle” or maybe “passive opponents” – they might not have engaged with these topics before, and are following gut reactions encouraged by the media.
First, reassure them that they’re not in danger. Tell them the privilege of being white protects them. Ask them to imagine what it’s like to be in danger of arrest every time they leave the house. They know what it’s like to be scared to leave – they’ve just sheltered in place through Covid-19.
Second, once they’re on that page, stress the inequality and anger that have led to this. Black people’s economic opportunities have been repressed, and they haven’t had the buying power to get essentials, nevermind luxury items. They are angry at a system that has prevented this. They live in a world dominated by violence against them. Looting is one way of exerting control on this system of violence. Underpinning this is what’s always unspoken – whiteness. White (and male, and hetero, and cis) are always the default. This allows white people to practice othering. Whiteness as an identity is afraid of anger (despite it being the primary emotion of the MAGA movement), viewing it as “unseemly” and therefore we tend to “other” people who express outrage, and fail to relate to them. This is why the idea of a Karen gets white women upset – a Karen (an irrationally angry, entitled white woman who takes out her rage on Black people and service workers) is the opposite of the ideal meek white woman, a trope that upholds both toxic masculinity and white supremacy. White women can’t see themselves as angry; when they see looting, they fail to relate to the people doing it. The idea of Black looters plays into a lot of white fears around stereotypical tropes, which are part of a whole different essay. But let’s first face your conversation partner and ask them if they hold any stereotypes of Black people that might be leading them to think that they’re innately violent. (Hint: they definitely have these stereotypes in mind. The ultimate irony is that white society is so much more dangerous, hence the plot of “Get Out”.) Remind them that these views have, historically, resulted in lynchings. Tell them that that’s what the police murders are – lynchings. Remind them that they feel horror watching lynchings in film (“12 Years a Slave”) – this is the same. If they felt empathy for Jean Valjean in Les Mis, they can feel empathy for the person who’s going into Dollar Tree. (Further hint: the theoretical background here might be too much too soon. Stick to talking about living in a world of state-sanctioned violence.)
Third, talk about the social contract. We don’t rob places because we expect that robbers will be tried, convicted, and have some kind of punishment. Ask your conversation partner what would happen if someone was continually tried, convicted, and punished without having committed robbery. That’s pretty terrible behavior on the part of the law, and they’ll say that that could never happen. Tell them that’s the reality every Black person has with law enforcement and the (in)justice system. (This system has been in place since the days when Black people were enslaved, and it was never meant to be appropriate to any crime. The system was meant to keep Black people repressed and unequal. Policing has never been about justice; it’s been about upholding a status quo set 400 years ago.)
Ask your conversation partner if they think the police killing unarmed Black men, women, and children without cause and without trial is justice. (If they answer that the people killed might have been “doing something”, then I’m truly sorry, you’ll have to start again because your friend is a full wedge further right than I expected.)
Fourth, ask why they have empathy for objects, and not for people. People are more important than property. Trevor Noah recently posted a recording about how the contract Black Americans have signed with society (at white people’s insistence) has been so utterly broken. He asks, paraphrasing the white public, “‘How does it help you to loot Target?’ Well, how does it help you to not loot Target? … The only reason you weren’t looting Target before is you were upholding society’s contract. There is no contract if law and people in power don’t uphold their end.” Looting is a reaction to an unjust system. If you’re angry about the looting, be angry at the system that failed everyone. If you can be angry that someone now has a new Xbox they didn’t pay for, you can channel that anger at George Floyd’s killers. At Tamir Rice’s killers. At Sandra Bland’s killers. At Eric Garner’s killers. At Michael Brown’s killers. Read these people’s stories. Are people whose parents, siblings, children, friends being killed just supposed to sit there? Do they exist in a world where patiently taking a beating is going to result in justice? Do you exist in that world? (Karen doesn’t. She interprets every slight as a reason for retaliation.) Imagine what you’d say to a kid who’s lost their toy – it’s just a thing. They’re only taking things, and those things don’t even belong to you.
Finally, if they’re still listening, ask them who owns those things. (This is sidetracking them, by bringing the conversation back to white people and white interests.) Who is affected by the theft of an Xbox? Is it the people working for minimum wage, who are often people of color? Not at all. How much revenue does a store get from those things? Who does that wealth go to? A tax change for covid-19 relief will allow millionaires and billionaires to reap 80% of that tax relief. That means the people who own Walmart (the Waltons, currently the world’s richest family) will keep getting richer. That money will not trickle down to communities of color. An Amazon truck was looted? So you won’t get your next coloring book? Amazon will send you a new one right away, and they’ll continue to cut workers’ wages while Jeff Bezos gets richer and richer. Bring up white collar crime. Many white people are unable to conceive of white collar crime as worse because it’s either “victimless” or not “reckless endangerment”. For the first, I’d argue that the person you’re talking to is in fact a victim of white collar crime! Even if they don’t know it – we all are, because of corporate laws and the recession, all topics for another essay. For the second, it’s not recklessly endangering you, because you’re home sheltering in place. And they were recklessly endangered by the police, as mentioned above. (Ideally, your conversation partner is now a full Marxist.) Even if your friend doesn’t remember half of the facts you’ve just given them about injustice, they’re now riled up about how they’re personally being screwed over by corporations, and they’ll have the feeling of righteous indignation which they might later remember as “I had a chat about police brutality, and now I have strong feelings.” I hope.
I don’t know how well this script will work for you. Using slowly increasing amounts of empathy, building to a crescendo of people getting angry at big corporations, sometimes works for me. I think a lot also depends on your personal relationship to the person, the presentation of the information, and (above all, sadly) hearing it from a white person. I know it’s hard and counterintuitive, but try not to shame them. Shame doesn’t get them to feel sympathy for your views. Remember times when friends helped you learn – were you more motivated by wanting to be a better person, or by someone telling you how wrong you are?
But I want you, white friends trying to improve your own white friends and family, to be heartened. Don’t get flustered. Take some time. This might be uncomfortable. You might mess up. You might want to unfriend people and despair for humanity. Don’t let that get you down, and don’t feel like you can’t do it. We need to do this on behalf of people of color who have been educating us for free for way too long. Write a script for a conversation – this is actually a technique I got from my therapist. Asking people to become allies takes work, but we can do this. Recognise that you’re not going to get your second cousin to come to the next BLM march with you. But maybe you can get them to sign a petition. Or to not comment “all lives matter”. Move them just one wedge, and maybe next week they’ll come back for more.
If you learned something from this, go support a bail fund. I’m perfectly happy to write a practice script for you to talk to your white family; in return, support a bail fund or make individual reparations.
I didn’t include a whole lot about the looting actual being unassociated with the protests, and actually done by white bystanders because I don’t have much evidence on it, and I think it’ll detract from the impact of discussing injustice. Likewise, I didn’t include anything about fake news posts. Make your own call whether to bring these up.
Here’s another guide to having difficult conversationswith centrists.
I strive to promote an intersectional approach within my work, as well as identifying sexism and racism within my field (and in the world, to the extent that I can have an impact). In Autumn 2019, I was honored to teach a seminar on intersectional feminism at UCL with the wonderful researcher and activist Alice Mukaka. It was a learning experience for me, as it was outside my theoretical wheelhouse to teach, and I faced a conflict: given the primacy of the personal narrative within intersectionality, as a white person, was I the right person to teach this class? I decided that the labor should be on me to work with Alice and to read, research, and educate myself. I didn’t want more people of color to be burdened by explaining this more and more. I did mess up sometimes, asking for help in inadequate ways, feeling like an impostor, and feeling like I was virtue signalling. But we (white people) have to keep doing this work on ourselves and taking on the task of spreading an intersectional approach.
Recently I’ve been asked for resources, so I’ve put the works I used in teaching on my Google drive. Hopefully by the time anyone actually clicks on it, they’ll be in some kind of order.
I’ll keep updating this post with resources that I have found to be personally meaningful and useful in educating myself – hopefully some will resonate with you as well.
The Running Rogue podcast on racism and running with coach Alex Willaims, recorded as a response to Ahmad Aubery’s murder
We often see the past through the lens of popular media, who take great leaps with facts. Do you imagine cavemen going out to club a bear while cavewomen stayed home with the kids? Do you believe that aliens built the pyramids? When you see the image of apes evolving into man,* do you stop to question the idea that it represents a progression to the ultimate goal of contemporary Western civilization? These are all myths about the ancient world perpetuated by the media, uninformed pseudoscientists, and sometimes outright racists. The way we teach history tends to focus a model of humanity that’s reinforcing 1950s white gender roles and reproducing capitalist patriarchy. I’ll discuss a few ways in which a common conception of the past doesn’t add up, why we’ve come to think of history in this biased way, and how we can continue to question and correct these misunderstandings.
*Did you notice the word man? It’s always a man in the diagram.
NOTE: Due to a copyright claim, the video clip shown at 30:07 has had to be removed. You can find it here.
This lecture was not closed-caption, but a transcript is available here.
I’m doing these lectures for free, and raising money for some local groups. They are:
I’m giving another live lecture this coming Monday! Check out the Facebook event here, or load up Zoom at 8pm GMT and dial in to the meeting here.
Paleo-fantasy: How we misunderstand the ancient world
We often see the past through the lens of popular media, who take great leaps with facts.
Do you imagine cavemen going out to club a bear while cavewomen stayed home with the kids? Did you learn in school that the Greeks invented civilization? Do you believe that aliens built the pyramids? When you see the image of apes evolving into man, do you stop to question the idea that it represents a progression to the ultimate goal of contemporary Western civilization?
These are all myths about the ancient world perpetuated by the media, uninformed pseudoscientists, and sometimes outright racists. The way we teach history tends to focus a model of humanity that’s reinforcing 1950s white gender roles and reproducing capitalist patriarchy.
I’ll discuss a few ways in which a common conception of the past doesn’t add up, why we’ve come to think of history in this biased way, and how we can continue to question and correct these misunderstandings.
This session will be a proper webinar, hosted by Krystian Jones of Splinter Faction Ltd.
I told Charlotte that I was preparing to make la mian. Four hours of constant work later, I finished making enough noodles for seven people, topped with Szechuan aubergine, fried tofu, and sauteed greens.
I frequently get emails from family friends with questions about archaeology. Because I’m unemployed, they get more than they bargained for, and I decided to turn today’s query into this post.
Leon H wrote in with a particular quote that I decided to comment on.
Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.
But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.”
We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.
– Ira Byock.
It’s interesting the quotes that are attributed to Margaret Mead – another is “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (And other variants of this sentiment with differing word choices.)
Both are things she could have said, given her personality, but neither is fully attributed – the first instance of the story above is in Dr. Ira Byock’s 2012 book on palliative care, and the above quote only attributed to her four years after her death by the author of a fairly hippie-ish book on paths to world peace.
The quote has a bit of “truthiness” to it. The general idea of the quote – other versions have her saying “in the law of the jungle, if you can’t hunt, you die” – is that all animals but humans live in a tooth-and-claw Darwinian world where literally only the fit survive. This is not so. Animals are adapted to living within their environment, and the most fit to their environment survive. Femoral fractures in wild animals can be survivable if they happen to juveniles who heal fully in few weeks (and are taken care of as a matter of course, at least in primates). A review of such fractures in primates was conducted by Bulstrode et al (1986). The authors examined wild animal skeletons in natural history collections, finding the healed fracture rate higher than expected.
Another reason we see few femoral breaks in wild animals is that they probably happen rarely. Animals suited to their environment don’t tend to be risky, and those femoral fractures we see are often from falls. Animals don’t tend to hang around other animals that will hurt them, unlike humans who spend time with cows (a frequent source of injury in agricultural societies). Animals also don’t go looking for danger, no matter what the Lion King suggests. Whereas a human will climb a tree to get a beehive for honey and risk a great fall, other land mammals tend to leave that alone. Humans also have high buildings we can fall out of and cars to injure ourselves in and around. Humans have a much wider range of places we’ve not fully adapted to, and thus a higher rate of injury.
Humans also have a thing called war where we purposefully try to injury one another. I wonder if the “15000 years ago” part of the quote refers to Jebel Sahaba, the oldest evidence of warfare, from Sudan. (It’s been re-dated to 13,000 years ago, but was believed to be 15kya when excavated in 1968.) I actually worked on re-analysis of skeletons from this site in 2011. The people buried there show evidence of repeated healed injury, as if they were attacked and then left in peace, then attacked again. The injuries were slices into the bone, injuries from pointed stone tools and arrows, some of which remained embedded in the bones.
Another key point about the quote is that only humans have the tools to actually fix a broken limb. (I mean, only humans have the tools, period. We invented tools.*) If a wild animal has a broken limb, it can heal, but it will heal improperly. The bones keep the muscles nice and stretched out, and if the bone is broken enough that the entire shaft is snapped, the muscles will contract and pull the bone overlapping itself, like a stretched rubber band returning to its original position. With immobilisation, care, and the hope that infection doesn’t follow (as antibiotics didn’t exist until penicillin in 1928), the bone can heal in that position.
An example of this is the photo below – the skeleton of an individual I excavated at site H29 in Sudan in 2012. In the first photo, at the uppermost end of the striped stick, is a bulbous enlargement, which is actually the two overlapped broken ends of the femur. (All the sharp breaks are post-mortem and unrelated to the injury.) This person did not receive fracture reduction (or if they did, it was not effective), so the bone healed overlapped. This resulted in the right leg becoming about 6 centimeters shorter than the left. Interestingly, the feet were at a slightly higher elevation so I excavated them first, and found that the right foot was in an extremely flexed position, as if they’d been walking on their toes. You can see this on the far left of the second photo. When I excavated the body and legs, it became clear – the bone had healed, and this person was walking around quite a bit for many years afterward, so much so that their foot became permanently flexed. Bonesetting is an ancient practice, still common in some regions(1)(2), and I wonder if this community, active around 3000 years ago, was too small or too remote to have access to a bonesetter.
A broken femur from site H29A. Photo courtesy Derek Welsby.
The same skeleton from H29A. The flexed foot is on the far left of the image. The skull has already been removed, but the rest of the skeleton is intact; you can also see a stone palette at the top of the image and a decorative clothespin between the top arm and the ribs. Photo courtesy Derek Welsby.
I often use this skeleton to discuss care in the ancient world. We tend to think of people before us as cruel and barbaric, a fallacy I continue to address in my teaching. But they’re only as cruel as people today, and also as compassionate. There’s a whole field exploring archaeology of disability, including the social treatment of people with injuries and conditions that affected their mobility.
If anyone can find a reputable source for the Margaret Mead quote, please do reach out!
If you’d like to hear more, please tune in to my lecture tomorrow night! zoom.us/j/895993184 (Weds at 2000 GMT). I might include some of this, as I’ve enjoyed writing it down 🙂
*Some biologists argue that birds and chimpanzees also use tools, but that’s really beside the point here.
Update: it’s been pointed out that I misspoke right at the start – organ donation has been made opt-out in the UK, not body donation! From next month (May 2020), all adults will be considered to be organ donors. Research has shown this is a nudge towards getting hundreds (or thousands) more donors per year because it removes an administrative hurdle. Body donation, on the other hand, still faces challenges.
With the Covid-19 lockdown, I’m unemployed. So I thought it’d be a good time to start working on a few public lectures. They’re all being recorded, and I’ll post them here!
The first is my Introductory Epidemiology lecture that I usually focus on paleoepidemiology. Suddenly, everyone I know is either very interested in epidemiology or very confused by it. I tried to clear up the confusion of some common terms and give examples of historic epidemics so viewers feel more confident interpreting Covid-19 news.
Watch on Zoom here to see all the comments, or on Youtube here. Feel free to share the link.