Few and Far Between: Asian Americans in Underwater Archaeology

By Aleck Tan
ACUA Graduate Student Associate

It was at the 2019 Society of Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting’s mixer that I first saw her in the crowd. We were traveling in different directions, but we locked eyes as if we had known each other forever and felt the connection. My friend even argued that he felt the spark between us. We were similar but rare amongst this sea of people. For a fleeting moment, I didn’t feel so alone. I’ve been going through my young life in this field thinking I would never meet another like me. I didn’t get her name, but the moment we shared has stuck with me since then. Every so often, I think about her. Unlike others who were in the hall, I wasn’t looking for a partner in the same field. What made her special was that we were both female Asian American archaeologists –a rarity in the archaeology field, even more so in the underwater archaeology field.

This moment marked the first time I saw a female Asian American archaeologist. While I know at least one other is out there, I have not met another female Asian American[1] underwater archaeologist. In the classroom and in the field, I am constantly surrounded by white American underwater archaeologists, minus a handful of other people of color (POC) underwater archaeologists I know.

So why aren’t there many Asian Americans pursuing archaeology and underwater archaeology?

Myth of the Model Minority

It seems like most (if not all) of the Asian American friends I knew growing up pursued careers like nursing, medicine, math, science and technology, or careers that make money. Many don’t study arts and humanities, but instead aspire to be successful doctors, lawyers, scientists, and tech gurus. This may be because their career choices are mostly driven by traditional cultural values, familial obligations, and financial reasons. For immigrants, many may choose financially fruitful jobs because their parents expect them to raise the socioeconomic status of the entire family (Kwong 2018). For others, they may be pushed into certain high-status professions by parents who think they will be protected from racial discrimination. For some POC, they can’t afford to buy their own SCUBA gear since the main foci are putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. There are many factors that influence Asians and Asian Americans to choose careers over archaeology, with cultural and family reasons being the main ones.

The “model minority” stereotype doesn’t help. According to Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn, “this myth characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving.” This negative stereotype effectively encourages people to disregard Asian Americans as individuals with differences, but instead promotes the perception that Asian Americans are inherently and motivated to be successful. People expect Asians and Asian Americans to be happy with high-paying careers. As a result, they can be overlooked as part of under-represented minorities. Amongst other problems, this can lead to mental health issues due to the surmounting pressure to perform well and fulfill the “model minority” stereotype.

The expectation for Asian Americans to pursue high-status professions as a model minority is prevalent. When I encounter Asian Americans who are in money-making careers, they are surprised because they don’t ever meet Asian archaeologists. Some expect me to follow in my mother’s footsteps in becoming one of millions of Filipino immigrant nurses. Others just smile and nod, avoiding the conversation about my chosen career path. In my experience, they just don’t expect Asian Americans, immigrants especially, to pursue a career like archaeology that doesn’t make money. I have been privileged and supported by my family to pursue this dream of mine and I am forever grateful for that, but I can’t help but think about others who aren’t in the same position.

Representation Matters

Historically, the archaeology field has been comprised of older, white men. Under-represented ethnic minorities in archaeology include but are not limited to: African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, Indigenous peoples, and other non-European minorities. Once, I attended a conference where when I sat in the back of the room, all I could see was white hair illuminated by the projection screen. While that statement may be jarring, it is the reality of POC like myself. When I walk into any room, whether I mean to or not, I notice how many POC are present because representation matters. Sadly, at the conference, as is often the case, there were only a couple of POC, all young. According to a 2018 survey[2] of SHA’s 1,490 members, 1,109 members revealed that 66 (6%) identified as POC, 40 (4%) as other, and 1005 (90%) as white. Only 6 out of 1,109 (0.5%) identified as Asian. POC, notably Asian Americans, in archaeology are few and far between.

As a female Asian American training to be an underwater archaeologist, I’ve had my fair share of experiences relating to my background. First, being a female has its own set of issues. Once, I was buying a dive watch but the customer service specialist didn’t even think I could dive. I’ve met deckhands who think I can’t carry two SCUBA tanks at once and will offer to carry my tanks for me. Many female underwater archaeologists have these same experiences, but being an immigrant POC compounds the issues I face. There’s the “where are you REALLY from?” question and the good old “your English is so good—you don’t even have an accent!” As one of the few POC, I am also often burdened with educating others about minority and diversity issues, even when it is not my responsibility to do so. In my experience, I’ve been the only one to call out racist and discriminatory remarks, without the on-the-spot support of others who also believed the remarks were problematic. In and outside of the field, POC like me experience micro-aggressions, racism, discrimination, and emotional distress.

On the other hand, there are advantages to being a POC in the field, specifically as a female, immigrant Filipino/Chinese-American: I can semi-understand Spanish which helps since I’m studying Spanish colonial history, I can introduce siopao and halo-halo to co-workers as a post-fieldwork snack, and I didn’t face any challenges of visiting the Philippines when I conducted thesis research.

While being a minority may pose some challenges, it has not discouraged or prevented me to do my best and learn as much as I can in the classroom and in the field. I, for one however, would welcome more diversity in our field.

Promoting Diversity

It’s not rocket science that diversity is beneficial for everyone. In our field, diversity in people breeds productivity and diversity in research, which further advances our professional development and field overall. For Society of American Archaeology, “diversity of narratives and heritage is [even] a core principle of archaeological ethics.” In the classroom, POC faculty are “more likely to include topics related to race and ethnicity in their courses, more likely to employ active and collaborative learning techniques in the classroom, and more likely to attend to peer interactions during class—all of which contribute positively to an inclusive climate for both minority and majority students” (Hurtado 2001). SHA supports these ideas by making goals such as building a more inclusive organization and encouraging researchers to explore disenfranchised perspectives. Previous SHA panel discussions shared these same messages. Our field invites and welcomes diversity.

The reality is, when we are surrounded by people who look like us, think like us, and are like us, we are more likely to feel empowered and supported in our work and research. Recently, I even had a friend tell me about their internship where most of the other interns were LGBTQ+ like them. As a result, they returned to school happier and inspired. Unfortunately, for sake of brevity, I have stopped short of even touching upon LGBTQ+ or LGBTQ+ POC. In short, ALL minorities surrounded by other minorities bring about new ideas, new perspectives, and new research.

Even though diversity is encouraged and celebrated, Asian Americans are still largely under-represented in underwater archaeology. There must be more of us out there…right? Since we can’t completely change the factors that may determine career choices of Asian Americans, there may be other ways to encourage them and POC in general to pursue a career in our field. Suggestions may include but are not limited:

  1. Educate yourself about diversity, POC issues
  2. Be an ally
    1. Speak up against microaggressions
    2. Understand and recognize privilege
  3. Hire, elect, appoint POC in leading and supporting roles
  4. Incorporate POC into projects and discussions
    1. SHA Gender and Minority Affairs Committee (GMAC) – Diversity Field School Award
  5. Prevent discrimination
    1. SHA Sexual harassment and discrimination policy
    2. ACUA Ethics, Respect, Diversity, Equality
    3. SAA Anti-harassment policy
    4. Archaeological Institute of America
  6. Establish, join, support an academic community
    1. Society for South Asian Archaeology
    2. Society for East Asian Archaeology
    3. Society of Black Archaeologists
  7. Include readings by POC and diverse topics into curriculum
  8. Support POC students in K-12 and higher education, research, and conferences
    1. GMAC
  9. Support POC travel and representation in national and international conferences
    1. ACUA – George Fischer Student Travel Award
    2. GMAC – Harriet Tubman Student Travel Awards, Mark E. Mack Community Engagement Award
    3. SAA – scholarships for Native Americans and Historically Under-represented Groups
  10. Consider public outreach targeting POC, diversity
  11. Support POC mental health and well-being

References
Hurtado, Sylvia
2001    Linking Diversity and Educational Purpose: How Diversity Affects the Classroom Environment and Student Development. In Diversity Challenged: Evidence on the Impact of Affirmative Action, Gary Orfield, editor, pp. 187-203. Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA

Kwong, Kenny
2018    Career Choices, Barriers, and Prospects of Asian American Social Workers. International Journal of Higher Education 7(6):1-12.

[1] I am loosely defining “female Asian American” as females with Asian ancestry who live and work in the United States.

[2] Data provided by Karen Hutchinson, Executive Director of SHA. “6 identify as Asian, 13 as Black, 14 as Hispanic or Latino/Latina, 14 as Native American, Alaskan Native or other indigenous group, 2 as Pacific Islander, 1005 as White, 17 as Multiracial, 40 as Other.”