It seems that complaints about my work come in waves, all offering the same criticism at the same time. Sometimes this is the result of a coordinated effort, as when Jason Martell orchestrated a hate mail campaign against me earlier this year. Other times it’s just coincidence. For whatever reason, I’ve been getting an unusual number of messages from white supremacists who find me insufficiently deferential to their views about white dominance of the pre-Columbian Americas. Interestingly, racist emails are not all from white supremacists; some Afrocentrists are also mad at me for allegedly supporting a Eurocentric agenda that denies the “truth” that sub-Saharan Africans colonized and reigned over America.
It’s all very confusing, but I guess I must be doing something right if white supremacists and Afrocentrists both think I support the other side.
I’m sure you’ve seen some of the racist posts on my blog; most of these I leave in place because the writers’ own ignorance undercuts their positions, but I had to delete one that openly called for violence against African-Americans. And those are just the blog comments. The email I receive is even worse, degenerating into foul tirades unfit for print. More often than not, these angry tirades are about America Unearthed; oddly, the only extremists who get mad about Ancient Aliens are Hindu extremists who worry that I am not giving enough credit to Vedic Indian world domination.
This is not unique to my inbox or my blog; white supremacists have been advocating America Unearthed in discussion forums and comment threads across the internet since the first season last year. H2 may not be racist, but it is apparently the top viewing choice for those with white supremacist views. A white supremacist wrote on a forum called “America Is Our White Homeland,” for example, that “when the Asian savages arrived in America, they were known as ‘naked starving savages’” and absorbed their culture from Europeans; he supported this with links to America Unearthed’s episode about the fictional Peter “Rough” Hurech and also “ancient white man’s Ogham in Colorado,” from another America Unearthed episode.
This is not limited to those who identify explicitly as white supremacists. Consider this takeaway the owner of fbrandon.com received from his viewing of America Unearthed earlier this year:
Just look at our aboriginal friends that claim they were here first, if we came back now and said No Way and we want all our money back because in fact you were trespassing on European/Viking land or that they owe all that money to them, then all hell would break loose.
This writer makes explicit the subtext of Wolter’s claim that a conspiracy of Native Americans and U.S. government officials is suppressing Templar “land claims” to America. The writer obviously has interpreted this as an effort to prevent a full-scale race war between white Americans and minorities.
This is not limited to America Unearthed, of course. Dennis Stanford’s Solutrean Hypothesis, which suggests that Spaniards colonized America around 20,000 years ago, has yielded similar racist celebration, as seen in this message board posting: “Everything points to the Solutrean culture riding high over the Asiatics for thousands of years -- until things reached the breaking point. […] An omen for North America? You bet.” The old race war idea, promulgated by the Mound Builder myth-makers suggested that a lost white race died at the hands of bloodthirsty Native Americans, who in turn deserved death in retribution. Advocates of that policy still exist today.
Even where America Unearthed failed to find evidence, its viewers still came away with the wrong impression. One viewer failed to notice that Scott Wolter did not find any evidence of a giant in Minnesota and instead mistook the episode for proof of a lost race of Caucasian giants whom the Native Americans exterminated.
But, to be completely fair, America Unearthed is also used as evidence of Afrocentrism. Remember the episode where Wolter dismissed “Egyptian” carvings on an Oklahoma rock and declared them Celtic? Well, some online Afrocentrists disagree with Wolter’s conclusions and pointed to the show as evidence of African travels to America, evidence apparently ignored or suppressed by Scott Wolter! “What white people don't understand is that the deeper they dig, the blacker the planet get[s].”
And yet I hear time and again that it is inappropriate to discuss the racial subtext and context of the program, as though the fact that audience members are using it to make claims about race and race relations is utterly irrelevant to understanding the show’s appeal. The primary argument is that since neither Wolter nor H2 intend to be racist, their program therefore cannot have a racial context. The experience of the audience says otherwise. Consider the words of Ohio Historical Society archaeology curator Brad Lepper, writing about diffusionism in 2008, before America Unearthed had ever been pitched as a series:
Although certainly not all diffusionists are racists (though some incontestably are), assertions of this kind, especially when founded on such weak evidence, are consistent with and give considerable aid and comfort to those who deny the aboriginal American people the ability to have come up with domesticated plants, systems of writing, and/or monumental architecture on their own.
Or, more specifically, consider the words of anthropology graduate student Alexis Jordan, writing in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student journal Field Notes: A Journal of Collegiate Anthropology this past May: “The underlying takeaway message of shows like America Unearthed or Ancient Aliens tends to encourage the undermining of one cultural heritage in favor of another.” See? I’m not the only one who thinks so. Jordan analyzes the episode “Giants in Minnesota” at length and notes the underlying, unexpressed racism inherent in reassigning Native American cultural achievements to white Norwegians.
What boggles my mind is that few except for Christian extremists even bat an eye at the widespread revisionist religion of Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed, The Da Vinci Code, and their progenitors. Surely an attack on the very foundation of the Christian faith—the life of Jesus—warrants a moment of consideration from the same self-described Christians who are so offended at the thought that America Unearthed might be recycling old racist claims. Yet to even mention race yields garment-rending protests. I can only interpret this as evidence that the racial question is deeply reflective of tensions in American society and the foundation of American identity in a way that even religion is not, or at least no longer is.
To be honest, this gets into sociological territory way beyond my area of expertise, and well beyond my area of interest. I was never very interested in race and racism in school, and it remains one of my least favorite topics. The situation, though, does remind me of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists, a book that outlines how individuals can believe they are not racist and yet perpetuate racism through, among other things, an ignorance of history and the historical ideas that were used in the past to support racial inequality. Divorced from their contexts, the ideas become accepted as “natural” by dint of being old and are no longer recognized as the product of a system designed for specific social and political ends. He was speaking of economic, political, and social structures, but I imagine it applies equally well to pseudo-historical justifications once used to support imperialist and colonialist policies.
At the very least, the fact that a significant number of H2 viewers (though by no means exceptionally large, or a majority) interpret the show as supporting white supremacist historical, social, and religious claims ought to give pause to those who feel that it’s just “entertainment” with no effect beyond Nielsen ratings.
I want to return for a moment to Alexis Jordan to finish this discussion. Jordan watched America Unearthed while visiting family members, all of whom were enraptured by the idea of white Viking giants stomping through Minnesota. Jordan tried to debunk the story by pointing to the show’s many, many flaws. “The result was the one of my family members turned to me, sighed, and say, ‘Oh, you’re no fun.’” Jordan felt defeated and wondered why even her family refused to listen to the truth. You really should read what Jordan concluded about America Unearthed, racism, ignorance, and the audience. The short form is that, in Jordan’s admittedly anecdotal study, even educated members of the audience lack an understanding of how archaeology really works, can be blind to the existence and achievements of Native Americans, seek entertaining stories that appeal to comforting preexisting beliefs, and trust that media organizations tell the truth. Finally, they also become angry when any of these factors is challenged, especially when an “elitist” suggests that education or training in archaeology produces better conclusions than what the mythical “average American” can achieve sitting on the couch.
So, to finish: It’s not just me saying this. You can stop sending racist emails now.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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