Episode 6: Michael Rivera and the bone to pick with the Arch and Anth Community!

Michael Rivera, Ph.D, at the beach.

Michael Rivera is a Filipino-Chinese bioarchaeologist, biological anthropologist and science communicator based in Hong Kong. He specialises in the study of human biology, behaviour and evolutionary history.

He left Hong Kong when he was 18 to get his BSc, Mphil and PhD. He researches the evolution of Homo Sapiens, what factors influence our biological diversity (particularly in the skeleton), and the history of anthropology research itself.

He is now back setting up new collaborations around his home regions of East/South East Asia, working with different anthropology and archaeology researchers, science communicators, museums, and anti-racism and social advocacy groups.

Below is the full transcript of the episode. Please be advised that this episode touches upon experiences of racism. Enjoy, and please do provide feedback or get in touch with Michael via:

Twitter: @riveramichael

The Arch and Anth Podcast: @ArchandAnthPod


Jazmin, Nuzhat, Michael

Jazmin: 00:07

Hello, and welcome to the What on Earth podcast. I’m your host, Jazmin.

Nuzhat: 00:11

And I’m your host Nuzhat. In this podcast we celebrate Earth, environmental and planetary scientists from diverse backgrounds, and get to know what they’re up to.

Jazmin: 00:23

And we also speak to scientists from different disciplines, about how to decolonise science and make it more inclusive for everyone.

Nuzhat: 00:32

In this episode, we’ll be talking to a biological anthropologist about his field and how he tries to decolonise his subject. Today, we have Michael Rivera. Hi, Michael! [Michael] Hi! [Nuzhat] So to our audience, could you introduce yourself?

Michael: 00:46

Sure. So, I am Dr. Michael B.C. Rivera, and I am a biological anthropologist. I specialise in the study of human evolution, human biological diversity, and human cultural behaviour, so you know-

Jazmin: 01:02

That’s a very wide range. And so, what made you interested in becoming an anthropologist?

Michael: 01:10

A long time ago, when I was 13, or 14, I saw this TV show called Bones, airing on television, and I really liked Bones. And for anyone who’s never watched the TV show Bones, it’s about this brilliant forensic anthropologist, and she uses scientific methods in order to identify skeletons, to identify human remains that are found in a forensic context or a crime related context in the States. So, I was very curious as to whether this is a real job. And so, when I was a teenager, I looked it up, it was a real job, it looked really cool. And so, I signed up for university degrees, I applied for anthropology, you know, at 18 years old. And so that was pretty much like the beginning of me being really curious about how you can use human remains to identify people. And although I haven’t really done a lot of Forensic Anthropology, I still find it very cool. And, but I’ve also learned that those similar skills are very useful in the study of archaeology as well, which is the study of human past. So, the study of what people were doing maybe hundreds or thousands of years ago. So that’s the kind of kind of broad range of subjects that I’m interested in. And, you know, it started a very long time ago now. You know, it was a long time since I was It’s been a long time since I was 13.

Jazmin: 02:44

Yeah, I like Bones as well. And I remember watching and getting fascinated by it. Obviously, I’ve got lost track, though, because there’s quite a lot of seasons now, isn’t there?

Michael: 02:53

Yeah. They finished like, after season 13. And then they ended, so yeah.

Jazmin: 03:00

Well, yeah, it was I really enjoyed that show as well. So, I can understand where you got that fascination from.

Michael: 03:07

Are there are there a lot of shows about geologists?

Nuzhat: 03:13

I, the thing is, I wasn’t really exposed to geology until I did my undergrad degree. And I was kind of not forced to, like I did the natural science triplus at Cambridge, and you have to do four subjects. So, I obviously chose chemistry and physics, because I like that, and you have to do maths. And I was [like] what would be my fourth option? And I think the most popular option would be to do you know, the three traditional sciences. I also love volcanoes and earthquakes and I did geography A level. So, for me, like I was, I remember, I sat into some of the biology of cells module, didn’t find them fascinating. Found the earth science lectures a lot more exciting because it’s about the world. So that’s the way I got into I mean, before that I was not exposed to Earth Sciences on TV myself. There was a teacher who wanted to introduce geology at A level option in school and I remember I was in year eight, when this happened, like the teacher, we heard rumours that this teacher wanted to introduce it. And I remember thinking they’re like, when I was in year eight who wants to study rocks? And lo and behold, one of the greatest ironies in my life, but I remember just thinking like, that sounds so dull, like rocks? Like why would I want to study that? So, I mean, obviously, that just shows you a lot about I mean, I guess the narrow-minded nature of the way people perceive geology, and that’s why you need great science communicators.

Michael: 04:58

It’s really true even in my field and something that was quite remarkable on the show Bones was helping the main character. The main character [is] Temperance Brennen, helping her was another character called Angela Montenegro and she was playing this half Asian character. And from my point of view, I’d never seen that before on any mainstream Western, cultural, you know, TV show or movie. So, you know, that was really just special to see like that someone that kind of looked like me, could be on such a show and depicting like such a scientist, that was really important to me. I don’t know if you guys have ever, you know, seen a lot of South Asian or Black geologists on TV shows?

Nuzhat: 05:47

Definitely not South Asian. I think I was just gonna I was just thinking when you were saying this, like, a lot of geologists on screen are like white cis men, and hardly any women. Although Anjana is doing like a great job right now trying to diversify what the image of a geologist and earth scientist is, she’s doing a great job. And there are other great science communicators who are diversifying what a geologist looks like Chris Jackson being another one. But growing up, like, not only they’re not being science communicators, but just even roles that South Asian women did. It was very, very rare to see a South Asian role models, but TV show characters or movie characters anyway.

Michael: 06:36

Yeah. (Jazmin) Yeah same really. (Michael) If they were anyone who usually was, you know, the IT person?

Nuzhat: 06:43

Oh, yeah or like a housewife.

Michael: 06:46


Jazmin: 06:48

Yeah. That’s to say, like, I don’t recall any kind of people that looked like me on TV. That were like, volcanologist, or geologist, or even a geographer. Yes, I suppose for me It’s just because I really enjoyed the subject, then I was like, you know, I don’t care. There’s no role models I’ll do it anyway, because I’m just stubborn like that, I guess. So, it’s definitely nice to see some people now and obviously, with my connections with the volcanologists in the Caribbean, that really helps as well, because they’re not only people who look like me and have similar last names to that people I know and, of course, they kind of speak like my grandparents as well, which obviously helps as well. So yeah, I mean, it’s always important to have role models, but can be hard, because sometimes they’re such not there.

Michael: 07:50


Nuzhat: 07:51

I was gonna ask, like, Michael, you mentioned, like Bones, this character that you specifically mentioned, was half south, sorry, half Asian in heritage, like- for you, let’s say if Bones didn’t have that character, do you think that would have an impact on your interest?

Michael: 08:10

I think that my entire life would be completely different now. (Nuzhat) Okay. (Jazmin) Oh wow. (Michael) No, really, honestly. And so that’s why it’s so powerful to have representation. And I also think about, you know, what, what compels people like both of you and me to be so open about what we do on Twitter and in other media? Why do we agree to be on podcasts and be interviewed like all of these different, you know, press outlets, or popular outlets? I think, in some ways, because we want to, to be that powerful representation for someone else, like down the line for the for hopefully, dozens of, you know, young minds or junior scientists out there. It’s so important that they that they see people like us doing what we do.

Nuzhat: 09:01

Definitely, I think, especially in non-traditional routes, especially like anthropology and archaeology, geology, they’re not, they’re not like typical career routes, people go down, especially like, South Asian community there’s a lot of like, go into engineering, going into medicine. Like, I’ll be honest like I said, I already mentioned, I wouldn’t have chosen geology or earth sciences when I applied. I applied for physics. I’m so grateful I didn’t go down that route, although I love physics, I love Earth Science more. But I think especially like you mentioned, you were inspired by a TV show like, sometimes, like, when we come from cultures that specify specific careers as being successful, we need good teachers or good TV shows to kind of, say able to inspire us beyond what’s in our bubble.

Michael: 09:57

Yeah, I don’t know what It’s similar in your fields but, another thing about anthropology and archaeology that can sometimes, you know, lead to a huge under representation of people who are Black, Asian, or ethnic minorities in our field, is the fact that our discipline started about 100 or 150. You know, you can maybe trace back the theoretical frameworks, maybe even longer than that 200 years ago, 300 years ago, to the earliest scientists who were concerned with, like, human evolution, or what defines us, what makes us human, our discipline, people in our discipline, took an active role in actually constructing arguments for why different races or different people around the world are inferior or superior and it was part of the colonial mission, a lot of the time. (Nuzhat) Yeah. (Michael) And so, you know, when you have that history, why would any, you know- any anyone who, you know, have anyone who has ancestors that derive from that colonial history? Why would anyone like us want to such a field- (Nuzhat) that’s true. (Michael) -that’s violent towards people now, and even still today, even some science that we do in our field is kind of unethical, basically, or they have these biases, and also how, how it was part of, you know, the mistreatment of our ancestors, why would we be interested in central discipline?

Nuzhat: 11:39

Yeah, I can definitely empathise, that being someone who studied inclusions in diamonds, I feel very icky about the way diamond research community, like tries to talk about global politics. I remember, like, one of my colleagues tried to say how Botswana benefited from the diamond trade and that’s why it’s more stable than other African countries. And I was like, pretty much ignoring like, the role that the diamond industry had in colonialism and it makes a big difference and when diamond was found, with respect to colonialism, like complete disregard for the history, and trying to justify a transnational corporation or like Western Corporation, and the way that they behave in developing countries. So yeah, the obviously like, one of the biggest issues I have in geology is the ethics and disregard for its role in colonialism.

Michael: 12:45

I love asking other people in this position, did you manage to put any of that into your PhD?

Nuzhat: 12:53

So, for me, I did a territorial acknowledgement where I talk about the role that the diamond history had in the way its marginalised indigenous communities. And that the I did make a statement that the diamond research community has to do more in undoing its colonial legacy and giving back to the communities that is taking advantage of by you know, it has a more political, what’s the word? Power in moving communities, right? Like Murowa in Zimbabwe were one of my samples came from, communities had to move their homes to make way for the mining. There are several indigenous communities around Diavik in Canada, that are with respect to the other communities, are suffering from lower socio-economic indexes, lower rates of employment and education right next to the cities that are profiting from the diamond industry. Like how could you have that? So, in my territorial acknowledgement, I tried to talk about the way that the diamond research has benefited at the consequence of the local communities, and that should try to do more.

Michael: 14:16

Mm hmm.

Jazmin: 14:19

Yeah, I mean, yeah, for me, I did, as well as territorial acknowledgement, tried to find ways to turn my research on its head. So, I took a decolonial approach to it. And the way I could do that in the constraints of my methodology, and the resources I had, was to actually take a feminist approach to it. So, for me it was more embedded in the methodology in terms of one: acknowledging that the archives I was using well written by one voice which is the white elite colonist man and then acknowledging that there’s so many other voices lost. So, there’s women, there’s slaves, the emancipated descendants, disabled, children, as many marginalized groups as possible. And then for me to, when I do my interviews to actually make a conscious effort in who I choose to speak to, so obviously, I had to do it in a way that obviously didn’t intrude on people’s privacy. But I mainly did it based on like gender, and like rough age, because I wasn’t concerned specifically in like, the data in terms of the age. And to be honest, so for me like- obviously, gender is very important in terms of how you respond to disasters, but again, it was not the focus of my study, but I still made a conscious effort to try and diversify the people I was speaking to not just across the island, but in terms of who they are as a person. Because I think that’s obviously volcanic eruptions, they can they impact whole society, and also society is not the same, that there’s diversity within different groups within that society. So, I try to acknowledge that everyone experiences the same event differently based on who they are as a person. So that was, that was sort of like me testing it, because it’s not really been done before. So mostly, I learned a lot, and hopefully, one day I can keep tweaking it, tweaking the methodology to make it more decolonised. But we’ll see what happens.

Nuzhat: 16:49

You did an undergraduate degree in Arch and Anth, but you also did a PhD. So, what was your PhD on?

Michael: 16:58

I think that- you know, at the, at the beginning of my PhD, I really was in it for the science, you could say, like, I was really just wanting to understand how human beings have evolved and I chose the coastline, like the beach and the coastline as my sort of like place of study, because I had grown up in Hong Kong, I always thought that, you know, beaches, coastlines, even the sides of lakes and rivers, those are always very, they must have been very dynamic zones for evolution and for adaptation and for trade, and, you know, just interesting behavioural practices, right? And that would have that would leave its mark on people’s skeletons, people’s bodies and what we could examine in the archaeological record. And its so kind of, I really just wanted to stick to the science of like, what people were eating or what people were just doing like occupationally day to day. I find it really fascinating how, even though that was what I wanted to concentrate on back in 2014, around 2016, or 2017, when I was, you know, doing all my, my finalising my literature review, I then started to encounter work that was to do with colonising archaeology, and some of the biases that have that have always been there in, in the interpretation of coastal people before. So, you know, we actually tend to have an under representation of, of coastal related literature, like we don’t have a lot- like people tend to focus on places that are drier, more inland, and island groups or beach groups would be slightly less studied. And that’s an interesting question as to why. And, you know, one argument, one theory or some an idea that many people work on is the fact that there is a preservation bias. So, if you’re by the coast, you know, tidal activity is going to keep eroding it, and it will submerge all of the remains that we might find interesting into the ocean. And that’s a problem, you know, just because we don’t have them anymore. It doesn’t, it’s not evidence that there weren’t people there, it’s just that we haven’t done- you haven’t found it yet. But people are working on that, like maritime archaeologists are trying to dive down now and get that. But another very huge bias is in how, you know, even since the 1800s, how some of our fields foremost scientists and explorers used to describe coastal people. Charles Darwin when he went around, you know large, large parts of the world, you know to find, to study evolution. He wrote in his diaries around the 1830s, the late 1830s, he wrote that after encountering some groups off the coast of Chile, he said to knock a limpet from the rock does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind. Like he just thought that people who would be so low as to eat shellfish would be somehow like less intelligent, or less civilised. And he wrote about this not just about groups around South America, but in the Caribbean as well and whenever he and whenever archaeological studies were taking place, on groups from maybe like North West North America, so around Alaska, or maybe of Southeast Asia, around the islands of Java, Borneo, this is the sort of discourse that early archaeologists and scientists would give, they would say that we were savage, people were barbaric for even considering eating things like fish, or, or seafood. And, and so you know, that that kind of bias has just been carried on through the decades through the centuries, to the point where now we have less literature on it. And it’s only been maybe in the last 20 or 30 years where people in my field are trying to maybe tackle that bias and not have that bias effect, what we think is interesting, what actually symbolises that humans are an interesting species. We shouldn’t like sort of devalue all of that. But it’s, I just find it so interesting how, at the beginning of my PhD, I never thought about these issues. But these issues just permeate, like through every research question that we have in our field, and affect how research is designed, how it’s framed and in how it’s carried out in which methods you use, and then how the data is interpreted. And then, and then distributed and understood by academics and the public. So yeah. My PhD ended up being about like, so much more than just bones.

Nuzhat: 22:31

That- there is a lot to unpick with what you said, I gotta start writing down to make notes. I just want to ask a little bit more about the first half of your PhD. And so, you were talking about that you are interested in coastal communities. And two questions for that one: was like, were you studying a specific region? And why did you study that specific region, coastal areas? And secondly, like, you mentioned, like you were interested in, what kind of occupation they had and what they were eating, like, what methods do people use to try and to investigate that question?

Michael: 23:06

Hmm. Those are great questions. I, I chose the Baltic region of North Eastern Europe, kind of in the north-eastern corner of Europe, around Russia and Finland. And the Baltics is the general term for the region that includes Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I was curious about the evolutionary question about how humans adapt to coastal environments, and what effect that has on their health and their biology. So, in my field, you know, sometimes people get given a, they’re part of a team like an excavation, and then that’s, that’s where they work. Sort of like the bones come first. And then the research questions come after depending on what they find. But for me, it was the other way around. And I just asked someone who knew someone else we knew someone else who curates these really old skeletons from the Baltic region. And so, I went to Estonia and Latvia, and it’s amazing how they had skeletons that were, you know, 1,000, 3,000, 7,000 years old, and they were still pretty well intact for me to be able to study stuff. And in terms of the methods, I- my main priority was that it was cheap. My methods were the cheap, I don’t have a lot of money for like, I didn’t have a lot of research, funding, I had some for the travel, but I couldn’t really do any chemical analyses. So, a lot of people will do maybe dietary studies using stable isotopes. And that cost a lot of money, you know, and a lot of time as well and, and also the destruction of the human remains, which then makes it if you have to ask for that sometimes curators will say no, because they don’t want you to destroy little samples of bone. But there are still ways of studying diet and health, just by looking at it by looking at the bones and the teeth using macroscopic methods. So, yeah, like you could, when I was studying diet, mainly I was looking at the teeth and looking at the morphology of the teeth and pathologies of the teeth. Sometimes when there was a lot of evidence of like gum disease, or dental decay, that shows up as the erosion of like your jawbone in your in your tooth. So that would be evidence perhaps that they had poor hygiene, or oral hygiene, or they were eating lots of sugary foods in the environment, or they’re growing it themselves, that would kind of erode away at their teeth. Another big aspect of what I looked at was what they did, in terms of their activity. So, I actually used the 3D laser scanner, and I was scanning their arms and legs, and from their arm bones and their leg bones, I could tell like how thick they were, and study the shape of them. And I could basically just track through the different time periods how, in the earliest days, like 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, they were mainly fishing and getting wild resources from the rivers and the forests that actually gave them really active arms, like they had really robust arm bones, probably for like, you know, working in the water trying to net fish out and later on when they were farming, it started to end up being that their legs were thicker instead of their arms. So, I think strenuous farm work was working their legs. And maybe they develop tools by that point, metal tools made of bronze or iron that could have alleviated some of the pressures that were being put on their upper body. So yeah, those are the kind of scientific questions I could investigate looking at the Baltic skeletons.

Jazmin: 27:12

Oh, wow yeah. That’s amazing. Honestly, like I worked with an archaeologist briefly. I cannot remember the age because I did learn about ages and stuff. But I common but it was he was looking at- its round about hunter-gatherers around the last Ice Age. I don’t know what age that is. But he was linking that to volcanism on continental Europe. So, he did quite a lot of work on this volcanic eruption that happened in Germany called the Laacher See, which is now a maar lake. But he was looking at how that eruption actually impacted hunter-gatherers’ social networks. And it’s just fascinating to learn from an archaeologist. I do, I like I just find it- it’s like, bit magic, really what you guys do, I think. So yeah, so you did touch upon- you came across, like, how to decolonise archaeology as you in, in your PhD, but, from that, what attempts did you make to decolonise your research?

Michael: 28:29

Yeah, I think that around 2017 and 2018, there was a lot going on, in my experience of academia and of science, and it became very important to me to start to, you know, try and educate myself first on the history of my discipline, which then it really does go into the history of colonialism and racism, and, you know, the construct of race and anthropologies role in constructing that. And what did that mean for the study of archaeology and for bones? So, I think in my final thesis that I handed in, I talked about it, I talked about why these biases, were affecting our interpretations of the data, like we, like I mentioned earlier, but not only that, I also was very careful about, you know, a big thing that people do these days that they want to do is, you know, be careful about who they cite. Because a lot of the time when we’re undergraduates, we kind of take reading lists and curricula as sort of, we just listened to it. And we just think that that is a pretty comprehensive list. But, you know, when you do graduate studies, you start to be very critical of, you know, is this entirely like the literature that we could be reading? And so, I noticed that there really was this bias in coastal archaeology towards citing, you know, Eurocentric perspectives like literature that was typically by white people or white Westerners, especially in the North Atlantic, like, you know, white Canadians, Europeans, British, and Australians, New Zealanders and Americans. I’m from Hong Kong, and I don’t come from a world where, you know, there that kind of perspective is, I mean, in some circles, yes, here in Hong Kong. But you know, I don’t come from a world where that that’s what it is, like we only listen to that kind of voice. I come from a very, you know, culturally diverse city over here. So, I always had this instinct that I wanted to be careful about that. So, if you check my citations list in my thesis, you will find researchers who study coastal archaeology in Argentina, like at the end of the continent, towards Tierra del Fuego, and you know, First Nations archaeologists working in Canada, as well as Inuit and Matewans. I also cite a lot of work that was done in my home regions of Easter- Southeast Asia, a lot of, you know, there are lots of populations that used to live here on the islands and the coastlines here. So, I on purpose, tried to find comparative data that they were providing that they were that they were doing the work that they were doing to interpret the past in these contexts. And then I actually found it to be very, like a very fruitful exercise, because then I could really answer the question of, you know, I have this data from the Baltics, is this, is this something that’s specific to North Eastern Europe in the past? Or is it something that, you know, really defines homosapiens, so long as homosapiens was located by the water? If I didn’t do that, then the very most I could possibly do is comparing the Baltics to like the Mediterranean context, or, you know, the Irish context and maybe the Black Sea context, but it’s not, I don’t, I didn’t think that I was that it like, that wasn’t more interesting than actually having a very global perspective. In in what I do, and I would hope that in my future work, I still continue to, you know, really, really highlight and really educate myself on all of those, quote on quote, global South perspectives, because there’s a lot of amazing work being done everywhere. It’s a shame not to read it and to not know about it and to not cite it and to not use it in the interpretation of our data, even when you’re working in the UK.

Nuzhat: 32:51

I think what you said is really fascinating, because it reflects how our research practices still mirrors [a] colonial mindset, in that if we have like a very West- Western centric research group, I think, especially anthropology and archaeology, which has a lot more kind of human factor. If we only have like a research community, it’s very, very biased towards one step pretty much mirrors what was happening during the colonial times when you mentioned earlier, when, during the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, people like Charles Darwin, were going out and making these really crass statements very, like very ignorant statements based on what their personal experiences was. And then we continue to do that today, when we had like a research community, that’s very much one specific type of people, right? And it is really interesting that you said like you I mean; you purposely make a purposeful effort into trying to cite and have a more global perspective. And that we also- thing is like, especially like hard rock geology, we have this issue that- is interesting that our fields are very global studies, earth science, like petrology, my samples come from around the world. Volcanology, a lot of the volcanic activities happen in countries where there aren’t a lot of earth scientists and like archaeology, like people, I mean, people are studying culture from all over the world. Why? Why are the only researchers in those fields from specific, you know, white dominated countries? Why are we not current encouraging, like a diverse view?

Michael: 34:35

When the world and when our species were evolving, it’s almost like they weren’t any national borders or academic hierarchies back then.

Jazmin: 34:47

Oh, wow, who would have thought? Those were the days.

Nuzhat: 34:57

But what I wanted to ask you, so you did a lot in your own specific research to try and decolonise the viewpoints and studies. What about outside your PhD project? Have you been involved in any decolonization projects? You know, regardless if it was related to sci- like STEM or not?

Michael: 35:20

There have been projects that I have been involved with. And then there, I, I kind of distinguish between the ones that I wanted to be involved with, or that I was happy to, or I am happy to be involved with, and also those that I kind of was forced to be involved with, or I ended up regretting being involved with. Generally speaking, you know, when I saw the different kinds of projects that I do, for example, would be having my own podcast that, you know, features interviews, as well with, you know, very diverse guests, from all parts of the world, and from all fields of study, like, I really don’t have any bias that- there really are, there are a lot of archaeology and anthropology podcasts. I, I am the one who has, you know, featured the most scientists of colour. And indigenous and Black scholars, amongst all the anthropology podcasts that I know, it’s a very high percentage. And also, you know, the percentage is even higher, because I am every episode too.

Nuzhat: 36:34

Oh, it’s 50%!

Michael: 36:38

Because I because I really just I don’t see how, how is it that some someone could host such a thing, and then have it be all White, you know, I know podcasts with over 100 episodes, and every guest has been White. How? Because we’re right here, you know, we could be interviewed. I- at that point, just think that they’re just very lazy, or they’re, they’re purposely doing it to be honest. But my podcast is one of those things. Besides the podcast, I’ve also worked with, you know, different museums, departments, even journals, and, you know, professional associations to try and think about ways in which our science is negatively affected by these prejudices that exist in our scholarship, and who makes up our body of scholars. So, you know, it’s far ranging, but you know, some projects and I, I regret, some, some projects actually ended up really bad. And then there are other ones that are a lot better. But yeah.

Nuzhat: 37:50

Can I ask a little bit about the projects that you regret? Was there- is there a particular aspect that made you regret it? Or how could future people who are allies, what could they consider so that, you know, when they put this kind of labour on us, they don’t make us regret volunteering?

Michael: 38:12

I think that before entering any kind of team- the ones that I really regret, were the ones where, you know, maybe the terms of how we would- how we would work on these issues, it wasn’t carefully decided, it wasn’t decided who would lead, whether it even makes sense for there to be a leader or whether it’s better as a collective and you know, everybody’s equal. And I think also, how do we make sure that, you know, marginalised people are centred, and that they do get their voices heard even in even in the tackling of marginalisation problems. And it’s so surprising to me, especially over the last few months, since the end of May, how many Westerners or how many White people get this absolutely wrong. Because they think that they should be in charge, that’s what I found out. They, they do not accept that I should lead the conversation or that, you know, an indigenous scholar or a Black scientist should lead the discussion. They think that they should do it and they should set out how it’s done. They should set out the tone of the meeting, the pace of the meeting, the frequency of the meetings, what happens in the meetings and what we should do. From my point of view, I think that that is absolutely weird. I think what White allies should do is say that they have these positions, or they have their powers, or they have their skills. What are your propositions? What are your proposals, BAME people? And tell us how we can help you enact your proposals? Because if you don’t experience oppression and prejudice, how do you know what- how do you [know how to] solve oppression? and prejudice? How? That’s what really gets that gets to me. I regret not being more careful entering into spaces and conversations and collaborations with those people who don’t understand that.

Jazmin: 40:32

Yeah, just what you’re describing, it just sounds like why are you there? If they do everything, it’s like [well] what, what is the purpose of you being there? Is it just like, were they just gonna tokenise you and just say, yeah, we got someone who’s a little bit diverse, like, yeah, that is weird. And it’s like, what are they trying to prove? Like I- anyway, whatever.

Michael: 40:56

I think it’s really, it’s further violence, it’s further stress and put a burden on all of us. And yeah, I think it was for optics, it’s for tokenisation so that they could have a pretty website [that] they could put my name on, you know, a list of names. And I would stand alone, I would be there to the outside world as like, oh no, we don’t have a problem where 12 White women, but we have this one guy. So, we’re okay, now.

Nuzhat: 41:31

I hate like making comparisons to like, a discrimination or campaigns related to gender. But like, for example, we wouldn’t, you don’t really have women’s empowerment or campaigns are led by men, right? You wouldn’t have like a group of men plus one woman, you wouldn’t have it, like championed by men. So why does it when it comes to like, like gender or disability or sexuality that so many, especially White, straight women do this, like they will lead, and they will dictate how it goes. And it’s almost as if like, marginal folks are an accessory or just like a validator.

Michael: 42:19


Jazmin: 42:21

Yeah, either, like on similar track then to those regrets. What kind of responses did you encounter in trying to decolonise your subject in your spaces?

Michael: 42:37

You know, I was I only very recently resolved a situation or maybe, you know, found peace with my, my relationship with my field in the UK. In general, like, because I had just moved back to Hong Kong, you know, I originally was from Hong Kong. And then in 2009, I went to, to Britain to study for all my degrees, collecting degrees. And then, after getting them all, I finally come home now, and being based in Hong Kong has really kind of grounded me in, you know, my communities and my family, with my partner, and also just myself and like, where do I want the rest of my adulthood to go? Like, what do I want to do with all of these degrees that I’ve gotten? And what I what I found, is that when I really examine the responses to my ideas, on decolonising, I found that a lot of the responses that my former department or in other spaces, were so antagonistic, and they were so not willing to, you know, even for a second, consider that I might have the right idea, or I might have a different idea. You know, I’m not saying that I know what to do, I’m also just a junior scientist, but I know some, you know, it’s been 11 years of my life. I’ve read a lot of stuff. You can see all my books behind me, as we record this. I’m a smart cookie.

Nuzhat: 44:18

He has a great library behind him.

Jazmin: 44:20

Yeah, looks great.

Michael: 44:22

And, you know, I have a PhD, okay, I earned the right like, I know, some stuff, not the best, and not the only ideas, but I have ideas that are unique, and that I can provide because there’s no one else in my field. There’s very few, there are less than five biological anthropologists from Hong Kong. I just think that I had good ideas and they were so resistant they dismissed me, they took it as an excuse to maybe call me antagonistic or that I was causing trouble in the department or that, you know, if it wasn’t about the content of what I was saying, oh, and then it was about my tone, and that I was too aggressive with what I was saying- aggressive, like, it doesn’t even compare even a little bit to the 400 or 500 or 600 years of violence- (Jazmin) yeah- (Michael) that you imposed on the world. So, I don’t understand, like, that kind of response. And from my point of view, you know, a guy can only take so much, and I had to, I had to come to terms with the fact that I probably had to cut off my contact with several people, even people that I consider to be good colleagues, for many years, and friends. And I grieve over that, you know, I don’t want to lose my friends, or my acquaintances and colleagues. But it was necessary. Because on this on this very important issue in 2020, they were not willing to stand by my side, they felt very attacked, and they felt that they had to be all defensive about racism. I don’t have energy for them. Like, I don’t have time for that nonsense anymore. I don’t know how you guys feel?

Jazmin: 46:17

Well, it’s hard to unpack. But yeah, I mean, you know, when you’re saying about your tone, aggressive, we’ll see that for me, that springs oh, that’s like a stereotype placed on Black women quite a lot. And actually, like, me, for example. So, I actually, I am actually quite a very, you know, quiet kind of person. So, I’m not very confrontational. But my sister, complete opposite. She has been labelled as an aggressive Black woman, even though she’s not, she’s just very passionate about what she believes in. But people take it the wrong way. And I think that’s, yeah, it’s, it is hard to unpack. Because, for me, obviously, a little bit more earlier in my world of decolonisation, and in volcanology is slightly different. Because mainly, it’s just only been started to be talked about and I’ve not come across that many people that kind of resistant to it. But that’s just because there’s not so many people engaging with it, if that makes sense? Because volcanology is mainly more on physical STEM side of things, it’s not that many scholars around the world who actually are interested in the social and historical context of these volcanic eruptions like I am, so it’s, I would not say its resistance. But certainly, if we step back towards geology and geoscience, there is more conversation in Europe, and the US to be like, okay, we need to start decolonising, our curriculums, and whatnot, but only at the curriculum level, at the research level, it’s still behind. So, I think, we’re lagging behind archaeology in terms of how we respond to it. And I hope I don’t come across that much resistance, because I will probably then start picking fights, because when I am in a mood to fight, I will fight. So, I just hope for the sake of people that want to get in my way that they don’t get in my way. That’s all I gotta say on that.

Nuzhat: 48:42

I think I like I empathise more with Michael because I used to be more quieter, because I used to have more political friends who kind of took the forefront of these conversations. But when I went to Cambridge and Bristol, there wasn’t a group of us that were like a fight like- that believed in this cause. And Bristol, I found very alienating, because I saw, I was more aware of casual and overt racism. And I encountered casual racism quite early on when I started my PhD and not soon after overt racism. And I am quite vocal about the racial harassment I faced. And it wasn’t just like the harassment because of people who were racist in Bristol. But also, there were people who are very- actually from people who are very resistant to the idea of decolonising science because, oh, it’s physical sciences, hard rock, like, you know, it’s just like application of sciences. It’s math. What do you decolonise? And it’s like, there’s a lot about the history and the process and access of information how we do this research, right? Especially in geology, there’s a lot about accessibility to land. That’s one big question and accessibility to earth sciences and education. So, I did meet a lot of resistance. And I, the thing is when you encountered this, it’s like an ongoing journey, like, how do you respond to it? So, I responded by like, kind of like cutting off links to people who were racist. But the thing is, is quite hard, because a lot of people that are either racist, or that [are] kind to racists, like, the one thing I like about London is I can pick and choose who my friends are, like, more easily because I have more people who are anti-racist around me. Whereas in Bristol, and earth sciences, it becomes really, really hard because there aren’t as many people that are anti-racist, there are racists and kind to racists, and I don’t, I don’t really want to be friends with anyone who tolerate racism and what I find quite, like, what’s the word what I really find quite anxiety inducing is that a lot of the people who were either racist or friends with racist, I mean, actually friends with racist that talking about decolonising geology and like Black Lives Matter. And it’s like, well, you actually, are- you actively harassed or you actively, like made life harder for people of colour, like you have never acknowledged what you did to people like me. And I remember talking to my head of school saying, like, because I did, like, tell him like, this was my experiences and he, he was very, like, sympathetic to the situation. And he, I remember, I asked him, like, these people, they’re saying, like, that they care about anti-racism, have they like, have you spoken about their behaviour? And he has said that they haven’t engaged with their past actions. So, when I see a lot of people in our sciences talking about decolonisation and anti-racism, I, I don’t believe a lot of it unless you take actual like, action. And when I say action, I meant action that requires some form of sacrifice, where you put a person of colour ahead of your own friendship and your own network. And I’m not going to believe you, because all it is all talk because you haven’t done it in the past. You haven’t come to terms with the wrongs that you have done. So why would I think you actually believe in this stuff? Like, I just I really don’t like Bristol Earth Science Twitter, because there are people who are friends with my harasser tweeting about anti-racism is like, no way you are not anti-racist.

Jazmin: 52:52

So, it’s the scepticism that they can’t, that you don’t see them changing, because obviously, they’ve not even acknowledged what happened in the past-

Nuzhat: 53:00

Exactly. A simple apology would make a big difference as to how much I would believe them.

Jazmin: 53:05

Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah, I can understand that, too. And that is actually similar to what’s happening with like, for my dad, for example. So, he works for a supermarket, and he’s a manager. And this week, he’s there was like, ‘let’s talk about race’, kind of like conference with the managers. And he found it rather funny because like, he was the only Black man manager in this region, he’s the Black guy in the region and there’s only like two other, like Black women, and there’s like, one mixed-race woman or everything. But so, it was, and it was just funny just that- what like one of the topics of conversation was oh, have you actually- when the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd was murdered and everything, did you actually speak to a Black person? And obviously, like, dad was saying that everyone was silent? Because like, he was saying that like for them, like, they’ve never had to think about it, because obviously, their White and their families are White, their friends are White. I mean, I mean, I’m in the northeast, it’s a very White region. So, it’s like, he’s just like- he says that it’s gonna be a long time I think before even in the space he works in is going to really tackle these issues because they’ve never had to deal with it before. So, it’s like yeah, so he himself was sceptic is like is that he’s like, the change is not gonna happen when I’m around. It’s gonna probably happen, like, probably two generations downline and for me, for me, it’s like, I don’t think it will ever change. This is the problem because people don’t like change. A lot people don’t like change and I don’t like confronting the bad aspects of them. And that’s a shame really, because like for me, like, I’m always very reflective of myself. I try to better myself as a person and change, yes, it can be scary, but it can be really, you know, exciting as well. And what’s not say that changing our disciplines is not gonna be exciting, like, we can actually think about things in different ways. Like, it’s not awesome? But, you know, it’s, yeah. Yeah, I don’t really have much hope really. I would say.

Nuzhat: 55:28

So- the thing is, right now, there’s a lot of conversation about decolonisation. But what I really find fascinating is that, you know, especially me and Michael have had a lot of pushback. So, when we talk about decolonising science is that, yes, we had a lot of pushback, [but] what’s really interesting on are one- the people who are taking charge of the conversation, especially in earth science, White women, and what I find really frustrating is that there is a lot of sexism in science. But what I find frustration is that White women don’t see that a lot of a lot of the sexism tropes that they face, they do onto people of colour. Like, for example, with decolonisation, you know, people of colour have been talking about this so long, we’ve had a lot of push backs, but suddenly, now that is quite trendy, that a lot of women of- white women are taking a leap, leading a chat trying to champion or lead these conversations, as opposed to supporting the many people of colour, especially earth scientists that have risked their careers to introduce this conversation.

Michael: 56:35

Yeah, two things on that is like, you know, they’re almost weaponising feminist movement so that they can basically further white supremacy in our organisations and in our work. And the second thing that I find really freaking insulting, is that, you know, there would be no feminism if it wasn’t for Black and indigenous activists over the different decades, who led Black and indigenous and trans-feminist movements in the past. So all- you know, I don’t know where they get their history lessons from, but they’re pretty ignorant about that part. And then they pretty much only idolise other white women, authors and activists, to who to be frank have just stolen ideas from other people.

Nuzhat: 57:30

On top of that, like a lot of white feminist movements have also been innately racist as well. Tried to oppose, like, anti-racist campaigns by you know, the whole women’s voting rights. Was it that Susan B. Anthony said like, you know, she’d rather like cut off her arm before like a Black man is able to vote before-

Jazmin: 57:58

-to give the Negro the vote. That’s exactly it. So yeah, when that statue went up. I was like, are they for real? Like, oh my God. Yeah, I mean, yeah, I think history here is actually really important. In terms of well, society, I guess. And I suppose it goes back to my research, where I had to acknowledge that there silenced and manipulated voices in the narrative of how these disasters played out. Like, there’s a lot of people that we don’t hear from because, I mean, who writes the history? It’s mainly the White people, then even though we have our own histories, in our own countries, but we don’t hear about that, because it’s not as important as what happened in Europe and North America and to be frank, I’m kind of bored of it. So that’s why I really got into like the history of the Caribbean and St. Vincent, because it’s like, this is history that’s important to me, because obviously my ancestors and my family come from St. Vincent. This is way more interesting than what’s going on in Europe during this time. I don’t care. It’s just- world perspectives- yeah people are just annoying, aren’t they? Anyway.

Nuzhat: 59:15

Over the years, have you seen a change in the attitude towards decolonising archaeology and anthropology? And are you hopeful?

Michael: 59:22

Hmm. I have come to terms with just myself and how, you know, maybe I don’t need to always be hopeful about where this is gonna go. Because back in 2017 and 2018 when I was a younger scientist, I you know, I always thought like, as long as I present all my ideas, and I present them well enough, and I just get stronger and like, I just do it better, people are- things are gonna change. Like I’m gonna do my part, I’m gonna find others, and we’re going to change things and it will be done. And during those times, you kind of have to have hope, otherwise, why would you show up to those meetings in the first place you go, because you, you hope that it will go well. And what I found is that, you know, 50% of the time, actually, it probably a lot more than that, like 90% of the time, it didn’t go well, in those particular spaces. And what I really learned very recently is that this whole thing can disappoint, like very a lot, it’s so likely that you can disappoint because this is how academia works. This is how it is structured and is institutionalised. It’s systemic, you, it’s not going to change overnight. You can, you can have little pockets where you do feel hopeful and I still have days like that, there are days- there pockets, when I feel completely lost of hope, like I just don’t see how it will ever improve, because of the resistance people have when I when I speak to them about these ideas. So, you know, I actually think that’s probably very normal. I don’t think that I should always be hopeful. Sometimes when it’s disappointing, it teaches you something about how other people are basically how far behind they are. And that way, it actually gives you an opportunity to decide where you’re going to invest your own energy. I think like over the last few months, like in 2020, what I’ve seen in the change of attitude is, is I think it’s clearer than ever, that if you don’t care, or if you didn’t ever care about these issues, we will know like everybody will know now where everybody stands because of because of, you know, these social movements and uprisings reaching worldwide attention right now and all of STEM in academia are talking about it, it almost, it really is a call to action. And there were people back then in 2017, who, you know, were doing their best to ally with me, they were there- and there are others who never cared, and this is the moment when it all gets revealed. There’s no hiding anymore. And if you put out a vacuous statement on behalf of your organisation or institute, everyone will know. Because you put out the statement, you committed to do all these things. Every day, every week, every month that goes by and you and you, it appears that you haven’t done enough and it’s a high order to do enough, whatever, whatever that might mean, we’d use overthrow the system, a lot of the time, you know, you’re going to you’re basically setting yourself up for failure, because now it’s not just about your optics and your reputation and trying to keep that perfect image of your institution, it’s almost, it’s almost the opposite now, whereas actually, the more you show that you’re imperfect, and the more that you are ready to really confront what problems you have and take actions to solve those, that’s, that’s better for your image. It’s better, more than your image is better just ethically for like, for people like for communities. Yeah, so I think that there is this change in attitude, because it’s not just a buzzword anymore, it really means something to a lot of people. And you really mean something, it always has meant something, you know, decolonising, but a lot of people didn’t get that until this year, a lot of people are kind of, I guess, galvanised now and they get to find other like-minded people. And, you know, really, like, pulling the- those connections even harder to those people who they connected with before. And then there are others who are simply like, they’re floundering. They’re lost and they don’t know what to do and, you know, at least I know not to work with them.

Jazmin: 1:04:12

Wow that was a very powerful kind of statement there. I feel like, yeah! I like this! This is good. Let’s take this. Take this momentum and take it. But kind of carrying on, what him- what- who’s- sorry- whose archaeology project are you interested in at the moment?

Michael: 1:04:33

So, you know, it’s, it’s not just that the attitude and the whole field is changing. But, you know, I also find the attitude within myself changing as well. And, you know, every, again every day, month, week, year, that has passed since I started my PhD- you know, I’ve been waking up so to say, and, you know, ever since I was a kid, I always thought of it as you know, I never was afraid of learning or- I loved going to school. And that’s the way that I kind of view decolonising work and decolonising my own mind and like what I do with my own time. And so, the project that I’m most interested in is, is really hard to like, you know, pinpoint, I can’t really pick one. But in general, I am very interested in basically how indigenous collectives and- around the world and in different contexts, you know, from Australia, to the US, to parts of Asia, where I’m in now, and also a lot of, you know, African archaeologists right now and archaeology, archaeologists belonging to the African diaspora around the world. They’re doing a lot of great work right now, that is really trying to bring in a more feminist, intersectional, decolonial, anti-colonial, anti-Imperial, like perspective, into the archaeology work that we do, it’s very community focused, you know, you we work very closely with community now and trying to make the work as ethical and inclusive and engaging as possible. So, I’m just very, you know, from my point of view, I’m just trying to keep reading their work, try to keep watching their lectures. I’m really interested in that, because I don’t know why I didn’t do it when I was 18. How come when I sign up for an undergrad, no one exposed me to all this great stuff that people are working on? Alright, it’s because you know, there’s colonialism, even in the syllabus, in the lectures. But that’s what I’m most interested in now. I’m interested in like, my own, my own head evolving on all this stuff. And you know, I haven’t really figured out what exactly I’m going to do in the next 10 years. But what I do know is that it will be informed by all of this stuff that I’m purposefully educating myself on. This is where I what I want to do, I’m not going to ignore- ignore, like how important these topics are.

Jazmin: 1:07:29

That sounds really exciting. Actually, that sounds like I should get on that as well. That will be really exciting. Yeah, well, thank you for that.

Nuzhat: 1:07:38

I just want to ask if there’s any particular research group, or like projects you want to plug, that have been helping you through this process?

Michael: 1:07:48

What I love to do is I like going on YouTube, or like going on Twitter, and I search, you know, webinar, indigenous, or, yeah, the Society of Black Archaeologists, the SBA is doing a lot of like, great talks and panels now. I also, here in Asia, we have anthropology and archaeology departments, you know, because of COVID, bringing a lot of events online, I always thought that this is where science should be, which is, you know, quite accessible, and to anybody in the world, asynchronous presentations, and ones that you don’t need to travel to and pay a lot of money in order to access. So, I’m really excited by all of this stuff that is coming out of you know, departments of Asian Studies in America, Asian heritage in the UK, ones in the Philippines are hosting stuff. Departments in Hong Kong are also putting up a lot of talks. So yeah, anything from those groups would be the ones I think- in my head because I consume maybe two or three of these talks a day at this point, because there’s so many thanks to the pandemic, they’re all like muddled up in my head and haven’t sorted through them. But yeah, if anybody does get in contact, I could definitely, you know, sort of feel the few ideas to anyone interested in any particular topic.

Nuzhat: 1:09:21

Talking about contact. If our audience wants to contact you, how could they? Or where could they find you?

Michael: 1:09:30

So, my podcast is ‘The Arch and Anth’ podcast and as I said earlier, I interview experts in arch and anth around the world. You can find out all the social media at ArchandAnthPod as the username and you can download episodes on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher. And in order to find me, you can find me on Instagram at Dr. Michael Rivera. You can find me on Twitter at riveramichael.

Nuzhat: 1:09:58

Great! Thank you. It was awesome having you on our podcast.

Jazmin: 1:10:03

Yes, thank you so much.

Michael: 1:10:05

Thank you so much for inviting me to What on Earth, it was great.

Nuzhat: 1:10:14

And that’s it from us. If you enjoy this podcast, please like, subscribe, share and leave a review.

Jazmin: 1:10:20

If you have any feedback or once it gets in touch with us, you can find us on whatonearthpodcast@gmail.com or WhatonEarthPod on Twitter, or What On Earth Podcast on Instagram.

Nuzhat: 1:10:32

See the next time!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s