I recently attended a scientific talk that opened with a land acknowledgment. The moderator had already mentioned the speaker’s passion for diversity and inclusion during the introductory remarks. In keeping with that passion, the speaker began their presentation by naming and acknowledging the Native American group that had dwelled on the land of our event prior to European conquest.
The speaker clearly intended to show support for Native Americans still suffering from the legacy of conquest. But such statements will hardly improve the group’s material or political conditions, nor did they challenge the views of anyone in the audience.
Acknowledging injustice is easy. Open a newspaper to see countless evils, past and present, acknowledged and described. It’s hardly news that the United States was built on land violently taken from indigenous people. But if you actually want to help people from your speaking platform, then ask the audience to do something.
Tell us about a charity, an activist group or a political organization. Ask us to donate our time or money, patronize Native American-owned businesses, or contact our elected representatives. Alternatively, if you don’t have a solution, then at least tell us something we don’t already know. Academic audiences mostly paid attention in history class, so we know we sit on conquered land. What many might not know is the ways that the people who lost their land continue to suffer. Tell us about that. If you feel obligated to discuss Native Americans’ issues before beginning a scientific talk, respect the purpose of an academic setting and help us learn something new.
The uselessness of a mere acknowledgment is also why it is safe in the United States: it threatens nobody’s interests. However, land acknowledgments could stir people to consequential action in certain places abroad because the conflict is recent or ongoing, and in those places, it certainly is not safe to discuss history and conquest. What passes as a harmless moment of piety in Pomona, Calif., could be dangerous in Belfast, Kirkuk or Sevastopol.
And while land acknowledgments won’t turn Southern California into Northern Ireland, that contrast illustrates a key distinction: such acknowledgments are meant to look like activism, but in America, they have no consequences. So the speaker gets to exude the appearance of a committed activist without any of the risk. Also, in places where conflict is still fresh in people’s memories, outreach and material assistance to those still suffering can be at least as dangerous as talking about history. Here we rarely face such risks, so we have no reason to not replace bland invocations of well-known history with concrete appeals to help those in need.
Of course, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are situations in the United States where it is still dangerous to say who the land belongs to. In that case, I repeat my suggestion to use the academic setting to teach the audience things that many of us do not know, rather than to merely remind us of well-known facts.
What’s more, to whatever extent land acknowledgments are safe, it is not only because the shooting is over. They’re also safe on campuses because virtually everyone in an academic audience agrees that Native Americans have suffered, and the audience supports (or at least wants to be seen supporting) diversity and inclusion. Land acknowledgments don’t challenge us to reconsider beliefs or learn new things; they simply signal that the speaker is a faithful adherent of an ethical system that audience members presumably share. The signal promotes the speaker’s individual interests by providing the appearance of shared morality.
That said, as lamentably unchallenging as land acknowledgments are, less comfortable statements would hardly be superior preludes to scientific talks. Suppose that a speaker chose to highlight not the history of the land on which the university or conference venue sits but rather some other moral issue connected with the people and organizations involved in their work. They could note that the university receives military research grants or that the medical school performs (or doesn’t perform) abortions. They could highlight the ways in which the admissions office considers (or doesn’t consider) diversity when evaluating applicants.
But would you find it easy to listen to an academic talk that began with potential provocations remote from the main topic? What of your colleagues and students whose deeply held values differ from yours, or whose life experiences might closely intersect with the critiqued activities?
This is not a call for safe spaces! There will certainly be times when people feel a need to speak out against injustice, even if doing so threatens relationships. But if we respect the importance of risky and disruptive activism, then we should not diminish it with cheap facsimiles that offer activism’s veneer but not its threats.
People should protest when their consciences require it, and in ways that might actually move others to change. The rest of the time, I would suggest that we all acknowledge just how safe our spaces already are -- and appreciate how that safety provides opportunities both to help the wronged as well as to conduct normal academic business. Alas, faux-radical genuflections to popular values offer no challenge, effect no change and serve no useful academic purpose.