I had the opportunity to present my research at the 2017 National Council on Public History Conference this past week. This was my first experience meeting and interacting with public history professionals outside of Philadelphia. It was a wonderful experience listening to, learning from, and networking with individuals from a variety of disciplines and specialties. I got to connect with other students ("Out to Lunch – Grad Student Edition"), LGBT historians ("Dine Around: Presenting LGBTQ History"), and people of color (Diversity Task Force Roundtable).
When it came time to present my project, I found that the comments and questions of the people who visited my poster echoed common contemporary conceptions of gayness. Most notably, remarks on the gender demographics of early queer activists predominated. This observation (that the most visible activists of the time were men), while very accurate, is informed by a continued resistance to androcentric historical narratives – something with which we must still contend. In fact, 2017 NCPH attendees' identification of this issue touches on a larger question; could we, in fact, view the origination of queer activism by men as "the root of all evil" – a major part of the reason why women have been sidelined in our histories and continue to be, rather than the circumstances of our past merely mirroring those of our present?
Likewise, despite my colleagues' preoccupation with male-dominated narratives, no one mentioned the issue of whiteness also present in these early activist narratives. Why is that? Because NCPH conference goers (and members) were (are) exceedingly white. [This issue was explored last year in a post on NCPH's History@Work blog; one may note, however, that the post's author and misguided commenters are presumably white.] This issue, overall, illustrates what happens when a conversation is led and/or overtaken by the voices of those "in power"/with privilege. Case in point – a room full of white people discussing race and racism is an inconsequential, unproductive farce. When combined with the lived, multidimensionality of our real lives (i.e., intersectionality), we can understand how a field predominately composed of white, middle-class women receives a project that commemorates the work of white, upper/middle-class men: an acknowledgement of gender imbalance, but no consciousness of race and class disparities.
Note: 87.1% of archivists, curators, and museum technicians are white, compared to 61.3% in the general population. Similarly, the National Council on Public History’s 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals found that 88.5% of respondents identified as white, while only 7% identified as “of color” (4.5% chose not to answer). The same survey also found that two thirds of public history professionals were women – a reversal of gender ratios from thirty years ago. Even still, we must remember how the public history field (its institutionalization) circumscribes the practice of collective memory management – legitimizes the work of some (wrests the power of narrative construction from others), all the while professionalizing practitioners (imbuing them with a false sense of authority). I overheard one conference attendee of color remark to a colleague: "There's such a focus on bringing us 'into the fold,' without any acknowledgement that we've always been doing this kind of work. It's just not viewed as such." Indeed, one might say white people columbused the entirety of public history by occupationalizing it. To combat how these dynamics inform our work, we can begin by looking inward and owning up to our own racial biases (not just expounding upon them).