"Living as we did — on the edge — we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside in and from the inside out [...] we understood both." – bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
Who gets to do what kind of work? We, as public historians, must engage the ethics of occupying/interpreting spaces to which we do not belong. Some practitioners may pave the way for disenfranchised populations to take the lead in the interpretation of their own histories in a “top-down” approach. The disenfranchised may themselves originate grassroots initiatives in order to disrupt institutional power in a “bottom-up” approach. We must self-assess our own positionalities in variable contexts – when to learn through witnessing, when to educate through action.
"bell hooks, 1999 interview, The Washington Post” (2017)."
saved by the bell hooks. Accessed June 1, 2017.
Objectivity is a myth; accounts of the past and present are best communicated by the marginalized. Our relative positions in society are defined by intersecting, ascribed characteristics such as race, gender, and class; these positions comprise the breadth of our perspectives. As such, in claiming “epistemic privilege,” Others interpret their own experiences as a means of subverting the dominant historical narrative.
We must ultimately wrest the dialogue of inclusion and representation from those who would undermine it through their proclamations of “giving voice” to Others’ struggles. “Diversity” has been co-opted by white liberalism, and become a self-congratulatory proclamation. This dominant narrative encourages the tokenization of Others’ bodies and the appropriation of their emotional and intellectual labor. We must transform our communal histories into our own collective cultural capital. Within an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that draws on concepts such as positionality and standpoint theory, how may we argue for (or against) epistemic privilege in public history? How may we simultaneously negotiate and translate the exclusionary pretensions of our jargon for practical application in the field? (Think: bell hook’s “Theory as Liberatory Practice.”)
This proposal was inspired by the Inclusion Roundtable discussion at the 2017 National Council on Public History Conference. Learn more on the Public History Commons.