Any gentle reminder of underrepresentation or call to acknowledge these everyday microaggressions leads to defensiveness – for instance, the proclamation that "we're doing better than most institutions." The seeming inability to distinguish the drive for improvement from an attack on culpability is a classic case of white fragility. Clearly, the upkeep of their "white ally" performance is of greater concern to them than seeking justice via historiographic reparations. (Please note my previous observations on white lip service.)
Likewise, I am continually impressed by the sense of entitlement that is embodied by white people engaging POC histories, and their unwillingness to make space and step aside from leadership roles on such projects when the opportunity arises. Of course they wouldn't actively seek to engage POC in the interpretation of their own histories (though they would counter that of course they "include" POC as topics or interviewees). They fear not being in control of the outcomes, the narratives. White entitlement has become a tool of the trade; these practices are reproduced by both programs and institutions – what's being taught to the next generation of predominately white public historians. White liberal (public historian) attitude issues are perpetuated – nurtured and encouraged – in these environments.
These self-proclaimed, self-assured "woke allies" are ineffectual given any real conflicts. They do not actively seek engagement opportunities, nor do they put any effort into maintaining consequent networks and connections. They are just generally unwilling to "share" or "return" historical authority to the people whose history they're occupying. POC are treated like accessories, tokens – just a name on the list of "consultants" for an exhibit placard, a face for the photos on their fundraising brochures. Our "presence" – however transitory and underutilized – is just there for validation.
"Advisory groups" and the "consultation" of community members (if we're lucky enough to get such things) best embodies these issues of tokenization and uncompensated emotional/intellectual labor* in the field. We're told we ought to be grateful that white project leaders bother to virtue signal by pretending to include us. Oftentimes, those white people "specializing" in POC histories are the ones who are selected to "represent" such perspectives, rather than actual community members and scholars of color. This is just one significant way in which white people take up too much space in the field, displacing the POC they claim to "study" and "empower" through their scholarship. These white people ultimately go on to produce work that is lauded as "inspiring," "revolutionary," and "critical." When POC do the same work, it's seen as "alternative," "biased," and "amateur" – sidelined and labeled "grassroots," as if that were a dirty word. While white mediocrity is celebrated; POC accomplishments are buried (only to be dug up for appropriation later on).
* This is the third time I've used this phrase here (the nth time in my everyday life). Perhaps it's just a trite buzzword, but it has deeply resonated with me as of late. I take "(uncompensated) emotional and intellectual labor" to connote all of that effort, time, energy, philosophizing and stress that goes into pushing those around us to acknowledge our humanity by choosing to critically engage with the issues that comprise our daily lives – and all of the thanklessness and disillusionment that comes with it.
The world, as we know it, is one giant safe space for white people. Through this organization, our members will hopefully find momentary respite from a white-majority, white-led society. The kind of aggression contained within this one message is ever-present in our lives, both explicitly and implicitly. But only when whiteness is named, and not treated as the invisible default, do we draw attention from our peers.
I was/am angry, but not just about this particular incident. I'm frustrated by what it represents. The irony was that this online harasser wasn't just some random person who happened upon our page. This person was a relative of one of my white classmates. As such, I find myself less interested in our messager, and more preoccupied with the paradox of the well-intentioned white ally (especially in academia). Why are those who would decry the explicit biases expressed in this message more interested in proclaiming they aren't racist than in actually trying to prevent this harassment from happening again? Why do they find it necessary to inform their colleagues and students of color of how critical our work is at this particular political moment? Our work has always been critical – especially for POC. Only when things like white supremacy are made glaringly obvious for white people do they recognize the power and productivity of our efforts. Even once they see the value of our work, they often appropriate our emotional/intellectual labor as their own. Public history, for instance, was originated by POC – grassroots history-making that engaged the needs of the community. But it has since been co-opted and "professionalized" by the white middle-class.
Even in the fallout of the Charlottesville march this past weekend, I find my white colleagues proclaiming their "surprise." But racism is not some distant specter. It has, and continues to affect us all. I'm the only POC in Temple's public history program. What if this message had actually come from my classmate? Would our department, our university stand behind our organization? Or would it just be dismissed as another "isolated incident?" Would I still be forced to attend classes with this person?
So, what will our white colleagues do about these things? Will they redress both the "microaggressive" and blatantly racist sentiments that both they and their relatives, roommates, coworkers and friends hold dear? Or will they continue to leave POC to clean up the mess, tend to our wounded, while simultaneously decrying the exclusivity of our spaces? How does (white) lip service impact our work? How do we confront it – militantly, diplomatically, or both?