On my last post, my advisor posed some great questions: "How would you do an oral history project for a group of individuals with whom you had no community 'insider' status? Can historians ever do historical work that doesn't impose their own meanings and understandings?
How should historians collect primary source information from human subjects? Or should they, if they are just going to 'steal' words and memories? What are our practical options for understanding the past?"
First, we need to parse the idea of insider/outsider status. I'm asking that we differentiate between different positionalities – or stratified, intersectional spheres of experience and influence. For example, I have no qualms about insinuating myself into the old boys' club of white gay history because my presence disrupts the masturbatory cycle of white men studying other white men. But that means I'm devoting more attention and resources to a white history that, arguably, already has sufficient institutional support.
I'm assuming the premise of the first question was actually meant to draw attention to my own privileges as a half white, middle-class individual – fair enough. My engagement of Black and Brown histories has always been mediated through a white institution. In an act of virtue signaling or in order to meet the quotas set out in "inclusive" strategic plans, historians and institutions create exhibits about Black and Brown people without including Black and Brown people in curation or interpretation. These exhibits use Black and Brown people's materials without full credit, nor do they identify how the subsummation of these materials into the institution's collections will benefit the communities from which they came. Therein lies the rub – the act of "legitimation" that characterizes the public history profession's newfound interest in and consumption of working-class, POC histories.
Historians collect, preserve and interpret primary source materials on behalf of their institutions because they are working on projects for non-community members, outside of community contexts. For example, even when graduate thesis projects are meant to serve community interests, students are still doing the work for a degree and for a job in the professional public history workforce after they graduate. To reiterate why I'm seemingly obsessed with insider/outsider dynamics – I've repeatedly witnessed white scholars who "specialize" in POC history get chosen for curatorial and advisory group positions over actual Black and Brown community leaders, some of whom these white scholars had interviewed for their professionally lauded projects. White savior public historians envision themselves "rescuing" or "empowering" Black and Brown people's histories. Their project leadership gets them news headlines, commendations, prestige and position. But what does it do for community members? Public history practitioners need to offer their services and resources – funds and labor – for the creation of grass-roots initiatives that take place within and for the community (given community members' interest and assent).
So, no, of course historians can never do historical work that doesn't impose their own meanings and understandings – that's why I insist objectivity is a myth. But, disenfranchised people tend to have a more holistic perspective on social and historical structures. As I previously quoted bell hooks, "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.” Given the inevitability of human subjectivity, we need to recognize the epistemic privilege of POC.