Who gets to do what kind of work? Public historians must engage the ethics of occupying/interpreting spaces to which we do not belong. In a “top-down” approach, practitioners pave the way for disenfranchised populations to lead the interpretation of their histories. In a “bottom-up” approach, the disenfranchised originate grassroots initiatives to disrupt institutional power. This working group grapples with institutional and individual self-assessment of positionality – when to learn through witnessing, when to educate through action.
Objectivity is a myth; everyone’s relative positions in society are defined by intersecting, ascribed characteristics such as race, gender, and class; these positions comprise the breadth of our perspectives. Most marginalized folks carry a broad consciousness of these intersections; when people of color (POC) have the authority to communicate their accounts of the past and the present, we challenge the master narrative. We wrest the dialogue of inclusion and representation from those who would undermine it through their proclamations of “giving voice” to our struggles.
- Institutionally and individually, how do we prioritize POC perspectives by affirming the value of POC-led projects (e.g., through organizational policy, funding opportunities, one-on-one dialogues, etc.)? What are the pros/cons of these approaches?
- How do we ensure that POC are neither shut out of the interpretation of their own histories, nor pigeonholed as experts on said histories?
- How do we balance the right to tell our own stories with the burden of that responsibility? Does “performing race” give or take away power? How do we confront tokenization (in hiring practices, in the workplace, etc.)?
- How do our own positionalities as POC doing POC-based interpretation shift when we interact with one another on projects outside of our own identity spheres?
Jobs and academic appointments geared toward recruiting POC oftentimes go to those “willing to work with diverse populations” or those who "specialize in POC histories" rather than actual POC. Inclusion is everyone's responsibility, but the role of POC in interpretation often goes unrecognized. When we assert that our work in the institution is valuable and should not/could not be done without us, we are met with workplace intimidation. “Performing race” encompasses everything from day-to-day macroaggressions (e.g., being treated like the spokesperson for one's entire race/ethnicity), to explicitly being called upon to perform a racialized role at a historically painful site (e.g., Black historical reenactors performing enslavement at a plantation for the white tourist's gaze). Intraracial class, gender, and sexuality dynamics (e.g., within the Asian American community, we’re still contending with working-class vs. middle-class, transqueer vs. cishet dynamics). Additionally, “POC” have been made a monolith – a blanket term used to obscure issues like anti-Blackness among non-Black POC.
Working group discussants will exchange case statements describing examples of and experiences with specific problems relevant to those listed above, and help hone the discussion questions. Participants will have access to a blog where they can publicly (or privately) share feedback, commentary, and resources – creating a safe space for discussion of issues impacting public historians of color, and an open-access, online learning tool for others interested in witnessing the conversation before, during, and after the conference. During the conference, a designated participant will take notes on a Google Doc to provide everyone with a transcription of the proceedings in real time; live-tweeting will be enthusiastically encouraged.
The co-facilitators on this proposal represent a unified, trifocal perspective on issues of racial bias in interpretation. As Black, Latina, and Asian public historians collaborating on a shared goal, we can ensure that this POC-originated/led proposal will result in tools and resources that promote other POC-originated/led initiatives. In making this a working group, we are passionately and wholeheartedly undertaking the responsibility to see this project through, from start to finish, as well as hand pick participants to ensure this conversation is not commandeered by non-POC. This working group will result in a white paper for institutions seeking to prioritize POC-led interpretation projects, in addition to the support network and website created by participants.
This was our final submission to the National Council on Public History (based on my topic proposal from June). Today, it was accepted for the 2018 Conference! A big thank you to my co-facilitators, Patrice Green and Shakti Castro!