"'The Result of Immigration from China,' Yankee Notions, March 1858
- Eurasian, Emma Teng." Google Books. Accessed December 2, 2017.
When presenting our class exhibit proposals to the Division of Disease Control folks on Wednesday, there was some preliminary awkwardness. More specifically, one individual took great issue with our discussion of city government corruption and its exacerbation of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. This person's first reaction was to question the validity of our claims. When we assured them it was true, they insinuated history as a field was too subjective and that historians played too many guessing games. This comment, of course, exemplified the stereotype of scientists who deride the liberal arts for not being fact-based. When this person requested our sources to back up our claims, our professor was incredibly accommodating, suggesting a secondary source we read for class. I found it ironic that this individual was satisfied with just that article. If they really had doubts, wouldn't they have preferred to peruse our primary sources? How could we even claim these primary sources (mostly newspaper articles) were true? "Fake news," after all, isn't unique to the twenty-first century. As I mentioned before, this is why oral histories shouldn't be held under any more or less scrutiny than text-based evidence. But I digress.
My reaction to this dispute was two-fold. First, I was off-put by the audacity of an outsider questioning all of our hard work – our research, interpretation and general "expertise." Never have we demanded to see "proof" of their research into the spread of infectious diseases like the flu, doubt their insistence that the flu vaccination is important, or demanded they support their ideas about herd immunity. Contrarily, I wonder if we are too trusting of authority – our own and others' – such that we're offended when our positions and perspectives are cross-examined, and such that we avoid doing the same to others. Certainly, this person could have been a bit more civil, but I think our brief exchange touched on our previous discussions of historical fact and fiction.
However, the crux of this disagreement didn't stem from any existential debate over empiricism. Instead, it acted as a prelude to this individual's true concerns – making this exhibit "too political." How a century-old history of city corruption could be offensive was completely beyond me. We largely pussyfooted around any discussion of funders; even then, I failed to understand how a wealthy white person could find an anecdote about greedy politicians to be interesting, let alone insulting. Unless they saw themselves in that history? Someone alluded to the mayor at one point. He hardly strikes me as a man who has the time or the hypersensitivity to read this historical narrative as a commentary on his administration or an attack on his leadership. Then again, as I'm writing, I'm realizing that it wasn't so much the history itself that offended our partners, but its implications. I find that tiresome.
I find it tiresome what (white) people choose to be offended about, because that offense is almost always misplaced. Not just what, but when, where, how and why they choose to be offended – coming from a people who usually have very little to be upset about. Readers of this post might sigh and bemoan that I always manage to make everything about race. But that's because it is. I spend my days attending classes as the only person of color in the room. If I have the audacity to take issue with the fact that ninety percent of the syllabus is white men, I'm shut down. If I have the audacity to roll my eyes at the sinophilic mansplainer to my right, I'm being unfair. If I have the audacity to find the spectacle of ten white people discussing the history of slavery laughable, I keep it to myself. If I have to endure my white professor flashing racist cartoons on a screen for the sake of a lesson as my white classmates look on – shifting uncomfortably in their seats because, for the first time, they recognize my presence as Other – so be it.
This is why I find it tiresome when white people are offended by history – theirs or others, it makes no difference. Some small, meaningless story about white men who held power over other white men and screwed the infrastructure of Philadelphia more than it was already screwed in time for a massive pandemic is not offensive. But it's our partners' call to make; they get to decide what does and does not get included in this exhibit. I couldn't care less. This was just another reminder to me that some people don't truly know what it is to be "offended" by history.