I've noticed that either a willful ignorance or an extreme hypersensitivity/fragility crops up when white people are confronted about the content, quality, and interpretation of their institution's collections. I vividly recall when my idea for an exhibition about racism was enthusiastically accepted, not on its merit or due to the fact that the thematic premise was important, but because it was part of the institution's new strategic plan for "diversity." I remember being given a tour of that same institution's extensive (white) genealogical research collections, only to have my guide pause, consider me, then proclaim that "we also have some records from the internment camps." (To be clear: I'm not Japanese and my family did not emigrate until the 1970s – not that it matters.)
"Lucy Liu Sips Tea" GIPHY. Accessed August 20, 2017.
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.