Disingenuous and Appropriating Conversations in History
By: Ethan Chan
In many history seminars, race and racial history are consistently discussed. Specifically, discussing the history of the Long Civil Rights Movement can become an issue. Questions of who owns the past and whether talking about such history is appropriation become apparent. When discussing black history, historical identity, and its pedagogical value, I often ask myself the following questions:
Can non-African descent professors teach African American history?
Can we have a conversation about civil rights and African-American experiences without having such a voice within our classroom?
Is this conversation almost appropriating in a sense and thus, disingenuous?
As a personal example, being a visible minority myself, I wonder (hypothetically) if a bunch of white people sitting in a university seminar can genuinely talk about past racial injustices toward people of Asian descent (e.g., Chinese workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway) or even just in general society.
White academics write many historical articles about black history. Thus, the question becomes, can Whites teach African American history? In a series of articles I read by Vince Nobile, he talks about the pedagogical reasoning of Whites teaching any minority history. If Whites cannot teach Black history, by that logic, they can’t be allowed to teach any other kind that is not directly theirs. But if a White university faculty persists in judging an African American history as a course that is valuable because of its political importance, but not by its intellectual importance, does it not create an atmosphere that reinforces a growing certainty that different Black or minority history is a separate historical enterprise?
Nobile believes that the notion that one needs a symbolic membership card for the fields we teach is itself anti-history and detains the discipline. I agree with Nobile that one should not need a symbolic membership card to teach the history of Civil Rights. Spreading perspectives of critical race theory within a multicultural arena will demand more honest and balanced perspectives of the experiences of others in American society. I believe that the concern is not whether a White person should teach African American history or the Civil Rights Movement, but rather the location in which the teacher brings to the subject. To teach such history, one must teach the subject from the standpoint of African Americans as historical agents, not merely as objects or appendages to White American history.
I remember in my Indigenous history class; Professor Berthelette told us how he (as a White man) could speak about Indigenous history. He said that to teach such history, one just needs to acknowledge different perspectives. Then in another seminar, we read an article that talked about the pedagogical methods of teaching Indigenous history. Skylee-Storm Hogan, an Indigenous writer, argued that to decolonize a syllabus, one must invite speakers of such a community to talk about their history to really understand the 'inside voice' of such marginalized history. One must include the perspectives of Indigenous historians.
Thus, the intellectual location, social orientation, and moral investment are most important to the discourse of appropriation, pedagogics, and inclusion. To be honest, I still do not know whether it is imperative to have an inclusive voice in a conversation. Nonetheless, after some reflection and reading, I believe that such conversations are only disingenuous and appropriative if we do not take the necessary steps to ensure a multi-perspective conversation. A good analogy that I read in an article stated, “a German can teach the history of the Jewish Holocaust, a Nazi cannot.”
Hogan, Skylee-Storm. “Appropriation vs. Incorporation: Indigenous Content in the Canadian
History Classroom.” Active History, July 15, 2019. http://activehistory.ca/2019/07/appropriation-vs-incorporation-indigenous-content-in-the-canadian-history-classroom/.
Nobile V (1993) White professors, Black History: Forays into the multicultural classroom. In:
Perspectives on History | AHA. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-1993/white-professors-black-history-forays-into-the-multicultural-classroom. Accessed 26 Mar 2022