“Rewriting History” — “Whose History?” Part III
By Kai Siallagan
This article is the third and final part in a trilogy about the intersection of the academic practice of history and non-Western modes of knowledge. This final segment deals with the idea of “rewriting history” in academic and mainstream understandings as well as continuous persistence of non-Western narratives and ways of story-telling in relation to history. If you haven’t read the first two articles, you can find the links at the bottom of this article.
I work at one of the locations on campus that provides hospitality services. One evening, after finishing my shift, I was talking to one of my older coworkers (let’s call him “Sam”) about my experiences with history in university. Sam told me that he used to be a high school history teacher several decades ago and, like me, had studied history in university. In our discussion, Sam said the following:
“I don’t agree with how they’re rewriting history these days—it’s not right.”
This sentiment brings up a topical and controversial subject—“rewriting history.” To Sam and others who share his views, the introduction of non-traditional or non-conventional forms of history-telling are unacademic and, they will often argue, serve a political agenda. In other words, non-Western-conforming histories are seen as ahistorical or inaccurate. Such conversations have taken centre-stage recently with the discussion about the introduction of critical race theory in education systems in the United States. In, the idea that critical race theory is somehow distinct from history and other humanities—and not an integral part therein—reminds us how naturalised Western worldviews are in our education systems.
In some ways, there is a degree of validity to these arguments; it is difficult to argue that the modern versions of historical knowledge are non-dynamic paradigms that have maintained a continuous form since time immemorial. However, in my experience, Sam and his ilk do not generally draw from the cultural theories of Hobsbawm and Fanon, but rather seem be reacting against an unfamiliar system of knowledge that disrupts the basic paradigms on which they construct their worldviews and epistemologies. It should not come as a surprise that the mainstreaming of non-Western narratives produces epistemic insecurity; the introduction of non-traditional ways of knowing into the mainstream undermines Western hegemony over knowledge production and interpretation. The introduction of these forms of knowledge therefore should be disruptive.
The truth is that non-Western stories and ways of knowing have always existed in marginalised groups; their “sudden appearance” is the result of both the ignorance of the mainstream to alternative worldviews and histories as well as the willingness and the expanded capacities of the communities that hold these histories to share it with the mainstream. Therefore, programs like critical race theory are, really, attempts to make these "alternative" histories legible to a broader group of people. For a member of the majority group—in this case persons like Sam—the entire concept of multiple narratives and understandings of the world may never have crossed their mind. Therefore, when a new epistemology "appears", it will feel unnatural, disruptive, and, above all, "wrong" to many. All of this is not to say that Western worldviews or historical narratives are invalid, but rather that the Western outlook and interpretations of history is equally as valid as any other narrative, and one must approach interpreting history with a relativistic understanding of what “history" means. In other words, history is not being rewritten any more than it already has been—non-mainstream histories have always been here. It is not a question of the validity of an academically constructed narrative about history. These histories are not arbitrary inventions—they are our lives and realities.
"Whose History?" links to other parts: Part I — "Decolonisation in History and in the Academy"
Cover image: photo taken from a pro-critical race theory counterprotest, 2021. Via https://www.spiked-online.com/2021/07/09/the-fightback-against-critical-race-theory.