White guy, Black history

A few days ago a friend asked a good question: “Do you get much resistance about being White and studying Black history?” (or something along that line).

I’ve been thinking about this question since then for several days, and there are only two such occasions (at least that I remember) that I have encountered resistance or questions about being White and studying Black history.

Most recently, this came about in response to my reading of The Amazing-Spider Man 2 as a vehicle for perpetuating racism.

The other time was back in 2010 when I was teaching a United States History to 1877 class at the University of Houston. This was my first time to teach a history class on my own, and this was an unusual class in that it started at midterm and consisted of a “small” group of students who failed the midterm exam in a class of 450 students. We were discussing slavery and analyzing depictions of violence enslaved individuals faced at the hands of their enslaver. The students did not respond well. Partly we jumped into it too quickly – having studied these topics so often I was more “comfortable” with them. Also, they (and this was a class of almost all non-White students) said things along like “that as a White guy I had no business talking about Black history.”

This resulted in two elements that have been a core part of my teaching philosophy since that very next day. First of all, anytime in a class when we’re discussing particularly sensitive issues we have a discussion before the lesson about dealing with sensitive material, go extra slow, and regularly talk about our feelings about discussing such material. Second, we frequently have conversations about the complexities of racialized topics, the socially/culturally constructed nature of race, and how they we all can and all must talk about all issues. And this new approach worked then (I got very positive evaluations from this class) and has continued to work.

More often than anything, I find people of all racialized backgrounds very thrilled that a “White guy” cares enough to study “Black history.”

Another question I’m regularly asked is “how did you came to study Black history?” First, this question must answer why I study history. This question has a simple answer. I find that I am so interested in and enjoy such a wide variety of topics that history is a good fit because everything has a history and therefore, I can study anything and everything.

I don’t recall the full evolution of how I came to have my specialization in African-American History (and there is so much more I would like to already know, but life is all about learning, right!), but it for sure relates to the incredible struggles Black Americans have had to face since the deepest and earliest roots of the United States AND the simultaneous, always-present fight by Black Americans, demand by Black Americans for recognition as equal people and displays of resistance, even when it was a resistance of survival. The African-American Civil Rights Movement is the longest lasting social movement in our nation’s history. I’m always very drawn to all of these acts of tremendous bravery in the face of what is often total opposition.

I have also always preferred history that is not singularly focused on “Great [White] Men” – this is the approach that sometimes makes people “hate” history because it suggest only those with money make history.

One final factor that—more unconsciously initially, consciously now—that contributed to my interest in African-American history is my own status with minority identities. Studying Black History is a way to focus on minority histories and also have some “historical distance” from the topics. My minority identities do help in understanding the struggles minority groups have historically faced.

How I came to focus on cultural studies/American Studies is not all that different given the interdisciplinary focus of these methodologies and the encouragement in these to critically examine constructions of racism, sexism, and other forms of power.

There might be more on these questions in a future posting.

Thanks for reading.

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7 replies

  1. Very interesting post. As a White guy in Latin@ Studies, I often think about similar things and, while I get lots of questions as well, I generally always feel more than accepted in the field for the very reason you gave – “More often than anything, I find people of all racialized backgrounds very thrilled that a “White guy” cares enough to study “Black history.” When I go to conferences, I am generally one of a few Anglo scholars and I never feel unaccepted or out of the loop. And I think it has to do with the way I present myself and do research. I always recognize my privilege when I am researching and writing so that I don’t make generalizations and/or come across in the wrong way. It’s just a matter of speaking “with” and not “for” the people I am researching. Now, this last semester, I had a prof who said she was talking with someone and recommended a book that a white guy wrote and the guy she was talking to said something like “What does he know about Latin@ Studies? He is white!” (or something similar) so there are definitely people out there who think that ethnic studies should be studied by only those from within, but if it remains only those from within, then the chances of making legitimate change are lower. bell hooks always says that we need everyone in this together to truly make a difference!

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    • Hey Trevor!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I wish in my post I had discussed notions of privilege and studying Black history. Thank you for bringing that up.

      Just thought of another way to look at it: You know the articles about how a Black professor who discusses Black history will be labeled as “angry” and “unobjective,” and such doesn’t happen if a White professor does the same thing?…Maybe a positive side per se of White scholars studying Latin@ and Black history is that we can help the discipline be “more respected” by those who would otherwise dismiss it as “angry” minorities. Hope I’m stating this idea clearly.

      I know some also say you can’t “understand” the Black, Latin@, etc experience unless you’re part of that group and if you’re not you can’t write their histories (now I’m thinking of the article “Can the Subaltern Speak?”)….I think it is important to have all kinds of people with all kinds of different identities both those given at birth and those taken later on because each helps us see and understand history and the world in new and better ways. Thoughts?

      ❤ and 🙂 out to bell hooks! I really like her notion of the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”!

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  2. I definitely think having scholars outside of the typical type for that field is a major plus so long as those people are doing good scholarly work that speaks with – basically what you are doing. It helps to legitimize the field in that it shows that not only Latin@s study Latin@s studies, but that it is a field worthy to be studied by all.

    I think it is true that you can’t always understand the other group’s plight, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do productive research. And, like you have stated about your own minority identities, it helps to draw intersections among these different categories and groups so that we can make progress. They aren’t necessarily equal, but you know what it is like to be discriminated, etc.

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    • To me, the article “Can the Subaltern Speak” is more concerned with studying cultures that are very different per se – not that all aren’t very different – but studying African-American history is one thing, if I were to study discrimination against people in some small country in the geopolitical area we call the Middle East, that would be an entirely different thing. I think some kind of connection to the thing being studied is important.

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  3. I enjoyed this post. Especially this line “I find that I am so interested in and enjoy such a wide variety of topics that history is a good fit because everything has a history and therefore, I can study anything and everything.”

    I’ve let some of my friends know that I’m taking your African American History course, and I always ask them “What race do you think my professor is?”. Every person has responded with “Black”. I think that’s nuts that people automatically assume that a black teacher is somewhat necessary to teach African American History. Although, when I was switching into your class I too expected you to be Black.

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