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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