‘Redlining’ white scholars is not decolonization (opinion)

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I am a white professor of what I’ll call BIPOC—Black, Indigenous and people of color—history. Over my career, I have invested energy and effort in the diversification of my field. I have chaired two search committees that recommended BIPOC faculty hires. I have been a close mentor to three BIPOC students who are now among the American professoriate and encouraged many others to consider academic careers. I have served on diversity, equity and inclusion committees in my university and professional organization. Recently, with perplexed feelings, I have observed a disturbing ancillary development to DEI work. I call it “disciplinary redlining.”

Redlining was a discriminatory real estate practice that denied minority Americans the ability to buy property in certain areas. Buyers were given credit to establish homes only within racially and ethnically defined neighborhoods. What does this have to do with the historical discipline? Like real estate, academic work depends on credit. When we read a book, listen to a talk or open an application file, we extend credit to a colleague. This is, of course, only the first step. After further engagement, we are free to endorse or dispute others’ ideas, but that exercise of scholarly judgment comes after the initial extension of credit.

Historically, credit has not been equally available to all. DEI work has done much to remedy inequities in this regard (although the work is not finished), and our discipline has benefited enormously from an expansion of perspectives. Yet credit is becoming scarce for some scholars in some fields. A new redline around BIPOC history raises barriers against white scholars, or those whose phenotype is that of the imperial power or settler or slaveholding society.

Let me clarify my position. I have already described my investment in DEI efforts. I also stress that I am not analogizing “redlining” to appropriate the harm done to BIPOC people by residential segregation. I use the word “redlining” because it is the best term to describe the withholding of credit, broadly defined, on the basis of race. The harm I describe here is not to white scholars, but to collective efforts to know the past.

Moreover, I am not nostalgic for assimilation into Eurocentric academic cultures. We must address structural inequalities within the academy. This requires support for BIPOC faculty and students. We must name and address exclusions against them. We must examine the power of racism in the academy. We must halt gatekeeping that has bestowed prestige according to categories. We must be open to new ideas that challenge the complacency of the powerful. Sometimes this effort is called decolonization.

I applaud the progress we have made. Judging from conference themes, featured lectures at my university, the advertised positions in history departments and articles in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, the prerogatives of whiteness now face a barrage of challenges. Redlining, however, undercuts antiracist efforts by assuming that the racial identity of non-BIPOC scholars disqualifies them from essential and growing areas of the historical discipline.

Redlining is a refusal to engage in good faith with individuals. I have encountered it in my university, where a student told me, “Most BIPOC students don’t want to learn BIPOC history from a white professor.” The student also objected on principle to books by white authors.

The denial of potential also occurs in professional meetings, where, at one a colleague recently attended, a questioner asked a white scholar, “How long will it take before you are accepted by the community?”

Not surprisingly, sentiments are extreme on Twitter. When one user posited, “I truly hope that the white academics who research on black studies or black history and fetishise it are just a very small minority,” this response came: “They are not.” All these are denials of credit to racially marked individuals in a disciplinary space.

Of course, the space open to white academics remains large. Imperial and settler narratives remain prominent, but is there a credible case that white scholars have a commitment to upholding them? Alternately, it could be said that their very presence is evidence of the imperial, settler or slave-owning power to construct narratives about others. Perhaps, then, discouraging them in BIPOC fields is a move against structural racism. So, is redlining against white scholars a decolonial move?

No, because it contradicts the essence of the discipline of history: provincializing present certainties. Historical practice holds that we are strangers to the past. It maintains that it is possible and desirable to curtail upstreaming from our present circumstances. Our goal has been to situate ourselves in earlier periods as best we can and follow contingent processes, including those of identity construction, downstream. Is this no longer true for the discipline as a whole, or only in certain areas?

It is true that experiences of marginalization help us empathize with oppression, but life as a racial minority in the 21st century does not translate into inherently superior knowledge of the past. Yes, white privilege does structure some historians’ lives, but this does not mean they cannot formulate worthy insights about the past. These principles are fundamental to historical work, but disciplinary redlining contradicts them.

One question does trouble me still—the question of whether racialized histories taught by a person associated with the oppressing race can disturb BIPOC learners and thinkers. I do not want to cause distress to young people living through an excruciating decade. It is not enough to say, “The past always causes pain.” A young person once wept in my office, saying they were overwhelmed by white people. They were under familial and financial stress and the trigger was a traffic incident, not anything I had done. But they grieved to learn about past racism and dropped my course. How can we attend to such pain? Transference, projection and trauma merit therapeutic responses. What would this look like on a disciplinary level? I do not think it would mean sidelining a category of people whose phenotype triggers distress. Rather, the field of history must learn how to offer care in the present even while confronting past harm. The challenge is that this goes beyond our training as historians. Universities must provide support.

We must proceed with careful thought and conversation. Explicit answers to these questions about redlining will clarify our understandings and sharpen our ethics. I would like to be involved in hard and honest conversations about pain, the misuse of power and their antidotes, but I know only those who are willing to extend credit will listen. Mediation may be necessary as we sort out meanings, offenses and misunderstandings. That is why I am publishing this piece anonymously, to ask readers to judge these ideas, not my creditworthiness.

Even as we disagree, as historians often do, the interchange will make more people smarter. If we acknowledge that various constituencies hold power over credit, our interactions will be more honest and solutions more effective. If we all examine our stakes, we will be better for it. My hope lies in the principles of historical work and the DEI-inspired commitment to examining the workings of power. These will, I believe, lead us to extend credit without prejudice. If we cannot manage this, no spaces in our discipline will thrive.

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