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Being a historian of a culture you are not a part of


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Posted (edited)

Hi everyone, 

Just wanted to bring up a question that often gets me thinking. I don't think it's something that is asked about much at the application stage, but the question does begin to appear more once graduate students start applying for fellowships, attending conferences, and applying for jobs. I think it is especially important to discuss this at a moment in American academic history when we are trying to be more conscious of not speaking for others, not stepping on toes, etc. I suppose this is directed more at American students studying places from which their family line has no connection. 

I am personally researching and writing on a region of the world that I only started learning about and visiting in undergrad (albeit I already spoke one of the languages used there). I think there is value in having people who are not from a certain region studying that region. I wouldn't want to see a world where the main criteria for studying a place is if you have a family connection to it, as I think that would close off a lot of inter-cultural exchange. Moreover, the academy has a long history of being white and male, as well as college students being mostly white. Thus, they have had the benefits of both creating and receiving this knowledge.  I do believe there is value in having American POCs being researchers of not just their communities (ex. African-Americans studying black history in the US, or Latinos studying Latino history in the US or Latin American history), but other communities outside the US as well. I also think it is valuable for POC students to learn about other cultures from people within their community. For example, I am a POC and friends, family, and acquaintances have asked a lot of questions about my region that they otherwise would not have thought to ask. If I ever get the chance to be a professor, I am going to emphasize to my POC students to study and research in countries with which they do not have family connections.

How do you grapple with this question?

Edited by astroid88
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Honestly, to each their own.  I have two friends who are POCs and have taken paths outside of areas that they have deeply personal connections to.  One was quite deliberate about it and he loves the clear boundary between their personal/familial identity and their work.  The other one simply did a minor field in "their" history as they were looking at actors of this group in a different part of the world.  This student actually spent years (combined) living, studying, and researching in that country and had a blast. They were just intellectually curious.

The only advice that I can give you is to inspire the undergraduates and would-be PhD applicants to find a personal connection in your region of the world.  Helping students find themselves in that history is the beautiful challenge of teaching, making the course content inclusive as possible. You are going to be the expert of your region and you will invariably find links to bring to the classroom through a lecture, a reading, or even a final paper/project assignment.

For example, I teach courses in Modern European history, especially the Holocaust, and I work to bring in voices and experiences of Blacks and other minority groups and highlight the diverse forms of racisms to get my POC and Muslim students "latched."  They absolutely loved the opportunity to study these groups in depth and think more critically about races and racisms.  Discussions of migration and transnational connections work pretty well.

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Medieval Studies is going through some, uh, issues right now, so I have a lot of experience talking and thinking about this question. Every PoC medievalist I know has been asked, frequently and pointedly, "So why are you here?"

The question as to whether someone "not from" a culture/region/ethnicity/race can study something of that culture/region/ethnicity/race is one of those questions that does not get asked of White scholars. I have, for example, never been asked why I might study southern France, despite having no ties of any kind to the region. Whiteness constructs itself as objective, and therefore the ability of Whites to study any topic is assumed rather than interrogated. 

The origins of the modern practice of history and modern nationalisms are deeply and inextricably intertwined. History, as we generally conceive of it now, is a means of constructing identity, and so to study the history of a place or people is, almost a priori, a claim to identify with that place or people. Pay attention to who is and is not allowed to make such a claim, and where. It will help you figure out who to trust.

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This is a frequent topic of consternation among white scholars of Africa. In American academe, these issues tend to be filtered through the lens of race rather than national origin or upbringing, which is to say that a person who identifies as a POC is understood to be entitled to study a predominantly non-white region regardless of their specific ties to that place. This state of affairs is in part a reaction to the fact that African history has been dominated by white American and European scholars from its very beginnings in the 1960s, and especially so after the decimation of African universities in the 1980s.

I believe the perspectives of both "insiders" and "outsiders" are necessary for critically engaging a region's history. I don't think it's problematically essentialistic to say that someone who grows up in a place understands its cultural logics better than a scholar learning about it for the first time in college. At the same time, such people can sometimes take certain things for granted that newcomers will not. The way to start to overcome these differences is to do our work with a genuine spirit of collaboration, which unfortunately ideal of the individual genius in American academic history inhibits.

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Posted (edited)

In the field of Chinese History, the greatest problem facing young white scholars is the lack of access to archives. In China, the accessibility of archives is extremely unstable. Many archives that are not open to the public can be accessed through personal connections. However, I don't think doing Chinese history as non-Chinese is necessarily a disadvantage. As someone who grew up in China, I need to keep reminding myself that "The past is a foreign country," but many Chinese scholars do not realize this, and it creates problems. I think a non-Chinese perspective is very valuable to the field, but unfortunately, the Chinese archival and field environment is not friendly enough for non-Chinese scholars.


In studying US history, I sometimes feel that I understand the intellectual environment of the nineteenth-century US better than many Americans do. This is because China today is in the midst of a similar historical process, including urbanization, rapid economic growth, and the prevalence of social Darwinism.

 

 

 

 

Edited by d1389jjch
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