Home Education White Scholars’ Red Line Is Not Decolonization (Opinion)

White Scholars’ Red Line Is Not Decolonization (Opinion)


I’m a white professor of what I’ll call BIPOC—the histories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Throughout my career, I have invested energy and effort in diversifying my field. I chaired two search committees that recommended the hiring of BIPOC faculty. I have been a close mentor to three BIPOC students who are now American professors and have encouraged many others to consider academic careers. I have served on diversity, equality and inclusion committees at my university and professional body. I have recently observed with dismay the disturbing development of DEI’s ancillary work. I call this a “disciplinary strike-out”.

Red line was a discriminatory real estate practice that denied minority Americans the opportunity to buy real estate in certain neighborhoods. Buyers were given home loans only in racially and ethnically specific 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 conversation, or open an application file, we give credit to a colleague. This, of course, is only the first step. After further interaction, we have the right to support or challenge others’ ideas, but this exercise of scientific judgment occurs after the initial extension of credit.

Historically, credit has not been equally available to everyone. DEI’s work has done much to redress inequities in this regard (although the work is far from over), and our discipline has benefited enormously from the broadening of perspectives. However, credits are becoming scarce for some scientists in some fields. The new red line around BIPOC history raises barriers against white scholars or those whose phenotype belongs to imperial power, settlers, or slave society.

Let me clarify my position. I have already described my investment in DEI efforts. I also emphasize that I am not drawing a “red line” analogy to appropriate the harm done to BIPOC people by residential segregation. I use the word “redlining” because that’s the best term to describe credit withholding broadly based on race. The damage I describe here is not done by white scholars, but by a collective effort to know the past.

Moreover, I feel no nostalgia for assimilation into Eurocentric academic cultures. We must address structural inequality in the academy. This requires the support of BIPOC faculty and students. We must name and eliminate their exceptions. We must examine the power of racism in the academy. We must end the gatekeeping that conferred prestige by category. We must be open to new ideas that challenge the complacency of the powerful. Sometimes this effort is called decolonization.

I welcome the progress we have made. Judging by the conference topics, the lectures presented at my university, the vacancies advertised in the history departments, and the articles in Inside the higher ed and Chronicle of higher education, the prerogatives of whiteness now face a barrage of challenges. However, redlining undermines anti-racism efforts by suggesting that the race of non-BIPOC scholars disqualifies them from participating in essential and evolving areas of the historical discipline.

Redlining is the refusal to engage with individuals in good faith. I encountered this at my university where one student told me, “Most BIPOC students don’t want to study BIPOC history with a white professor.” Also, the student fundamentally objected to books by white authors.

The denial of potential also occurs at professional meetings, where at one of the colleagues who attended recently, someone asked a white academic, “How long will it take before the community accepts you?”

Unsurprisingly, sentiment on Twitter is extreme. When one user said, “I sincerely hope that white scholars who study black studies or black history and fetishize it are a very small minority,” came the response, “They’re not.” All of these are denials of recognition of racialized individuals in the disciplinary space.

Of course, the space open to white scholars remains large. Imperialist and settler narratives remain prominent, but is there credible evidence that white academics intend to support them? On the other hand, one could say that their very presence is evidence of imperial, settler, or slave-owning power to construct narratives about others. Perhaps, then, scaring them away in BIPOC spheres is a step against structural racism. So, is redlining against white academics a decolonial move?

no, because it goes against the essence of the historical discipline: the provincialization of modernity. Historical practice shows that the past is alien to us. He argues that it is possible and desirable to cut upstream from our current circumstances. Our aim was to situate ourselves in earlier periods as best we could and to follow contingent processes, including identity construction, downstream. Is it no longer relevant for the discipline as a whole, or only in some areas?

It is true that the experience of marginalization helps us empathize with oppression, but living as a racial minority in the 21st century does not translate into an inherent better knowledge of the past. Yes, white privilege does structure the lives of some historians, but that doesn’t mean they can’t articulate a dignified understanding of the past. These principles are fundamental to historical work, but the disciplinary overlap contradicts them.

One question that still bothers me is whether racial stories taught by someone associated with an oppressive race might bother BIPOC learners and thinkers. I don’t want to cause suffering to young people who are going through a painful decade. It is not enough to say, “The past always hurts.” A young man was crying in my office one day, saying that they had been overrun by white people. They were going through family and financial stress and the trigger was the car accident, not anything I did. But they were upset after learning about the past racism and refused my course. How can we pay attention to such pain? Transference, projection, and trauma merit therapeutic responses. What will this look like at the disciplinary level? I don’t think that would mean relegating the category of people whose phenotype causes suffering. On the contrary, history must learn to help the present even as it opposes harm in the past. The problem is that it is beyond our training as historians. Universities should provide support.

We must continue to think carefully and have conversations. Accurate answers to these questions about the red line will clarify our understanding and sharpen our ethics. I would love to engage in hard and honest conversations about pain, abuse of power, and the antidote to it, but I know only those who are willing to extend the credit are listening. Mediation may come in handy as we clarify meanings, hurts, and misunderstandings. That’s why I’m posting this article anonymously, to ask readers to judge these ideas, not my credit.

Even if we disagree, as historians often do, sharing will make more people smarter. When we recognize that different groups have power over credit, our interactions will be fairer and our decisions more effective. If we all check our rates, we’ll be better off. My hope lies in the principles of historical work and the DEI-inspired commitment to studying the workings of power. This, I believe, will lead us to provide credit without prejudice. If we can’t deal with this, no place in our discipline will thrive.

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