Is history a privilege?

I was having a conversation about privilege the other day for Catalyst, an organization I’m involved in here on campus. We were first asked to list tv shows with predominately white casts, then those with casts predominately filled by people of color. Almost every group completed the first list with ease; and, almost every group compiled the second with some sort of struggle. Only people of color knew the shows, they were on lesser known networks with lesser known actors, they were only known by older people (i.e. from the 90’s “black tv boom”), they had to be qualified (only the lead is ethnic, does that count? there’s one or two ethnic characters, does that count?). The most impactful part of the discussion was when me and my friend, who is also mixed, discussed not having media based role models growing up. Especially with channels like Disney and Nickelodeon, especially because of our young age being suited to only specially tailored adolescent programs–we were left looking up to these white children who did nothing to help us explore or embrace our own identity.

This came into play while reading Caswell’s “Seeing Yourself in History”. Before even beginning the piece I thought about how much of a privilege this could be percieved to be. Knowing everything about your ancestors for generations and generations into the past. Knowing that they came to this country forcelessly, dreams in hand, rather than due to oppression, discrimination or violence. Knowing that, for the most part, what you read about them could be generally assumed true–not fabricated or altered to protect, superimpose or glorify those in power.

It happened when Gerda Lerner wrote women into history, it happened for Caswell and his partner Mallick when exploring South Asian history. I was shocked to see the statistics on “symbolic annihilation” of South Asians in American history, especially when there are over 3.5 million people of South Asian descent in the United States. My favorite part of the piece was when Caswell discussed how SAADA encourages “microhistory” projects, which encourage local organizations and people of South Asian descent to record, share and digitize their personal experiences. Having such a breadth of information after having none is almost miraculous in modern terms of redefining white and heteronormative American culture.

Being biracial, it’s interesting to know more about one parent’s lineage than the other. This made me think about whether or not part of me is really “lost” to the atmosphere. Are any of you without history, in part or in full? Do you feel different about your identity not knowing where you come from? What if you never knew your parents or they never knew theirs? How does that change how you perceive, explore or embrace your own identity?

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2 Responses to Is history a privilege?

  1. Tionna Outen says:

    Hi Gabriella,

    I found interest in your post of seeking and finding ones identity. When you stated “we were left looking up to these white children who did nothing to help us explore or embrace our own identity,” what exactly do you mean by this? Do you feel that television can guide us to finding our identity? I apologize if misinterpreted what you stated. I always believed, especially in today’s time, that television shows and other forms of media can misguide audiences in many ways. I have always felt more comfortable with older shows including predominantly African American actors, but have always been open to diverse forms of media as well. I cannot explain why that is. Maybe I feel more comfortable with individuals who have more in common with me and who share those same experiences through entertainment. I enjoy watching older shows such as “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Jamie Foxx” and the Parkers,” which include African Americans for the most part. These shows allowed me to see another world that I have either experienced or never experienced, and I cannot lie, I have consciously and unconsciously taken some of what I have seen in each of these shows (and other diverse ones) , and “acted” it out in some form. It is harder for me to seek my identity in today’s media. For example, shows such as the Kardashians or Love and Hip Hop (sorry if I offend anyone) don’t possess my interest, because I find them to be misleading or non-relatable to realistic situations. Furthermore, there is a lot of violence, envy, and anger rather than positivity. However, these are my personal preferences. I am unaware of all of my history, but it does not bother me too much. It was nice to find out who some my ancestors were, but I do not feel different about my identity because of this. I believe it is great to find out about your ancestors and past, in general; however, I truly believe that you can find out who you are and create your own history by yourself. Create your own atmosphere :). Thank you for the great response.

    Best,

    Tionna Outen

  2. Makiah says:

    The most striking point that you brought up to me was regarding this idea or notion that who you’re born as carrying so much more than just socioeconomic implication, rather can also indicate things such as entitlement to history. My own lineage is quite unknown to me, I’ve always lived in this sort of “in between realm” of ethnic ambiguity, so it makes it even more of a struggle to identify with one in particular’s history. While Tionna brought up the good point of “creating your own atmosphere”, I do understand where you’re coming from– it is both comforting yet archaic to identify with a common experience, with a common history. However, I’ve always been attached to this idea of personal history–the individual’s narrative. Call it my way of bringing meaning to be one of the billion people on this earth, but I find it much more satisfying to hold true to my personal experience.
    Recent talk from the United Nations has occurred regarding reparations. When reading and eventually discussing this issues, I realized that I talked as if I were not African American, as if I didn’t carry the history of slavery just by being black. Sure, I’ve experienced my share of oppression, but it surprised me that I regarded reparations as something that I would not benefit from. Frankly, I never imagined myself in this progression of African American history, much like I’m quick to ostracize myself from this progressing American history. When someone says history, I immediately shift my mindset to my own history, which is a process that I believe is not a privilege to embark, but an obligation.

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