Universalism, or Colorblindness?

At a Heinz History Center event recently, I heard a great speaker reflecting over his life spent studying and describing history, which has rightly earned him great acclaim. I found many of his comments to be insightful and, at times, emotionally moving. The focus was on how our geography shapes us, on community, and on doing what we love for work. All of these things are important to emphasize and I nodded along with the speaker for much of the time he was on stage.

As if in overlay, I was also seeing the same room (or a very similar one in the same building) as it looked when I attended an event several months ago for the opening of the exhibition From Slavery to Freedom. The room was set up differently at this later event, it was true, but even more striking to me was the dramatic difference in the racial make-up of the two audiences. At the first event, I hadn’t really analyzed what I unconsciously must have noticed about racial diversity; it wasn’t until the second event in the same space that I thought about the significance of the attendee demographics.

On the earlier occasion, it was a multi-racial crowd with a majority of black attendees and a healthy representation of white folk (N.B. this is based on informal readings of people’s probable racial identity). On the latter occasion, there were only a handful of non-white people, meaning none of the local black leaders who had made up such a dynamic and tight community at the exhibition event.

I found myself wondering what might have lead to a sold-out event about Pittsburgh history lacking a more representative racial cross-section of Pittsburghers. Putting aside all possible other reasons for a moment, I considered the content of the talk for what it might signal about the self-selected attendees at this event as compared to the earlier one at the History Center.

The talk by David McCullough was about what one might consider shared or even universal values, such as the structure of democracy, understanding how the past shapes the future, and acknowledging how indebted each individual is to a family and community for what they have allowed us to achieve.

Why, then, wasn’t the audience more racially diverse? These issues seem fairly important to most people— and, actually, one might argue that racial minorities in the U.S. have even more reason than whites to advocate for equal representation and the importance of understanding history.

It strikes me that one explanation is that the inspiring speech McCullough gave was one that did not explicitly acknowledge race, almost as if the values being discussed took place in a world without racial difference…or, more properly, operated based on a colorblindness suggestive of a country without a history and present of systematic racial discrimination. However, as From Slavery to Freedom shows, Americans have to work hard to recover and share histories that have not always been acknowledged because white hegemony did/does not value all human experiences equally. Such ideologies and institutional power have resulted in repeated exclusion or misrepresentation of non-whites from what has been called “our” national story. Famous case in point: despite being a crucial part of the effort, there are no Chinese American laborers in the celebrated photo of the transcontinental railroad’s completion, although they appeared in earlier photos of the same scene .

Part of me felt like the second event at the History Center was the famous photo of the golden spike, capturing the moment after the non-white workers were in the frame. It is a truly historic image and moment, but it can also be seen as willfully incomplete.

To be a racial minority in the United States means one rarely forgets about race, even if one wants to forget; this makes the presentation of “universal” histories problematic because they implicitly ignore, obscure, deny this reality.

History has to have specificity as well as seemingly universal import, which might mean celebrating national heroes without whitewashing the discriminatory ways in which they often acted. We can acknowledge momentous achievements while also emphasizing that there is more than these partial histories and thereby tell a richer, even more interesting story. Otherwise, partial histories affirm the exclusionary practices of the past, when people of color were routinely dehumanized by being left out of the official picture.

Contributor: anupama jain

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