As a white person, it would be too easy, paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing, understanding the decades of complicity, acknowledging “white fragility,” to do nothing. Motivated by the belief that it is better to do the right thing than to do nothing, I offer these thoughts.
We are a history organization, not, as some have cautioned, a news organization. Yet it is impossible to observe the events of our time and not feel compassion for the loss and suffering, anger at the injustice, and a desire to act – to do something to help make things right.
History, they say, is written by the victors. While some may not perceive the play of American history as a struggle with winners and losers, not all share this understanding – or this experience. For years the history preserved and shared through institutions like ours has included the stories of the dominant, often affluent, white culture. It is the evidence of their lives, their homes, their images, their artifacts and writings that most often survive. They were the victors. They made the rules. They wrote the history. They set up the history organizations.
Historical evidence is a funny thing, though. New technology has now given every person the ability to record, document, and share events that may become part of our history. A cell phone video revealing eight minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s life and death is such evidence. Its importance to our history is playing out now, and likely for months and years to come.
But it is not just new technology. It is not just the evidence. One must want to tell the story. One must want to see the evidence and understand its meaning. It has always been there. Yes, there are the photographs of lynchings and of the “Whites Only” signs. But there are also documents reflecting the exclusionary unemployment compensation guidelines. The discriminatory federal home owner’s loan program guidelines. The suburban municipal codes requiring that new home construction be single family rather than multi-family homes. Personal testimonials of unfair treatment. The historical evidence of injustice has always been there. We must ask ourselves if we want to see it and understand its meaning.
Moreover, we must ask who is empowered to tell the stories that make up our shared history? What is included? What is not included – and why?
We are not a news organization, but we must soak in the news, document events as they transpire, and share the power to tell these stories with those who participated and were most affected. “Nothing about us without us” is not just a social justice slogan, it is a mandate for the equitable interpretation of our history. It is a moral imperative for how history organizations can act, show compassion, and reveal the pain and the injustice – as well as the triumphs, the commonplace, the joy, and the exuberance of all. This is how history organizations can help make things right.
Douglas R. Shipman