Center of Gravitas has a worthy post on diversity in faculty hiring in History departments, and it has attracted some smart comments from some of the regular commentors here at Historiann. GayProf’s takeaway line is, “we must disrupt this ‘lite-brite’ vision of U.S. history. The stories of minority groups in this nation are not simply festive, colored pegs that can be plugged into a core white background. The history of race in this nation is the history of this nation.” Kudos, GayProf, for working a toy from the 1970s into a wonderful metaphor! (The closeup of Lite-Brites above left is from a giant Lite-Brite at Burning Man.) Go read the post and the comment thread, especially if you’re in a department that’s now in the midst of the faculty hiring season.
But, do most History departments see the issues GayProf raises as problems to be solved? In Historiann’s jaded, conspiracy-minded view, the reason most History departments hire nonwhite and/or non-male scholars only in targeted fields is that they don’t really want to change the way business-as-usual is done in their departments. Historians can be coaxed to hire people who look “diverse,” but only if they color safely within the lines of their segregated topics. They tolerate diversity only if they’re pretty well assured that they won’t have to re-think their lecture notes or the categories they use to cut history up into bite-sized chunks to feed to their students. Hiring an African American medievalist, or a Chicano/a women’s historian, or an Asian colonial Americanist, for example, threatens to disrupt this neat segregation that the gender and/or ethnic identity of the scholar in question = the sub-field of history that scholar “should” pursue. That would of course challenge the white men who still dominate the historical profession that perhaps they could or should include non-white, non-male people in their own teaching and scholarship in something other than a token fashion (i.e. putting African Americans and women in the sidebars in the textbook, while the “real” story rolls on around the diversion.)
GayProf also has some (appropriately) harsh words for women historians and women’s historians, although I think he incorrectly elides the two categories. As many of us know from weary experience, many women historians are not feminists, and therefore they’re not particularly inclined to view their profession differently than their male peers (although that doesn’t mean that they aren’t in fact evaluated differently by their male peers, the poor dears! Feminism won’t necessarily save you from being treated unfairly because of your sex, but at least you’ll know when you’re being had.) There are now more women historians than there are women’s historians, which is a victory of sorts if disrupting the categories described above is your goal. And although This Bridge Called My Back is out of print, many more scholarly titles by and of women of color have been published since that book appeared in 1981. I don’t know any feminist historian trained in the 1980s or 1990s since This Bridge who would deny the importance of race and class to feminist scholarship–but then, agreeing with a proposition isn’t the same as making it the focus of your scholarship and teaching.