The episode has raised important questions about the diversity of history as a discipline, and who is listened to in public debates. Higher education generally is still too white and too male, and this problem is exacerbated when it comes to which historians are given a platform in the media and on the national and international stage.
Historians of activism have worked with campaign groups to identify successful campaigning tactics. Workshops using historical objects have instigated conversations about sex and relationships, and so improved teenage sexual wellbeing and health. Using medieval recipes, historians are even working with museums and councils to promote healthy eating and knowledge about nutrition, in reaction to obesity.
Long-term, high-profile projects involve historians conducting research for government inquiries, such as the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, for which historians detailed the specific context that allowed abuse to occur. These examples all show how history can help us to challenge the very context that allows high-profile, all-white, all-male conferences to still take place.
While public history generally is strong and healthy, who is given a platform remains problematic. We are starting to see more women and historians of colour on television, but still too narrow a range of historians gets heard. Instead, a few “big names” dominate – often white, male voices.
As well as needing to hear from a wider range of voices, we need more diversity in the kinds of history that feature in public debate. The emphasis is usually on grand narratives of long-term change and continuity, yet often the detailed, rigorous research of a particular event or time period or analysis of ordinary people’s experiences can have the most impact. Hearing from a more diverse range of historians would help introduce a wider range of methods and perspectives to the public.
To do this, we need to acknowledge that history has a complex role to play, beyond merely looking for parallels between past and present. It can help to lobby for redress for historical wrongs; challenge long-term structures of power – patriarchal, imperial or economic; and offer a critique of the present, as a source of alternative ideas and reminder that we shouldn’t take for granted what we see as “normal”.
History can also help us understand how things have come to be as they are, from government structures to how medical conditions are defined. It can improve understanding of how social change might be achieved, by examining how change happened in the past. It can be a tool to instigate that change in and of itself, as examples of what happened in the past can be used to explore controversial subjects such as euthanasia or abortion today. It can offer an examination of why the same failures keep happening.
Perhaps most of all, a longer-term historical perspective can be a huge resource in social justice and tackling inequality and discrimination – showing the long-term roots of a population, a movement, a type of behaviour or whatever else is so powerful. But for these messages to be most effective, we need to start giving a more diverse range of historians and historical viewpoints a platform.
Laura King is associate professor in modern British history at the University of Leeds and deputy director of History and Policy
Written By: Laura King
First Published 29.03.18: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/mar/29/historians-are-too-white-and-too-male-we-need-a-wider-range-of-voices