Written by Joanna Lin
Graphic by Paris Robson
The Histories of Our Tomorrow was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
The history that we learn at school and absorb from mainstream media tells a story of white history and white culture. When I see Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) represented in media, it is often shallow; almost like an afterthought that we exist. Our voices and our stories matter, but only to grab our attention and then our money. When we read history, we are firstly introduced to the dominant, white history; and then we are taught that there is an “other” side to this story. White supremacy means that our history is always secondary to the experiences of white people.
Stories of BIPOC never come first in history because we do not come first in society.
History has always been used as a tool to oppress voices and perpetuate a dominant narrative of our world, as well as our past. Most Australian secondary students, for example, are not adequately taught about the massacres and genocide inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. It is a blatant attempt to gloss over and erase the trauma of Australia’s history. When we do not acknowledge Australia’s genocide of Indigenous Australians, we are suppressing their voices, and therefore relinquishing our responsibility to actively fight for Indigenous rights and to pay reparations. As a result, history lessons taught in classrooms have become a tool for governments to silence these voices and stories. We are told the white story, we believe in the white story, and then we perpetuate racial violence by only believing in the white story. History is not a passive collection of stories – it is an active fight for people to have their perspectives told and to have their voices heard.
And that is how the world has always been. The oppressors and the powerful are the ones controlling history and the way we understand our place in the world. Therefore, history – in the wrong hands – can be an instrument of censorship, becoming a powerful tool that manipulates and distorts people’s understanding of their place in society. And so, when history is already so tainted and fickle in the hands of the people who write it, is it so bad to tell a different version of history? Is it so bad to have a version that both challenges and subverts the dominant narrative and forces people to listen to the stories of BIPOC?
A particularly contentious portrayal of an alternate version of history is the musical Hamilton. While the historical rewrite of America’s Founding Fathers has created a multitude of hiring opportunities for BIPOC actors, the production has been criticised for misrepresenting and censoring history; especially in the inaccurate depiction of Hamilton as a revolutionary, progressive abolitionist. Between 2016 and 2017, 71% of the cast members from all Broadway shows were Caucasian. Having a sold-out Broadway show that explicitly calls for multi-racial casting is a protest and a challenge to the status quo – but although the show makes a point of rewriting history, the glorification of these historical characters can do more harm than good. Dr. Patricia Herrera observes that the “hip-hop soundscape of Hamilton effectively drown[s] out the violence and trauma – and sounds – of slavery.” Perhaps Hamilton is an attempt to highlight a forgotten figure in history; perhaps it is part of ‘Founders Chic’, a problematic trend that reveres the Founding Fathers; or perhaps it creates opportunities for BIPOC actors to demonstrate their abilities in a space that has traditionally been reserved for white performers to tell their stories to rich, white audiences.
Either way, it is important to keep in mind that when we critically think about revisionist versions of history, we are holding them to the standard of truth that white people have set for white people to follow. When we talk about history in an academic sense and strive to tell history in a way that is accepted by experts, we forget that academia is a white, elitist institution. We fail to recognise that academia has been used to justify white supremacy for centuries. We brush over the fact that history in many different cultures is told in a different format and with different purposes. It is illogical for us to hold the telling of BIPOC history to a white standard.
In a recent study by the Australian Human Rights Commission, it was shown that around 95% of senior leaders in Australia, out of a pool of 2,400 individuals in business, government, and academia, have European or non-Indigenous backgrounds.
Not only does this show the lack of diversity in high-level positions in Australia, but it proves that Australian institutions systemically benefit those who are white. The norm that is perpetuated by these institutions gives the benefit of the doubt to the dominant, white narrative and it gives credibility to this story. This is what is so damaging: the idea of a singular, correct version of history, endorsed by an institution that relies on the testimonies and experiences of people in power. Perhaps it is time that we recognise that history is complex and multi-faceted. By acknowledging that there can be multiple versions of history, we can start to make space for the stories that are not heard; that have been buried and rejected by the status quo.
However, it is a complex path to navigate – balancing the need to recognise the wrongs of the past while also being able to use it to empower people today. Either we maintain the status quo, where we allow people in power to control how history is portrayed, or we put it in the hands of the historically powerless and allow them to retell history the way they want and see it as. It can be powerful to place history in the hands of the people who have been historically oppressed and continue to face systemic racism, as well as the destruction of their cultures. When we interrupt the dominant narrative where whiteness is the norm, we are defying the world that the privileged live in. We force them to listen and we force them to engage in the truths of billions of people.
At the end of the day, is that so radical after all?