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Storming the pixels: New frontiers of race activism

Tseen Khoo |  04 September 2017


There's storming the barricades, and there's storming the pixels. Critical race activism in the 21st century can take on fascinating forms.

Toppled Confederate statueA great recent example of this is the destruction of Confederate monuments in the United States, and the debates and actions surrounding these events. They generated larger conversations about culture wars and re-ignited the cycle of argument around historical authenticity, heroism and — dare anyone say it these days? — truth. With the vastly accelerated news cycle we have today, with platforms like Twitter, livestreaming and micro-vidding, it's sometimes hard to not see what's happening elsewhere.

Within a day or so of the statues controversy, Mic media agency's Jack Smith IV released this video about why Confederate statues fall apart so easily, talking about the phenomenon of mass producing these items as an exercise in manufacturing (and defending) a certain mythology of Southern USA history. Smith's video provided a more in-depth, politically astute counter-narrative to the unquestioning rhetoric around monuments and heroism.

The arguments immediately took off in Australia about the colonial monuments that pepper our civic landscapes, and what should be done about them. Ensuing debates replayed the outrage that had beset the US series of events. This anger seems to be a regular component when those who are invested in traditional versions of history find these versions questioned. It is, after all, set in stone, right?

I am not a historian but I do know that all history is subjective. This idea was a huge revelation for me, when I first encountered it during an undergraduate critical historiography subject at university.

The subject talked about the writing of history, the different approaches scholars took, and the consequences these approaches and biases had for the history that was produced. My first sophisticated take on this back then was, 'What? We're going to look at the writing of history and historians rather than actual history?'

In retrospect, what I learned in this subject became one of the key tools in my critical thinking cabinet. To this day, one of my favourite things is finding out the history behind the history — who wrote it and why are they writing it the way they are? What might they not know? What did they look at, and what didn't they consider?

The idea that there were multiple histories that could all be 'correct' blew my mind, not to mention that there was plenty of history that was out-and-out wrong. Even the wrong histories are valuable artifacts to know about because it's good to remember that history is always presented from particular positions.


"While we can't aim for the grand narrative of ultimately correct history because there isn't one, we can — and should — aim for a more truthful and balanced history where possible."


In all this, I also learned that people use history for various reasons, and even extremely well established historical areas — such as Medieval studies just recently — can be shaken by vehement arguments, change and new perspectives.

Innovations in technology and sustained efforts to digitise historical archives and narratives results in a wider range of access and input. Indeed, many projects depend on crowdsourcing assistance and expertise to ensure important work gets done. Projects such as Tim Sherratt's transcribe-a-thon 'Help us reveal the real face of White Australia', or the Wikibomb to increase recognition of Australia's women scientists, make transparent the processes involved in creating historical texts and what kinds of decisions go into a final record or entry.

While we can't aim for the grand narrative of ultimately correct history because there isn't one, we can — and should — aim for a more truthful and balanced history where possible.


Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), anetwork for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.



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Submitted comments

Perhaps its a good thing that the human being never learns from history?????

john frawley 05 September 2017

History and myth - myth making for a purpose - often combine. I was interested to see on TV recently Simon Reeve interviewing an Irish historian in Drogheda, the supposed scene of a barbaric massacre of Irish by Cromwell. According to this historian, the battle there was between two opposing English armies and Cromwell gave specific instructions that noncombatants were not to be harmed. I was interested that, after the recent brouhaha regarding a statue of Robert E Lee in the USA, descendants of the Confederate general came out and said they understood why people would not like such statues in public places. They suggested that the statues be removed to museums so people could see what had happened in history, both the good and bad. The current defacement of statues of James Cook and Lauchlan Macquarie in this country strike me as bizarre and ahistoric. Neither was a racist. Cook was a real Enlightenment man and his relationship with the various native peoples he met were perfectly above board. I think these actions, whoever was responsible, do not help the Aboriginal cause.

Edward Fido 05 September 2017

The concept of "Discovery" of Australia was true for everyone involved, and was bound to happen within a decade or so of when it did actually occur. For the Europeans this involved confirmation of the Great South Land, and that there were natives there; for the Aboriginals it was discovery of where they fitted in terms of time and place, whether they wanted to know or not. But again inevitable. The only issue was about which European nation got in first; though admittedly biased I would say that the Brits weree probably as kind and well-intentioned as any of the competition and that it could have all been even worse. The "secret" instructions to Cpt Cook on how any natives should be treated bear this out. In reality disease, violence and death were then terrible, in spite of this, and have produced results the are still a challenge to Australia as a putatively civilised country, with a highly traumatised native population. But in reality there was no other likely way this could have played out. We now need national reconciliation driven by mutual respect. I don`t think that forgetting our history and smashing its relics will help much, but new ones celebrating what we have and who we have become inclusively, may do so.

Eugene 06 September 2017

Here in Canada, we are now at the beginning of a multi-generational process of re-understanding our history. As an indigenous scholar said to me, reconciliation between indigenous and settler peoples will require new story work for Canada. We cannot see at this point all that this work will encompass, but we do know it will change our understanding of the past, downgrade or disgrace past heroes, and create new narratives. There will be different stories told, some we will share and some will be distinct.

Marianne McLean 06 September 2017

Marianne, I am intrigued by what you say about the rewriting of Canadian History requiring 'new story work'. British History had historians such as the late G.M. Trevelyan, the intellectual standard bearer of the now discredited 'Whig view of History'. His work was not what I would call History, but imaginative justification of the Whig (as in British Whig) cause. More like a historical fiction. In Australia we have recently had a respected journalist called Stan Grant questioning the fact that 'Captain Cook discovered Australia' (we have several memorials to that) as there were indigenous people here before Cook. Some Aboriginal people also object to the celebration of Australia Day which they term 'Invasion Day'. We also have a move to acknowledge our indigenous people in our Constitution in a similar way to which you acknowledge your First Nations people. There is also a move to have a body attached to Parliament to advise on legislation affecting indigenous people. We actually have two sets of indigenous people, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. The latter have a different view of first contact with Europeans and refer to the arrival of the missionaries as 'The Coming of the Light'.

Edward Fido 08 September 2017

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