Privilege in the Archives

About a week ago, I had a conversation with a faculty person about why most archives (our own included) have so many materials by white creators, and so little from everyone else. It’s probably the thorniest and most persistent problem in the archival world.

Even here at the University of Houston-Downtown, where we have more minorities in positions to create historical record, it is difficult to find or get materials. The person to blame for this, by the way, is probably the archivist herself (that would be me of course). But tangled up in laying blame at my door is that, when I arrived, I was regularly told to seek out the “hubs” of information here, the people who “made” UHD, who contributed to its success. And most of those “hubs” happened to be white.

There is a deeper issue here, one that is hard to recognize and harder to eliminate. It’s related to the issue of privilege, which is something that some people have and everyone else lacks, and privilege extends into so many aspects of everyday life that it’s pretty depressing to see it even in a place that is supposedly “neutral” like a University archives, where the materials are all just supposed to be institutional records.

But why is it, exactly, that the archives would find itself with many materials from white men and so little from everyone else? Doesn’t everyone create the same amount of records, and wouldn’t it stand to reason that if the archivist (again, me!) would just think to ASK people, the archives could then have lots and lots of material from underrepresented groups?

Well, no, it turns out. Part of the insidious nature of privilege is that it runs both ways, and it runs into nearly every facet of our own self-image. The privileged grow up seeing themselves represented in television, radio, visual media, and yes, archives. They see their grandfather’s records go to the historical society, they see the papers of brilliant privileged people of history going into national archives, and they internalize the idea that *someone like them* is important. Therefore, they also can be important and its important to save your materials when you have the potential to be important.

The flip side of this is easy to see now. When non-privileged children grow up seeing heirlooms set aside in closets, kept safe by the family but no one ever comes calling to take them into an archives or museum, when no one who looks like the child or comes from their neighborhood or school ever gets their materials into the national archives, it sends a message just as powerfully as the opposite message is delivered to the privileged.

So while we have a great growth of minority groups being represented on university campuses, and at UHD particularly, it is still hard to find materials, to get materials, that come from minority groups. This is in large part my fault, I freely admit it, because I am clearly not yet convincing these groups that their materials are valuable. And in many ways, I am very late. But I still have time, and I will keep trying.