In honor of Black History Month, we asked some of the institutions who run projects uncovering the names and histories of African Americans on FromThePage the following question, "What do you tell volunteers who encounter offensive or racist material in your projects?"
Sonya Coleman at Library of Virginia summed it up with a meme:
Others provided more details on their approach:
“It's important to be honest and reveal the historic language in its original form. The written record exemplifies how white officials commodified human beings who were racially different and we don't want to shy away from exposing that truth. That being said, we understand that this language can be triggering. Having a conversation prior to encountering this material is preferred. During our hands-on transcription events, we devote time to introducing the historic context of the documents and feature a "story" about an individual or a family from the collection. We encourage our volunteers to consider how their contributions become a part of discovering the stories of free Black and enslaved people in the Library's collections. We feel that transcribing, recording, and reflecting on these lived experiences are small ways of restoring their humanity.”
- Lydia Neuroth, Library of Virginia
“I am happy to share that for some documents, we work with the local descendant community to identify particularly sensitive information that compromises the privacy and/or dignity of their ancestors and redact that information before it even reaches FromThePage. Access to this original material remains open but we work with the community on this as well. It’s not exactly shared stewardship but harkens to elements of it for sure.”
- Lydia Fraser, Sandy Spring Museum
“The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition sits at the crossroads of a society in turmoil: civil strife, invasion, guerrilla violence, resource scarcity, and the erosion of slavery. By its very nature CWGK operates in an uncomfortable space as individuals from all walks of life attempted to live in the middle of a conflict that upended their lives, institutions, and ways of life. As a result, project staff often encounter situations—either directly in transcribing the documents or researching context around them—that are uncomfortable, offensive, or racist.
When it comes to transcription, the project’s approach is to maintain the accuracy of what the original author actually wrote, be it spelling mistakes or offensive language. The same holds for our research—our work must help others understand how individuals acted or thought, even if that means our work reveals unsavory aspects of their lives.
If staff and volunteers encounter something offensive, I always follow-up with a conversation. There isn’t a script for that discussion, but part of the conversation must acknowledge what they encountered, explain why or how we will include it, and provide avenues for more context for the individual. This could be suggested readings, more research, or further discussions.”
- Chuck Welsko, Kentucky Historical Society
“The question of how to deal with offensive or racist language and material in digital projects is likely to require a myriad of approaches and strategies. It is essential to have relevant experience on your team because the process has to mirror the outcome. The collections themselves may provide historical materials to contextualize the offensive content. Projects may want to create process-driven tags for offensive material and then review the results (the tag can be something like <offensive> and surround the transcribed words; or the tag can be <redacted> or <for Review> and serve as a placeholder for words yet to be transcribed). Consulting with other projects can be beneficial. Even considering how scholars have dealt with such questions in their writing can be useful. The following resource, a community-sourced guide prepared by senior scholars of slavery is one such example: https://www.pgabrielleforeman.com/writing-about-slavery-guide. As the authors note, the guide offers a set of suggestions and “raises questions and sensitivities rather than serving as a checklist the enforces any set of orthodoxies. As one contributor put the matter, when it comes to adjudicating questions of offensive usage, we enter a “worthy language struggle.” When in doubt, redact the material until you have a plan. This can happen before, during, or after transcription. It is never too late to try again.”
- Dr. Deborah McDowell, Director, Julian Bond Papers Project, and Dr. Laura Baker, Managing Editor, Julian Bond Papers
On FromThePage, we have a "sensitive" tag to mark material that you might want to consider more or redact. The advice we've given some institutions "in the head of the moment" -- when they've encountered racial slurs in texts they were not expecting prepared to find such language in -- is to make your project private to give yourself time to think and plan, and once you formulate a way of addressing the material (we're fans of adding notes and context to the project description or footer) make it public again.
Your turn: How do you handle presenting racist material to the public?