Racialized narratives of achievement and opportunity, and how we might ask about those.

Due to a combination of distractibility and workload, I’ve been working on my current book –about the conciliatory character of STEM Diversity initiatives in twenty-first-century US education and work, and the limited potential of “opportunity” as a tool of economic justice–for a very long time. It’s moved along, I hope, and developed. But a couple of weeks ago it became a different book.

That week, I participated in, attended, or helped to organize three events centered on Blackness and technology in the United States and together they have dislodged a central premise of my book project: That there is single historical character, a single social implication, to STEM Diversity projects that a truly careful, critical narrative will establish. Absent that premise, the role of the historian changes, and the role of the white historian changes in particularly important ways, I am starting to think. Can questioning this sort of singularity be suggestive for the History of Technology, broadly?

The three events included the week of 5 webinars offered by the Lemelson Center of the Smithsonian Institution, “Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives,” in which I participated in a session with the amazing James Holly, Jr.; a panel discussion on “Anti-Blackness and Technology” at UCSB’s Center for Black Studies Research (CBSR), to which I listened as an audience member; and a conversation among researchers and students at Drexel University that I co-organized with Scott Knowles on “Structures of Racism in Higher Education.” (Please see links for those that have, or will, post recordings.) These events brought together as speakers STEM educators and practitioners, historians, legal scholars, and interdisciplinary culture- and race theorists, along with diversity policy leaders (including several folks fulfilling multiple roles in their institutions); a few folks spoke at more than one of the events during the week. There were speakers and moderators at early-, middle- and late career.

Of the roughly 30 folks who appeared on zoom as speakers, moderators or organizers across all three events, I was one of about half a dozen evidently or self-identifying white people (though I don’t know about any organizers who may not have been on screen). I add that point because the three events were not co-incidentally scheduled in the same season; two came about because predominantly white institutions like the Smithsonian and Drexel have newly dedicated some resources to foregrounding minoritized scholarship and outlooks this year. That’s a commitment we could and should discuss at length. But for now: that UCSB’s CBSR also convened Ruha Benjamin, Safiya Noble, Charleton McIlwain and Andre Brock this week made for tremendous alchemical possibilities. I think I’m right in saying that the writing of the history of technology in the United States, and the history of invention and innovation as EuroAmericans customarily use those two terms, have not previously been subjected to this concentration of critique and inquiry, to the accumulation of such varied and vexing questions raised in so short an order as happened that week.

How did these questions change my approach to writing on the genealogy and present practice of STEM Diversity in the United States? Here I’ll borrow a point made on the last day of the Lemelson’s webinars as organizer Eric Hintz queried Friday’s panelists, André Brock and Charleton McIlwain. Both had spoken about the role of Black people in the development of the internet from the 1980s, challenging the framing of a “digital divide” that has implied only absence and deficit among minoritized communities in the history of digital media in the United States. Dr. Hintz asked: Can both be true at the same time—that we’ve seen perpetual inequities in opportunities and resources in Black communities, and deeply impactful Black participation in the history of digital technologies? Drs. Brock and McIlwain immediately answered, “Yes”…a both/and perspective is needed.

That is: racial discrimination, systemic violence and economic deprivation must be unstintingly accounted for, AND innovation, creativity and joy are to be found in Black experiences with/of technology. For my project this means that the “inclusion” or “representation” of minoritized people in STEM programming, which I have studied historically as constituting a self-consoling project of majority actors and institutions, are indeed that, and must be revealed as such if we hope for a more just world of education and work….But also, I now see, Black presence in STEM settings is not equivalent to the worrisome framework of inclusion. More deeply, that presence is not incompatible with distributed Blackness, in Dr. Brock’s framing, with joyous alterity… and even with refusal, I think.

My book remains a narrative primarily of majority conducts, mind you; it is still an accounting of white ideas of fairness and democracy as projects of racial reconciliation rather than reparative justice or redistribution. This pivot, that is, is emphatically not a matter of recounting let alone “representing” previously somehow “missing” Black agency in STEM. The Lemelson and CBSR discussions in particular made it clear that filling in the historical record is no more an automatic confrontation with social structures than are diversification projects in education or hiring. It is a matter of changing the subject of my book from STEM Diversity to something not yet named, something that is the history of both that which is and that which is not STEM Diversity in the early twenty-first-century U.S.

How to get at this “both/and,” at this multiplicity, without losing the deeply consequential aspects of either? I’m confident that the critical historian of capitalism, of race, or of education and labor, can hope to account for such double and contradictory conditions within US history and their political import in different episodes. But the speakers made it clear that the historian of technology, working in a discipline which has for its entire academic life (many generations now) predicated its inquiries on invention and innovation, needs to provincialize those core analytic categories if she wants to add to such an accounting. Novelty, priority, ingenuity and the very notion of contribution (be it economic, social, or civic) almost completely conform the History of Technology in the EuroAmerican academy, with each “attainment” measured against an unquestioned landscape of white-empowering institutions and interests. In the US we are encouraged by the dominant culture to know this landscape by special names such as “progress,” “efficiency,” “prosperity” and I would stress, the seemingly unassailable “opportunity.” It is no surprise that as primarily the purview of the History of Technology, invention and innovation are thus concepts still too often defined by whiteness as the insistence on human difference, by the casting of biology and capacity as one. This defining cannot support an accounting for race in places of technology. It will keep the work of the History of Technology the work of whiteness.

Interested and violent technological episodes perpetrated in the name of progress or advancement find their chroniclers in truly stunning historical scholarship, but some set of questions about how technology happens, about the purpose of the field, is still largely unasked. At Drexel’s event, Stephanie Masta, Walter Lee and Alice Pawley brilliantly fielded and recast my questions about what it meant to be thinking about Engineering Education in the context of historical racism. As we closed, Dr. Lee offered an extremely pointed “next step” in answer to one audience member’s question about what university administrators and educators should do to change what everyone seems to agree is a regrettable situation. He said, “First, be honest about what you are actually willing to change.” Are we willing to change what the History of Technology will be? What history and technology can be?

Thanks for reading…I look forward to asking together.