My current course “An Introduction to History and New Media” has given me a whole host of technical skills: how to code in html and css, how to build and maintain a WordPress site (which you are now viewing), and, more recently, how to create a database. Because data comes from human activity and interaction, the data we want to catalogue and analyze is already from a non-neutral or biased source. From there, the act of counting, categorizing, tagging, and organizing our data is a biased process on the researcher’s end. So, what do historians do in the face of biased data – especially those trying to include historically marginalized voices?
For my particular research, I study the history of race, gender, and class in late eighteenth and early-nineteenth century United States history. I specifically am interested in viewing interactions between enslaved people, people indigenous to the Americas, and white settlers. Thus far, my primary source materials are state court records, federal land policies and treaties, newspapers, and correspondences between slaveowners and/or settlers. The majority of these sources are mostly from one of my three studied populations; thus, the sources are already coming with a bias.
Counting, organizing, and tagging different data from these primary sources becomes even more difficult, as some terms used in court records or letters use offensive racial terms to describe a certain population. Also, some races documented in court records like “colored” do not give a straightforward account of what kind of race they are referring to. Additionally, most of the authors of my primary sources are defining race differently than how we do today.
For the issue of non-consistent and confusing terms like “colored,” depending on the source, if I could read against the grain and comfortably decipher the perceived race of the subject, I would note that race in a field as “assumed as” or “perceived as.” The process of normalization would replace the “coloreds” with the actual race that I can glean. However, I must keep track of the language in the original document, as it might come in handy later on in my research. Because there were different definitions of race in history, I must approach every source material with a critical eye but also make sure to genuinely preserve the author’s thoughts and records. Furthermore, understanding past conceptions around race can only help us mitigate forms of racism and oppression in the present.
This course has helped me realize the inherent biases in not only general historical sources but also in the current historian’s quest of collecting and presenting data. We must be aware of our pitfalls and preconceived perceptions yet continue on in the quest to digitize and democratize history.