Old-fashioned compass lying on an old map of the world. Text reads: A conversation with Carissa Chew, writer of ‘Histories of Colour’.

A Conversation With Carissa Chew, Writer of ‘Histories of Colour’

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

Hi! I’m Carissa (she/her), a 24-year-old prospective PhD student from Surrey, England. I’m planning to research the colonial/postcolonial identity politics of people of mixed Black African and South Asian heritage in East Africa. I’m currently an ‘Equalities, Diversity, and Inclusion’ intern at the National Library of Scotland.

What inspired you to create your blog on ‘Histories of Colour’? Can you speak about the focus of your research and what you hope to achieve through this platform? Do you have a particular audience you would like to reach?

The discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement were what really inspired me to make ‘Histories of Colour’. Many of my white friends were learning about histories of racism for the first time and realising the shortcomings of our school curriculums. I completely understood why they hadn’t encountered these narratives before – it wasn’t until the second year of my undergraduate degree that I was taught about the atrocities of the British Empire or had the opportunity to study African and Asian history courses.

It felt like the right moment to share my knowledge of colonial exploitation and non-white histories. I have been keeping a personal blog on these issues since 2016, but it was very niche. I wanted to develop something more accessible and appealing to a general audience. My target audience is adults who are interested in educating themselves on these issues to be better allies but don’t want to consult history books or academic papers. Or have the time or money to do so.

On the one hand, I want to show the extent of colonial exploitation and expose the biases in the narratives taught at school. On the other hand, I hope to centre the experiences and voices of people of colour and highlight the diversities, complexities, and richness of their stories. When you look at histories of colonialism, empire, and slavery, there’s a danger of implying that non-white histories are all narratives of suffering. This is just not the case.

I know a lot of time and effort goes into creating and maintaining such an accessible wealth of resources. How can an audience support your work?  

I’m always open to learning from other people and connecting with similar projects. I’d also love to hear from anyone who would like me to cover a particular topic.

As a free online resource, our biggest platform for reaching people is social media. I accept donations to support the future expansion of the project and to cover running costs, but I don’t expect users to pay anything and we promote other anti-racism charities that you can donate to.

At present, there seems to be increasing discussion on ‘decolonising’ the mind and the curriculum within the academy. What do you think this can and should look like? How do you see your work as being in conversation with these ideas?

Decolonisation is a complex topic and I don’t feel qualified to say what it can/should look like. From my experience, we must further centre non-white and non-Western voices in these decolonisation narratives: they are in fact very Eurocentric and white-dominated. This doesn’t mean that white people can’t do decolonisation work, but they should more actively listen to the diverse voices of people of colour (without demanding their labour) when creating these initiatives.

I hope that ‘Histories of Colour’ helps to inspire processes of learning and unlearning on issues of race and privilege. But the history curriculum is just one aspect of decolonisation efforts, which need to be all-encompassing in order to be effective.

Congratulations on your internship at the National Library of Scotland! Can you speak about the kind of work you are involved in? How has the experience been so far?

Thank you!

My internship is about descriptive practices and the language that cultural heritage institutions use to describe people with protected characteristics. The words we choose matter.

Our archives and catalogues contain a lot of offensive material and use historic language unacceptable by today’s standards. We’re reviewing how we describe and interpret these materials. I’m involved in writing a formal policy for the Library to follow to make its practices more inclusive. The aim is that our description and interpretation should promote tolerance and respect towards the people who created or are described in our resources. I’m also creating an extensive glossary of terminology that might be deemed offensive and researching alternative language we can use.

What advice would you have for aspiring historians of colour who wish to work in the heritage industry but are conscious that these have been historically hostile and exclusionary spaces for minorities? How is it possible to critique and create meaningful changes from within such institutions? Do you have any positive examples to offer?

The UK heritage sector has a serious diversity issue. The most recent statistics revealed that the workforce is 97.6% white whereas the UK national workforce average is 86.7% white. Some heritage institutions are more progressive than others, but the industry remains a hostile and exclusionary space for minorities.

It hasn’t been easy taking on a ‘diversity’ internship whilst being the only non-white employee in the department and the only person consistently exposed to offensive and harmful archival material. I didn’t realise that I’d be educating adults twice my age about racism as part of my job. In truth, I’ve become emotionally detached from my work and desensitised to the offensive material I survey.

But I’ve learnt to be patient with the process because my labour feels highly valued and I can see it translating into real progress. I do this work because I truly care about minority representation within libraries and archives. I know that the heritage sector can’t do that work without help from someone like myself.

Change is happening across the heritage sector, but it’s a lot slower than academia. There are a lot of people within the sector who are pushing for better diversity and representation – and even more people who want to see this change but feel that they lack the knowledge to speak about these issues.

Find your allies. If you can, keep speaking up and pushing for change. Undoubtedly, you’ll face some backlash. But you’ll be surprised at who is willing to listen.

Be aware of the emotional labour involved in your work. I talk to staff about race because it directly relates to my role. But if your job role isn’t specifically related to diversity and white staff are constantly coming to you for advice on racism issues, you are entitled to decline! I highly recommend listening to Jass Thethi and Esther Lisk-Carew’s ‘Well Spoken Tokens’ – an incredibly informative podcast about intersectionality issues in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums by two women of colour heritage professionals.

I know things may seem unpredictable at the moment, but do you have any plans for the future? Are there any other current or future projects that you would like to talk about?

I’m hoping to start my PhD this year – either at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa or the University of Edinburgh. I’m also open to career opportunities in academia, heritage, or development in the future.

I haven’t got any projects planned in detail. But in a few years I’d like to develop Histories of Colour for Kids and start producing non-fiction resources for school children. I’d also like to do a joint exhibition with the Mixed Museum in the future!

Thank you very much for your time!

No problem, thank you!

To learn more about Carissa’s work, check out: https://historiesofcolour.com. She can also be reached at: https://twitter.com/carissa_chew.

Our blog content is always free to read but if you enjoyed this piece, we kindly suggest a small donation to The Free Black University Fund: https://uk.gofundme.com/f/the-free-black-university

Nuzhat Biswas is an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. She can be reached at: https://twitter.com/Uncover_ED

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