Ethno-linguistic Equity in (Digital) Humanities: The Impossible Dream?

I’m going to start off with the admittedly idealistic premise that the role of the humanities in academia is to enable us to understand our communities, our regions, and our nations in all of their breadth, depth and complexity. This lofty goal has often been thwarted by the exclusions inherent in societies and the ability of those who can exercise the power and privileges granted by their institutions to represent themselves and their interests disproportionally and to exclude others from having access to those same resources and privileges and thus diminishing their ability to represent themselves, if at all. If we are to understand our history and our present in all of its diversity and complexity, we have to look behind the veils thrown up by such distortions and seek out the evidence of those who were not the de facto beneficiaries of the institutions that dominated their place and time.

I’ve been long concerned that in the rush to create a new humanities infrastructure based on digital tools and representations, we may simply replicate and re-entrench the pre-existing disparities that have long existed due to the biases and exclusions mentioned above. Digital Humanities projects typically rely on low-hanging fruit – materials and data that can be easily “harvested” and integrated into digital projects – but their easy accessibility is often the result or reflection of institutions or social norms that have facilitated certain types of cultural expression – or cultural agents with particular characteristics or identities – and disempowered or occluded others.

My concerns are confirmed in the first part of a new study about the funding of digital humanities projects and how the allocation (or denial) of grants has the potential to reassert cultural hegemonies:

We are at a critical juncture for supporting diversity in the digital humanities and risk embedding historical, self-reinforcing patterns of marginalization which are obfuscated by a focus on new technological and methodological modes of engagement. This represents a form of technological determinism and is something that many humanists express a desire to avoid as we move into a new era of humanities research which considers digital technology to be an embedded feature of the human social world. … Cultural hegemony is not always expressed directly or openly. It can become systematized and formalized to the point that it is almost unnoticeable at the surface level. In the case of the United States, it is hardly contestable at all. Groups at the margins of the hegemony need not directly give consent, but instead can simply be so completely and systematically disenfranchised that it is nigh unto impossible for them to resist it at all. This feature makes it difficult to identify instances of cultural hegemony at all, let alone make recommendations as to how it can be subverted. (Martin and Runyon)

I wholeheartedly agree with the framework built by the authors for discussing issues of hegemony and disenfranchisement up to this point of their analysis. It is problematic, however, that they define and identify exclusion, marginalization and privilege thereafter solely through the lenses of gender and racial identity. This reflects a form of presentism that seems pervasive in North American academia which allows contemporary categories of race and gender to overshadow the ethno-linguistic diversity of materials that represent and embody the totality of our historical experiences and cultural production. Such is the argument made, for example, by Marc Shell in the introduction to his edited volume American Babel:

Inside and outside the often changing borders of the American colonies between 1750 and 1850, if ever there were a polyglot place on the globe – other than Babel’s spire – this was it. … The American academy’s passing over most non-anglophone American languages and literatures is, of course, partly explicable by the fact that it is easier to talk about other peoples’ cultures in English than to learn their languages. But the main explanation is that literary America, despite its horror of race slavery and its ideal of racial blindness, has always liked to emphasize racial difference instead of language difference. This preference arises from the traditional American pretense than culture is not largely linguistic or, rather, that culture ought to be English. … Even as the American university claims to foster a tolerant heterogeneity of cultures, then, it perseveres in the traditional American homogenization of the world as English. … Few American literary critics work on the vast multilingual literature of the United States. Most simply raise up English-language works written by members of America’s various ethnic and racial groups – often in the name of multicultural diversity – even as they dismiss American literary works written in languages other than English.

Anglo-American leadership in technological innovation has meant that the English language has been the default beneficiary of the digital revolution’s boons and resources. Unless proactive steps are taken, minoritized languages – indigenous and immigrant – will continue to be excluded from the privileges that English enjoys and the cultural expressions of those corresponding communities will continue to be marginalized, if they are represented at all.

There are, of course, important intersections between race and ethnolinguistic identity, but these are by no means aligned historically in simplistic or hegemonic ways, or even in the present (as revealed in problematic ethnonyms like “Latina/o”). It is easy to forget that racialized identities (“white,” “black,” etc.) are social constructs that gained currency over time because of their ability to dislodge previous ethnolinguistic allegiances and forge new solidarities and milieus. That these forces and currencies had everything to do with privilege is undeniable, but so is the fact that whiteness was defined and controlled by the dominant anglophone hegemony which had little tolerance for non-conformity. How did immigrant groups conceive of their own identity in immigrant contexts, engage with the idea of whiteness (and other forms of identity), negotiate about the nature of their evolving cultures in North American settings, reconcile themselves with the decline of their languages and come to terms with the marginalization and discrimination of others who could not access racialized privilege? These are some of the questions that we can best answer by examining their literary productions in their own languages and within the frameworks of their own cultural heritages, but which are occluded from view if we only look through racialized lenses. And these comments do not even begin to address the issues pertaining to the many distinct communities indigenous to this continent who have and continue to use their own languages to express their own cultures and concerns.

My own humanistic research has been on the Scottish Gaelic immigrant communities which could be found all over North America in the 19th century. There is not a single faculty member in the United States now working on the literary output of this group; probably the only faculty member in the US to have ever done so was the late Charles Dunn of Harvard, who ceased to be active in this area some thirty or more years ago. As a result, the cultural and literary expressions of Scottish Gaelic communities are poorly if at all represented in academia and there can be virtually no “beachhead” for extending developments into the digital realm. There are individual woman writers of all racial designations whose English-language output has been successfully made more accessible to the public by the academy than that of the entire North American Gaelic community. It must also be emphasized that Scottish Gaelic identity was traditionally expressed and understood in ethnolinguistic rather than racial terms: there were (and still are) people of non-European ancestry who produced cultural and literary expressions in Gaelic which need to be accessed and interpreted for the fullness of this community, and the American story, to be understood. Scottish Gaelic is a highly endangered language and culture in the present exactly because of its historical marginalization at the hands of an anglophone hegemony, so merely characterizing it in racial terms (which do not reflect the internal diversity of its constituent members) is misleading.

The Palimpsest project presents an example of Gaelic’s marginalization in the digital realm (albeit in a Scottish context). This impressive digital project contains a database of literary texts that are dynamically mapped to locations Edinburgh (the capital of Scotland). This work was facilitated by the easy availability of a large number of texts (about 550) in English. Despite the fact that Gaelic has been spoken and used as a medium for literary production in Edinburgh for centuries, however, the project did not integrate any Gaelic sources and as a result, Gaelic is invisible and marginalized. Including Gaelic would not only require scanning and editing the relevant primary sources (labor-intensive and hence expensive work which has not yet been done), but also handling linguistic issues (like morphology) that are not accounted for in a anglonormative digital infrastructure. When I contacted the project director about this concern, he was apologetic and invited contributions from Gaelic scholars – but it is unrealistic to expect such efforts to be accomplished without a practical funding model.

I have no doubt that the same set of concerns could be argued for many other ethnic groups in North America, native and immigrant, each of which contains multitudes and are dealt a disservice by reducing them to a simplistic racialized identity. This in fact contributes to the delusion that racial blocs represent natural and organic dividing lines between human beings that have historical continuity, rather than breaking down such social constructs and peeling back the diversity of voices that lay behind them that challenge such simplistic projections into the past.

Will digital humanities be able to live up to its radical potential and represent the diversity of our historical communities in all of their breadth, depth and complexities? Like other academic goals, it’s a lofty one and one often thwarted by our own biases and blind-spots.


John D. Martin III and Carolyn Runyon, “Digital Humanities, Digital Hegemony.” ACM Computers & Society 46.1 (2016): 20-26.

Michael Newton. “’Did you hear about the Gaelic-speaking African?’: Scottish Gaelic Folklore about Identity in North America.” Comparative American Studies 8.2 (June 2010): 88-106.

Michael Newton. “How Scottish Highlanders Became White: The Introduction of Racialism to Gaelic Literature and Culture.” In Celts in the Americas, ed. Michael Newton, Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Michael Newton. “Highland Canon Fodder: Scottish Gaelic Literature in North American Contexts.” eKeltoi 1 (2016): 147-175.

Marc Shell. Introduction to American Babel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Kevlar says:

    I couldn’t agree more. And I would also go back a step, the fact that native English-speaking scholars of all disciplines are usually hopelessly uni-lingual is both a symptom of and a cause of this problem. The ones who are bilingual are minorities and immigrants, and they are forced to meet the Anglos on English “ground”.

    There is one small chink in this armour, and it is French in certain parts of Canada (Quebec and pockets elsewhere). Seeing the experience of those universities is a vision of what would be possible IF the power of the state was used to rehabilitate other languages as objects of study and media of instruction, rather than what state power has traditionally been used for, which is destroying minority cultures.

    I am thinking specifically of the training of French immersion teachers in English Canadian universities: here students who, like my brother-in-law, are the products of an English-only households but who attended French immersion in school can learn how to teach French to the next generation, creating a self-sustaining momentum for a minority language. Is this what The Gaelic College in N.S. is trying to achieve?

    The same is clearly possible for any minority language, given the right incentives. Sadly neither the market nor the state are interesting in creating those incentives in most parts of North America for most languages. My only glimmer of hope is that the recent talk about “truth and reconciliation” in Canada will refocus attention on culture for the very good reason that without living cultures through which we can experience other people, all we are left with are fossilized, set-at-birth categories like so-called “race”, nominal “religion”, or class/caste; and then the real troubles begin. Mr. Trudeau’s proposed Indigenous Languages Act is (potentially) a (small) flicker of light in this regard in an otherwise dark rime.

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