Oral History as Tool of Social Justice: Challenging the Status Quo

By Christine Tran

At an early age, I learned to perceive history in a one-dimension way: history was facts about the past that I had to memorize for my next test in history class, written by people called historians. This perception of history remained constant throughout my time in the K-12 education system. It wasn’t until I came to UCLA and took Asian American Studies 103: Social Science Research Methods, that my conception of history dramatically transformed. Most notably, I was exposed to the concept of oral history, defined by Donald Ritchie, author of Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, as “a [collection] of memories and personal commentaries of historical significant through recorded interviews”(Ritchie, 2003, p. 19). In my history textbooks, the written records of the past rarely featured oral history, consequently leading me to believe that history is a collection of unbiased, impersonal records of the past that I should accept as the facts of life. Yet after my introduction to oral history, I no longer saw history in the same light. To me now, history is a space where power relations dictate who writes the stories of the past. In the same vein, I began to recognize how oral history can challenge the accepted “facts” of history, providing a vehicle through which there can be a radical transformation on the social meaning of history (Williams & Riley, 2018). Oral history can be a tool of social justice. It has the value of centering the voices of people who have been historically and presently marginalized to reevaluate our understanding of past, highlight the struggles of people who are overlooked in scholarly research in present, and inform our goals, attitudes, and hopes for the future.

Nineteenth century historians dismissed oral history as biased, subjective, uncredible folklores and myths that had no place in the discipline (Ritchie, 2003). Such perceptions devalued the voices of people and communities, causing the erasure of, for example, Native Americans’ history from mainstream historical records. And yet, even when oral history began to find a foothold in the academic world, through events such as the inauguration of the first presidential library oral history program in 1960 at the Harry S. Truman Library, oral history centered only on the collection of presidential records and histories of individuals deemed historically significant,  thus privileging the voices of white men (Ritchie, 2003).

However, worldwide political and social changes during the last decades of the twentieth century revealed the problem of dismissing the value of oral history, highlighting the potential for oral history to be a social justice tool to elevate the unheard voices. For instance, Russian and Eastern European oral historians were able to reexamine and rewrite the history of the Soviet Union after its dissolution by collecting personal testimonies from people who were suppressed from speaking out under Communist regimes (Ritchie, 2003). Oral testimonies from Holocaust survivors allowed for historians to examine how experiences of Holocaust varied across Europe, revealing “how social and cultural factors specific to each country under the Nazi occupation influenced how and when the Nazis pursued their murderous policies” (Saylor, n.d.). The Angel Island oral history project leads to greater understanding of the experiences of Chinese detainees at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco (Angel, n.d.). Oral history offers the potential to unlearn and relearn our social understanding of the world.

This academic year, I hope to contribute to the field of oral history through my participation in UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women’s Chemical Entanglements initiative, which seeks to collect oral history on the gendered impacts that environmental toxins and endocrine-disrupting chemicals have on women’s health. Oral history has made meaningful contributions to research on the environment and environmental justice work. For example, oral history called attention to the suffering of an African American family in Hyde Park, Georgia, where after an enormous flood in October 1990, toxic chemicals contaminated the soil and water of a majority black neighborhood (Dean, 2011). UP THE CREEK! is a oral history project that focuses on the hardship faced by Native Americans and African Americans who live near Onondaga Creek in central New York due to contamination (Toosi, 2010). Scientific research has yet to recognize environmental illness as a “real” problem. Oral history can to serve as a call to action for more research to focus on the health impacts faced specifically by women because of chemical toxins in our everyday products, such as detergent, shampoos, perfumes, and deodorants. These voices have for far too long been overshadowed by the commercials advertising these products. It is time that we challenge the narrative that cleanliness and health is associated with utilizing these chemicals and recognize the dangerous health effects of these products. Through this project, we hope to elevate the stories of women who have been impacted in order to one day engage scientists, researchers, policymakers, and corporations to make substantive changes to better the health of all people. Oral history has the power to transform our knowledge of the world as we know it, if you know or suspect that your health has been negatively affected because of chemical exposures, then UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women wants to hear your story.

Christine Tran is a UCLA Undergraduate Student studying International Development Studies. She is a member of the 2018-2019 Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Student Research Group.


Work Cited

Angel Island Oral History Project. MS 283. Special Collections and Archives, University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Dean, D. (2011). Contamination Running Deep: Oral Histories of Environmental Racism, Injustice, and Outrage of One Family in a Southern African-American Community. Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 533. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/etd/533

Toosi, F. (2010). UP THE CREEK! A Site-Specific Oral History Project. Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, 30. Retrieved from http://www.oralhistoryforum.ca/index.php/ohf/article/viewFile/391/461

Ritchie, D. A. (2003). Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Saylor Academy. (n.d.). Interpreting and Using Oral History. Retrieved from https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/HIST104-8.1.1-Oral-History-FINAL.pdf

Williams, B., & Riley, M. (2018). The Challenge of Oral History to Environmental History. Environment and History. doi:10.3197/096734018×15254461646503