Inclusive Narratives and Changing Demographics in the United States

Over the past couple of weeks I have been participating in an online seminar (a “webinar”) called “Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces” that is being co-hosted by the National Park Service and the Museum Studies program at George Washington University. Yesterday’s webinar focused on “Relevance, Diversity, and Inclusion” within the National Park Service. I shared some thoughts and participated in a good dialogue with several other scholars on Twitter, and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of the event so far. I would like to make a brief note, however, on the use of the term “changing demographics” and what, exactly, it means when we talk about changing demographics in the United States.

One of the primary questions we discussed yesterday was the following:

Is the shift toward more inclusive narratives more than a reflection of–or a response to–the changing demographics of America?

This question is based on a faulty premise by suggesting that the notion of “changing demographics” is a relatively new one in American society.

Even though the presenters at the webinar took pains to argue that their use of the “changing demographics” term referred to broad social changes in the U.S.–an aging Baby Boom Generation leaving the workplace for retirement, an increasing number of women in positions of power, and recent debates about the role sexuality in American society–it was obvious to me that “changing demographics” was mostly associated with the changing racial/ethnic demographics of the country brought on by immigration. As Joel Kotkin remarks in Smithsonian Magazine, “Immigration will continue to be a major force in U.S. life . . . the United States of 2050 will look different from that of today: whites will no longer be in the majority. The U.S. minority population, currently 30 percent, is expected to exceed 50 percent before 2050. No other advanced, populous country will see such diversity.”

When it comes to race and ethnicity, yes, the United States is certainly becoming more diverse. But the United States has always been diverse, no matter what context you place on the term “changing demographics.” This nation’s demographics have been in a constant state of fluid change since at least 1776 and probably before then. Men, women, young and old people, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ, immigrants, slaves, Europeans, Indians, Africans, Asians, and Hispanics have always lived in the United States and been a part of its history. The shift towards more inclusive narratives in interpretive history should not take place because of today’s “changing demographics” but because much of the interpretive history told in this country has never accounted for the demographic changes that have always been a part of the American experience.

Moreover, the shift towards more inclusive narratives needs to happen because the need for accurate history is equally if not more important than any notion of “changing demographics.” Inclusiveness and accuracy go hand-in-hand. When Park Rangers at Gettysburg told visitors in the 1960s that the American Civil War was about “states’ rights,” they undoubtedly alienated any African Americans that may have visited the park. But ultimately they interpreted history that was simply inaccurate. When we leave out the role of minorities, women, and other unacknowledged groups from American history, we are telling inaccurate history. Richard Sandell argues in Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference that audiences to museums and other cultural institutions view these places as sources of knowledge and information akin to newspapers, television, or libraries. People come to public history sites seeking knowledge and information that addresses the questions they consider important. Public history sites are resource centers where people go to make sense of their world. We are obligated to do our absolute best to provide them accurate history, and we do a disgrace to the historical record when we don’t strive for inclusive narratives that highlight the experiences of ALL Americans.

In sum, I believe that the shift towards inclusive narratives is both reflective of and a reaction to the history of changing demographics in the United States that cultural institutions have only recently acknowledged. In creating inclusive and accurate narratives, we must also strive to tell stories–plural–that provide light into the American experience rather than focusing on a futile effort to tell one grand narrative that purports to speak for all of us.