“Playing my part”: navigating racial histories in the field
22 December 2020
One February morning a couple of years ago, I got a call from Dee, a Black woman in her 70s who was one of the key interlocutors in my dissertation fieldwork in Houston. After we chatted for a few minutes, she asked me to present my research at her church the following Saturday. Dee was deeply involved with the church, one of many active congregations in Sunnyside, the focal neighborhood of my study. Sunnyside is a historically Black community in Houston, and over the last three years I’d been conducting ethnographic fieldwork there, interviewing dozens of low-income mothers about the loss of privacy they faced due to being surveilled in the process of seeking help from safety net institutions.
A long-time Sunnyside resident and civil rights activist, Dee was steeped in the history of the neighborhood and its fraught relationship with the city. Founded during the Jim Crow era, Sunnyside was the first neighborhood in South Houston where Black people were legally permitted to build and own homes, and it has a long history of fighting for the rights of its residents against the racial oppression endemic to the deep south. The neighborhood’s motto is “Sunnyside Pride,” and that pride is borne of the struggle and collective resistance of its residents in the face of decades of disinvestment by the city of Houston (Beeth and Wintz 2000; Feagin 1988).
The second time we met, Dee took me with her to the African American Library at the Gregory School, which housed the first public school for Black students in Houston. It’s located in Fourth Ward, also known as Freedmen’s Town, as it was a destination for recently freed slaves in Texas, who notably did not learn of their freedom until nearly six months after the Emancipation Proclamation, on what is now celebrated as Juneteenth.
In sharing insights with me and allowing me to shadow her in her neighborhood outreach work, Dee not only helped me gain a richer understanding of Sunnyside’s past and present, but she also implicitly and explicitly vouched for me. She introduced me to pastors and civic leaders and brought me along as her guest at community events. As a white graduate student doing fieldwork in a Black neighborhood known for its wariness of outsiders, I was often, and understandably, met with a measure of mistrust. But when I was with Dee at a community center luncheon or a food drive, I was immediately welcomed. If she was OK with me tagging along, others seemed to follow her lead. This meant I was invited into spaces that otherwise might not have been open to me – like the event at Dee’s church.
It wouldn’t be the first time I went to Dee’s church – I’d accompanied her to Sunday services several times and volunteered with her at several church events. But those were primarily in my personal capacity, not as a researcher. I say primarily because no relationships in ethnography are neat. We never fully take off the researcher hat, and there is always a self-interested drive underlying the forging of relationships between ethnographers and interviewers and their research participants. No matter how intimate these relationships may become, nor how genuinely we may feel connected to informants, the truth is we develop these relationships because we aim to collect data, and these relationships generate that data. Shared moments together become fieldnotes. A poignant story told over lunch makes a perfect opening for a book chapter. And we are reminded throughout graduate training that the book could be a ticket to a tenure-track faculty job—the ultimate academic “prize.”
But these relationships are more than transactions. We are also humans who need social connection. I chose to go to church with Dee not just to gain insights or strategically build rapport. I went because I was lonely, she was fun to be around, and I knew it would mean a lot to her if I did.
Still, sitting together in a pew quietly whispering jokes to one another during the sermon was altogether different than me presenting my research.
Since my study centered on the safety net, of which neighborhood churches are a key part, it wasn’t hard to come up with some findings to share that I thought might be relevant to church members. After all, they ran a food and clothing pantry, and sometimes offered financial aid to congregants in need. So my findings about why some neighborhood residents resisted seeking help from churches, and the implications for how the church might reduce those barriers, seemed like it could actually be of use to them. Once I wrote out my brief remarks, I felt much better, though still a bit nervous.
Had I known how the day would go, I would have been much more nervous.
I arrived at the church complex early and sat in the parking lot for a few moments with my windows rolled down before heading inside. It was a perfect February morning in Houston, sunny but not hot, with a cool breeze the only signal that it was indeed “winter.” The church itself is a large structure with an imposing white cross taking up its entire front face. The parking lot wraps all the way around the main building, and given the relatively small size of the congregation, feels unnecessarily expansive in a decidedly Texas way. I walked around to the rear of the building to an entrance closest to the multi-purpose room, and as I passed through the doors an usher handed me a program with my picture right in the center. I was listed as the “guest speaker,” and the theme of the day was Black History Month.
Dee hadn’t mentioned the Black History Month theme, nor that I was the main speaker! My palms instantly began to sweat, and as I looked around the room, I wished I could be anywhere else. Not only did I feel ill-prepared to be THE key speaker, but I was also deeply uncomfortable being featured in a Black History Month program at a Black church, particularly since my work is neither historical nor am I a race scholar.
I was directed to sit on the stage next to a deacon and another speaker, a thin man in his 70s. After the opening invocation and a couple of Bible readings, I gave my remarks, then answered a few questions from the audience and sat down feeling good about the presentation and relieved that my part was over.
The next segment was called “Black History Tidbits,” and there were several elderly women who each shared historical anecdotes, either about a key figure in Black history or a little known fact. They talked about the horrific origins of the word “picnic”— it referred to the practice of white people gathering to shared food as they watched a lynching—about Juneteenth, and about Martin Luther King Jr. Next up on the program was Rosa Parks.
One woman got on the microphone and announced that we would be doing a reenactment of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. I got up to help move chairs around so that there were two aisles, just like a bus. Several women sat down in the seats, and before I knew it, one of them pointed at me and directed me to play the part of the bus driver. The racist bus driver, of course, who instructed Rosa Parks to go sit at the back of the bus. My face burned all shades of red and I felt a steady stream of sweat prickling my brow – but I felt like I couldn’t say no. After all, who else was better suited for the role than the only white man in the room?
I hesitantly sat in the driver’s seat, and the dear old woman—she must have been pushing 80—playing Rosa walked up to the bus and sat down in the first row. It was not lost on me that she would have grown up riding segregated busses and drinking from separate water fountains. She would have remembered the brutality of the police response to civil rights protests and boycotts and may have participated in the movement herself. As I sat there, I felt shame at the weight of that history.
I sheepishly turned to her and said quietly that she needed to go to the back of the bus. The other participants, including Dee, admonished me that I needed to speak louder, and be meaner! I tried again, only to be met with more ribbing theatrical direction from the crowd:
Raise your voice!
You have to be rude like he was!
As they cajoled me and my scarlet face glistened, they chuckled, clearly enjoying my momentary discomfort. On the third try, I either managed to sufficiently improve my acting game or they just felt sorry for me, but either way (and thankfully!) the performance was over.
As I drove home after the event was over, my mind raced as I tried to remember every detail. Since then, I’ve told this story to a few people, mostly as a kind of “can you believe it??” fieldwork tale. I am prone to self-deprecation, and it’s guaranteed that I’ll get a laugh at the image of me being put on the spot in such an uncomfortable way.
Dee and the other elderly members of the church allowed me into their space but also gave me an opportunity to participate in what was in some sense a fleeting symbolic reckoning of the racist underpinnings in our society. In that moment, they held the power, and they used it, albeit with humor and good will, to force me to reckon with the implications of my own racial identity in relation to theirs, and in relation the legacy of white supremacy in the U.S.
This encounter likely won’t make it into the book I’m writing based on my fieldwork in Sunnyside. It’s not related to privacy or the safety net, and it doesn’t neatly relate to the arguments I’m trying to make about how racialized surveillance systematically harms low-income Black women. And it’s more about me than it is about them.
I haven’t spoken to Dee in months, and in the meantime, I left Houston, moved across the country and started a faculty job.
But memories like this don’t leave us when we leave the field. I still think about Dee all the time. And I think about all the other women I met in Sunnyside who shared their lives and stories with me when they had every reason not to. Urban ethnography is messy and can be ethically problematic, to be sure (cf Rios 2015, Cobb and Hoang 2015). Yet it also allows us to forge uniquely meaningful relationships with others, and to learn from them, sometimes when we least expect it.
Beeth, Howard, and Cary Wintz. 2000. Black Dixie: Afro-Texan History and Culture in Houston. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.
Cobb, Jessica Shannon, and Kimberly Kay Hoang. 2015. “Protagonist-Driven Urban Ethnography.” City & Community 14(4): 348-351.
Rios, Victor. “Decolonizing the White Space in Urban Ethnography.” City & Community 14(4):258-261.
About the author:
Dr. Cayce Hughes is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado College. Dr. Hughes is currently working on a book project that examines how low-income, Black mothers in Houston, Texas, navigate privacy when they seek poverty assistance from an increasingly surveillance-centered safety net. Some of this research has been published in Social Forces and Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. To learn more about Dr. Hughes’s research and teaching, please click here.