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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Coles, October 24, 1974. Interview B-0002. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Influence of social categories on experiences and oral history interviews

Coles discusses how categories such as the race of the interviewer and the interviewee can potentially cause obstacles in oral history. In short, Coles explains that his identity as a white male sometimes inhibited interviews with African Americans, but that it also sometimes served for the benefit of those interviews. In describing how various categories of identification can influence one's historical experiences, Coles offers an anecdote regarding how he built trust and a rapport with his subjects.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Coles, October 24, 1974. Interview B-0002. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BEVERLY JONES:
I was wondering whether any interviewees refused to talk to you because of your color, if your color had been an obstacle in trying to get information?
ROBERT COLES:
I would answer that this way. I think my color has been an obstacle and a help, depending on the people, but not by race necessarily. And here I would be on … I'm sorry to put it this way, but this is the only way that I could do it. There are some black people that can talk to me better than they would have to a black person, there are some black people that didn't talk to me as well as they would a black person. There are some white people who talked to me because I was a Yankee, in ways that they wouldn't have, and then you can take all the variables … I think that there are some white people who would have talked to a black psychiatrist different than they would have to a white psychiatrist, you know, the variables are endless. I do not feel, at the risk of simply sounding absolutely arrogant, which I think that I've already proven anyway in the last half an hour. I don't feel that being white cut me off from much, from enough of the human experience that ultimately went on between me and the people I met, to the point that it is worth as much of the rhetorical attention that I think it's given. Now, obviously, I have a vested interest in saying that and therefore may be defensive and may also be blind and unknowing, and maybe rationalizing whatever it is that went on between me and the people. I felt that in many of the black homes that I got to be part of for awhile to a different degree, things went on that I found interesting, illuminating, frustrating, annoying, the whole range of human experience, and if it had been different for another person because he was colored, I have to put that in a larger context too. Then, each of us, regardless of color, elicits from other people things based on who we are apart from color, as well as, of course, including that color. Because as we all know, color is only one dimension of what we are as human beings. Some of us behave X way, some of us behave Y way, some of us have this quality in us, some of us have that quality in us and these things register with different people depending on who they are and therefore the interactions … one will have to fall back on that horrible word … are various and enormous and almost limitless, thank God. And anything else that I can tell you, that corrals them and puts them under catagories, A, B, C … whether the catagory be racial, psychological types or whatever, I think runs the risk … I think that it actually runs more the risk, but at the minimum, runs the risk of what all catagorizations run. Namely, not doing justice to the variousness of what we are all about. Now, now question, in New Orleans, they were all black children that we first started working with, going to visit, bothering. One can use all these words … intimidating, flattering … I mean, you know, there's a whole gamut of things that went on. They were different. The talk, the presence or absence of any child, the conversations, the amount of emotions, the voices, all of those things were different. But they were different, to some extent there was a racial dimension, but also there was a dimension of different kinds of people and hitting it off differently. We all know that we have friends and we know that there are some people that we get along with and some people that we don't and there are certain kinds of people that we tend to hit it off with better than other kinds of people, and indeed, there are certain kinds of people that we never hit it off with. And that's an element in this too. I don't mean to deny that for a Yankee, white, middle-class, arrogant, presumptious shrink, you know, that that doesn't bring into a black, working-class, or maybe if you would, an extremely poor and vulnerable home, you know, something going on there. But I will let you in on a secret that my wife, who is not a trained social scientist, in fact, was a school teacher, teaching English in the ninth grade and had no experience other that … is that thing still going or … well, I don't give a damn … [Laughter] … she, in one black family in New Orleans, we would come in there and we would say, "Hello" and then they would sit and look at television and ignore us, which vaguely offended me and also I thought was a challenge to my technique. In mean, there must be some way, as you know, of communicating with them. So, I had to become inventive and I had to bring up this and bring up something and they would answer monosyllabically, and finally, my wife said, "Why don't you just shut up and watch television with them?" [Laughter] So, we watched television and then went to a bar and drank afterwards, to deal with our frustrations. And then we drank with them, they invited us once and after a number of weeks, they invited us to come and have supper and we all got more than a little loaded. I didn't write this up in the methods chapter … [Laughter] … because I know how sober social scientists are supposed to be. So, we got a little drunk, and that was methodologically helpful.