Here at the start of Black History Month, I would like to talk to some folks “white people to white people.” I know we mean well, but, as a group, we are not good at doing Black History Month.
Every year there are several news stories about well-meaning white folks (I’m giving them benefit of the doubt here) who screw it up, construe it into something that makes them comfortable, or just abstain from the thing altogether. I know that many white people are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. It’s an uncomfortable place to sit, and we don’t really know who to talk to about it. We don’t want to offend our black friends because we’re sure we are going to look totally racist even if we don’t mean to. Likewise, we don’t want to bring it up with our white friends because race is just not a thing we white people like to talk about.
Well, fellow white person, I think we can do better.
The first step is to learn why we have Black History Month. Our annual focus on African American history was started in 1926 as Negro History Week by Carter G. Woodson, who wrote, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.” Woodson was the second African American to receive a PhD from Harvard (W.E.B. DuBois was the first), and he served as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University. So basically, he was a really smart guy.
Woodson’s goal was not to create an annual time of study but rather to plant a seed that would grow into the complete integration of African American history into the overall story of this country. He chose February because it was the birth month of Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford declared the first Black History Month saying that he hoped the country would “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Since then, every U.S. President has declared February as Black History Month and has chosen a specific theme on which to focus. Unfortunately, Woodson’s goal of giving African American history equal space in our collective story has not come to fruition. Some may say, and rightfully so, that we’ve backslid a bit in this area of late.
Since we, and I’m talking to my fellow white people here, haven’t really figured out how to celebrate Black History Month, and since I’ve heard from lots of folks that they are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all, I thought that I would come up with some easy rules to help us all do a little better this year.
If any of these rules make you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why. A momentary pause of self-reflection can be a very healthy thing.
So here we go: Rules for White People during Black History Month (but really for all the time).
1. Do not ever say, “When is White History Month?” If you have kids, open their history or social studies book and take note of whose story is being told there. Look at a map and notice how we’ve placed Europe literally in the center of the world. Heck, look at the Avengers; for way too many years the closest they got to diversity was Hulk. Ok, that last one wasn’t history, but the point is that white people don’t need a special month because we are getting plenty of pages in the history books.
2. Do not use Obama as a justification that we live in a post-racial America. Likewise, don’t use your black friend, your black co-worker, your black boss, or your black teacher as examples to show that racism is mostly in people’s heads. We cannot surround ourselves with enough black people to truly know what it is like to live their lives, and saying that we’ve solved racism because of XYZ is to say that we know better than they do what their life is like.
3. Your black friend is not Google; educate yourself. There are lots of books, articles, podcasts, YouTube channels, and blogs that you can use to start to educate yourself. You can join groups like Be the Bridge and find spaces where these issues can be discussed openly in a mixed-race environment. Your friend or co-worker is just living their life and is not responsible for telling you all about what it’s like to be black in America.
4. Do not shy away from the tough stuff. Listening to the concerns of people in the Black Lives Matter movement does not make you anti-police. Acknowledging that there are systems in place that operate with a racial bias does not mean you hate America. Noticing that there is a benefit to being white in America does not mean that you had an easy life. All of this just means that you can see that someone else had a hard life for different reasons. Watch documentaries like 13th, read books like I’m Still Here and Just Mercy, and listen to podcasts like The Stoop or Hope and Hard Pills. Seek out black perspectives on current events (but black people who are offering their opinion, see Rule 3 for why).
5. Do not treat black people as a monolith. Just because one person is fine with something does not mean that everyone is going to okay with it. I have one black friend who has a real issue with raw cotton being used as decoration, but I have another black friend who has no issue with it at all. We should take people as individuals and not as representatives of their entire race. Additionally, if you are a teacher, be sensitive to your students of color as they may feel like there is suddenly a spotlight on them when certain subjects are brought up because they’ve often been called upon to speak for their entire race.
6. Don’t make it about you. This is not your opportunity to show how woke you are by posting things about throwing yourself down as a sacrifice on the altar of racism, Karen.
7. In contrast to the previous point, do participate. Go to the events, attend the meetups, and celebrate the great African Americans who helped make us what we are.
8. However, when you go to these events do not use slang, refer to anything as “urban,” talk about how you understand because your white relatives were once oppressed, wear Kente cloth, hold your fist up in defiance, touch anyone’s hair, or make yourself the center of attention. We white people have plenty of places to talk about ourselves; when we are a guest at someone else’s event, we should be respectful.
9. If you have any Black History Month activity planned that involves re-enacting any part of a slave’s life, throw that plan away. I hope that doesn’t need any further explanation. This also goes for blackface. Blackface is never, ever okay. Nope, not even if you think you are honoring someone or if it is a part of a costume. These things are never okay.
10. Don’t tell anyone to go back anywhere. Even better, replace that thought with a discussion about Liberia. You see, this “send them back” idea has been a bad argument for centuries. Literally, centuries.
11. In general, try not to say that you don’t see color. This phrase is problematic for three reasons: unless you are blind you do see race, it erases a big part of the other person’s identity, and the words are designed to put the white person at ease, not the black person who they are directed towards. Seeing race isn’t the problem; it’s how you react to what you see. Do you honor that a person’s race and culture are valuable and worthy of being seen? Do you acknowledge that because of those things the other person’s perspective might be different? Do you give the other person equal standing with you? Instead of saying that you don’t see race, try saying that you respect all people.
12. Do not think that Black History Month excuses you from learning about black history for the other 11 months of the year. Carter Woodson’s dream was that eventually we wouldn’t need a special time set aside to focus on African American history because we would learn that black history is American history.
13. Do not bring up CRT. Unless your child is in graduate school, they are not learning about it. However, you know what else they aren’t learning about? Black history. Before anyone complains about CRT or Culturally Responsive Teaching, check to see if your child’s history mentions any of these people or events: Benjamin Banneker, Colfax Massacre, Blanche Bruce, W.E.B. DuBoise, Mum Bett, the Niagra Movement, Fort Pillow, Mary Church Terrell, Exodusters, Special Field Order No. 15, Fannie Lou Hamer, Black Codes, Gabriel’s Rebellion or the German Coast Uprising. These are not obscure historical tidbits. They are very major people and events.
So there you have it, some rules from a white person to white people so that we can better celebrate Black History Month. This is by no means the only advice that you should listen to, and you don’t even have to agree with everything I’ve said here. This list is meant to be the start of a conversation, the start of a way forward, and the start of learning to be better neighbors. We can do it, and it will make us all better.
Thank you to all the people who helped me put this list together. You are each invaluable to me.