The time has come upon us for the usual racist cries of desperation from the white community, enraged as it is confronted with Black History Month, a month dedicated to expanding our woefully meagre knowledge of Black history, thanks to the fact that the white community has actively worked to twist, suppress, and ignore it. There is a broadly-held assumption in the white community that white is the norm, the default, the ordinary, until we are challenged into thinking about race, at which point we leap to the defensive. Then, we demand our own ‘white history month,’ as though we’re somehow getting short shrift during the year.
At Ebony, the editors make a sharp point about this classic call for ‘parity’:
Do these people mean we should condense all the American history centering around White people to just one month and devote the other 11 to people of color?
Because, well, actually, that would be kind of awesome. While it might be a bit of a tongue-in-cheek response, it does speak to something more serious: Many white Americans are not familiar with Black history, and many people of colour are struggling to reclaim their own history, because it’s not taught in schools. We hear about a handful of people of colour deemed ‘exceptional’ and about a scattering of historical incidents that are simply too large not to be covered, but we miss huge swaths of the collective history of people of colour in the United States, even though they have played an active role in our history.
In fact, people of colour were here long before us, but I shouldn’t need to tell you that.
One of my most eye-opening experiences in college was the realisation that I had a highly unusual, and highly liberal, education. Because we did take a much more racially diverse approach to U.S. history, and I was familiar with things that I thought were common knowledge and actually weren’t — and even then, I had numerous gaps in my knowledge that were only filled in much later, and I’m still learning. As a white person in the US, I’m used to being the default, to the norm, to not being required to think about race and my relationship to society through the colour of my skin; ‘my’ history is, thus, the default history of this country, even though white people have been here a comparatively short amount of time and have occupied only a fraction of North America’s history.
So people ask why there isn’t a white history month, and the usual snappy reply is that the entire year is white history month, but there’s more to it than that. This is about challenging notions of race, culture, and society, not just about pointing out the fact that most whites in the US have a very poor grasp of nonwhite history. Yes, we do need a month in which we are forced to learn about more than MLK and Sojourner Truth (though both played important roles in US history!). Yes, we need a month where we are confronted with stories about a history that has been suppressed, and we learn more about Black history in the US — from the ugly to the amazing to the important to the wonderful to the horrific. Watching 12 Years a Slave and reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry doesn’t cut it.
But we also need a month where we talk specifically about the suppression of Black history, and why this has happened. Why the white community is so eager to erase a significant component of our history and how we have interacted with the Black community. Why the white community is so ready to shy away from the obvious: The whole reason that Black people are here in the first place, that they play such an outsized role in US history, is because we brought them here. We brought them here on slave ships, crowded and cramped, rolling over rough seas. We brought them here in ships where they died by the hundreds on the trip over, we brought them here on ships where they were tortured and experimented with, and then we sold them into bondage, buying and selling them like used cars, and we did so for centuries. Even after slavery was banned in the US, we maintained strict social separations between the Black and white communities, insisting that whites were superior — and these separations are still present today, still play a role in how the Black community lives and interacts with whites.
So yes, we do actually need to talk about these things, and we need to talk about race, even though it makes many white people uncomfortable. It is unsettling to be reminded that while you may think of yourself as the default, the world does not in fact revolve around you. While you may be the dominant social class, a position created through centuries of oppression and perpetuated by the social structures you prop up, that doesn’t mean that you should be the default, or that you get to ignore race. We need a Black History Month because otherwise, white people will continue hiding from their own history, which is forever intertwined with that of the Black community. And we don’t need a white history month because we white people have plenty of resources for studying our own history, and we never need to worry that our children aren’t learning about their heritage. We don’t need to be concerned about whether schools are adequately covering white culture, society, and history. We don’t need to fear that our dark past is being covered up in the interests of making other races feel more comfortable.
So no, we don’t need a white history month.
Image: Warona, kris krüg, Flickr