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Sunday, February 20, 2011

White History Month

"Why isn't there a white history month?! 
           That's reverse racism!"
Because we already have white history year (decade, centuries...)!

In the United States, white history is the default, assumed perspective. It's what's taught in the classrooms, portrayed in the media, and informs policy making. We don't need a special month to teach it. It is taught ALL the time.

Unfortunately, some people think Black History Month is just for black folk. The truth is, we are all missing large chunks of historical knowledge, which hinders us as we move forward today.

History textbook cover:
Columbus, but no Native Americans,
 Kitty Hawk, but no Tuskegee Airmen,
the transcontinental railway,
 but no Chinese immigrant workgangs.
 Just a group of anonymous slaves. 
A lot of the issues begin early in our education system: textbooks that don't give the full picture, teachers glossing over hard truths. To read my 10th grade history textbook, you'd think black folks didn't exist in the United States until they suddenly become emancipated from slavery, then they disappeared for a while until angry mobs took to the streets demanding civil rights.

There were maybe two famous African-Americans that were ever taught, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass, but they were portrayed as 'exceptional Negroes' that stood above the rest. My high school textbook had a small sectioned acknowledging "white resistance to civil rights," followed shortly thereafter by a section on the Civil Rights Acts entitled "The Great Society and the Triumph of Liberalism." Good thing we had a group of white liberal saviors take care of injustice once and for all!

The same principles apply to many aspects of our history: Native American achievements and contributions, the USA's paternalist relationship with the Philippines, Japanese internment camps, on and on (see Howard Zinn and James Loewen for more). Some of it is mentioned in schools, but too often it's as a footnote or an afterthought.

How do we hope for reconciliation if we know so terribly little about those to whom we wish to be reunited?How incredibly disingenuous to say "I stand with you" and then have to ask basic questions about the history of our divide.

White folks' ignorance is the basis for a lot of pain and misunderstanding in the reconciliation process. Without a foundational knowledge of Al Jolson and minstrel shows, it might be hard to understand why blackface at a party is never ok. If we learned about our history of appropriation and objectification, we'd better understand why human being shouldn't be sports mascots. White folks are often surprised when marginalized folks get angry over supposedly 'trivial things,' but if we understood our history a bit better, we would probably get angry too. 

It's important to make a concerted effort to rectify our educational short comings, and setting aside a devoted month to do so can help. Unfortunately, cordoning off four weeks to put MLK's picture up everywhere isn't going to cut it. It is a hollow act of token recognition that just allows us to pat ourselves on the backs for our inclusiveness and then move on with our lives for the rest of the year. 

Put better by Renee at Womanist Musings:
"By presenting this as a celebration of 'look how far we have come', we fail to focus on the ways in which race still continues to play a pivotal role in who has access to power in this society. White women are still clutching their purses in the presence of black men, we are still largely portrayed as prostitutes and criminals in the media..."

Ah, yes....the media. Another main culprit, alongside our education system. For one month out of the year, advertisers and big companies use February as an excuse to market to black folks (often very awkwardly), then go back to their true colors on March 1. 

So in the name of educating ourselves a bit, let's begin with the history of Black History Month itself:

Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week in 1926 in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The idea was to bring black history to the attention of the broader American public. Then, in 1976 the black history was given an entire month--albeit the shortest month of the year.

Continuing our history lesson, how about some identification tasks:
Can you name the 14 people pictured here?
I'll get you started: MLK, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman...

Name five black figures of
historical significance....not so hard.
Now name ten more...

Do you know who Cathay Williams is? Marian AndersonCrispus Attucks?  Matthew Henson? Ida B. WellsRichard Wright? Marcus Garvey? Who are some significant white allies during the civil rights movement? These shouldn't be obscure names to us, but too often they are.

Can you name the inventor of the light bulb? No problem. What about the carbon filament essential to it? Or the traffic light? hmmm. Telephone? Easy. The blood bank? Not so much. Eyeglasses? yep. Person to patent laser cataract removal? First brain surgeon to perform a hemispherectomy and the first to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head!?!?! Many of us would have starved as children without peanut butter, but have no idea who to thank for it.

This isn't simply black history, it's women's history, it's LGBT history, it's military history, it's literary history, it's science history, it's religious history. It's American history.

Asian-American, Native American, and Latino-American histories are also constantly marginalized and ignored (and now they're even criminalized). If these narratives were given as much weight as white history in the classroom, they wouldn't need their own time set aside.

Today, I remain profoundly embarrassed that the names of major figures in history are still often unknown to me. I find myself having scramble to catch up, to make up for lost time--cramming names and events that should have been taught to me years ago.  It might not be my fault that my high school let me graduate without this knowledge, but now it's on me to rectify it. I need a black history month...I just need to celebrate it year 'round to begin to catch up.

If you don't know some of these most famous of examples I cite here (and I really just graze the surface), do yourself a favor and spend the next 30 minutes looking at the links and educating yourself.  Thirty minutes is a small amount of time to a devote to a subject so neglected--but it's a start. You owe it to yourself. 

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  1. Beautiful post! Thanks so much for sharing and all of the work you put into the links! Have you read _A People's History of the US_ by Howard Zinn? I have not but I've heard really good things about it.

    PS. And yes, in fact, I do thank God for George Washington Carver on a near-daily basis :-)

  2. Thanks for the comment! is amazing how much time finding links takes! Do you think it is obvious to readers that the orange color denotes a link? Blue looks weird in this color scheme and the format doesn't underline links.

    I have read large sections of Zinn's book, but not all of it. It is definitely worth checking out along with Loewen linked with it in the 6th paragraph. Both offer some good perspectives.

  3. I wanted to forward a comment from Sherie:

    "You could also mention how white people don't have to worry about reinforcing stereotypes in their celebration of their history. Like when celebrations include singing and dancing, I inwardly kind of groan. On the one hand, I personally enjoy it. But on the other I'm wondering how this looks to the slightly ignorant white person. Will they relegate my culture to simply beating drums or will they understand the cultural importance behind them?"

  4. The blog Sociological images makes a similar point to Sherie's comment here:

  5. I'm glad to see the young americans waking up to reality. 70 years from now, they'll understand.

  6. Thanks for the comment! is amazing how much time finding links takes! Do you think it is obvious to readers that the orange color denotes a link? Blue looks weird in this color scheme and the format doesn't underline links.

    I have read large sections of Zinn's book, but not all of it. It is definitely worth checking out along with Loewen linked with it in the 6th paragraph. Both offer some good perspectives.

  7. When I studied for tests, I knew what things I could get away with just glancing at. The black
    history wasn't important--it was just in there because it needed to be so people wouldn't get mad. It wasn't the actual important stuff and probably wouldn't show up on a test--unless it was one of those random detailed questions they throw at you to make sure you did the reading--I hated when they did that.  I distinctly remember, two guys (of seven black kids in my grade) lamenting over the lopsided history: "I bet they don't even know the name Cassius Clay!" And I didn't.

    I don't think I was very different from most of my white classmates. I didn't feel prejudiced--I was 'colorblind.' But I was ignorant to a whole portion of my history.

  8. I know most everyone has an opinion on Black History month some of which are thoughtful and some not so much.  Here are some of Morgan Freeman's thoughts on the subject

  9. heh...yeah, a lot of colorblind white folks loved it when he said that! But a lot of good conversations were spurred by it when it first came out a couple years back. Check out what my friend, Matt, had to say about it recently:

  10. .
    He's NOT asking to get rid of the Black History
    Month -- he's actually saying that he wants the
    U.S. to have TWELVE MONTHS of Black
    History -- NOT only ONE MONTH of it.


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