I forgot it was February 1st today until I logged-on to Twitter and saw “Happy Black History Month” trending. I clicked on the trending topic to see what people were saying, and, inevitably, there were already tweets from white people—mostly young, mostly male—asking why there is no white history month. Do we really have to have this conversation every year? I ask that more in rhetorical angst than anything else, knowing very well that we, indeed, must have this conversation, every year, every day, every moment, as long as it needs to happen. But still.
I guess at this point in my life, I am not surprised by the blinding affects white privilege has on certain people, as I am very regularly confronted with this phenomenon. I get it, someone—especially and specifically a young white male—living in, and benefitting from, a society with institutionalized systems of domination (race, gender, sexuality, nationalist imperialism) might find it difficult to hear any other realities outside the privileged microcosm in which they live. However, what I do find frustrating amongst certain groups of white folks is their lack of acknowledgment—or even awareness—that these power structures have been, and still are, the controlling systems that dictate so many aspects of how we live in America.
Why don’t we have a white history month? Well, as Tim Wise effectively put it in his lecture Pathology of White Privilege, “We don’t have white history month because we have several. They go by the names of May, June, July, August, September; pretty much any month that we have not designated as someone else’s month, that’s white history month. But we take it for granted, because we don’t have to know other folks’ reality. That’s a privilege.”
Many white males—and white people in general—”don’t understand” this concept because nothing in their lives has ever caused them to have to understand it. They live blissfully unaware of what it might be like to live as a member of a group that is completely disenfranchised by the institutionalized systems of domination that they have been conveniently a part of since birth, yet they often adamantly, and pompously, attempt to invalidate the narratives of individuals from those disenfranchised groups when those individuals speak about injustices they face. These particular white folks are unmindful to the fact that, when white-supremacist, imperialist, patriarchy is the “norm,” it would be absurd to have designated days or months or events celebrating it, because every day is in fact a celebration of these dominant cultures. As one Twitter user put it, in response to a young white male asking why there is no white history month, “For the same reason there’s no Straight Pride parades or Not Having Breast Cancer Awareness Week.”
One day at work last year, I walked into the classroom of a colleague who teaches U.S. History. I noticed that she had done some new classroom decorating, having put up a massive collage of pictures on the long, thin bulletin board that runs along the top of the whiteboard and across the entire front wall of the room. I was immediately taken aback by the sight. What struck me was the glaringly obvious, and overwhelming, presence of white males, with maybe a mere one or two white females, and a single solitary picture of Martin Luther King Jr., and no indigenous people that I noticed.
I could not hold back my shock, “Whoa! What is that?!”
My colleague, “American history.”
I chuckled, “No it’s not! I mean, it’s a small piece of American history—American history through the lens of the imperialist white male.”
She agreed, and retorted, “It’s American history according to the New York State Regents. This is what they have to learn to pass the test.”
Having just this week proctored the U.S. History Regents, also having read every single word of it because I facilitated the special education “read aloud” accommodation, I am very aware of the white-supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal bias in the New York state standardized test. To be fair, I also know that New York schools are not the only ones where these circumstances exist, and it is through this particularly prejudiced lens that most American children in a vast majority of public schools learn about “American history.” This reality is even more striking and tragic in schools like the one where I teach, where the vast majority of the student population—above 90%—is black.
In this “American history,” fore fathers like George Washington are taught as heroes, yet the fact that President Washington inherited his first ten slaves at the age of twelve and had three-hundred slaves living and working on his property—one-hundred of them being his own personal slaves—at the time of his death, is rarely to never spoken about; racism deniers would probably argue that “he treated his slaves well.” Whilst at the very same time, in many American schools, American heroes like Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Angela Davis are taught through a filter of predisposition that they were villainous, or evil, or “violent;” Martin Luther King Jr. is safer and more acceptable to teach because he preached and acted in nonviolence in his opposition to a racist, government-instituted system that was directly hostile and violent towards him. Oh, however, it is perfectly alright to celebrate, and revel in, General George Washington’s violence during the American Revolutionary War. “American History.”
It is true that no telling of history is told without bias. Be that as it may, we have also been told, by Winston Churchill, that “history is written by the victors.” So, in a land where the Declaration of Independence was written by wealthy white men, during a time when it was perfectly and lawfully acceptable to own African human beings, and deny the rights of women, indigenous people, and people with disabilities, it is important that we continue to question the mirage they posed as “reality” when they wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I understand at this point that the majority of people still reading and entertaining this post are the choir, and I am preaching. Nonetheless, if there are any Caucasians still reading who find my words difficult to swallow, ridiculous, angering, or even downright absurd, I would ask of you, please don’t become an inadvertent satirical statistic and continue to ask why “there’s no white history month.” Take a moment to research and think outside of the white-supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal paradigm we find ourselves in. Understand that the very definition in the truest etymological sense of the word dominance is “to have power and influence over others,” and acknowledge how these institutionalized systems of domination have affected all of our thinking and being.
Read some James Baldwin.
Happy Black History Month.