All my life, I’ve gotten this question. Over the past few years, I’ve started seeing more articles filled with snark about it. I want to give a genuine answer.
First, we need to address what is often the real question being asked by those I call ‘Diet Coke Racists’:
“Why do I need to feel guilty and ashamed of my ancestors for a month?”
Who would ask this question?
Who, indeed. This is a good question because things have changed.
There are people who don’t want a black history month because they hate black people. However, the majority of people simply aren’t that way anymore.
One might think this question is rooted in white peoples’ fear of their own history being lost. However, with the over-saturation of white history being taught in schools, very few people are interested in learning about it: Just look at the low numbers and disdain we have for history majors. So, clearly that isn’t what really is bothering people.
Some may think black history month is about black people having pride for themselves. Yet, most white folks I meet are often envious of certain aspects of black culture: Be it the hair, the style, the music or otherwise. So, they get why black people should feel proud.
What’s the hold up? Why are people questioning black history month?
Shame is a destructive force and causes people to become defensive and avoidant.
As a black person I have a certain perspective on history that is different from my white peers. When I see a story of black people overcoming, I feel frustration at those boundaries and pride in the overcoming.
One day I was talking to a white friend about lynching and noticed a deep discomfort rise in him. He is a man who is normally great with race relations. Yet, as I told my story, he seemed to be feeling something else. Something I’d never even noticed.
In that moment I flashed back to every single time I’d talked about race with people and a growing sense of astonishment washed over me. Even the most defensive, hateful, people always had a bit of this on their face.
I asked him about it and he got very awkward and explained as I was looking at the man in the tree, he was looking at the white faces.
“They could be my relatives.”
He’s from Mississippi and knew there was a likelihood that people in his family could be smiling along, if not this photo at an event just like it. He looked a little sick thinking about it and was getting more upset. It wasn’t that he wasn’t focused on the hanged man; he just had a different focus, which also added weight. If he’d been another man, he might have shied away from these feelings.
It was then that I really got that there was different experiences between looking back at these moments of history. As much as it hit home for me, it was hitting home for him in a very different way.
Black vs White History Month
For black people, Black history month is a time to look at overcoming great struggle, to be proud of the accomplishments of our ancestors and to see how far we have come. For many white people, it’s a very in-your-face reminder of something you don’t have to see on a regular basis.
I’m sure it brings up a ton of feelings… and it’s easier to ask why we need it than it is to deal with these feelings. Even if you want to accept and deal with those feelings, who do you talk to about it? The systems in this country aren’t set up for you to have space to be uncomfortable.
Most other white people also don’t know how to handle it. Most black people, on the other hand, won’t have the patience to deal with the guilt. The shame. The knowledge that your loved ones or the people that raised your parents, could also have hurt people. Or, at least, didn’t stop it.
So, instead of accepting this guilt and shame, what’s most likely to happen is a growing resentment towards Black history month.
There is no white history month because that is what is always taught. There’s no white history month because we know the successes of your culture(s) and that’s all we see. There is no White history month because your discomfort with facing the past and the consequences of that don’t outweigh the need for children to know our history, our successes, and our culture.
So, what should we do?
If you have questioned Black history month, consider reading our upcoming article on white guilt and what to do about it. Your feelings are valid. Inaction is not.
The only way to make sure that this history cycle breaks, is to acknowledge it. Then, actively try to overcome it. Without that, history will always repeat itself.