We’ve come a long way from Negro History Week to Black History Month and yet too often the celebrations that are planned in predominantly white spaces are nothing short of lackluster, rarely bringing a modern-day context to the celebration or acknowledgement that Black history is a continually evolving living history in which we all play a role.
Part of the problem is that for non-Black people, too often there is a sense of being a passive celebrator. Yet, in this current climate there is immense opportunity. We can make real racial change by moving from passive observation to active engagement if we move past our own internal roadblocks and fears of messing up.
Black history is more than just the named activists, agitators and changemakers—it encompasses the full scope of Black humanity, and our celebration of Black history needs to be inclusive of the full range of Black humanity. Celebrate not just the overcoming of adversity, but celebrate our joys, our passion, and our magic. Understand why we celebrate this history and the importance of naming race—and, yes, racism—in our communities. Let the celebration of Black history be a journey and not a destination.
Below are six ideas to help you up your white game.
1. Attend two or more Black History Month events
Google “Black History Month” and the name of your town or region. Look for events that dig deeper than “observing” or “celebrating” Black history. When possible, look for events led by Black community members. Deepen your experience by noticing what you do and don’t know about the white policies and practices that shaped the Black history you are learning. Notice also the internal reactions and feelings that arise in you before, during, and after the event. Following up on thoughts such as “Why didn’t I know this?” “Why was I uncomfortable when he said that?” “I want to learn more about X, Y, Z” will make your outings more than checkmark. Good questions lead to both answers and more questions, propelling you along a robust racial awareness journey.
2. Share what you’re doing and learning
One of the cornerstones of white culture is not talking about race. Though often framed as politeness, the result is ongoing white ignorance with a soul-crushing demand on communities of color to go along with the silence. The more white people don’t know, the scarier it can be to start talking. Breaking this cycle is one of the most important things white people can do, and Black History Month gives you an excuse to do so. Create a “new normal” in your circles that race is something you want and need to think and talk about in order to better understand it. At a bare minimum, choose two close white friends or family to update regularly about what you’re doing and learning. Notice how they react. Are they listening with curiosity? Or are they judging and distancing from you? If they’re curious, can you move them to join you at a future event? If they’re judging and distancing, a great strategy is to ask them questions to explore what’s behind it. Avoid returning the judgement and distance unless their behavior leads you to conclude this is no longer a healthy friendship.
3. Gather a group of people to attend an event and a follow-up gathering
Learning and acting in community is the most powerful way to learn and act. Surround yourself with other curious and/or committed white folks and dig deeply as a group. The number-one rule when talking about race is to bring the most humble version of yourself. Be prepared to explore what you don’t know even more than sharing what you do know. In group conversation, strive to have everyone’s voice heard. A possible opening might be to go around the group one by one to offer a one- to two-minute summary of what’s on everyone’s mind before launching into a full group conversation. Another idea is to explore these two questions: 1) If talking openly about race is new to you, how does it feel to you now to be talking about it? 2) What are the consequences of not talking about race, racism, and the history of racial oppression?
4. If no Black history events are in your community, organize one
For this year, you could host something for a small group in your home. As you think to the future, connect with your larger community via your local library, college, or another organization where resources and community connections already exist. Are they willing to host something? How can you be a part of it? What other organizations and people in town can be called into the process? In white spaces, learning and talking about racial history and current events lays the foundation for taking action. Search online to see what other towns and cities are doing to get a sense of what’s possible. No sense in reinventing the wheel. A simple event could be to watch a film and discuss it. Three quick online film suggestions are Black Wall Street, I Am Not Your Negro, and Race: The Power of an Illusion.
5. Grow your awareness about who’s doing what in the racial justice community
If you have some familiarity, increase it. If you have no idea, start researching. Do a Google search on “town antiracism” or “town racial justice.” If nothing exists in your area, what’s the nearest organization you can find? Do they have events? Are they looking for volunteers? Follow national organizations such as Showing Up For Racial Justice and Race Forward. Do they have a mailing list, a Facebook page, or other ways for you to connect, learn, and stay engaged? What can you learn from these organizations about how racial injustice manifests in your community and nationally? Once you get a lay of the land, work to discover your own area of interest or skill in the national movement. What draws your attention in particular? What skills do you have to offer? Be both persistent and patient as you keep in mind that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
6. Commit to learning about Black history 12 months of the year
The idea of Black History Month is both an opportunity and a symptom. U.S. history taught as white European history sprinkled with bits of isolated Black and brown history is core to ongoing racial domination and harm. It is in itself an inequity.
Our multiple racial and ethnic histories are inextricably entwined, so shouldn’t the teaching of them also be?
We look forward to the day when the need for a Black History Month melts away, and fully integrated, truthful stories are told. Until then, however, let’s use the month to educate and inspire. In the words of Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
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