A Road Map Beyond Black History Month

Black History Month (which kicked off on Feb. 1) became a national annual observance in 1926. The goal of the month is to honor and celebrate the achievements of African-Americans.

If Dr. Carter Woodson, the Father of Black History, were alive today, he would be proud of the tenacity of the African American community. It speaks volumes about our survival here on this American soil, after centuries of slavery, decades of lynching and years of racial profiling.

However, for decades now, Black History Month has not broached the topic of the socio-political construction of white privilege.

There’s a reason why.

During Black History Month in 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder received scathing criticism for his speech on race. His critics said the tone and tenor of the speech was confrontational and accusatory. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” Holder said, “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”  

Many communities of color contest that white people— Christian or non-Christian, straight or LGBTQ—show no real invested interest in engaging in this country’s needed dialogue on race. While many whites have confessed their aversion to such a dialogue, stating that while a cultural defense of "white guilt" plays a role in their reticence, so too does their cultural fear of "black rage" for inadvertently saying the wrong thing.

It’s a polemic that has been avoided because of the politics of political correctness as well as how any discussion on race, no matter who's stirring the conversation—a rabid racist, the president or Attorney General Eric Holder—invariably inflame our emotions more than inform our faculties. Ironically, or tragically, the aversion to a conversation about race not only continues to harm people of color, but it also harms whites as well.

In her recent book “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” Cambridge author Debby Irving’s wrote the following:

“I can think of no bigger misstep in American history than the invention and perpetuation of the idea of white superiority. It allows white children to believe they are exceptional and entitled while allowing children of color to believe they are inferior and less deserving….Unless adults understand racism, they will, as I did, unknowingly teach it to their children.”

On one hand we have the dominate culture’s continued indelicate dance of white privilege and single-issue platforms which thwart coalition building with communities of color. On the other we have some people of color dismissing  the notion that white marginalized and struggling groups (white women, LGBTQ, the poor) may have something to offer communities of color in terms of advice and shared (not same) experiences. Both hands are right. And both hands are wrong.

The only way forward is to keep talking about race.

But how do we make our way through the current tangle of misguided good intentions and valid suspicions?

My answer: past harms need to be redressed.

For example, the killing of unarmed black males has awakened the movement.  “Black Lives Matter” has taken to the streets. Sadly, civil rights struggles in this country—black, women, and gay—have primarily been understood and demonstrated as tribal and unconnected rather than intersectional and interdependent of each other. But that is a false assumption. 

When we look at how we moved forward on the issue of same-sex marriage, LGBTQ activists remember that an African-American woman named Mildred Loving set the precedent for marriage equality. Loving gained notoriety when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in her favor that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional.

Her crime was this country’s once racial and gender obsession—interracial marriage.

Married to a white man, Loving and her husband were indicted by a Virginia grand jury in October 1958 for violating the state’s ‘Racial Integrity Act of 1924.’

For many years I taught a college-level course titled "Power and Privilege," exploring how many of our stereotypes about people whom we perceive as being different invades our lives without much conscious deliberation on our part. Issues of race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, age and ability, among others, were considered, and how such distinctions often lead to an inequitable distribution of political power, social well-being, and the resources available to individual members of society.

On the syllabus I laid out the rules regarding classroom interaction:

1. We will address our colleagues in our classroom by name.

2. We will listen to one another—patiently, carefully—assuming that each one of us is always doing the best that s/he can.  We will speak thoughtfully. We will speak in the first person.

3. Although our disagreements may be vigorous, they will not be conducted in a win-lose manner. We will take care that all participants are given the opportunity to engage in the conversation.

4. We will own our assumptions, our conclusions, and their implications. We will be open to another's intellectual growth and change.

5. We cannot be blamed for misinformation we have been taught and have absorbed from our U.S. society and culture, but we will be held responsible for repeating misinformation after we have learned otherwise.

6. We each have an obligation to actively combat stereotypes so that we can begin to eradicate the biases which prevent us from envisioning the wellbeing of us all.

As we celebrate Black History Month, 2015, in what is clearly not the post-racial era many had hoped for, I wish as a nation we begin an honest talk about race.

Photo via flickr user Penn State Special Collections

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