Black History Month, originally known as “Negro History Week,” was created by the historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. One of the first African Americans to receive a degree from Harvard University, Dr. Woodson noted that most history books largely failed to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to society.
Woodson dedicated much of his life to writing the history of African Americans, including his influential book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” Dr. Woodson believed that if the black population had no history, it also had no identity. He believed teaching Black History in schools was essential for the good of society as a whole.
Almost one hundred years later, we still reserve February as a month to celebrate and learn about black history. But beyond sharing a high five with your black friend, what can you as a white person do to meaningfully recognize Black History Month and be a good ally?
1. Recognize Your Privilege
First and foremost, this month and every month, you must acknowledge the privilege you carry as a white person. You may endure certain forms of oppression as a woman, as someone with a mental illness or as someone who does not fit into our heteronormative society. But these discriminations do not negate your privilege as a white person.
White folks carry around an innate, unassailable privilege, allowing us to go through life without barriers based on race. American Congress is 80% white. At top-tier universities, black undergraduate populations hover at 6 percent. Only 5 black executives, comprising 1%, currently hold a CEO position of a “Fortune 500” company. It’s not called the ‘ebony tower.’
Yes, we still have problems and we can be wronged, but these issues are individual rather than societal. We are not turned down for housing because of our skin colour. We are not assumed to be more violent because of our skin colour, or more likely to be incarcerated because of our skin colour.
White people are given the benefit of the doubt. When we fail, we fail because of our individual shortcomings. When a black person fails, they fail because of the ‘shortcomings of their race.’ White people can wear whatever hate they like. For black people, one size fits all.
White people: accept our privilege.
It can be difficult for an individual to accept his or her own privilege, especially when that person is unaware of the history, power dynamics, and institutional mechanisms that factor to in racism in North America today.
So educate yourself this Black History Month. Go to your library and pick up a book on the
underground railroad. Read a blog post by Black Girl Dangerous. Have a discussion with your friends. Seek out professors who teach relevant topics.
Go read Toni Morrisson, Ta Nehisi Coates, bell hooks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Read their fictional and non-fictional accounts of the reality in which they live. As a white person, we can never truly understand the discrimination black people face, but by
educating ourselves we can learn which obstacles they must endure, the institutions that create these obstacles, and ways to dismantle the white supremacist paradigm.
3. Celebrate the Accomplishments of Black People
This is a month for us to explore, learn, and appreciate the contributions that black people have made to North America and beyond.
We have a month where we can learn about the black individuals who invented the stoplight or created peanut butter. We can learn about Toni Morrison, the first African American writer to win the Nobel Award for Literature. We can deepen our knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement and its key players. We can explore amazing black artists like Kara Walker, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Augusta Savage.
As we explore black history, we can learn exactly what black people have contributed to society. We can acknowledge that black people are just as brilliant, motivated, artistic, and bright as any other race.
February is reserved for appreciating black history because every other month is dedicated to appreciating white history. Just look at your textbooks.
4. Support Black Non-Profits
During Black History Month, make an effort to support black non-profit organizations in North America (or abroad) that are working to uplift their communities and dismantle white supremacy.
Social justice activists work tirelessly to fight for the equal treatment of black people. From tackling police violence to helping black girls break into the tech industry, various non-profits work to increase the well being of the black community and provide opportunities for its members.
This month, consider donating your time or money to one of the following nonprofits so they can continue their vital work: BLM, NAACP, Campaign Zero, Black Girls Code, Trans Women of Color Collective or SisterLove.
5. Speak Up
If you want to be an ally during Black History Month (and hopefully afterwards as well), you need to put your theory and your knowledge into practice.
It is one thing to educate yourself on the issues facing black people, but if you idly stand by as a person of colour is confronted with racism your new found knowledge is useless. Your silence is acquiescence, and your acquiescence is implicit compliance within an oppressive paradigm. If you are not a part of the solution then you are a part of the problem.
So instead, this February be the voice that steps in to explain to your white friends how black people experience racism. Respond to prejudicial comments or ‘jokes’ that you hear in a classroom or at a family gathering. Use your privilege to initiate a dialogue.
Exploring black history tears down the walls that have been divided black and white people in North America for decades. Learning and understanding black history will help us to better understand each other and dismantle the walls that perpetuate othering.
Black History Month is not just an excuse for black people to pat themselves on the back (though they do deserve that). It is for all North Americans to recognize and appreciate black history.