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Photo by Marc Nozell
We have just finished the Blackest History Month ever, by multiple accounts. And thankfully, more folks of all colors are starting to wake up, developing a critical consciousness about the persistence of oppression in American society.
Still, there are still people out there who ask, “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” or “What about Men’s History Month?”
I spent a chunk of last Sunday sitting in a lefty congregation here in our nation’s capital. Outside, a banner proudly proclaimed that Black Lives Matter, and we had just heard a rousing sermon on appreciating the dignity of all work. Then a white woman explained how for Black History Month, the Sunday school kids had been learning about an opera singer who aspired to be famous. “But,” she said, her voice speeding up and climbing in pitch, “she was black, so she had a lot of obstacles to overcome.”
Does she really think about blackness as an “obstacle” to overcome? I thought. Why isn’t she talking about exactly who created those obstacles?
I set this thought aside. But then wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump, and his recent flirtation with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists revived a conversation my friends and I have been having for years: These people who claim to want to “take our country back,” we wonder—take it back from whom? What does it mean to make America “great again”? And for whom?
It’s not only Tea Partiers and Trump supporters, but bonafide progressives and members of the media who seem to avoid focusing on who created all the “obstacles to overcome.” It occurs to me that maybe there should be a White History Month after all.
What if, even for just a month, educators, public figures, and everyone else stopped erasing whiteness, and started talking explicitly about who, exactly, was responsible for the discrimination that the heroes of All-The-Other-People’s-History Months faced?
In too many real-world history classrooms and textbooks, our country omits white actors and focuses instead on oppressed peoples’ suffering. They let the passive voice cloak privilege and aggression like pointed hoods, hiding who is responsible for the oppression we’re still working to dismantle.
This is dangerous. When teachers don’t talk about who did what in our history, they give students the false impression that bad things just happen to people because of how those people were born, not because of how other people decide to treat them.
That’s how generations of students come to live their lives believing that time itself must be responsible for oppression, as though injustice has an expiration date that has fortunately passed. And if clocks and calendars are responsible for oppression instead of people, then all we need to do to live in a just world is let time elapse.
No one needs to be concerned about how a candidate’s hatred for other people could translate into actual danger for our country. People can laugh at his antics, and cast votes out of irony or amusement or whatever, because nothing they do can make things worse.
Of course, that means nothing they do can make things better, either.
Which means it’s ok to do absolutely nothing. And many Americans do exactly that, at least where our government is concerned.
So when a candidate like Trump comes along (or most of the Tea Partified GOP field for that matter), white folks can just laugh it off, or express their excitement at his candidacy. They can vote for him because it’s funny, or because they find it “refreshing” that he “speaks his mind.” Never mind the fact that what’s on his mind is an ever-shifting assortment of hateful lies. If injustice has already expired, all the bad stuff tucked safely away in the past, then he’s just an entertaining, “politically incorrect” guy trying to “Make America Great Again.”
But what if all those white voters knew their history? What if they truly understood that it was people just like them on the other side of Harriet’s chains, and Rosa’s cuffs, and Martin’s bullet, and thus that it is also people like them reinforcing deadly injustices today?
I believe that most white people are decent, and that if they knew their history, they’d be too horrified by Trump to endorse him. They’d recoil at anything in themselves that is “refreshed’ by the “politically incorrect” (read: thoroughly hateful and inaccurate) invective he feels free to speak aloud. They’d recognize that, regardless of time period, leaders who hate sizable portions of the society they lead are capable of terrible things, from internment to slavery to genocide. They’d recognize Trump’s increasingly violent supporters as the kind of people who would snarl, taunt, and throw rocks at black schoolchildren trying to get a quality education.
Good people who possess a true understanding of history—an understanding that it is people's actions, not time or differences in identity, that create the conditions of our lives—wouldn’t be so easily deceived by dangerous would-be leaders. (The same leaders who have been working so hard to edit the people's history out of school curriculum.)
Educators, and everyone else connected to our schools, have roles to play in confronting and undoing the white denial that drives many white people not only to ignore their forebears’ responsibility for injustice, but allows them to perpetuate that injustice in our own time. Perhaps if we taught white history as such, people might recognize that it's not just jokes and bluster when people with institutional power scapegoat people without it.
At least it would be an interesting month.
Sabrina Stevens, is Midatlantic Regional Progressive Education Fellow, and a mother, writer, education advocate, and former teacher based in Washington, DC. She is a founding member of EduColor, a collective that works to elevate the voices of people of color in the education policy dialogue.