Understanding Black History Month Through the Eyes of Allyship The Humanist TheHumanist.com

Black History Month is a time for us to honor, remember, and celebrate the contributions that Black people have made to the United States, and remind folks that Black history is American history. And while the American Humanist Association usually celebrates prominent Black humanists, freethinkers and civil rights icons throughout the month, we are also extremely clear that the enduring, abhorrent legacy of systemic anti-Blackness in this country tells us that living by an antiracist framework is the only way to achieve a truly equitable, humanistic society.

As humanists, social justice is intrinsically linked to our beliefs because through social justice, we are able to actionably fight for the equity of all people, show up to defend civil rights and self-determination, and demonstrate that positive change requires human intervention.

The AHA takes an intersectional view of social justice issues, recognizing that working to liberate all marginalized communities is the best way to lift the prospects of any one group. To put it plainly, none of us in this country are safe and free until all of us are safe and free. Humanism motivates us to act on a moral imperative to transform systems of oppression because they are incompatible with the aspirations of humanism to do the most good.

As the Communications Manager for the AHA, part of my role is to engage with folks on social media. Earlier this month, I put out a post to kick off Black History Month and it was immediately swarmed by a barrage of negative comments. To paraphrase some of them for context, they included comments such as: “Why isn’t there a white history month?” “Why are you segregating history? That goes against everything MLK stood for!” and even the occasional “Racism isn’t a problem, and you’re perpetuating it by talking about race.”

As somebody who has worked with social media in the past, I am never surprised to see the occasional troll comment, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little deflating. And the amount of comments we received about Black History Month stood out to me. As I was going through our profiles and moderating comments on February 1, a part of me wanted to take the time to respond to folks. I wanted to point them to resources on understanding oppression and structural racism, and use this as an opportunity to engage with folks and try to educate them. But by the time I started crafting a response, another degrading or racist comment would pop up and my attention would be diverted.

The idea of crafting a response didn’t leave my mind, so I wanted to write something for theHumanist.com that touched on the importance of Black History Month, why it matters more than ever, and how we can all work toward antiracist behavior in our daily lives. I will never be able to fully capture the nuance and complexity of racism in a short article online, but I’m writing this as a launch pad for other white folks who have an earnest interest in better understanding oppression, racism, and how they can continue doing the work toward becoming antiracist in their daily lives.

Understanding Oppression And Social Identity

To understand racism—and any -ism, really—it is critical to first understand the concepts of systemic oppression and social identities, and how those affect each of us. The National Museum of African American History & Culture has a great primer that explains these concepts if you’re unfamiliar.

The incredibly simplified version is this: We all have inherent, innate qualities and characteristics about ourselves that others use to categorize us as we go about our daily lives. That’s our social identity. Think about things such as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language we speak, ability, etc. They are the things that make us us, and some of those characteristics—such as race—are fundamental in how we are perceived by others in our daily lives.

Oppression exists when one or more of your personal characteristics causes you any type of personal, institutional, or systemic oppression as you navigate your daily life.

In many respects, I’ve won the genetic lottery in that I am part of several privileged groups in this country—I’m a white, able-bodied, cisgender male. As I go about my day, strangers who look at me assume many things about me (usually overwhelmingly positive) because of how I am presented to the world.

As a white, able-bodied guy, I can’t recall the last time I experienced anxiety or fear of being harmed by stepping into a store, a bank, a job interview, walking down the street; the way I present to the world is considered the default in almost all respects. My outward appearance doesn’t cause any subconscious or overt reactions in people. I blend in at first glance.

That is a privilege in our society. Even though I don’t personally experience any prejudice based on my outward appearance, that doesn’t negate that these prejudices exist for other people. If you were to ask a person of color in the United States how many times they’ve felt uncomfortable or had anxiety walking into a store, a bank, a job interview, or just walking down the street, I think you’d find the answer alarming.

When a person deals with any type of resistance or prejudice in their life because of some innate characteristic about themselves, that’s a form of oppression.

If you want to dive deeper into oppression, the National Equity Project has a great primer on systemic oppression, and I’d also recommend reading this guide from the American Sociological Association on race and racism in the United States that was released last year.

What Does Oppression Have To Do With Black History Month?

Black History Month’s origins began in the 1920s as a weeklong celebration in February, to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It began as a way to celebrate the achievements and advancements that Black people had made in the United States in a post-Civil War and post-slavery society.

Through the years, many educators and community leaders saw Black History Month as an opportunity to supplement “American” history with Black history. And, shamefully, in recent years, several states and local communities have begun to push back against the idea of Black History Month.

A few recent examples from the past six months include:

“Educators wrestle with new limits on teaching Black history” (Axios)
“A Florida school made parents sign permission slips to let their kids participate in Black History Month events, report says” (Business Insider)
“Black history is under attack across US from AP African American Studies to ‘Ruby Bridges’” (USA Today)

As illustrated in the articles above, there has been a nationwide effort to scale back the teaching of Black history, which is itself a form of institutional and structural racism. The intent behind such bans is to diminish the achievements of Black people and whitewash history, and part of the rationale behind such bans is to not make white people feel ‘guilty’ or ‘uncomfortable’ when talking about race or racism.

I would argue that Black History Month is important to celebrate because of these reasons. Black History Month allows us to center a conversation around Black achievements, struggles, triumphs, and strife. It should make us a little uncomfortable to reckon with the ideas of racism in this country, because the origins of this country are deeply rooted in slavery and racism. And recognizing the racist origins of this country should provide us all an opportunity to step back, take a look within ourselves, and have a sobering analysis of what structures and policies are still racist today, and what actions we can take to dismantle them. That level of introspection cannot be achieved if we put our heads in the sand and never talk about race. If we erase Black history and don’t talk about it, that’s exacerbating oppression.

We must simultaneously celebrate the achievements of Black Americans while recognizing those achievements were made despite an incredibly inhumane and racist landscape—the two are not mutually exclusive.

What Can I Do To Work Toward Being Antiracist

To work toward antiracist behavior, we can all start by taking small steps. The first thing we can do is have an honest conversation with ourselves. And white people, this most likely will make you uncomfortable (and that’s good). But we need to have a period of thorough and honest introspection where we ask ourselves a few things:

How am I likely perceived by others? (Doing an exercise like this one is helpful in mapping out and thinking about our personal social identities)
Do I carry implicit biases toward people of color?
What can I do to recognize racist behavior in the moment and change it?
How can I act when I encounter racism happening to others in my daily life? How can I intervene in meaningful ways?

After you’ve had that uncomfortable conversation with yourself, try talking to a friend or loved one about what you learned and felt. Can you help spur some form of self-reflection in somebody else?

This might come as a surprise to some, but as white people, we need to talk to other white people about racism. It is not the responsibility of people of color or folks from other marginalized groups to explain what their oppression is like, and we can’t expect them to spend endless emotional labor educating us. Having conversations with folks can be transformative, and if you have somebody in your life who doesn’t mind having an honest discussion with you, that’s fantastic—have that discussion. But the core of the work toward understanding racism and working toward antiracist behavior begins with you. And to be clear: it is work, and I want to reiterate, it will likely make you uncomfortable.

Supporting Black history should not be limited to activities during February, either. It is important for us to acknowledge and participate in various activities during Black History Month, but we need to incorporate more Black history throughout the year, as well.

Another thing you can do is read more about how to dismantle racism in its tracks and make efforts to be antiracist. This article from the National Museum of African American History & Culture is a great primer, and if you’d like something more fleshed out to read, I’d recommend this book, How to Be an Antiracist from Ibram X. Kendi. Other books on my reading list include Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis.

As I said above, a short article will never be able to fully unpack what it takes to work toward understanding racism and antiracist behavior, but I hope some of what I’ve written will be a good start. There are countless resources available online for folks who want to learn more, and I hope what I’ve written will give folks somewhere to start.

Happy Black History Month!

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Why Black History Month is essential to social justice.
The post Understanding Black History Month Through the Eyes of Allyship appeared first on TheHumanist.com.