Dear White People: Why Black History Matters

Black History Month (BHM) is an annual celebration of the history, heritage and culture of Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, a history that has been largely omitted from the world’s history teachings by our white supremacist society.

Here’s what you, a white person, can do to honour this important history and why it matters in the fight against racism.

White history celebrates the efforts of white people while totally disregarding the roles played by people of colour at the time.

Black history is a history that concerns, and belongs to, all of us. It’s a history that suffers a white-washed retelling, if any at all. It’s a history that has been largely replaced with Western ideology that not only systematically deprives People of Colour (PoC) of their history and identity, but continues to have a profound effect on white-Black interaction today.

Image credit: @rachel.cargle

For example, the depiction of the Founding Fathers as “saints who selflessly risked their lives for the democracy the United States today enjoys” is a prime example of white history. It’s one that celebrates the efforts of white people while totally disregarding the roles played by PoC at the time. The question is not only which PoC are left out of these stories, but why?

If the Founding Fathers were such noble heroes, then why were PoC and women not allowed to attend the Continental Congresses? Because they believed that matters of democracy were reserved for “real men” only.

The opinions of women, Native people, African-Americans, and people of colour in general were irrelevant. In fact, majority of the Founding Fathers expressed misogynistic views, owned slaves, and murdered Native Americans.

We need to be fiercely anti-racist, or remain complicit through our silence, our inactivity.

When Black history comes into play, the so-called “heroes” of a one-sided history are too often revealed as slave-owning, women-hating, racist criminals. And that doesn’t sit well with white historians, nor white supremacists, nor your average white person. You see, in order for the structures of white supremacy to be upheld, white people need to believe that the work of their ancestors was respectable, righteous, and heroic.

I know it’s hard to digest that white history is an intricate tapestry woven from lies, atrocious crimes against PoC, and a deep superiority complex. But if we are to truly begin dismantling the structures of white supremacy, it is integral that, firstly, we are aware of our white-washed history and, secondly, that we are actively assessing our own part in white supremacy.

What do you mean “my part in it all” – I’m not a racist.

In a world where African-American men are twice as likely to be unarmed when killed by police officers than whites, a world where Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die during child-birth than white women, and a world where Black Britons are 3 times more likely to be arrested than whites, simply being a non-racist is not enough.

Image credit: @rachel.cargle

We need to be fiercely anti-racist, or remain complicit through our silence, our inactivity. We need to understand that racism is a system, not just a slur, created by Western society over hundreds of years. We need to understand that whether or not we are non-racist, as white folx we directly benefit from an oppressive system.

Please understand that I’m not attacking you, or belittling your non-racism. Understanding that each and every white person, even you, plays a part in white supremacy can be a bitter pill to swallow. The good news is, the part you play doesn’t have to be of the oppressor anymore. If you’re feeling attacked or hurt by my saying that every white person plays a part in white supremacy, it may be a good time to briefly unpack what white fragility is.

“White fragility is the inability of white people to tolerate racial stress, [which leads to] white people “weaponising [their] hurt feelings” and being indignant and defensive when confronted with racial inequality and injustice. This creates a climate where the suggestion or accusation of racism causes more outrage among white people than the racism itself.”

Robin DiAngelo for The Guardian

I’m not here to make you feel guilty. I’m not here to tell you why anti-racist activists are better than you. I’m not here to make you feel as if I am better than you. I’m not because I have been an unintentionally shit white person for most of my life. Sheltered by my own privilege, I simply didn’t know any better. But I do now, and that’s why I’m here writing to you.

I’m here to help you unlearn things you probably didn’t even know were wrong. I’m here to help you learn things that will open your eyes to the power you have, as a white person, to make this world a more liveable place for PoC – something I consider to be a bare-minimum responsibility of someone who holds white privilege.

If you are dedicated to fighting for equality and ending the injustices that people of colour are continually subjected to, you need to know that it is going to take a lot of introspective work. Let’s start with the White Fragility Self-Test courtesy of @allyhenny and @_joshrivers:

You should know that if you are truly dedicated to becoming aware and doing this work, that you might feel guilty, defensive, pained, and uncomfortable at times. Keep going. It means your consciousness is expanding and you are becoming aware enough to do the work that needs to be done to better our world for PoC.

Let’s begin with learning how BHM came into existence, then move onto how we can honour black history in our daily lives.

The history of BHM

Today hailed as “the father of Black history”, Virginian-born historian, author, and journalist Carter Godwin Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which launched Negro History Week back in February of 1926.

Carter was the son of former slaves, Anne Eliza Riddle and James Henry Woodson and believed the teaching of black history is pivotal to society’s understanding of race. He said, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” And that’s the tea.

After more than forty years of Negro History Week growing in popularity, the inaugural celebration of BHM was held in the US in 1970. Seventeen years later, the UK would see it’s first BHM organised by Ghanaian-born Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, and in 1995 BHM became an officially-recognised event in Canada.

Today, the UK, Netherlands, and Wales celebrate BHM in October, while the US and Canada celebrate BHM in February.

Image credit: @r29unbothered

How to honour BHM

So, how do we honour the Black history forgone of our textbooks as decided by our own ancestors? We fill out brains with knowledge of all the incredible black people that have contributed to the history of the world as we know it today.

But more importantly still, we need to interrogate our own prejudices, views, and thoughts surrounding PoC. This is work that needs to be done by white people everyday, and not just during BHM.

It’s easy to think that racism is somewhere out there, far away from oneself. It is easy to assume racism is perpetuated by an anomaly few bad apples; a small number of extremists that write up Neo-Nazi manifestos before they shoot up places of worship, schools, and malls. It is easy to assume that white police officers killing unarmed black people are the “bad apples” of the law enforcement tree. In truth, this is a misdiagnosis of our global racial crisis.

Introspection is the first and most important step in dismantling the structures that uphold white supremacy.

The truth is: there are no bad apples, only one infected tree. The real issue is a widespread individualisation of the problem by white people. The bad apple theory works for these people, because they can remain unconscious of their complicity in institutionalised racism. It’s easy to point fingers. It is easy to become apathetic when you assume that racism is perpetuated by a select few individuals, as opposed to white people as a collective (whether non-racist or not).

I am a twenty-six-year-old white woman, one that has grown up in Cape Town, South Africa – a country with a complex and brutally racist history. My mother was born in Edinburgh, her parents are both Scottish. My father was born in South Africa, his parents are both South African. Both my parents lived in South Africa under apartheid law. Basically, I’m white as white can get.

Many white people I’ve encountered – friends, family, colleagues, strangers – are inherently racist. They’re either vocally racist or quietly racist, but still fucking racist nonetheless. I’m telling you this, because if you’re to honour black history and dismantle the structures that uphold white supremacy, it is best to start your work closer to home than what you might have assumed. Introspection is the first and most important step.

Image credit: @thisisaliceskinner

The truth is: nothing is going to change if we, white people, don’t all take responsibility for a system we all benefit from. The finger needs to be turned to the mirror to truly begin dismantling the structures that uphold white supremacy.

I’ve considered myself a non-racist for my entire life. I’ve never felt a negative feeling toward a POC. Never. I’ve always had friends of colour, listened almost exclusively to music made by PoC, admired their style, their family values, their rhythm, their hair, and their variety of colourful and meaningful cultures. But that never made me an anti-racist.

I did all of that while allowing space for some family members, friends, and strangers to make racist commentary. I never spoke up against them. Yes, it made me uncomfortable but I never said anything because I thought “they’re stuck in their ways, there’s no point.” I also stood up in a hall full of university students to argue against a student of colour that said I was still a part of the oppressor camp just because I was white – whether or not I was a non-racist.

I invite you to do the anti-racism work that is integral to the dismantling of institutionalised racism.

I stood up against him and argued vehemently that he was wrong. That I came from a relatively poor family and I was not of privilege, that I loved and supported people of colour wherever I could. I used #AllLivesMatter in the face of #BlackLivesMatter because I was unconsciously fragile and guilty. I was a self-perceived non-racist that was, in reality, racist through my silence, my ignorance, my aloof complicity.

I was being trash. I know that now and I’m disgusted in myself for how unaware I was, but there can be no change without admission. Now that I am awake to my privilege and my past complicity, I can no longer go through life the way I did before. I can no longer sit in silence, enjoying a privilege that is afforded off of the backs of people I claim to respect and admire so greatly. I cannot and you should not either.

I invite you to interrogate how you feel about people of colour in contrast to how you actually show up for them. I invite you to discover what it truly means to be an ally, to unlearn your subconscious white-supremacist conditioning, to question your unconscious bias, fear, or judgement toward people of colour.

I invite you to do the anti-racism work that is integral to the dismantling of institutionalised racism. Consume media created by people of colour that work in anti-racism. Pay them for their knowledge and their expertise. Do your research, learn as much as you can.

Image credit: @3tokenbrowngirls

Speak up within your family, friend, and work circles; do not allow space for racism through your silence. Teach your people what you have learned about anti-racism work from people of colour. Exercise your privilege by centring and amplifying voices of people of colour.

Don’t do anti-racism work to make yourself feel better, or so that you can brag to others. Don’t tokenise People of Colour; show up for them when no one is watching and don’t seek appreciation or approval for you efforts. Remember that this is work you’re doing in lieu of what our ancestors have done to people of colour since the dawn of colonisation. It’s the bare minimum you can do.

Please know that this work is an important responsibility and should not be strengthening your white saviour complex. Remember to listen to People of Colour. They are the ones suffering oppression, therefore they are the ones you should be listening to when you’re looking to understand how best to show up for them.

Do NOT expect emotional labour from people of colour. Don’t go sliding into their DMs asking how this and that makes them feel, or what their opinion is on XYZ racial issues. They are already shouldering the burden of being of colour in a white world. Do the work yourself, pay for free resources made available to you by people of colour doing anti-racism work.

“White saviour complex” refers to a white person who acts to help non-white people, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving. 

Wikipedia

Honour People of Colour, honour Black history, and honour your existence as an anti-racist. It’s either that, or you can continue to be complicit in a system that is destroying the lives of PoC across the globe on the daily. It’s that simple.

Anti-racism resources

So, where do we begin? I’ve compiled a list of resources for you to get started with below. Please feel free to share other resources you have found meaningful in the sphere of anti-racism work and I’ll add them to the list.

Image credit: @laylafsaad

Layla F. Saad is a a widely-read writer, a globally-sought speaker, and a popular podcast host that has been a huge catalyst for my interest in anti-racism work. I strongly recommend her Me and White Supremacy book, now available for pre-order here. You should also listen to her podcast, Good Ancestor Podcast, and follow her on Instagram.

Image credit: @sarahbahbah via @rachel.cargle

Rachel Cargle is a public academic, writer, and lecturer that has been a huge inspiration for me and continues to shine a light on a lot of race-related issues, including white feminism. Read her Harper’s BAZAAR column and viral article When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels. Follow her on Instagram and check out her variety of informative resources here. I strongly suggest doing her Free #DoTheWork 30-Day Course.

Rachel Ricketts a racial justice activist, lawyer, healer, speaker, and writer that educates white people on their role in perpetuating white supremacy. She has a fantastic list of resources for us to get on with here and follow her on Instagram here.

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