From the Middle of Black History Month

Thanks to for the link.

Have you wondered as I have why February was chosen as the month to honor African-Americans?

Actually, I wonder, when choice is involved, why anything is celebrated in winter. Celebrations, to me, are best exercised outdoors, in the sun, with balmy breezes blowing.  But, I was not consulted, so February it is.

Officially established in 1976 (under President Gerald Ford), the month-long commemoration had been going on for some years before.

Starting as a single week in 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson chose the second full week of February because it would include the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (Feb 12) and Frederick Douglas (Feb 14).  He called it Negro History Week.

Thanks to Berea College in Kentucky, Woodson’s undergrad alma mater, for the photo. He later received his PhD in history from Harvard University.

Soon enough, the week-long celebration expanded into the other weeks: Feb 3, the date of the 15th Amendment, which gave “Negroes” the right to vote; and Feb 23, W.E.B. DuBois’ birthday.  President Ford just codified it, fifty years later.

How best to celebrate African Americans, people of color, Blacks who have contributed to our country in so many ways — music, literature, science, politics, sports, education, academia, law enforcement . . . the list goes on?

This varies from year to year, somewhat depending upon the theme chosen for that year.  In 2017, it was “The Crisis in Education.” In 2018, it was “African-Americans In Times of War.” And this year, it is “Black Migrations: the movement of African Americans to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities.”

With thanks to for the image.

But this month, when photos of blackface — no matter how old — are all too common, I ask instead, how best to honor these Americans of color?

One way is to expand a bit on the history of blackface — how it was used as a means of ridicule and humiliation, a vehicle to embolden the white man in his bid to feel superior (Which gets me thinking, we don’t hear any stories of women in blackface?).

But that’s all I have to say on its history. It was mean spirited then; it’s mean spirited today.

I am more interested in being clear on what I can do to counter what feels like an ever deepening divide between the parallel universes of White and Black America.  I have long believed that racism is one of our core problems in this country; now, I’m ready to DO something. And, today, I’ll use my WordPress podium for that purpose today. I can educate; I can challenge; I can speak out.

What can I, as a white person, do? Where do I start?

I was pondering this question a few days ago, collecting Op-Ed pieces, Brookings studies, and NY Times‘ articles, when I realized that Terri Lyons’ Life At the Intersection blog post of January 21 gave as complete an answer as I needed for now. Here’s what she asked:

What can white people do to support racial justice?

… besides being willing to talk about it, that is.  (Please note the subtle reminder to my three-part series, Talking About Race, accessed here).

Terri’s post lists specific steps in how we can use our privilege to help others. Here are her suggestions, excerpted with minor edits for length, with her permission.

What can white people do to support racial justice?

It seems apparent that we can make an impact, as long as we don’t tread on the work being done by people who have long been fighting for racial equality. And as long as our voices don’t drown out the more critical voices of those impacted directly.

Understand privilege

Where do we start to make racial equality a reality? One of my most significant learnings has been understanding where I hold privilege.

Privilege is a complicated concept. Some white people I know don’t like to talk about it. But the reality is that some people get lucky and some don’t, depending on whether they are born into a dominant group. Being white means we have unearned benefits.

I like this definition of privilege:

“Privilege is a system that gives unearned advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups, and it operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels. … –Guide to Activism at Miami University

I have privilege related to being white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, and English-speaking. As I am aware of my privilege, I can also honor the areas in which I don’t hold privilege.

“White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.” -National Seed Project

I must recognize the areas where I hold privilege, where I don’t pay attention to issues that do not affect me. The Daring Discussions Handbook reminds us,

“Holding privilege is what allows us to avoid and ignore issues that do not directly affect us, and understanding your own privilege is an important part of giving others space to share difficult and vulnerable truths about their experience.”

Evaluate your privilege

Be open to broadening your worldview. The first step is to understand your background. My book, What’s On Your Sign?, contains a chapter on inventorying your activism knowledge, particularly in the area of cultural competence. The companion What’s On Your Sign? Workbook contains inventories and exercises to help you set goals for being culturally competent.

Take the BuzzFeed quiz, “How Privileged are you?” …  to test your privilege:  BuzzFeed Quiz: How Privileged Are You?

Read  Lori Lakin Hutcherson as she describes what happened when she was asked by a white friend to explain white privilege and she didn’t hold back.

Being aware is a great first step.

But it is complicated. If you realize that your privilege has helped you get an advanced degree where others who are equally talented did not get that opportunity, what do you do with that?

I found this article by Eboo Patel, How Should We Check our Privilege (and the comments) enlightening. Patel muses over the idea of whether we should give away our privilege and admits that he is not willing to do so. …

When you are ready, identify areas where you can grow in the process of dismantling privilege. A great resource is the Anti-Defamation League Personal Self-Assessment of Anti-Bias Behavior.

Are you ready to support racial justice?

If you are a white person ready to support racial justice, visit Showing Up For Racial Justice to get started. SURJ has resources, such as this White Supremacy Culture guide.


Thank you, Terri. You’ve helped spread the word on how we can honor Americans of color, at any time of the year — by taking a look at and evaluating our own privilege and by linking to further resources for learning how we can support racial justice in our time.

How about you? Has any of this changed your way of thinking about privilege? 

NEXT WEDNESDAY: We’ll return to And So It Goes‘ roots as you meet Lindsay de Feliz, a Brit now living in the Dominican Republic. Do return; bring your friends.

20 Responses

  1. susan scott
    | Reply

    Thanks for your thought provoking post Janet. In my view there is no doubt that by virtue of having a white skin gives us unearned privileges. It sounds like a generalisation which perhaps it is but history around the world gives weight to it.

    We’ve used a person of colour as a scapegoat to deny our own white darkness – how easy it is to use ‘an other’ to escape from acknowledging our own darkness.

    I’m reminded of Mr. Nelson Mandela’s words (South Africa’s first democratically elected president), ‘Never, and never again, shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another’.

    So, a short response to your post. Thank you again.
    susan scott recently posted…ColoursMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh Susan, you hit it on the head, “how easy it is to use ‘an other’ to escape from acknowledging our own darkness.” Would that your current leaders and mine recalled the words of the gifted Nelson Mandela — and took them to heart. Still, I stay committed to keeping the focus on what I can do, and not what THEY must do. Thanks for starting us off.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

  2. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    I think that understanding privilege is one of the biggest challenges any white person faces. I see it in my life now that I’m aware of it, but if you want to hide from reality it’s easy to do that. Good reminder here.

    [I have been unable to comment on your blog lately. I don’t know why, but if this comment goes through you may disregard my previous sentence.]
    Ally Bean recently posted…In Which I Inadvertently Distress My Primary Care DoctorMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      There has been an odd lag time, the past few weeks, Ally. I notice it only when trying to reply on my phone. I don’t do that anymore. But suffice it to say, your Comment is alive and well and much appreciated.

      Thanks for your very welcome comment. Owning our own unique anything takes courage. I was very grateful for the links Terri provided to measure my own sense of privilege. And, how being able to NOT address it is one of privilege’s hallmarks. Thank you. Figuring out how to talk about these topics most of us are not used to has been a challenge for me here.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

  3. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Thank you for this educational post. I never fail to learn when I visit your blog.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Capsule WardrobeMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Nice to have you, Laurie. I’m watching the large snowflakes dance down, outside my window. You probably have a gorgeous bloom of some sort, flipping its finger at the fact that it’s February.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

  4. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Thanks, Janet. I like the simple definition of “unearned benefits, advantages, etc.” It sums up nicely (and succinctly) what can often be a difficult thing to explain to other white people. I also enjoyed the Buzzfeed survey, which was much better than most. Its long list of questions serves as a good reminder of the myriad ways privilege manifests itself. And I rather enjoyed Susan’s comment, above, describing scapegoating as a means of deflecting our own inner darkness. I think there is probably much truth to this, and also a possible insight into the degree to which so many people not only discriminate in their thoughts and actions, but react so forcefully when confronted on it. (PS – I’ve also had some trouble commenting on this site, with several comments through the years failing to post. Most make it through, although not without some delay).

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Tim, and thanks for the nudge on the kinks in Commenting. I think we’ve conquered it. Fingers crossed.

      And thank you too for your thoughtful feedback. I was also impressed with the Buzzfeed quiz; I’m glad you checked it out. I see this phase of looking at, considering our privilege as fundamental to ever conquering racism. Too often it’s finding that “common enemy” that brings people together. Not unlike the defensiveness that Susan inferred.

      I hope we can all keep talking about this as the months go on.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

  5. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Thanks, as always, Janet for your thoroughly researched and interesting post. I always learn from you!

  6. Amelia
    | Reply

    Well aware I have white privilege. I think it should start at home – educating our kids (any colour). Our libraries here do a lot for African Heritage Month here.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Brenda. You Canadians have long had the edge over us in acceptance, tolerance, accommodation, et al. Must go along with the stereotype of being nicer. (Ever see that video called Canadian road rage?). I hadn’t known you didn’t call it Black History Month; interesting difference, in many ways. Thanks.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

  7. Beth Ann Chiles
    | Reply

    Very interesting and informative post. We have a long ways to go in education and equality but hopefully with more heart felt posts like this we will get there. Thanks for sharing.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you Beth. With willing hearts and minds and the courage to talk openly about topics we’re not used to discussing, we may just make some headway. I’m glad you could join us.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

  8. Terri Lyon
    | Reply

    Hi Janet,

    I just got back from a Living Legacy Pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama. Visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice “Lynching Memorial” shook me to the core. I’ve been working on ways I can understand my privilege but they are sterile compared to my visit here, which grabbed me by my heart and showed me through art, design, and words, just how far I have to go.

    Here is Bryan Stephenson talking about why they created the Memorial:

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      What a powerful video you shared here, Terri. Thank you so much. As I watched, I wondered if the sheer agony involved in understanding the history racism in the US and its impact is part of why it is such a difficult subject for so many.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

      • Terri Lyon
        | Reply

        I think you are right. We went to The Legacy Museum right after the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and many in the group, including me, felt overwhelmed.

        I realized that I shared the wrong video. Here is the correct link:

        In this video he says, “In South Africa you can’t go there without learning about the history of Apartheid. In Rwanda you cannot spend time there without being told about the legacy of the genocide. If you go to Germany today, in Berlin there are monuments and memorials and stones that mark the spaces where Jewish families were abducted. But in America, we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching, we don’t talk about segregation. So now it’s time to talk about it.” – Bryan Stephenson

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          I so wish I’d seen this prior to the start of my series on How Do We Talk About Racism . . . Thank you so much for sending it on. I had never really thought about how South Africa, Rwanda, or Germany deal with their history. I have thought often about how we, in this culture, tend to stay away from difficult conversations. A woman from Jamaica who guest posted here a while ago, Alexis Chateau —

          spoke of how we “beat around the bush” here in the US. I’d never thought about it before. It all ties in.

          So I go back to my original question, how do we start to talk about racism? How do we begin?

          I guess we have. 🙂
          Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

  9. Silvia
    | Reply

    I guess another way to support racial justice would raise our children with an more opened mind, teach them acceptance, tollerance and most of all that the value of a person lay in the inside and not in the appearance

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Silvia. It’s good to have you join us here. One of my earlier posts in the “How Do We Talk About Racism” series talked about the institutionalized discrimination that has existed in this country since shortly after emancipation. It is certainly a worthy goal to raise our children to be open minded, curious, and compassionate. I fear that only addressed the issue at the level of the individual. Take a look when you have some time.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

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