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.
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.”
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:
… 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.
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?
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.