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Feb 03 2013

“Why isn’t there a white history month?”

One of the staples of black history month is legions of white people generating faux outrage in an ever-expanding variety of media wondering why there isn’t a “white history month”. There’s a black history month, the argument goes. Isn’t the goal for everyone to be equal? Why can’t we celebrate white history? Is it because you’re racist? I think it is!

The rejoinder that I and many others usually give (at this point it’s nearly perfunctory) is that the very existence of black history was denied for generations. Either by omission or by naked assertion, the possibility that blacks had contributed not only to American history but indeed to world history was precluded from contemplation, let alone taken seriously as scholarly pursuits. It is only very recently that this area has been considered worthy of academic exploration. As a result, we have a hole in our cultural understanding, requiring a special effort to acknowledge the role that a previously-excluded group of people played in our heritage.

The same cannot be said for white people, which is why there isn’t a “White History Month”.

In recent months I have come to re-think my answer to this question. First of all, the above response grants the question too much legitimacy. It is not a serious question, asked for serious reasons. It is a child’s whine. It is the unthinking, uncaring response of a bully who prefers to accuse the victim of ‘deserving it’ rather than acknowledge hir own wrongdoing. It is the belligerent “why are there still monkeys?” retort of someone who has not bothered to engage on the issue, and would rather that nobody else engage on it either. It is not a serious question, and it does not merit a serious response.

The second reason I’ve changed my thinking about this question is that I think there should be a White History Month. There should be mandatory instruction in which the history of white people (and the concept of ‘whiteness’ in particular) is studied in the same way that we teach ‘black history’ or ‘Chicano history’. White people should be scrutinized under the lens of historical inquiry, and their collective actions as a race-interested group should be well-characterized and well-understood. As it is now, white history is defaulted to just ‘history’, without any exploration of white people qua white people.

By failing to contextualize whiteness as a race – or rather, to continue to contextualize it as the absence of race – we rob ourselves of the opportunity to critically examine it in a contemporary setting. We do not see how whiteness is understood by people who are not white, and as a result we continue to blunder into racial conversations completely unequipped to deal with the salient issues. We do not see how whiteness interacts with a white supremacist system, and as a result we are baffled by the concept of racial privilege (instead seeing the treatment of white people as a laudable level to which others should be elevated, rather than a ‘bonus’ that needs to be addressed somehow).

The exploration of the history of racialized people – in this case, black people – forces the issues inherent to whiteness and white history into the appropriate critical framework. Indeed, it is often not possible to discuss black people qua black people without also discussing white people. At least in the past 500 or so years, it is not really possible to discuss ‘black history’ without also discussing ‘white history’ in the way that the whiners claim to want. As long as the consequences of blackness have been decided by white people, we cannot escape such a discussion.

So if you’re reading this and you think that “why isn’t there a White History Month” is actually a legitimate question, first of all you’re wrong and it’s not and shut up. But second of all, you of all people should be the most enthusiastic about Black History month, because there is no month of the year where white people and whiteness are discussed more than in exploring the way blacks have been made victims of racism at the hands of whites. I am not sure why you thought that an exploration of “white history” would make you feel better about whiteness, but that’s perhaps a separate issue.

In summation, I am totally in favour of a White History Month, so long as the curriculum thereof is designed by people who study race as a historical and sociological phenomenon, rather than by the people who think that it’s a snappy ‘comeback’ to the existence of a month that requires them to do absolutely no more work than they were already doing.

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30 comments

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  1. 1
    jasonmerrill

    I had a professor in college, in a “teaching multicultural lit” class, tell me I was a “privileged white boy.”

    the context was that I wanted to understand how to connect with those who identify strongly with their ethnicity and culture, when in fact, I do not have a strong connection as such. How can we relate?

    it was met with the response “Good for you, you’re a privileged white boy!”

    1. that didn’t answer my question. as a matter of fact, it seemed she thought I was asking a completely different question.

    2. I didn’t know what privilege was! (this is how I felt particularly attracted to your article – so many of us, well meaning, pretty normal people, simply have not been taught some basic things about sex and “race”!)

    I responded “I’m sorry, Dr. X – I come from a poor family and, have you seen my bank account statement?”

    and the conversation ended there, completely unhelpfully.

    I looked into it later when I had noted a debate about male privilege and it made sense. All other things being equal, “race” (which by the way, isn’t the whole idea of race completely flawed and really we are talking about ethnicity and nationality?), just like gender identity and sexual orientation, could determine whether your current group of people you exist around help you. And us whites over here in America, especially white males, have had it easy in that way. We have had the privilege, and although it is decreasing, still do.

    If only snappy comebacks and retorts were replaced with honest conversation…

  2. 2
    Martin Burns

    Essentially, it’s the same (correct) argument as expanding Feminist Studies to Gender Studies, and also should encompass all kinds of imperialist/ethnic dominance narratives where one group is seen as being inherently superior to others.

  3. 3
    Gabriel Brawley

    Well written and well thought out. I liked this. I will have to check back more often.

  4. 4
    Pteryxx

    Interesting… what on earth would such a curriculum look like? All that comes to mind for me (very much not an expert here) is the One Drop Rule defining “whiteness” for the purposes of legal rights.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-drop_rule

    …Oh, and sundown towns.

    http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntowns.php

  5. 5
    sambarge

    The second reason I’ve changed my thinking about this question is that I think there should be a White History Month.

    Yes! I was just thinking the same thing when I read your headline. There is no privilege in having your history and, by extension, your existence treated as an aberration from the norm. That we need to carve out a place for the history and issues related to racial minorities, First Nations, women, etc is not an example of those groups’ privilege.

    Excellent post! Thanks!

  6. 6
    Brad

    Andrew Ti has this covered: there’s no white history month because it’s “White History Eleven Months”.

  7. 7
    mythbri

    By failing to contextualize whiteness as a race – or rather, to continue to contextualize it as the absence of race – we rob ourselves of the opportunity to critically examine it in a contemporary setting.

    “Whiteness” is contextualized as the “absence of race.”

    It is exactly so, and I’ve never heard it put quite like that before. Thank you for another “Ah ha” moment, Crom.

  8. 8
    Nicole Introvert

    “But second of all, you of all people should be the most enthusiastic about Black History month, because there is no month of the year where white people and whiteness are discussed more than in exploring the way blacks have been made victims of racism at the hands of whites.”

    Not sure if it was appropriate to laugh hysterically at this sentence… but I did. Very much on point.

  9. 9
    DeepThought

    The facts that some asking “why isn’t there a White History month” aren’t asking a serious question and that we have a hole in our cultural understanding regarding the role of black people don’t constitute arguments, in themselves, for (or against) Black History month or White History month. Merely pointing to a problem and pointing to those who deny its existence are not arguments in favor of the efficacy of any proposed remedy. Indeed, you seem to admit this point yourself, insofar as you see that you can’t really study “Black History” in a coherent manner without, at the same time, studying “White History”; and therefore, you end up coming out in favor of a White History month.

    There’s a black history month, the argument goes. Isn’t the goal for everyone to be equal? Why can’t we celebrate white history? Is it because you’re racist? I think it is!

    The rejoinder that I and many others usually give (at this point it’s nearly perfunctory) is that the very existence of black history was denied for generations. Either by omission or by naked assertion, the possibility that blacks had contributed not only to American history but indeed to world history was precluded from contemplation, let alone taken seriously as scholarly pursuits. It is only very recently that this area has been considered worthy of academic exploration.

    The fact of the matter though is that this rejoinder is perfunctory. As it stands, it is an argument in favor of Black History Month and celebrating black history, but it is not an argument against a White History month or celebrating white history. And you have let your opponents’ implied definition of the meaning of the terms “racist” and “equal” pass without comment or challenge. You have also let your opponents’ error of equating “blackness” and “whiteness” as two instantiations of the same category pass by without challenge.

    (As an aside, you wrote “American” above but you’re Canadian. I’m curious about the similarities and differences in black history and experience between America and Canada (I confess, I know virtually nothing about Canadian history). But maybe that’s better left for another thread.)

    As a result, we have a hole in our cultural understanding, requiring a special effort to acknowledge the role that a previously-excluded group of people played in our heritage. The same cannot be said for white people, which is why there isn’t a “White History Month”.

    This is the “every month is White History month” argument. Frankly, it’s bunk. There are plenty of previously-excluded subgroups among white people, women and poor non-landowners being at the top of the list. “White History” is, in reality, the history of rich, male, landowning heterosexuals who happen to not belong to the “wrong” ethnic group (e.g. Irish). Yes, they weren’t excluded on the basis of being white, but being white in itself doesn’t guarantee inclusion. Again you are equating “blackness” and “whiteness” as though they were two sides of a coin.

    In recent months I have come to re-think my answer to this question. First of all, the above response grants the question too much legitimacy. It is not a serious question, asked for serious reasons.

    That is not why the above response grants the question too much legitimacy. The legitimacy of a question stands independently from an opponent’s motives for raising it (it is a logical fallacy to claim otherwise). Rather, the above response grants the question too much legitimacy because it, in effect, concedes the playing field and the rules of the game to the opponents. You have let them define “race”, “racist”, “equality”, “blackness” and “whiteness”.

    Nowhere in any of this am I seeing the hugely important point that race itself is an arbitrary social construct, presumed inferiority of a certain race yet another arbitrary social construct, and that we do not get rid of social constructs by pretending they do not exist. Equality before the law is therefore only a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition, for dismantling them. Moreover, “whiteness” is not socially constructed as a race, but rather as the absence of a race, unlike “blackness” or “Native American”. With all these points in mind, IMHO a much stronger case can be made for “Black History Month” and against “White History Month”.

    The second reason I’ve changed my thinking about this question is that I think there should be a White History Month. There should be mandatory instruction in which the history of white people (and the concept of ‘whiteness’ in particular) is studied in the same way that we teach ‘black history’ or ‘Chicano history’.
    White people should be scrutinized under the lens of historical inquiry, and their collective actions as a race-interested group should be well-characterized and well-understood. As it is now, white history is defaulted to just ‘history’, without any exploration of white people qua white people.

    I agree basically, but think about this in a little more detail. Which white people? Is this restricted to rich, male, landowners? Or does it include all white people? If the former, I couldn’t disagree more. It would hardly be the study of the collective actions of “white people” in general; besides the actions of this group are already what is defaulted to “just history”. If the latter, this is going to become the study of how and why those with lack of privilege on other axes besides race did or did not make common cause with black people, which is highly interesting but not perhaps exactly what you have in mind. Why did poor whites in the South support the Confederacy? Or is it the case perhaps that many didn’t support it but didn’t have the power to do much about it? I don’t know the answer to either of these questions.

    By failing to contextualize whiteness as a race – or rather, to continue to contextualize it as the absence of race – we rob ourselves of the opportunity to critically examine it in a contemporary setting. We do not see how whiteness is understood by people who are not white, and as a result we continue to blunder into racial conversations completely unequipped to deal with the salient issues. We do not see how whiteness interacts with a white supremacist system, and as a result we are baffled by the concept of racial privilege (instead seeing the treatment of white people as a laudable level to which others should be elevated, rather than a ‘bonus’ that needs to be addressed somehow).

    Whiteness is simply not socially constructed as a race in the same way blackness is. We do not need to pretend it is in order to critically examine it in a contemporary setting, and starting from false premises will get us off on the wrong foot. But you are exactly right that whiteness (as a social construct) should be studied and examined, and IMHO you are probably right that failure to do so leads to an inability to deal with salient issues. Indeed, if you don’t understand how whiteness interacts with a white supremacist system, how much progress can be made really?

  10. 10
    Paranoid Dominican

    I have the feeling that those asking the question would not be pleased to see what a month long explanation of whiteness throughout history would reveal about white people.

  11. 11
    smrnda

    When people ask for a ‘white history month’ my question is for them to tell me exactly who and what we should study during this month. I mean, the study of ‘history’ in the States is normally the study of a small group of influential, powerful and wealthy white men, who are already getting plenty of attention. If the idea is that we’re not taking about poor, or less privileged white people, then I think we need a ‘poor people’s history’ rather than ‘white history’ month would address the issue better. We could study different groups of white people (like say, the Irish) but then we’d be looking at Irish-American history, not ‘white history.’

  12. 12
    NoAssume

    *sigh*. I hate this discussion. I hate the stupid racists with their bullshit question and I hate the usual answer and I also don’t like your answer all that much although at least you actually thought about it like a mature adult.

    (hat-tip to Yvain)
    I see this kind of thing where whites (and men, and etc) historically have had both institutional power/armor and social power/self-respect, and that was biased and terrible. The problem is, a lot of modern activism is very focused on taking away all of the social power, sometimes almost treating ingroup self-respect as a zero-sum game when a privileged group has it, and that results in the PoC having all the conscious social power and not really gaining very of the institutional power, at least not directly. Also results in them gaining only a small amount of the non-conscious social power.

    It’s the thing that makes me thing about terraforming inhospitable land or seasteading or whatever impractical attempt at a cruelty-free frontier is in the news lately.

    “What kind of future are you building?”

    “Ours.”

    “Will others be affected by your future?”

    “If they involve themselves, they will be.”

  13. 13
    JCowley

    You make a lot of good points. Black History Month seems to be more about the study of the interaction between black people as a group with white people as a group. If you watch the History Channel et al during black history month you’ll see lots of documentaries about Martin Luther King – a man who’s contribution to history is set in the context of the interaction of black people and white people – but not so many documentaries about, say, Mansa Musa.

    In fact, it says a great deal that when trying to think of a black leader whose contribution to history isn’t based on an interaction between black people and white people Mansa Musa is the only one I can come up with. Maybe if Black History Month had more focus on black history, I might know about more.

  14. 14
    markdowd

    My takeaway from this is not “create a white history month”, it’s “rename Black History Month” to “Racial History Month” or something like that.

  15. 15
    fredericksparks

    A novel and cogent take. Great job Ian!

  16. 16
    Crommunist

    I’m not sure where you got that. Maybe re-read the second paragraph. The contributions of black people are underrepresented in our accounts of history. Black History Month is an attempt to correct that. If people are bent out of shape over not having a ‘White History Month’, let them pick a different month and do it – they just shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t like what they find.

  17. 17
    dsmccoy

    “By failing to contextualize whiteness as a race – or rather, to continue to contextualize it as the absence of race”

    Good point.
    The only problem I have with phrasing it that way is that “contextualize it” makes it sound like an active process.
    It seems to me that the usual case with whites is to passively inherit a totally unexamined pre-contextualization of “white” as “absence of race”.
    It’s a bit like the way that people often think of their own accent as “no accent”.

    Black History Month is a fine thing, and I support it,
    but when you really think about it, it is a sign of disfunction that we even need it.
    I mean, did any “black” people think of themselves as “black” before people from racist cultures came along to point it out to them?

  18. 18
    Duke Eligor

    Good post, though I usually respond to such questions with “every other month is white history month.”

    As per the study of what it means to be “white,” that’s a great idea for history education. I seem to recall a pretty good book on the subject, I believe it was Whiteness of a Different Color by Jacobson, which explores the evolution of the term and who it did and did not apply to over the years. Apparently, my Scandi ancestors weren’t considered “fully white” when they immigrated to the US. That sure surprised my pasty white butt!

  19. 19
    A--hole

    PROGRESSIVES removed blacks from our history books and segregated our military (woodrow wilson). Now 95 % of blacks vote for a progressive (Barack Obama). Don’t think much good will come from it….sorry, my 2 cents

  20. 20
    Crommunist

    And they’re worth every penny.

  21. 21
    Edward Gemmer

    I wouldn’t mind seeing an immigration history month in the United States. Seeing the cause and effect of immigration over time would do a lot of people some good and give a lot of valuable insights into our culture and ongoing treatment of immigrants.

  22. 22
    Marcus Ranum

    “Why isn’t there a white history month?”

    It’d be embarrassing.

  23. 23
    left0ver1under

    The same cannot be said for white people, which is why there isn’t a “White History Month”.

    I don’t like to quote movies (because they’re rarely historically accurate), but this discussion reminds me of a scene in the movie “Cry Freedom” where Steve Biko and Donald Woods are talking in a township bar. Biko says that when all children hear about is white history, they begin to think there is something wrong with being black (plus other things, I don’t recall the entire dialogue).

    I also don’t like flogging books, but Chris Brazier (editor of New Internationalist magazine) wrote “The No-Nonsense Guide to World History”, which is worth a read. It’s an attempt to give equal weight to all continents and both genders. It’s not perfect, but it does include a lot of detail one is not usually exposed to in “normal” history classes.

    http://newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/world-history/

  24. 24
    Jbc

    I find interesting it when folks point out the low points in white history but never seem to recall the low points of their own. Its like they think history started 400 years ago. Truth this throughout history all races are guilty of terrible acts against others….

  25. 25
    Crommunist

    Actually that’s nothing like the truth, but you’re free to go on believing that.

  26. 26
    Jbc

    Your lack of details make it difficult to understand where your coming from but your welcome to continue being vague….

  27. 27
    Crommunist

    I find interesting it when folks point out the low points in white history but never seem to recall the low points of their own

    Your lack of details make it difficult to understand where your coming from but your welcome to continue being vague….

    Yeah I’m pretty sure we’re done here :P

  28. 28
    mstr.rick

    I think it’s important that we celebrate and recognize the contributions, culture, and heritage of all of our nations ethnicity’s, including the white ones: http://youtu.be/rl-PUgGYRBA

  29. 29
    double-m

    Crommunist, would this “white history month” you’re proposing cover only white history in North America or globally?

  30. 30
    Endorkened

    Everything Thought said, and a little more. The structures of privilege shift so much throughout history–and the narrative spotlight that we label “western civilization” only shines on most of Europe starting about fifteen hundred years ago. Rome considered the Saxons and the Sassanids equally terrifying–and modern racists consider Greeks and Italians to be “off-white.” Sort of how they imagine that Yemeni Jews couldn’t possibly be the same people from the Bible…

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