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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