[NOTE: The following was written in February 2013]
Now before anyone jumps on me, hear me out for a few sentences; I fully support what Black History Month is trying to do; combat the institutional racism ingrained into U.S. culture, promote fairness and equality, all that good stuff. This is absolutely something that needs to be done. The thing is, Black History Month does an excellent job of impairing all those causes.
The root problem: Black History Month treats “race” as a legitimate concept. It is not. Most of the other problems stem from this.
This is a problem in 2 respects (at least):
Black History Month implies that separate “black history” and “white history” exist. They do not. Slaves do not exist without masters, and vice-versa. You cannot understand the history of the United States without a through understanding of United States slavery (just as the most obvious of many examples). To attempt to do so is idiotic. It was the basis of half this nation’s economy for nearly a century, it was instrumental in its creation, and was instrumental in its near-destruction. A huge number of cultural practices of both the South and the North were dedicated to maintaining and excusing it. Likewise, if you try to understand “black culture” (a problematic concept itself, but that’s another issue) without understanding the history of the U.S., U.S. slavery, Jim Crow, and a host of other issues, you will fail miserably. Confining some supposed discrete “black history” to “its own month” implies that these issues are side-notes in U.S. history, some sort of optional special-interest consideration. They are unequivocally not. Like it or not (hint: the correct answer is “not”) race — and therefore racial injustice (can’t really have the first without the second) — is a defining, perhaps the defining issue of U.S. history. This is something we need to be aware of, and not just 1/12th of the time.
And when I say “be aware of”, I do not mean what most people mean, which is “feel guilty about.” Guilt solves nothing, and is a waste of time and energy. I mean ask ourselves (and answer); How did this happen? What let this happen? How do we prevent this from happening again? What problems are we dealing with as a result (hint: lots of them)? How do we fix them?
2. Morality and identity issues
Moving on to the second way Black History Month is a thoroughly bad idea, the answer to that last question — “how do we fix them?” — is not “hammer into people’s heads the idea that black and white people are so utterly alien that they are incapable of sharing any sort of cultural heritage, despite their families having occupied the same nation for a century”. One could argue that this is not what Black History Month does, but one would be wrong.
What message do we expect will be delivered to white kids when they are told by their teachers, throughout the month of February, that now is the time for studying “black history”, or “their history” and that this is something “we” must do for “them” because the entire rest of the year we study “white history” or “our history”? Because as everyone knows, black people exist in a pocket dimension where things like the Industrial Revolution are thoroughly irrelevant. And god forbid that any black child take pride in the works of Thomas Paine.
By the same token, what message do we expect will be delivered to black kids hearing that now is the time we finally get to study “our history”, since for the other 11 months of the year we have to study “their history”?
“What’s a major problem we have? Oh, a lot of black people don’t believe that they are accepted by or invested in U.S. society, and like all people who believe that about their society, they’re more likely to turn to crime or other antisocial behavior? Well, what would be a good way to help start to correct that?”
“Well, I’ve got an idea. Let’s constantly tell them that they are incapable of sharing the historical and cultural heritage of this country, and furthermore tell them that we will only acknowledge their own cultural heritage (which isn’t ours, remember), for a single month of the year. I think that’ll go a long way toward healing that rift.”
Now, either I have recently suffered a major head injury, or that is the most abysmally moronic thing I have ever heard in my life. And yes, I know, it was actually Carter Woodson who came up with the idea, and he was a thoroughly smart guy, but Black History Month is to him as “Saint Anger” is to Metallica. We all make mistakes.
Like most stupid ideas of this nature, it’s just as harmful “in reverse” as well. Keep telling white kids that Frederick Douglass was a “black hero”, rather than an “American hero”, and they will be smart enough to come to the obvious (wrong) conclusion; that he’s not one of “their” heroes, not really, because, well, they aren’t black. Because, of course, Frederick Douglass was all about Black Separatism. I think I can hear someone very eloquently spinning in their grave.
“You’re arguing for assimilation and co-opting.” No, I am arguing that one’s identity as someone interested in justice, fairness, prosperity, etc., is several orders of magnitude more important than how thoroughly one pronounces the consonant “r” or which arbitrarily-defined landmass an arbitrarily-defined percentage of one’s ancestors were on an arbitrary number of millenia ago. I am also arguing that there is no tension between admitting this and taking pride in the culture one was raised in. These are radical concepts, I know.
“So we should just pretend race doesn’t exist, then?” Well, no, that would be stupid. Clearly “race” exists, in the sense that 99.9999% of people in this country view people largely in terms of their race, which is why (e.g.) the New York City police department can get away with most of the bullshit it pulls. I am saying we should pretend that it’s an arbitrary system that is really nothing but baggage based upon stupid criteria, and that its effects are entirely harmful. Oh wait, we don’t have to pretend that, because it’s true. Basically, saying “I’m white” (or whatever category) is kind of like saying “I’m a Virgo”. Yeah, it’s true that someone’s pale and 20,000 years ago most of their ancestors were on the continent of Europe, just the way it’s true that they were born between late August and late September (or whatever the hell it is now). But in both cases, pretty much everything from there is bullshit. The fact that a lot of people don’t realize it’s bullshit, and consequently make stupid decisions and assumptions about people, does not make it any less bullshit.
And before anyone asks, yes, I support affirmative action (in most cases, anyway). Send a resume out with the name “Jamal” on it and it will reliably get about 1/3 the responses of the same resume under the name “Joe”, and the test will pass statistical rigor [Citation: http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/spring03/racialbias.html]. Clearly there is a serious problem here that needs to be corrected.
What I’m saying is that Black History Month does not help correct this problem, and maybe we should consider pulling our heads out of our asses and stop trying to put out the fire with gasoline.