Why We Shouldn’t Have to Have the White History Month Conversation

A close-up photograph of a section of dates on a calendar.
"Calendar" by Dafne Cholet is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, a historian from Harvard University, helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). A little over a decade after the organization’s founding in 1926, the group sponsored Negro History Week, an event where communities across the country would come together to celebrate, host lectures, and conduct performances to commemorate the legacy of African Americans who had broken race barriers and made extraordinary achievements. A little more than thirty years later during the 1960’s, also the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month. To this day, Black History month is a time to recognize the accomplishment of African Americans who helped make the United States what it is today. However, as with every topic regarding race in the United States, there is always controversy, confusion, and opposition. In terms of Black History Month, it is the controversy is between African Americans and their white counterparts. Why is Black History Month so crucial, and what differentiates it from cultural pride? Consequently, why shouldn’t we ask why there is no white history month?

In the United States, black bodies are often misrepresented. These misrepresentations can stem from a lack of understanding between that of whites and blacks. Black History Month aims to regulate such a lack of understanding. The Black Lives Matter movement was a response to the shooting of African Americans by white police officers. It prompted African Americans across the nation to come together, be it digitally or in person, and take a stance against police brutality. Although a national stance was being taken against police brutality with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, it inevitably produced some opposition. For instance, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement came the All Lives Matter movement. In accordance to the name, All Lives Matter was created and supported (mostly by white Americans) to show that black lives shouldn’t be the only ones that are highlighted. No matter what the color of your skin is, one’s life should be valued. From a particular perspective, the premise of the All Lives Matter movement makes sense. However, the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement is not to devalue the lives of anyone else or take agency away from people of other ethnicities. The point of the movement is to demonstrate that there is concrete evidence, often filmed, demonstrating that the lives of African Americans are valued less than that of white people.

The misunderstanding of the Black Lives Matter movement and the All Lives Matter movement can be applied to the question of why there isn’t a white history month. It could be argued that Black History Month is exclusive of people of other backgrounds. Again, like the Black Lives Matter movement, the purpose of Black History Month is not to take agency away from any other ethnicity. Black History Month is solely observed to recognize the achievement of African Americans throughout the country’s history. Now, a frequently used response to why there is no white history month is that every day is white history month. Perhaps there is some validity to such a statement, but how many think about the extent that this statement is true and why it is true? The thing about history is that it’s often written by the “winners”—the ones who have sat in a position of authority and had the luxury of subjugating others. The relationship between white and black people are a perfect example of this historical phenomenon. As the “winners,” white people have been able to manipulate history in their favor. For instance, there are textbooks that not only gloss over the tragedy of the enslavement of African Americans, but they even use language that downplays the severity of slavery. Per Alia Wong, a staff writer for The Atlantic, a McGraw Hill textbook described slavery by saying “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” Summing up slavery in a sentence not only miseducates those reading the textbooks, but it also diminishes the impact that slavery had on the nation.

This miseducation is not limited to textbooks either. It extends to politics and how legislation is passed, the criminal justice system, and employment. There is no need for a white history month because there is no chance for white history to be forgotten—it will always be carried on in the very structure of the United States government. The United States’ history has demonstrated time and time again that not all men are equal, and it is because of the fact that the writers of history have manufactured a society that perpetuates the disenfranchisement of those who were never offered a pen to write their own part. On the other hand, without Black History Month, the stories of African Americans who helped shaped the United States would need to be pieced together from the fragments that would be almost impossible to completely recover. Even today, so much of the history of African Americans remains untold. It is said that if history is not remembered, those who forget are doomed to repeat it. Black History Month prevents such a fate.

One might argue that in an era with progressive race relations— such as the election of a African-American president and other African Americans crossing milestones in their respective industries—there should be no need for a Black History Month. However, a counter argument could be that the progression of African Americans today does not mean that Black History Month should not be recognized. The individuals making milestones would simply be a part of the long list of African Americans who have achieved incredible feats. Consequently, an opposition to Black History Month and a call for observing something like white history month could be a product of white fragility—where white people become defensive when challenged about their perceptions of race. The notion to treat everyone the same and to claim to “not see color” are ways to rationalize behavior when confronted with the implications of racism. Though every individual and their background deserves to be recognized in some form or function, Black History Month keeps the stories of those forgotten and disenfranchised alive.

Byron Mason II is a junior at DePauw University as a English Writing major. As both a Media Fellow and an editor at DePauw's Midwestern Review, Byron contributes to the DePauw community by producing and monitoring the compelling content that DePauw has to offer.