Among the many issues that came into the spotlight in 2015 is the continued problem of racism in the United States. More specifically, I’m talking about the type of racism that finds its roots in American slavery, the classic “black vs. white” issue. Just over 150 years is not enough to banish from our memories the horrors that one race inflicted upon another, but our memories are growing dim and we’re all choosing to blame the wrong people for our problems. There is fault on both ends of the spectrum, black people who blame the general population of white people for their struggles, choosing to view themselves as victims, and white people who choose to live in denial, ignorance or both when it comes to racial issues. When the topic of race comes up, we are quick to blame everyone but ourselves for the problems we see. As “Black History Month” rolls around again, I would like to encourage people to take a fresh look at the racism we see today and the history so often undervalued by members of our society.
Full disclosure: I am one of the privileged. I am a white woman who grew up in a comfortable middle-class home. I never had difficulty finding a job, so long as I wasn’t too picky. My life wasn’t handed to me on a golden platter, I had to work to get where I am, but my efforts have always been rewarded. My life is not perfect by any means, but I’m doing okay. So a question must be asked, why is a girl like me choosing to tackle an issue that I have no personal investment in? I am not black. I have never been subjected to attacks founded upon racial prejudice. People don’t look at me and guess how I’ll compare to the “statistics.” My identity might be problematic, for some. I am, after all, a white woman writing on black history. Is this just another example of white supremacy, how whites think they can do everything better than blacks? Or is this another example of the “problem,” how black people don’t even take an interest in the things that directly involve them? Even as I type those questions I realize how much bitterness and hate fuels them. African-American slavery might no longer exist in the United States, but hatred is as fresh as ever, and we haven’t progressed as far as many would have us believe.
In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford officially dubbed February “Black History Month” to honor “the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Forty years later, February rolls around again and a new generation is afforded the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of an oppressed people that rose up against all odds to meet the challenges they faced. There’s only one question: who cares? Racism is a hot topic that’s lasted for more than a century, and some think that it’s growing a little old.
I have a confession, as a member of the majority, I spent much of my life relatively unaware of minority struggles. I look back at sixteen-year-old me and see a girl who was too absorbed with her own struggles to see that there are some problems that far surpass her own internal strife. I remember, when I was eighteen, I was frustrated with university “diversity” requirements, most particularly that I was forced to take an “approved African-American course.” I had the classic “us vs. them” mentality that is almost drilled into us by society, and I didn’t know how anything African Americans had gone through pertained to me. I fell into the trap that so many Americans fall into, whether intended or not. I was a white girl who believed in equality. I believed that black people have as much ability and potential as everybody else. I believed that they should have all of the same opportunities as white people, and that they shouldn’t be discriminated against. I believed the things I was supposed to believe, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t racist, but I wasn’t innocent, either. I didn’t care about them because I looked at them as “them.” But what if I looked at them as “us?”
What if, for a few moments, we entertained this idea: people are people. Skin is skin, hair is hair, teeth are teeth, and people are people. How ridiculous would it be if people suffered for their hair color the way African American people have suffered because of their skin color? Or teeth. What if the way our teeth grew in determined our status in society? Can you imagine if our height determined whether we were murderers or not? Does anyone else find this outrageous?
Let’s imagine a perfect world. Racial profiling doesn’t exist. A black man walking down the street in a hoodie is not a threat. People today don’t have to pay for others’ mistakes in the past. “Little black boys and girls join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” How beautiful would that be?
I have come to a deep love and appreciation for black history. The more I learn about their struggles, the more my heart aches. As I learn of their achievements, my heart swells with pride. They are people, subject to the same dreams and fears as the rest of us, and I pray that in each of us rests the lions’ hearts that we can see in heroes like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks.
We need to stop looking at “black history” as a color and start looking at it as a history. We need to embrace it as our own. It is a history that belongs to the African American, yes, but we forget it is also a history that belongs to us. We are people, capable of suffering as much as they did, capable of overcoming as much as they have. Let us all, white and black together, embrace black history in such a way that the rest of the world is forced to ask, “Whose history is it?” Let us lay aside our ourselves long enough to think of our neighbors’ plight, and let us show the world what forgiveness and love really are.
This article appeared in the February issue of The Vindicator. The online version of the issue is here!