Two Cheers for White History Month

First, my congratulations to you for having gotten beyond the title. If your political sensitivities are at all like mine, you are not at all likely to read a column with a title that means what you think that one means. But, it this case, that’s not what it means and we can go on to have a conversation.

At some point in my career as a teacher of undergraduates, a part of the Student Union was set aside for the exclusive use of black students. It was called “the Black Student Union.” Predictably, there was a demand for a “White Student Union,” according to the logic described above. This demand wound up on the desk of the administrator whose brief included student affairs and he took the protesters on a quick tour of “the” student union. “Do you see any black students?” he asked, according the the account of it that came to me. They didn’t, of course, because there weren’t very many black students and it would have been unusual to see some at a time chosen at random.

It is stories like that that form the background of things like “White History Month.” Nevertheless, I would like to have it favorably considered, for several reasons. One is that once the distinguishing white from black almost inevitably asks the question of why other races ought not be so distinguished. I know there are complications in that direction, but there are some fairly lighthearted solutions as well. You could say that we will have to stop at 12 because the number of months is fixed. You could say that we could use the breakdown the National Bureau of the Census uses. If you go down into the subcategories, you can get to twelve, no problem.

But that reason has whimsy laced through it and it doesn’t sound serious. Here’s a better one. When you start naming population groups by particular names, national (Korean) or regional (East African) you leave everybody else uncharacterized. White history month would deal with that.

The easy—and true—counterargument is that the whiteness of our history is taken for granted. That’s true. On the other hand, what truths do you learn about what you take it for granted? When you say that blacks have particular traits, you sound racist. But wouldn’t it be a great advantage to say that whites have particular traits? It would be challenging, sure, but look at the alternative. Each of the ethnic or racial minorities have “traits;” but the white majority do not.

Stop and think for minute. It’s going to be hard to agree to that statement because it sounds wrong. But after you have thought, a minute ought to do it, it should be clear that you do not describe traits that you have taken for granted. You don’t want to argue that people who come from parts of the globe where other racial groups are common do have traits, but that people who come from predominantly white parts of the world do not have traits. At least you don’t want to say it is public. If you said it in public, there would be someone who would say, “So…there is something about the white race that prevents identifiable traits from being formed?”

And now you are talking about why white people don’t have “traits” like everybody else. You don’t want to do that.

“White History Month” isn’t a complete solution, of course, but it solves the problem we have when whiteness is taken for granted. What do we learn about whiteness if we keep presupposing it? Nothing. There are “normal, regular people” and then there are ethnic and racial minorities. Some races are treated focally and others are ignored. I am treating “presupposed” as the same as “ignored” from an analytical point of view.

Once we start focusing, we are going to see things we will wish we had not seen. That’s inevitable, but it’s not serious. What’s serious is treating whiteness as the standpoint from which “races” are evaluated. Having a White History Month would move the standpoint to racial heritage and it is not “races” but “all the races” that are evaluated.

I heard a lecture on racism some years ago by an academic who was black himself. He brought the room to life when he declared that the slaves from Africa did not become black until they got to America. If he had written that instead of saying it, he would have said that they did not become “black” until they reached America. Everyone would have caught the quotes and wondered why they were there. He followed by saying that before they arrived here, they were Igbo or Hausa or Yoruba. Here, they were only “black.”

The analytical problem of whiteness is like that. Except, of course, much worse. It would take a pretty sophisticated course in American racial studies to talk in a meaningful way about the continuation of Yoruba-like traits among American blacks. If the course in racial studies included the white race, the problem would be bigger, but not different in kind. We would have to confront “Polish-like traits” or “Norwegian-like traits” as kinds of answers to the question of white people are like.

“White History Month” is a modest step—only two cheers—in that direction.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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