Almost every black person who has been in a conversation with white people about race has heard the question asked, “Why do black people have to have their own separate…?” and you fill in the blank: their own schools, their own beauty pageants, their own television networks and more. There is a real sense of resentment in the question, and it is palpable.
“Why,” they ask, “does there have to be a Black History Month? Why is it OK for you all to have a Black History Month when there is no White History Month?”
Those types of questions, though not new, are still troubling and puzzling. Much was made about remarks White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made recently about Hitler not gassing his own people, because it was insensitive to Jewish people and his statement revealed an enormous ignorance and unawareness of history. Did he forget that there were gas chambers, or the fact that millions died from being gassed? Did he find nothing wrong with the fact that the Jews Hitler killed were his own people, in that many were German? It was an incredulous moment in American history, albeit a sad one.
But the questions too many whites ask about why there needs to be “black” anything in this very white world reveal the same type of ignorance and insensitivity.
There is a reason why the cry “black lives matter” has been so powerful, and that is because in this country ― indeed, in the world, black lives have not mattered much at all. Black beauty pageants had to be developed because beautiful black girls were not deemed beautiful enough to be in white beauty pageants. The Dance Theater of Harlem was developed because white ballet companies would not hire talented black dancers. Dancers were told things like their butts were too big, their feet did not have enough of an arch, their noses were too flat, and their skin too dark.
In this country, the dehumanization of black people by the majority-white system has forced blacks to create their own world within the larger world. The fact that anyone would ask why there has to be a Black History Month, or, worse, ask why isn’t there a “White History Month,” shows a complete lack of appreciation of or even belief in the contributions blacks have made to the very existence of this country. Little black children have historically grown up knowing nothing about the contributions their ancestors made to America; the legacy of black people was reduced to the mention of George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, or later, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but for the most part, black people were ignored.
Black people protested. In their spirits, there was protest and a determination that black life , black needs, black contributions, would not be ignored, and determined that whites would not impede the ability to drive a stake in American historical, social and political reality.
The evil of white supremacy was not able to snuff out the yearning that every human spirit has for freedom, dignity, affirmation and recognition. White supremacy rendered black people and thus, black lives, invisible, not worthy of mention. Black people were, W.E.B. DuBois reminded us, “a problem.” These problem black people, however, were the backbone of the building of this country. Black labor and black lives built the economy of the South and later of the North. Blacks were consistently denied full American citizenship, but blacks continued to fight against the walls of oppression built around them and have continually been able to punch holes in those walls and be heard and seen, even if not respected.
White supremacy, coupled with a fear of how America was changing, was behind the eugenics movement that began in the 1920s. According to Adam Cohen in his book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, globalization stoked the fear of white people that there was too much transformation happening in what was supposed to be their “white” country. Cohen writes, “Record levels of immigration were transforming the nation’s ethnic and religious makeup. And with increased industrialization and urbanization, community and family ties were fraying. (p. 4) Rather than move toward those in this country who were different, whites moved farther and father away, seeking isolation which only intensified their negative fears and feelings about black people.
That being the case, it really is possible that many whites are unaware of the barriers blacks have had to overcome. In the safety of their isolated and segregated communities, they have not had to socialize with people of other races, colors or ethnicities; for them it is an option which many choose not to honor.
In isolating, they not only cut themselves off from knowing people who are different, but cemented their impressions and contributed to them feeling, ultimately, like the victim. Other other ethnic groups have suffered and have had to overcome great odds; at one time, the Irish and Italians were dehumanized as well. There are plenty of white people who live in abject poverty and despair, even today. They “got over” their situations, they say. Why can’t black people do the same?
What they are either unable or unwilling to understand that the difference between oppressed whites and oppressed blacks has always been the color of their skin. Because of their skin color, blacks could not get jobs on television, could not get into colleges, could not get adequate medical care, could not be members of sports teams. Whites have never had to endure that. Blacks are still systematically looked over and looked past; the white supremacy mindset has continued to hold America hostage and too many whites, still, judge black people, exclude black people, and even arrest black people, just because the can and can get away with it.
If whites had allowed black women into their lily-white beauty pageants, there probably would never have been black beauty pageants. White history “month” is every day, as history is told almost exclusively from the white perspective; that is part of life, because history is always told from the perspective of those who are in power. From the beginning of this country and even before, white supremacy, i.e. the notion that white people are superior, has been the guiding principle of all that is said and done. Racism, as well as sexism, was written into the Constitution. It is part of what many felt “made America great.”
Black lives do not matter through the lens of too many white people. Whites have been taught that they do not have to respect black people; recall how U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney said, in the Dred Scott decision that there “are no rights of a black man that a white man is bound to respect.” This country has from the beginning denied black people not only the right to vote, but due process as defined by the Constitution, and even trials tried by a “jury of their peers.” There is no way, for example, that an all-white jury in a trial for a black person is constitutionally correct, but it has been the way of American jurisprudence for decades.
It is hard to believe that so many white people are truly puzzled as to why black people have created a world in which there is honor, dignity, respect for intellect and gifts. Surely, they know.