Diving Into the Question of Whether Black History Month is Problematic Or Not

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We’re deep into Black History Month, and yet, 95 years after its inception, there are still people who question whether Black History Month is “problematic” or not. 

During Black History Month, it’s not uncommon to hear the question (usually from a white person): “Isn’t Black History Month racist? Exclusionary? Why isn’t there a white History Month?”

Sometimes these questions come from well-meaning (if ignorant) people. After all, there are Americans out there who genuinely believe that highlighting our differences — even in a celebratory manner — only serves to divide us. And shouldn’t we be working towards unity?

Recently, a charter school in Utah made headlines when it allowed parents to “opt their children out” of Black History Month curriculum. The school eventually realized how problematic the move was and rescinded the option. 

“We are grateful that families that initially had questions and concerns have willingly come to the table to resolve any differences,” wrote the school’s principal in a statement. But the entire controversy emphasizes the uncomfortable reality that the discourse around Black History Month still remains. 

Some non-Black Americans wonder why we have a Black History Month. After all, aren’t we all simply… Americans? Well, yes. But the intention behind Black History Month is best illustrated by the concept of equity

At this point, you’ve probably seen the viral illustration of three men of different heights standing in front of a fence, trying to watch a baseball game. Each man has an equal-sized booster-box beneath them to help them see over the fence. But even with the booster-box, the shortest man still can’t see over the fence. That is equality — same tools for different people creating an unequal outcome. 

Equity, however, changes the booster-boxes, so they are tailored to each man’s height. The shortest man gets a taller box to see over the fence. And the tallest man — who didn’t need help to see over the fence in the first place — doesn’t get a booster box at all. But in the end, all three men can see over the fence. Different tools for different people creating an equal outcome. That is equity. 

Equity is the way of balancing the scales so people who are at a disadvantage — for whatever that reason — are able to have outcomes more equal to those who are more privileged. Black History Month is a way of “balancing the scale,” so to speak. 

Yes, we are all Americans, but historically, American History has largely ignored the rich and varied history of African Americans. Other than slavery and the Civil Rights movement, Black History isn’t covered very much in the standard American History textbook. After all, history is written by the powerful, and African Americans have not historically had much power in the United States. 

The advent of Black History Month was created by African American historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926, first as “Black History Week”. 

The goal was to immortalize a history that had been, as Woodson stated, “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” After all, people of African descent have been on U.S. soil for almost as long as those of European descent have. Black Americans are an integral part of this country’s story. 

In an ideal world, U.S. history would celebrate Black contributions and accomplishments as much as white Americans’ contributions and achievements. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world in which American history and white supremacy are inextricably merged. 

As sociologist Daniel Hirschman puts it: “We institutionalize [the celebration of white American history] in the names of our businesses, our towns and streets, our schools and universities, our prestigious awards, and more.” In other words: the celebration of white American history is baked into the fabric of our society. Black History Month is a way of combating the institutional celebration of white American history. 

Black History Month creates a time and space for Black people to be celebrated and honored — a luxury that white Americans experience daily simply by the privilege of being white Americans. Black History Month is an effort to balance the scales. And that is what equity is all about.