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Why America Needs White History Month
Viewing the past through the lens of privilege obscures who got hurt in the process. White America needs saving from its myopia
The Republican presidential campaign has persuaded me. Not to vote for Mitt Romney, God no. They have, however, convinced me of something else I previously considered unthinkable. In some ways, the idea betrays my black nationalist inclinations, but having witnessed the GOP's flailing for the past year and a half as they've tried to mount a campaign to unseat President Obama, I've finally come around.
We need a White History Month.
For anyone who speaks on issues of race publicly, the idea has long been a joke – a retort thrown at you from frustrated white folks who believe they are being discriminated against because there doesn't exist a special month set aside to celebrate their racial identity. They cry foul at the notion of Black History Month, Black Entertainment Television, Black Enterprise and everything else with "black" in the title – even, sometimes, going so far as to say these things are racist in nature because their names and missions are "discriminatory". It's preposterous, but they counter that they need a White History Month to provide balance and equality.
After laughing this off for years, I'm now on the same page.
I don't mean White History in the same way we (attempt) to celebrate Black History during February, or Women's History in March. Where these are intended to correct an imbalance in the way history is celebrated from an overwhelming white male perspective, White History Month need not rehash the tales of great white heroism. We need a different approach here.
I mean for us to have a White History Month in the way James Baldwin once suggested a White History Week. During a speech before the National Press Club in 1986, he presented the idea and was later questioned about the seriousness of his remark. He responded:
"I was not joking about White History Week … I'm serious about that. White Americans really do not not know their history, and that's one of the reasons they're in trouble. And when I suggest White History Week, I'm not making a parody of Black History Week, but I'm suggesting that the truth about this country is buried in the myths that white people have about themselves. These myths have to be excavated and only can be excavated by white people."
Most of the history we learn is built on myths. Even the black history we choose to teach in response to eurocentric learning is centered around myths. But those myths are meant to help a people reclaim a history long denied to them, to instil self-esteem in the face of disempowerment. It may not be exactly ideal, but the rationale is at least noble. The myths of white American history perpetuate oppression and inequality. They instil in white America a false sense of self-imperviousness to facts or logic.
When George Washington can't tell a lie, Abraham Lincoln singlehandedly freed the enslaved, FDR lifted the nation out of depression and Ronald Reagan tore down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands … it's no wonder Michele Bachmann believes the founding fathers fought to end slavery, Newt Gingrich thinks poor black children should be janitors to teach them about work ethic, Rick Perry hunts at "Niggerhead" and sees no problem, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney can tell "jokes" about the president's birth certificate and his campaign co-chair, John Sununu, can refer to the president as "lazy" and "not that bright".
The race-baiting and sabre-rattling that has been on display for the duration of the presidential nomination process – and now is a part of the national campaign – reveal not just a disdain for people of color, but also a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be white. Whiteness has its privileges, and among them is that your view of history is through that of the default, the conqueror, the triumphant. And when you can see history through that lens, you don't have to be burdened with understanding the consequences of your triumph from the perspective of those who were stepped on during the conquest.
As the racial and ethnic demographics shift in this country, the Republican party has become home to an angry white reactionary base that feels their privilege being threatened. What a White History Month could teach them is that this is nothing new, and that even their identity as white people has evolved. White immigrants of the 18th and 19th century, particularly those of eastern European descent, experienced discrimination, but gradually gained acceptance as they embraced American racism and the white Anglos needed more among their ranks to ensure they retained power.
White America needs their myths interrogated, deconstructed and ultimately replaced with a new history altogether. Like Black History Month, a White History Month would be unable to cover all the territory needed to accomplish such a feat in so short a period of time. One would need to do so around the clock, around the calendar.
But this is the United States, and we enjoy our pageantry. Let us observe White History Month and use it to rescue white America from itself.