Celebrating Black History Month as a White Woman
The following interview was originally hosted on Just Pursuits, conducted by my friend, and business partner, Jessica Petty.
There are times when I want to throw my name in the hat for celebrating a person or a cause or an achievement, but it might just be based on a feeling, something in my heart, but not a vast amount of knowledge. Often times when I don’t know a ton about something, I shy away from the conversations and celebrate from afar. This year as we enter into Black History Month, I want to be more informed and active in the trumpeting of all that diversity brings to our world.
First step: Understand the purpose of the month.
Black History Month shines a light on the black experience, the effect of society on them and their effect within society. The deeper understanding of black history, family structures, social and economic pressures, and gender relationships creates pathways to the breakdown of cultural norms and stereotypes that perpetuate racism. It aims to eradicate racial stereotypes and bring people together.
Second step: Support.
Support a Black business or organization.
Explore documentaries showcasing the black experience.
Visit a Black History or Civil Rights Museum in your local area.
Third step: Have a conversation.
When I don’t know exactly what to do, I seek out a source wiser than me. As I pondered what I could do this month as a white woman, living in suburbia and isolated from the discrimination and challenges still plaguing the black community, I decided I should worry less about the answers and just seek to ask more questions. In that spirit, I asked a former colleague, Bryana Clover, if she would share your perspective, as a woman of color living and working in America, on what this month means to her, what white people need to know about her experiences, and how we can be allies without being arrogant. This is what she shared…
Q: What does Black History Month mean to you?
Bryana: As one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, James Baldwin, wrote: “It is the past that makes the present coherent”.
Black history and black accomplishments have often been minimized or erased throughout American history. I believe the purpose of Black History Month is to, in a way, hold the nation accountable to battling historical amnesia when it comes to the African American experience.
In a country where talking about the black experience, race, and racism in the workplace is still considered “taboo”; where I still get asked, “can I touch your hair?”; where I’ve been told “you’re not like those black people” because of the way I talk, or where I live, Black History Month, as a way to examine our nation’s history is so important.
I believe Black History Month carves out a space for African Americans to be inspired and uplifted through each other’s stories and experiences of resilience. It is also an opportunity to create a space for white people to confront the nation’s history of racism, and to understand the ways it systemically (and individually) shows up today.
Q: What do you wish white people knew?
Bryana: Black History is America’s History. We all share in that regardless of our skin color.
Conversations about race are difficult, and fraught with the risk of saying the wrong thing. This often leads to a deafening silence, and complete dismissal of anything relating to race or racism. I have often been part of conversations with white people who associate racism with bigotry, white supremacists, or the KKK. While individual racism is still alive and well today, it is important to understand the complex, ever-present systems that continue to perpetuate the oppression of people of color. As The Racial Equity Institute eloquently states, “Racism is a fierce, ever-present, challenging force, one which has structured the thinking, behavior, and actions of individuals and institutions since the beginning of U.S. history. To understand racism and effectively begin dismantling it requires an equally fierce, consistent, and committed effort.”
Lean into conversations about race. Weekly, there are news stories of events that are happening, that directly connect to the history of racism in America. We bring those experiences and knowledge into the workplace with us, either consciously or subconsciously. Create spaces within your work environment for people to engage in dialogue about how these events affect them as people and reflect on how it affects their interactions at work.
Q: How can we be allies without being arrogant?
Bryana: Here are a few suggestions on where to start…
1) Learn and check your sources. Seek to understand (and recognize and respect) the dynamic history of the African American community. Be aware of the authors of the learning content. Are they all white? Proactively search-out black authors.
2) Unlearn. This relates to #1. In your learning process, you will likely have to unlearn our country’s white-washed understanding of the black experience and existence. This will likely feel uncomfortable. Discomfort leads to change.
3) Proximity. Are you constantly in all-white spaces? How can you genuinely seek-out perspectives and experiences of people of color? Be proactive about inclusion in your daily life.