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the Empathy List #98: What is Black History Month for?
Tokenism vs. Representation
Hello friends, Liz here.
This month is Black History month.
On the socials, I’ve heard a variety of views on this national holiday as folks reckon with the cost and privilege(?) of being “included.”
They wonder, is the one-time inclusion of brown bodies mere performance or a shift in cultural norms? Is it safe to see it as a celebration, stemming from genuine curiosity and openness toward difference in our society? Or is it foolishness to hope for change? How can we tell the difference between tokenism and representation?
I hear the pain that undergirds these questions.
It makes SO MUCH sense that some black Americans have decided that Black History month is THE WORST and that it’s a month solely devoted to assuaging white guilt, a way of performing allyship without any ACTUAL change to accompany the marketing.
In this view, the history of Black America—and thereby, Black Americans themselves—becomes a tool, much like Jesus became a tool in the recent Superbowl ad that got so many of us Christians grumbling, the 1 billion dollar PR campaign for Jesus. (Let’s get the Son of God a rebrand, amiright???)
The reality of the month versus what this month could be is stark, as examining the history of the holiday shows.
I started wondering, what did this month set out to be and do? Where and who did Black History month come from? And what does it actually stand for today?
Note: I do not want to presume to be the authority on this topic BY ANY MEANS. You’re welcome to tell me I’m wrong, to share different opinions, to point out any faults in logic.
If you’re curious, however, where I got some of my ideas, follow the links, and also read this essay by someone much more experienced and wiser than I am who makes the case for the continuance of Black History month, and I agree with him.
The history of Black History month begins with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a black Harvard-educated historian (educated at the college in the same era as W.E.B. DuBois). In the early 1900s, Dr. Woodson took on the task of establishing the discipline of historical inquiry into the achievements and lives of African Americans, kicking off the first Negro history week in February 1926. His aim was to highlight the hidden stories of black Americans, showcasing their genius, creativity, resiliency, and joys, to assert the true narrative of his people and to bury the false.
Martha Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, explains:
“There’s no question that history is and continues to be a battleground. The origin stories that we tell matter a great deal for where we set the bar and how we set the bar going forward. So when you talk about people like Carter G. Woodson, these are men who knew that if you don’t rewrite the history of Africans and people of African descent, if you don’t rewrite the history of the United States through the lens of Black history, if you don’t make that record and if you don’t make that case, there are [false] stories that will expand and go toward rationalizing and perpetuating racism, exclusion, marginalization and more.”
(Read the entire story of how Black History month came to be in this interactive NYT article.)
In Dr. Woodson’s own words, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Dr. Woodson’s determination across decades brought the day into the majority culture’s calendar. Yet he did not do this for the sake of white America but because he wanted to teach his own people their history.
Black History month—surprise!—was not about white people, but about offering glory back to black and brown people.
However, Dr. Woodson also recognized that the majority narrative will always prevail. So he having a designated month of recognition was one way of moving stories from the margin back into the central historical narrative.
You might say, sure, that’s the history, but we’ve come along way from that. What is Black history month good for now?
Before I answer that question, I want to take some time to consider the major objection the holiday: tokenism.
As I considered Black History month, I was reminded of this tweet thread in which the inimitable Kaitlyn Schiess, PhD theology candidate at Duke and Co-host at the Holy Post, called out a recent theo anthology for its lack of female authors.
My only experience of tokenism, personally—an experience UNEQUAL to the tokenism experienced by black and brown folks—has arisen because I’m a female at church and in publishing. In both places, women are grossly underrepresented and disempowered, especially those females with intersectional identities.
So this conversation resonated with me:
Kaitlyn (wisely) did not waste her time responding to this nonsense. ;-) I’m not sure why I did, since I generally dislike Twitter for exactly this reason—empathy appears near impossible on the platform which rewards outrage and flattens narratives. It’s just not my jam.
But this man’s tweets got to me. I guess it reminded me of conversations I’ve heard in private church leadership meetings about not wanting to invite a female onto the leadership team just because she’s female ‘cause that would be perceived at tokenism, and since we’ve all decided tokenism is bad, we’ll just avoid the whole issue by sticking to men, no women allowed.
Now, putting aside whether these men in these behind-closed-doors conversations are being honest about their desire to invite a woman to sit at the Big Boy table, the assumption is that women would rather not be invited if there’s a risk of seeing the invitation as a token invitation, extended purely because of her femaleness.
Yet representation is a big deal.
For a quorum of theology bros, it’s easy to believe that the best way to fight tokenism is to avoid inclusion altogether. But the actual best way to fight tokenism is not by deciding for the underrepresented that representation isn’t worth the cost (whose cost?), but instead, by issuing an invivation and allowing an individual to decide for herself whether she’ll take the risk of enduring your possible tokenism.
(…I want to point out that tokenism disappears when you’re inviting a human to join in whose opinion and viewpoints you value. If you invite an underrepresented person to a more exclusive group and then treat them like a colleague with necessary thoughts and qualifications to add—and not a mouthpiece to for your ideas—then they aren’t a token, period. Make sense?)
Naturally, not everyone will want to take the risk of male (or white) tokenism. That’s okay and understandable.
But some might find the chance to sit at the table worth the risk of becoming a token. I believe that each person should be granted the respect of deciding on their risk tolerance for themselves.
This requires courage from those in a privileged position: courage to issue the invitation and then courage to be okay with whatever answer arrives.
And this requires courage from the underprivileged, too: courage to receive the invitation graciously and then courage to truthfully give your answer… which may lead to a need for greater courage if you show up!
I don’t want to pretend that the onus won’t rest the most on the underprivileged here because truthtelling is VULNERABLE. Yet risks can be perceived on all sides. Investing in clear communication up front means that all these difficult conversations and interactions have a chance at going somewhere good.
Those in power must learn to listen and accept another’s power. Those without power must learn to speak up for themselves and set boundaries. All are humbling works and all are necessary if we want to be people who resemble God in any way.
Okay, returning to what Black History month is all about now…
In the U.S., where black, brown and immigrant peoples have suffered great harm at the hands of the white anglo majority, it’s easy for Black History month to become another way of piling on hurt.
Black History month can become the “I’m sorry you feel hurt” apology from us white folks to black folks… the apology that sounds good but smells bad. An apology like that does not own up to a single thing and actively subverts tangible actions to make amends. An apology like this turns Black History month into a way to honor WHITE people’s penance, performative allyship, and morality, rather than to honor BLACK people for who they are apart from the anglo majority, a complex and beautiful culture in their own right.
Adding to the falseness, white conservatives critique holidays such as these, saying, slavery is over and done. Schools are desegregated. Anybody can get any job (theoretically). Colors are dead, so why are we still talking about this? Move on already. [I’m getting mad just writing this.]
In a way, I believe both kinds of false engagement with Black History month proves that we still need the accountability and storytelling that this month offers.
As as a white lady committed to allyship, I fear the division of narratives we’re already seeing—the banning of books that resist a white supremacist norm, the openness toward re-segregation that seems to be growing in appeal, the grifts of news anchors set on delivering not facts but the news as they see fit.
I also feel concern that abolishment of Black History month would offer an excuse for powerful (white) people to hide, rather than at least once yearly publicly reckoning with their failures at inclusion within their organizations, corporations, publications and institutions.
You might rightly argue that accountability like this doesn’t work. (Marketing can cover a multitude of sins.)
Yet I believe that stories have power.
They can transform people. I’ve seen it happen. Telling the truth makes a difference in our world.
If no other reason exists to keep the month, I hope that it remains on our calendars so that we can tell a truer story about the people who reside in the United States of America.
Hear me clearly when I say that Black History month is not a solution to ongoing racism in our country.
For that solution, I am praying for the least measure: that our laws and customs will change so that we can continue to learn to tell the truth about our warted American history and to protect those vulnerable to the majority’s falsehoods.
And I’m also praying for the utomost measure: repentance. My repentance extends toward my own biases and prejudices that I am seeking to uproot, my own internalized racism.
For me, Black History month remains a way to remember what is true about one essential group of neighbors.
And the pursuit for truth is always holy work. Devote yourself to it and you will be free.
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
P.S. There is SO much more I could say on all these topics and I’m sure I’ve messed up somewhere. Please forgive my errors! And if you have the heart, tell me how I can do better. Your voice is valued, my friend.