February 17, 2020

DZODZOMENYO | Ten Things to Consider This Black History Month

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It’s Black History Month, which means my parents are sending frequent reminders of black achievements in the family group chat; I’ve got the Broadway revival of Ragtime blasting around the clock, and the 86 percent of Americans who aren’t black are caught between confusion and apathy. But for all of us, it’s an opportunity to envision an America where black history is a far more integral part of our society’s identity than the shortest month of the year. Here are 10 things I’ve considered lately that could help get us there.

1. (Re)consider the narrative about civil rights icons like MLK

Martin Luther King Jr’s death is recalled by most Americans as this quasi-messianic event in which King volunteered himself to die for America’s transgressions in order to end racism, sin, death and eternal separation from God (characterized by the cartoonishly racist hell of pre-1970’s America). Nowadays, King is lauded as a non-controversial, universally loved father figure gone too soon. But King had some unorthodox hot takes in his time, and when he began protesting against corporate capitalism and the role of class warfare in the oppression of both blacks and poor non-blacks, his governmental security was lifted, eventually leading to his assassination. The FBI bugged King’s home office, embarked on a campaign to smear and discredit him to the American public and even sent him a letter inciting him to kill himself under threat of releasing sex tapes of his extramartial affairs. Today, the FBI still classifies Black Civil Rights Activists as “extremists.” It didn’t end with King’s death. Whether it’s reading The New Jim Crow or learning about the Black Panthers, I encourage you to explore the relationships between black Americans, law enforcement and the demonization of black Americans to the white American public as a means of restricting black autonomy.

2. Consider that the expiration date on American racism is fluid

The way in which white supremacy has helped shape modern American society makes it seem like the structural barriers African Americans face are their own fault, even given their own astounding triumphs amidst adversity, but that’s not the truth. The expiration date of American racism is defined only by the extent to which white people decide they wish to deconstruct it. The extent black Americans can dig themselves out of a hole they did not dig for themselves is limited –– and so reparations can only start with self-education on behalf of those whose ancestors dug the hole for them to maintain. In the words of King himself: “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

3. Consider that black people are not minorities

While in the demographical context of the United States and Europe, non-white people tend to make up a minority of the population, the common reference to all non-white people by white people as “minorities” really bothers me. In fact, 60 percent of the world is Asian, and 16 percent of the world’s population is of African descent, while only 11.5 percent of the world’s population is white or of European descent. We non-white people are not subject to inequities, discrimination or adverse outcomes simply due to being outnumbered. The reason AP European history is offered in high schools — while AP African or Asian history doesn’t even exist — isn’t because people of African and Asian heritage are “minorities” — we’re not. These aren’t issues of demographic skewness; they’re issues of white supremacy. I prefer to, instead, use the term “historically marginalized” to describe the same concept in context. I encourage you to reconsider using the word “minority” as the default word to describe non-white people; rather, use it according to its appropriate sociological context.

4. Consider learning the labels

While we’re on the topic of sociological labels, stop referring to all black people as African American. The plurality of black achievements in the United States have been made by African Americans, which we celebrate this Black History Month, but some of us are native Africans. Some of us are Caribbean American. Black people come in all different forms. If you don’t know the difference between these sociological descriptors, the library is free (I’d start with James Baldwin or Beverly Tatum).

5. Consider supporting black-owned businesses

From the TikTok famous “Renegade” dance to “.com,”  the first home security system  and the pacemaker, most black contributions to society are often intentionally suppressed to perpetuate the myth of white racial superiority and maintain white dominance. This is why it’s important to support black-owned businesses, because on top of the structural barriers many black Americans must overcome, they are also often barred from participating in free enterprise and must resort to the informal economy for income.

6. Consider that black women may be the most magical creatures on Earth

Few demographic groups in America are more consistently undervalued, hypersexualized, exploited, degraded, ignored, insulted and underpaid than black women. Few archetypes in the American media narrative have been so irrevocably canonized as undesirable and ill-behaved. Few other demographic groups died on the front lines of both two most powerful American social movements — womens’ suffrage and black civil rights — only to be harshly excluded from the gains achieved by these efforts. Few other groups are burdened with having to constantly disconfirm the stereotype that is expected of us if we want to succeed in any mainstream arenas. In a recent video, social commentator NappyHeadedJojoba terms this “the pressure to be poised.” She and others note that one else is subject to the unique dynamic of misogynoir at the intersection of race and gender discrimination, and no one else suffers from the compounding oppression of suppressing justified emotions in order to avoid making others uncomfortable or being labeled “angry.” Few live in fear of being branded being too “ourselves” — too black to be deemed worthy of respect or to be taken seriously. No other demographic group in America is mocked and lambasted for doing, saying and being things that are expected of black women — only black women are punished for acting like “black women.” Few others watch in confusion as every other demographic of women reproduce the same attributes and customs we are denigrated for, garner positive mainstream approval, and line their pockets with the profits. And somehow, we spin the hands we’ve been dealt into narratives of triumph. Not that we should have to, but that’s kind of magical.

7. Consider that maybe we’re not making it up

Growing up, my mom emphasized safety and stranger danger to the extreme, hoping that if my sisters and I took every precaution within our power, we’d remain safe from human trafficking and assault attempts. Young me knew that if anything ever happened to us, she’d never see us again. “Have you ever seen a black girl on a milk carton?” she’d worry. I only recently learned that this phenomenon has a sociological title: Missing White Woman Syndrome. Missing white woman syndrome is an outgrowth of what political theorist Henry Giroux calls the “politics of disposability,” wherein certain classes of people are deemed unworthy, dangerous,and ultimately disposable. Conversely, those deemed worthy of the bureaucratic resources, energy,and public empathy required to legitimize investigations and garner widespread support for mobilization of these cases are not often black. This same trend is present in the healthcare industry, wherein because black women are less likely to receive compassionate care, they are four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. From Henrietta Lacks to James Marion Sims, who expanded the field of gynecology via experimentation on female slaves, to Serena Williams, the healthcare industry is yet another arena of everyday life wherein black women suffer compounding and life-threatening inequity.

 8. Consider educating yourself on what you don’t presently know

Speaking of things we didn’t learn in high school, if you find yourself in the dark about some facet of black culture, Google is also free. I grew up having to learn about all aspects of white culture, because it was considered the norm and celebrated around me. It’s still astounding to realize that while I, for example, know all about white peoples’ hair from commercials and even school hygiene lessons that targeted them, white people I barely know feel welcome to ask me all manner of invasive questions and make ignorant assumptions about my own hair due to lack of knowledge. Even though we are all equidistantly different from one another, cultural white supremacy gives white people a pass on having to engage with and learn from different cultures. Do us a favor and close the gap: use the internet, read a book –– just don’t force black people to bear the burden of your racial ignorance. While the U.S. education system needs a major overhaul, most of the lack of knowledge on black culture and history could be solved by an internet connection. Yeah, you know about rhythm and fashion trends and the NCAA, but take some time to learn about the non-lucrative aspects of our culture as well. It’s not just to alleviate the burden of ignorance from black shoulders: We all have a lot to learn from understanding black history and culture. Black culture is American culture, so learn where the culture you’re consuming comes from.

9. Consider that racism is more than a personality trait

I know very few white people, if any, who would self-identify as racist. Yet we still live in a racist America. Why is that? Think of your most blatantly racist uncle. He doesn’t believe he’s racist because that’s how he was socialized, and it takes a lot to acknowledge your socialization, or even to gain the tools to see it. You want to tell me that you haven’t been socialized into seeing black women as unkempt, libertine and boisterous or black men as lazy, hypersexual and homicidal? In order for that to happen, you must have consumed no media, lived in a perfectly integrated neighborhood, had teachers of all races and backgrounds and read books by authors of historically marginalized cultures and nationalities. But I know nearly no one for whom this is true. I’m telling you: It isn’t possible to grow up in a racist society and emerge immune to racist tendencies. White liberals, specifically, tend to spend so much time thinking of themselves as opposites to racist conservatives that they forget that the real enemy is white supremacy: a paradigm into which they have also been socialized and in which they guiltlessly luxuriate. Racism isn’t a personality trait. It is not a personal moral failing or an occasional ritual reserved for sheet-wearing, torch-carrying Southerners so much as it is the air that we breathe as a nation — the thread latently sewn into the fabric of our worldview.

10. Consider black history beyond the month of February

During a recent conversation, a friend of mine expressed that she felt the month is ultimately a favor to white people. “Relegating black history to one month keeps everything clean,” she said. And I agree: For every historical figure who can benefit from covering up what they did to black people, the injection of black history as an somewhat apocryphal footnote to the heroic tale is a reputational safeguard. When historical figures or institutions are introduced in schools or in early education, it often isn’t the full story. If, for example, you mention that Thomas Jefferson (along with nine of the other first 12 US presidents) owned and abused slaves, I guarantee some kid’s hand will shoot up to play devil’s advocate and suggest you hate the constitution. Rather than acknowledge that the author of New World freedom and equality owned human beings and that’s a problem, you become the problem for smearing a hero. Remember when you learned that the first Thanksgiving wasn’t a sumptuous autumnal picnic via Twitter, like 10 years after you dressed up as a Native American in kindergarten?  Remember the cognitive dissonance that was introduced? Can you imagine how that may have skewed your understanding of Native American issues until that point? In the same vein, if black American histories are included as part of the comprehensive narrative, people will recognize that the incomplete construction of undeserving heroes deters accountability, leading to a clearer understanding of the persisting legacies of inequality in this country.

 

So this Black History Month, consider these frameworks. If you get bored, read some Bell Hooks or Toni Morrison.  Pledge to stop touching black women’s hair for the month. Try to go the whole 29 days without saying the n-word. Maybe refrain from playing devil’s advocate in your gov. section. Take some time to listen and engage. Close the gap.

 

Edem Dzodzomenyo is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at edemjayne@cornellsun.com. Ed’s Declassified runs every other Friday this semester.