Commentary | “When Is White History Month?”

A look at the politics of privilege and visibility involved in celebrating ‘Black history’

It’s February. And scrolling down through the many updates, memes and pictures of Malcolm X cluttering my facebook page, it was only so long until I spotted the inevitable lament; this time it appeared in the form of a blog on tumblr, a massive compilation of posts all expressing the same frustrated sentiment. ‘Asking purely in the interests of equality’, of course, and ‘not trying to be racist, but’… Why isn’t there a white history month?

The blog is supposed to be satirical. The posts, unfortunately, are not. So it’s clearly distressing people, this revelation that “if we had a white history month, we’d be called racists.” Good Lord. Initially dismissing this litany of complaints about society’s refusal to celebrate ‘white culture’, it occurred to me that the frequency with which this sentiment crops up is all too often met with dismissal. Perhaps these people really do want to know why having a Black history month is not a double standard. Perhaps they should be told.

I’m not implying that the majority of the student body at McGill relates to these views. But for those of you quietly stewing in the shadowy outskirts of the safe space, bitterly resigned to the unfairness of having to keep quiet about this glaring cultural insensitivity – allow me to explain.

Is making a demand for a white history month necessarily ‘racist’? Well, not as such. What it does display is an incredible degree of ignorance regarding the privileged and normative status that ascribing to the label of ‘white’ affords. One phrase in particular encapsulates my point here: in short that every month is white history month. This means that, in our society, ‘whiteness’ has effectively been established as the norm, and constitutes the ideal standard in comparison to which all other identity categories are perceived as something ‘other’. Whiteness is the yardstick against which we measure our social and cultural values, our identities, our lived experience; so in this sense, this proposed phenomenon of ‘white culture’ really only refers to society’s standards of what counts as conventional. Alternative ethnic identities are precisely that- alternatives. Divergent from the norm.

We could argue that acknowledgement of the normative status ascribed to whiteness, and the privilege inherent to this status, already occurs. We’ve got affirmative action and diversity training, etcetera; things that encourage us to dismantle and reconfigure perceptions of what constitutes the ‘conventional’. Yes? Well, not quite. In fact, the most dangerous aspect of this situation is the way in which the privilege of this normative status is hidden from view, disguised and camouflaged as normal- to the point where people feel justified in claiming that whiteness is under-represented.

And there are various ways of slipping this indoctrination into lived experience: from the fact that ‘skin colour’ band-aids have a pale cream hue, to the fact that practically every popular Western novel you read will distinguish a character’s race only if they are not white (Harry Potter certainly wasn’t described as a skinny, Caucasian boy with a lightning- shaped scar). And let’s not overlook the fact that the vast majority of white Canadians do not experience the Question on a daily, or even yearly, basis (“So, where are you from? No, where are you really from? What’s your background?”), a coded way of politely indicating that ‘Canadian’ and ‘person of colour’ are mutually exclusive identities, and one which factors into the daily experience of a vast number of non-white Canadians. Factors such as these, however small, and whatever their degree of (in)visibility, all have a hand in the socially ingrained assumption that ‘whiteness’ is normative. So, a history month dedicated to recognising what we recognise every day- albeit unconsciously- seems a little redundant.

Black History Month has its origins in the U.S. in the 1920s as a way of acknowledging the often-disregarded contributions of a particularly marginalised ethnic group, and to acknowledge the historical struggle of a people instrumental in the social and cultural development of the country. Since then it has become acknowledged in both Canada and the U.K., and remains a way of recognising the history of an ethnic group whose historical presence might otherwise be ignored.

Of course, the question of whether Black History Month is still an appropriate celebration is an entirely different question. The idea of relegating black history to one month of the year- while a useful method of providing historical education- is in itself controversial. There are those who argue that it is yet another way for society to disregard the fact that the Black experience, like any other, is a day to day lived experience, and a critical part of North American culture as a whole. Relegating the recognition of that history to a single month walks the fine line between indicating that Black history and Canadian history are in some way mutually exclusive, but at the same time, ensuring that Black history is not overlooked completely.

But that’s another question. For now, I can only hope that any #white-history-month hash-taggers have been satisfied; I hate to see them agitated over the crushing unfairness of anti-white racism that springs up every time February rolls around.

Esther Harvey-Peake is a U2 Honours Philosophy student. She can be reached at esther.harvey-peake@mail.mcgill.ca


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