I would like to propose that we create for the American people a month dedicated to white history. I know... Morgan Freeman says history is history, but I can’t help but feel that white people need some special emphasis, like a dedicated 30 days out of an already white year of history, to explore the inception of what a white race is.
Our eyes come into focus as we sift through the very familiar stories of a collective past. We unveil those tarnished gems that many have not heard. The revived luster of this forgotten history could illuminate the dark corners of those bleached hearts; ones that may beat even as this sentence is written, or as it is read; stories responsible for stripping the common, pink color once present in all of our collective chests.
Let’s start with the impressive narrative of our nation; it is an account claimed predominately by the pale hands of Englishmen. Our history was written by European colonists. They documented the stamina required to create a country, ensuring that future Americans would always be aware of the labor involved in tinkering and thinking; lofty hobbies when one isn’t confined to toil and starve.
The great ideas of the past are enshrined by god-like descriptions of Christian men. Valiantly our forefathers wrote rules to a game that they could win. While writing our constitution they determined that a future America could perhaps live without slavery; but the idea of abolishing it would not even be open for discussion before twenty more years of free profits had been extracted from the lives of their current enslaved people. The framers conspired and compromised and created a country, while the most severe foundational work was achieved by nameless humans called servants and slaves.
Black History is American history. Deeply entrenched in this too often unexamined story is the birth of an institution that we continue to brush off as a long begone belief; that “white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate” (first definition given for ‘white supremacy’ with a Google search). This measly definition sets the stage for any half decent human in our society to shun the very idea. ‘I don’t “feel” that way, therefore my conscience is absolved from giving any further thought to the matter.’ But what unresolved issues surface when we read a complete definition of white supremacy?
“...an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege” (Sharon Martinas 1995 CWS Workshop)
This definition is packed full. Without history, we can never get all of its contents out of the bag. What nations were exploited? What historical figures were oppressors? Who were the beneficiaries of this privilege? What have we internalized from our history?
At first I asked myself, what wealth and power did I have while my mother was waiting for the food stamps to arrive? We were car-less and often homeless. I couldn’t wrap my head around any extra that my whiteness had given me.
I remember vividly what the stereotype towards twentieth-century, ragged white, welfare kid, felt like. I was poor, but I could get my dad’s side of the family to buy me an authentic Stussy T-shirt, and during recess, when that well-to-do kid reached in my collar and flipped out my tag, I could have a victorious moment basking in what it felt like to be a whole person. Not being poor was an attainable dream It was something I could work hard to change and prevent that stereotype from attacking me in the future.
Now imagine that I can’t alter my poverty. Let’s pretend that poverty is a skin color and no matter what I do; the clothes I wear, the goals I obtain; a whole society only sees the poverty of my skin. Generations of children grew up with this stereotype called racism. It hacked into who they were, and who they could become.
But let’s get back to being white. This “Institutional racism” that you hear about has been around since the beginning of our great nation. It is credited with taking a motley crew of immigrants and renaming them “white”. In this way, our ancestors who struggled (but chose) to sail to a land not native to them; who lived by the skin of their teeth, and died to give birth to new ways of thinking; were promised a monetary gain in the form of a thought:
‘You may be poor as your lawmakers grow rich on your labor; you may toil so relentlessly that you and your children and your children’s children will be unable to attain an education; you may not have the means to afford a voice in determining the laws of the nation you die for, but as consolation, you can be white.’
And the rest is white history, written through each decade with a firm grasp on the so called prize of superiority; while the majority of white Americans were poor, disenfranchised and uneducated, twenty percent of the American population was considered ⅗ of a person; the white American owned his squalor, whether it be in the north or the south, while at the same time black Americans were coerced into “the largest and most rapid mass internal movement in history” (Nicholas Leeman, 1991). A thirsty White American, poor as she may be, could still drink from the same fountain that her wealthy lawmaker drank from. While each class shared the common watering hole of the rich, segregation ripped across the hearts of black men and women and children.
Our own Supreme Court denied any discrimination with ‘separate but equal’ policies, in Plessy v. Ferguson. This was the precedent for the next 60 years. Finally Brown v. Board of Education declared, “To separate [children]... solely because of their race, [causes] a feeling of inferiority...that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone…”
These are the words from our own Judiciary system, recognizing that the damage done to black Americans would be insurmountable to mend; that the unwillingness to embrace the history of a people who built a nation, would not be undone, even 60 years later with the exultant election of a president whose skin was brown.
White supremacy lives like a silent floating cell, passed down through generations to each person who has never known better and as such, cannot do better. To me, February is a moment to focus on learning and teaching a history that hasn’t become mainstream. I don’t agree that to end racism we need to stop talking about it. Sorry Morgan Freeman.
Talking about race is scary. I hope that by celebrating black history with emphasis this month, and with passionate interest for the rest of my life, that my kids won’t feel that fear. I live in a society where no one has ever judged me for my skin color. I don’t have to fear that my children will be detained (or worse) by the law based on their skin. When I drive by 3 consecutive streets in the town of Oakhurst named: Black, Spook, and Hangtree, I can identify that if I had black skin I would be tormented by this. There was a time where those streets meant nothing to me. But I know better now.