Black History Month: What Americans Can Learn From #WhiteHistoryClasses
As February draws to a close, so too does the one month in every year dedicated to celebrating and remembering black history in America, and so too does the annual eruption of self-righteous indignation about this preposterous, offensive, and racist attempt to re-segregate American history. “Every February it never fails,” muses video blogger Chris Menning of Modern Primate. “Somebody somewhere makes the same remark: ‘Black history month!? Why isn’t there a white history month?! If we’re all supposed to be equal, they shouldn’t get to have their own month if we can’t have our own month.’”
“Aggravating as this kind of ignorance is, people who ask why there’s no white history month don’t even know how wrong they’re being because they’ve never even had to reflect on it,” he concludes.
Luckily, this year Tracy Clayton (a.k.a. Brokey McPoverty, who also runs the Tumblr Little Known Black History Facts) is there to “meet white folks in the middle” on Twitter with #WhiteHistoryClasses.
Last week, Clayton’s hashtag #WhiteHistoryClasses started trending on Twitter. Suggested coursework includes “Fashion Throughout History: The Functionality of the Bootstrap for the Struggling Minority,” “Doesn’t Whole Foods Accept Food Stamps?: Dismissing Structural Obstacles to Poverty Relief,” and “But That’s What Soap Is For: Washcloths and European Bathing Habits Through History.” (Ebony Magazine contributed “Racism in Journalism 101: Where’s My Ivory Magazine?”)
#WhiteHistoryClasses aptly parodies the clichéd construction of provocative “social science” pieces which often trade on lay racism. (The winning formula for titling such pieces, it appears, is “Catchy Pop Culture Allusion/ Provocative Question? : Academic Jargon/Vague, Possibly Indefensible Claim.”)
The overt, stomach-clenching sucker-punch of #WhiteHistoryClasses is the way in which it lays bare academia’s perpetual othering and exoticization of African-American culture and history. (Both, ironically, academic terms often used in the field of race and cultural studies.) The proposed #WhiteHistoryClasses, like the popular blog-turned-book Stuff White People Like, remind the reader that “white history” does not fail to exist because American history is raceless, or because we collectively lack knowledge of “white culture.” “White history” is not taught in schools or universities as such because it is considered to simply be history, because American history has been purposefully constructed to be homogeneously and continuously white, even as some protest that just a few hundred years ago, there was inter-group division and discrimination amongst ethnic groups we now consider to be simply white. There’s a reason why simply saying the words “old white men” constitutes critique.
While the U.S. may have advanced to the point where we can debate how President Obama has reckoned with race, our Census Bureau grows more and more confused with each passing year, and researchers second Bill O’Reilly’s claim that the white establishment is no longer the majority, we remain no less violently confused about how to deal with our historical legacy of racial segregation. As Tracy Morgan quips, “I don’t know what ‘post-racial is. We’re still post-slavery.”
But #WhiteHistoryClasses’ more subtle jabs at “The Man” may be aimed at the institution of academia itself. The formalized study of “black history” is a relatively recent development in American higher education, and it is one that has constantly had to justify its very existence, often unsuccessfully.
Classes on “Negro history” began in the early 1900s; the first African-American Studies department in the U.S. was established as recently as 1969. Some scholars argue that the number of African-American studies peaked in the early 1970s, and started dwindling due to lack of resources and support by the mid-‘90s. And as recently as last year, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted a highly polarizing, incredibly demeaning opinion piece entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” (It was then revealed that the author of the piece, Naomi Schaefer Riley, had not in fact read the dissertations in question. Oops.)
What #WhiteHistoryClasses shows mostly poignantly is that black history isn’t just marginalized by the existence of a commemorative month. It’s often literally segregated by our institutions of higher learning. As one Tweet puts it, “If We Didn’t Record It, It Simply Wasn't True: They Didn't Exist Before Slavery.”