I can feel the raised eyebrows at the title of this blog; it can be perceived to smack of bigotry. And believe me, I’ve heard so many arguments against Black History Month, it makes my head spin:
- There isn’t an Italian History Month, so why is there an African-American History Month?
- Why is there a Black History Month, but not a White History Month? Isn’t that racist?
- I’m not an expert in this area, so why should I try to teach it?
- If I say something wrong, some parent is going to call me a racist, so why should I take the chance?
- I don’t see color, so why should I point it out to my students?
Let’s quickly debunk most of these, and then explain why I’m not a fan (it’s not on the list). I’ve heard that there should be a Polish History Month from my father, an Italian History Month from a teacher, a German History Month from another teacher, and so on. This argument is based on a fallacy – the logical fallacy of faulty comparison, for it compares an ethnicity to a nationality.For here’s the difference: Italy, Germany, and Poland are individual countries that makes up part of the continent of Europe. African-American History Month is about an entire continent of people. It’s about a different ethnicity from the ethnicity originally found primarily in Europe. And we celebrate the European-Caucasian-White ethnicity on a daily basis. Columbus Day celebrates the White ethnicity, Thanksgiving is based on the accomplishments of the White ethnicity, President’s Day celebrates the accomplishments of the White ethnicity, and even Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day are about the White ethnicity.
I’ve also heard that we need a White History Month to counter Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. But as I explained above, there isn’t a need for White History Month – White accomplishments are acknowledged and celebrated every day in almost every classroom across the country. This again is the logical fallacy of faulty comparison, for it compares what is taught daily with what is taught in isolation. On our morning announcements, I hear about John Glenn’s 50th anniversary, the day Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, the accomplishments of Edison, that a particular territory became a state, and on and on. It is a rare day indeed that I hear about a Black, Hispanic, Latino, or Asian accomplishment beyond Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and perhaps Frederick Douglass. Why do we not need White History Month? White history is taught and celebrated 13 months out of each year.
I’ve also heard the lament that we don’t have enough expertise in the area, and that, if we misspeak, someone is going to get angry. These concerns are actually another fallacy of thought – the fallacy of an appeal to fear. The educator fears making a mistake, therefore the situation should be avoided. Just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it should be ignored. When I applied for the New Jersey Amistad Grant years ago, I attended a Summer Institute. I’d heard the term “White Privilege” before, but I’d never understood it. There were many people at the Institute who truly believed that, as a White teacher, I should not be teaching Black History because there was no way I’d fully understand the issues and topics. Talk about me feeling uncomfortable! My first reaction was, “I don’t need this. I should just go home. It’s not my fault I’m White, so why am I being treated like this?” (little did I realize at the time that this reaction was my White privilege shining through). But you know what? They were right to an extent – I’ll never fully understand what it’s like to be Black. I’ll never fully understand how much White privilege influences my thinking. However, the issue here is, if not me, then who? According to the National Center for Education Information, in 2011, a full 84% of public school teachers in the US were white, 7% were Black, and 6% were Hispanic or Latino. So what should happen? We march the one or two Black teachers into every class on a rotating schedule to teach Black History? No, the answer is for me to care enough to learn as much as I can and acknowledge that I’ll never fully understand, but that as an educator and a human being, I need to understand what I can. I’ve certainly said the wrong thing at times, and I’ve made mistakes. When approached about such situations, I take the opportunity to learn something from it. I ask questions, I ask how I should have presented the information, I ask how the information is fallacious. When I show a genuine, sincere interest in correcting my approach or knowledge, the result tends to be respect.
So, what about that last bullet? The infamous “color blind” argument. Here’s the problem: when someone says that they’re colorblind to various ethnicities, the hidden message is that they see and expect everyone to react and act as they would. They are demanding complete uniformity and deny the diversity in front of them. Teaching Tolerance featured a wonderful article entitled, “Colorblindness: The New Racism?” years ago. The content of the article is just as valid today as when it was written. While “the idea that ignoring or overlooking racial and ethnic differences promotes racial harmony” seems prevalent in some schools and classrooms, in reality, “folks who enjoy racial privilege are closing their eyes to the experiences of others.” Colorblindness is not actually colorblindness at all: it’s assuming the world is one ethnicity and that diversity will disappear if ignored. Principal Kafele’s recent video on this topic should be mandatory for every educator to watch across the country. He acknowledges that often the idea of colorblindness is based on laudable intentions, but the results can be dire.
Okay – so the list of why many think Black History Month should be abolished is completed, and we have debunked the list and shown the fallacies inherent in each one. But I still have issues with Black History Month. Why? It’s a terrible commentary on the lack of tolerance and understanding in our society that Black History Month is absolutely necessary. In a previous essay, I explained:
While the African-American population in the United States approaches 15%, African and African-American characters, cultures, and history are minimally represented in the texts and trade books in classrooms across America…. Of course, many schools in the United States study African-American history during the month of February. Ironically, this is the shortest month of the year, and also the month that many teachers are preparing for standardized testing. So, while we may attempt to teach African-American topics in isolation, we also choose to do so in only one short month that is already packed with test prep, Valentine’s Day, and Presidents’ Day. Therefore, clearly less than 5% of the school year is dedicated to learning about 15 to 20% of the population. In reality, Black History Month is a Band-Aid approach to handling a real need for diversifying our educational tools used on a daily basis.
So, how do we address this dire need for change in our schools? First of all, each teacher in each classroom across the country needs to look at the data in the classroom. How many African-American scientists are included in the science curriculum across the school year, not just during February? How many books in each classroom library depict some part of African culture, the African Diaspora, or the African-American experience? What percentage are these books of the full classroom library? Is the percentage less than 15% (the national demographic average)? What is the demographic for the school? Does the percentage meet the demographic makeup of the student population? What percentage of the Social Studies curriculum addresses African and/or African-American culture and experiences? Are these lessons concentrated primarily during the month of February, or are they infused throughout the school year?
This type of data can really feel uncomfortable at first, but the data need to be gathered, analyzed, and discussed by educators. This data can be the catalyst for discussion and understanding in classrooms and faculty rooms, and can lead to a celebration of the wealth of contributions that African-Americans have made to our nation’s society and development. Doesn’t it seem more educationally sound to examine the situation and make rational decisions for corrective measures rather than simply ignore the situation and do a disservice to all our children?
Of course, the African-American population is not the only population that has been ignored in our classrooms. Indeed, Hispanic-American, Native American, Middle Eastern-American, and Asian-American cultures have been marginally acknowledged in the trade books and stories read to children. Indeed, only those of European-American ancestry receive continuous and consistent recognition of their heritage in many of our classrooms. This situation must be changed if we are to truly move forward in our efforts to unite our society….”
What is missing in the above excerpt is the vital importance for children of mostly White ethnicity to learn about the accomplishments and contributions of all ethnicities to our world. Placing blinders on children means that they do not fully understand how diverse and exciting the world is, and, when residing on a globe that is continuously shrinking, this lack of understanding can ultimately set them up for failure. Let’s help all our children succeed. Black History Month is absolutely necessary, but through seamless integration of all ethnicities into our curriculums, the day may come when Black History Month can be abandoned with a clear conscience.
Note: For New Jersey educators, please visit the Amistad Commission’s Web-based Curriculum and use it as a starting point for integration. After reviewing the lessons there, make sure to visit the Holocaust Commission and its curriculum as well. Inclusion of African-American History and Holocaust education is mandatory in New Jersey.