The Importance of Celebrating Black History Month and Listening to Black Voices

            Living in the desert, February can mean a lot of things! The weather is great here this time of year, couples celebrate their love on Valentine’s Day, people get together for Super Bowl parties, and Phoenix plays host to the Waste Management Open, one of the rowdiest golf tournaments in the PGA. And while all those things are good and fun, there’s something about February that is so much more important. February, as many people are aware, is known as Black History Month. This means February is a month when we are reminded to pay extra special attention to the contributions of Black Americans and to continue to take steps to eliminate racism. For a white, middle-aged, middle-class male like myself, race is not always an easy topic to discuss. In fact, it can be quite uncomfortable. I’m by no means an expert on race, and there are plenty of times when I’ve been unintentionally racially insensitive. I imagine this is true for many, many white people. But this is not a reason to avoid talking about race or learning about race. In fact, it’s a very good reason that everyone ought to embrace Black History Month and to learn as much as we can about Black history, racial reconciliation, and improving the lives of all God’s people.

            I hear people ask questions like, “Why do we need a Black History Month when there isn’t a white history month?” I hear people say things like, “I don’t see color,” or, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” These types of questions and comments contribute to some of the reasons that celebrating Black History Month is important. The reason we need Black History Month is because our country would not be what it is without the efforts of the African American community, and the contributions of Black Americans are frequently either ignored or whitewashed so that they are not seen as being important. Celebrating Black History gives due credit to important accomplishments of African Americans, and it brings those contributions to light. It also ensures there is visibility and representation, so that Black children have examples of someone who looks like them doing things they might not have otherwise had the chance to see. Representation helps people to shoot for success. If that person can do it, then so can I!

            For a very visible example of how representation is important, let’s think of the United States presidency. For more than 200 years, US presidents looked pretty well the same. Presidents were white men with gray or graying hair. This sent a message to white males that they could be president someday. No one had ever known of a US president to be anything other than a white male. But in 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. With his election, a pattern was broken. And now, Black children know with certainty that the presidency (along with other leadership opportunities) is not off limits to them. Someone with a similar skin tone has now held the highest office in our country. And for even longer, the vice president has been a white male. But now, for the first time in our nation’s history, a female person of color is vice president. Kamala Harris, who is of Black and Indian ancestry, is perhaps the most visible example in America of a woman of color in a high-profile role. With Harris breaking that glass ceiling, young girls of color now know that someone who looks like them has been vice president. This is important because it helps to break stereotypes and push the needle further toward equality for all.

            So if talking about race is so important, why is it so uncomfortable? I would argue that it’s because there needs to be a willingness to listen to the stories of African Americans and other people of color. Simply making a blanket statement, such as, “I’m not a racist,” isn’t terribly helpful. There is a distinction between the word racist when it’s used as a noun or when it’s used as an adjective. Making an ignorant or ill-informed statement can be racist, even unintentionally. A person who is not a racist is very capable of making a comment or doing something that is racist. And I suspect that many racist comments and actions are not committed intentionally. Instead, I suspect they are committed out of ignorance or lack of awareness. They’re committed without thought or reflection. And that is why it is important for people of all races to raise our awareness of African Americans and other people of color. If people know better, we have more tools so that we can do better. But we can’t possibly know better unless we listen.

            For far too long in the United States, the light skin of white people has been seen as “default”. Males with white skin have been thought of as default leaders. Females with white skin have been seen as championing feminist causes that help other white women, but ignore the plight of women of color. People are not always aware of our biases, and sometimes we simply get it wrong and we don’t realize it. As a society, we must take the time to listen to stories of people who are patient enough to share them. It isn’t a Black person’s job to make sure a white person understands Black history. However, if white people take the time to listen to Black stories, there’s a real opportunity for growth and change.

            It is important for Americans to understand that Black slaves essentially built this country. It was the backbreaking labor and sweat equity of slaves that brought prosperity to the nation in its early days. What could be more economical than producing a whole lot of product and not paying for it? While it may not have been paid for with cash, it certainly was paid for with pain, tears, hardship, and cruelty toward people of color. For a long time, people with darker skin were seen as inferior, less intelligent humans because of the color of their skin. In reality, hardships placed on communities of color have led to more economic disparity. Banks have historically denied financing opportunities to people of color, schools in Black communities have historically been underfunded. Black communities are more frequently located in something called “food deserts”, where freshly grown produces is scarce, and high-calorie, low-nutrition foods are abundantly available at lower costs. To this day, Black men are far more likely to be confronted by police without cause than their white counterparts. While Black people make up 13 percent of the population of the country, nearly 40% of US prison inmates are Black. Communities of color have not historically had the same access to education opportunities, job opportunities, healthcare, or financial freedom as their white counterparts. This is at least partly due to the fact that white people in this country simply had a head start. White people were in charge, and they made policies that benefitted themselves. While malice by some white policy makers is certainly partially to blame, ignorance and lack of awareness of how these policies affected communities of color likely played a role as well. Just because of human nature, if an issue doesn’t affect me personally, I’m not nearly as likely to make it a priority.

            All of these and more are reasons Black History Month is something we all need to embrace. There isn’t a “white history month” because there isn’t a need for it. White people in this country have not been placed on the margins the way Black people and other people of color have been. And people might not be racists and yet still participate in activities and actions that are racist. Even if they don’t realize they’re doing it. It’s important to learn and it’s important to listen. I bet good money that if most of us learned that things we did or said were racist, we’d stop doing them immediately. But we can’t stop doing them if we’re not willing to listen and learn. And that is what Black History Month is about: listening and learning. I encourage you to join me this Black History Month and beyond in listening to Black stories. Read books by Black authors (If you need me to, I can recommend some to you that I have found tremendously helpful!). Watch movies and television created by Black artists. Receive the stories of people of color, including women and LGBTQ+ voices. We aren’t likely to solve the problem of racism and prejudice. But our efforts can go a long way toward understanding people who are different and to respecting the inherent dignity of every human person. Each of us is made in the image of God and we must respect that his inherent goodness is found in every one of his children. While it’s true that we don’t all look the same, we all have human hearts. Embrace the diversity that God created, blessed, and said was good. We can embark on this journey as we celebrate Black History Month together.  

Lift Every Voice