The Case for a Whiteness History Month

Updated March 29, 2016 4:44pm PDT
Whiteness  History  Month

Every February, the most vocal undesirables creep and crawl out of the woodwork in protest of Black History Month, an annual month-long celebration of important people, events, and movements throughout the African diaspora. 

They cry “reverse racism!” and revile the existence of Black Entertainment Television (BET) without an equalizing White Entertainment Television. Without any sense of irony, they demand a White History Month despite the existence of a number of European-American heritage months including:

For those still particularly keen to “celebrate their white heritage” more explicitly, Confederate History Month is commemorated in April.

But we can address this glaring inequality: I propose the introduction of a Whiteness History Month. This is not a completely novel endeavor, as Portland Community College in Oregon has already embarked on creating curriculum and programming around this very topic. 

It is crucial to immediately distinguish “white” from “whiteness.” In the United States, “white” is an ethno-racial signifier used to describe individuals of European descent (i.e. white people); “whiteness” here signifies western hierarchization of bodies and identities with respect to resources and labor and “usefulness” within colonialism and racial capitalism. 

There is a difference, for example, between white feminism and white women who are feminists. White feminism is a particular way of conceptualizing sexism and misogyny that still reproduces structural exclusions by excluding or actively antagonizing women of color, queer and transgender women, women in sex work, disabled women, poor or undocumented women, and so on. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In-ism espouses a kind of corporate feminism that fails to engage the raced and classed dynamics that do not allow some women access to that agency and negotiation. 

White women are often white feminists in that they propagate exclusionary feminisms, but they are not inherently synonymous.

Whiteness is thus a kyriarchy–a system of interconnected and mutually reinforcing social systems of domination–that includes racial supremacism, simultaneous resource deprivation/distribution and exploitation of labor (economic inequalities within capitalism), gendered and sexual divisions (misogyny, cissexism and transphobia, homophobia), and ableism.

Despite the presence of non-white communities across the European continent, European-American cultural heritage months are arguably white history months because dominant communities in these countries are racialized as white. At least, they are presently racialized as white. “White” as an ethno-racial signifier is not static: its boundaries change in order to include or exclude communities as it best suits racial hegemonies. 

When Irish communities began immigrating to the United States in the early 1800s, they experienced particular kinds of xenophobia not unlike what we would presently describe as racial discrimination though they looked indistinguishable from the Anglo communities excluding them. Like Italian immigrant communities, the Irish “became white,” i.e. rather than aligning with black American communities to dismantle and overthrow violent racial systems; they chose to align themselves to dominant racial groups and derive benefit from the United States’ system of racial dominance. 

This country’s education system fails to be culturally inclusive in a way that decenters or characterizes violent domination as anything but normal. It teaches that any group presently classified as white has always been white. It teaches the idea that more powerful groups have always invaded or destroyed other groups – as though chattel slavery or capitalism or transphobic exclusion are somehow “natural.” If cultural histories of communities not racialized as white are mere addendums to a blindingly white rendering of “American” history, we must also teach about the structures that deem these cultural histories as less valuable and worthy of exclusion. 

Because we as Americans are so deeply invested in preserving Americana tradition, I propose we observe Whiteness History Month in November to include the celebration of one of this country’s most beloved holidays, one that lies at the heart of America’s settler colonial mythology, a true display of the anti-indigenous and genocidal essence of the United States: Thanksgiving.

Whiteness History Month would not only contest retellings of history that normalize racial dominance, but in displacing dominant narratives, this educational programming would disrupt the maintenance of white ignorance (i.e. racialized ways of knowing and not knowing or refusing to know) in one vital site: educational spaces. Schools and universities aren't simply places of learning: they are spaces where knowledge is generated, where revised histories are widely shared. The ability to generate knowledge directly translates into social, cultural, and political capital and power: the ability to disseminate a knowledge that normalizes hegemony represents the continuation of a Eurocentric colonial project.

Critical education and anti-racist pedagogy like Whiteness History Month take aim at the whiteness-maintaining additions to “American” history. Non-white diasporic cultural history months existing in social-political silos are perfect examples of how diversity initiatives in fundamentally hegemonic spaces fail to actually rectify the inequality that is the failure of adequate inclusion vis-à-vis decentering. Events for the month could take place not only in middle schools, high schools and universities, but also within safe and accommodating community spaces (e.g. cultural centers and public libraries) so that knowledge would be more widely accessible.

So there you have it. I’m sure white people complaining about Black History Month got a little more than they bargained for.

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Zoe is a womanist INvested in black communities and continually DIvesting from the violence of respectability politics and all things pertaining to structural whiteness.