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White People and Black History Month

White People and Black History Month

Darold Bigger, PhD, 

Professor Emeritus of Social Work and Religion 

Dean, Wilma Hepker

School of Social Work and Sociology 

This article is intended for white people.  

White people, like me, need Black History Month. We need to listen to Black people describe themselves, celebrate the accomplishments of other black people, and tell stories about their experiences. The importance of listening became especially clear to me last week. Beginning with Walla Walla University’s own Dr. Timothy Golden’s colloquium talk on Thursday and continuing through the special Black History Month services Friday night and Sabbath, I realized how much we white people need Black History Month. 

Will you excuse me for using myself as an example? This year’s discussions are not my first exposure to issues of race. I was a student during the racial protests of the 60s, studied ethics then and into the 70s, developed friendships and had roommates who were Black and who nurtured, challenged, and educated me. But I still need more. 

I need to listen to Black people more than learn about them from others. Hearing others who look and grew up like me describe the experiences Black people have had is like consulting a secondary source for your research paper: better than nothing but not nearly as good as going straight to the original source. I need to hear their stories from them.  

What was it like to grow up in their neighborhood, to go to their schools and churches, to shop in the stores near their home? What was it like to hear your mother worry that you’d be attacked or beaten up? What was it like to have your family give you “the talk” – not about sex, but about where you could sit or eat or drink or work, what you could say and not say, how you were to act around white people, how you should be quiet and not attract attention? What responses did you have when you heard about noted Black educators or scientists or entertainers or athletes?  

Some of you in other groups know something of this. If you’re female or Asian, for example, you can identify better than others of us. You know what it’s like to be so different you stand out and nothing you can do or not do changes that.  

To avoid standing out in uncomfortable situations, many of us adjust our behaviors and try to melt into the crowd. I did that once during the 60s in Europe. That was during the Vietnam war when Americans were perceived by many Europeans as uncivilized, uncouth, cruel bullies, so I tried to act and talk like a “proper British gentleman,” accent and all. It worked—but only for a short time before I got called out! (Hiding one’s true identity can create personal identity problems, but those deserve their own separate exploration in an additional discussion.)  

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But if your difference is so obvious that you cannot hide it, your choices are severely limited. You are obviously who you are. What if that triggers fear or disgust or hatred from others? Who can you trust and where is there safe refuge from physical or emotional insults?  

As a white, educated, employed, some-would-say-successful, American male, who is warmly welcomed in most social contexts, I don’t know what that is like. I am a very privileged person. I didn’t earn it; it was a happenstance of birth, country, family, gender, and genetics.  

Black History Month is for me and you, for all of us. It delivers a double blessing. It provides an opportunity for Black people to reconnect to their roots and it exposes the rest of us to what is important to them and why.  

We need to listen to Black people celebrate their accomplishments, reconnect to their roots, be joyful about their identity, and tell their stories of pain as well as pride. In that same way, we need to listen to other groups too, like women in the #MeTooMovement and Hispanics and Indigenous people, those who are displaced or disabled, and those who live in poverty, etc. 

Listening to one another educates us, increases our understanding of others, challenges us to improve the future because of the past, and broadens our appreciation of one another. This supports WWU’s philosophy statement assertion that “Every person is created in the image of God as a being of inestimable value and worth” [1]. 

Sources 

  1. Walla Walla University. Mission and Vision. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/3rHbQjY.  
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