In his proclamation on Black History Month, President Joe Biden wrote that, “A knee to the neck of justice opened the eyes of millions of Americans and launched a summer of protest and stirred the nation’s conscience.”
This year, Black History Month follows widespread calls for racial justice and a continued reminder of the need to give visibility to the people and organizations creating change.
I find myself questioning, though, whether Black History Month is being used to pave the way for a long-term state of equity.
Maybe it is, maybe it can.
If we know more about Black contributions to history, then we won’t need symbolic tokenism. Black History Month might not end the fight, but it could be a catalyst in helping to understand racism and Black narratives better.
“A true shift and appreciation of Black history requires an ongoing commitment to learn, understand, engage and act even when that makes us uncomfortable and challenges our own advantages with all its perks,"
- Erica Fields
Across this country, I have watched the large number of companies, institutions and governmental organizations that are leveraging the moment. Books about racial justice and white supremacy burned up the bestseller list. Opinions and discussions on racial justice and police brutality shifted dramatically.
Celebrating “Black” and uplifting diversity, equity and inclusion through social media, crafty campaigns, trendy public statements and new initiatives (that may never be fully funded or resourced admittedly) became the new trend.
While I admit that there may have been a “racial epiphany” and these gestures may look like a starting point, the worst kind of celebration of Black is that which is done as a nod to an issue without fully addressing it.
Black history deserves to be fundamentally engaged with the critical work on the subject that is needed, is deserved and has existed in Black communities for decades.
Black history should not be appropriated, monetized or viewed as a calendar month to be checked off and dominated by a whitewashed version of history. Turning the mission of equity into a “to-do list” only perpetuates the status quo. This tokenism is actually an underpinning of systemic oppression even though it appears to look like progress.
Black History Month should and could play a crucial role that is more meaningful than surface level. If we truly believe that Black lives matter and Black history matters, we need to see it in our long term investments, our policy, changes in practice and systems, elevation of Black voices at the margin that are not silenced when doing so would make our jobs easier, and changes in educational curriculum that celebrate Black beyond the 28 days that fall within the month of February.
We need to move beyond superficial change and a check off the box mentality. It’s not just about publishing a policy but rather enacting change in behavior, practice and commitment. It must be aligned with strategy, brand and culture in a genuine way.
A true shift and appreciation of Black history requires an ongoing commitment to learn, understand, engage and act, even when that makes us uncomfortable and challenges our own advantages with all its perks.
Erica Fields is the director of Dayton’s Human Relations Council.