The Best Way to Honor Black History Month Is to Stop Co-opting the Movement

Published on: 01 Feb 2021
black woman with megaphone black history month

The events of 2020 — racial and social unrest, the killings of countless Black people, the disproportionate rate of Black and brown people dying from COVID-19 — have required many of us to face the historical and present-day treatment of Black people in the United States. The summer months were full of people and brands alike sharing their favorite works from Black authors, feminists, activists, and organizers, and although it was nice to see these luminaries receive much-deserved attention, it was also, in some ways, disheartening. I knew that most of these moments were performative and rooted in white guilt. 

Do I think that white people are more aware today of systemic and institutional racism and white supremacy, especially when I reflect on the acts of racism, violence, and white supremacy in 2020 alone? I’d like to believe so. However, I also know that the issue is far more complex than simply reading a few books on anti-racism, sharing activist slideshows on social media, and donating to grassroots organizations and charities to support BIPOC. While these acts are a start, they don’t always equate to long-term impact.

This Black History Month it’s my hope that we will all be more conscientious about the content we engage with and the conversations we have, especially if these actions do not align with our everyday actions. We can do without the performative posts — i.e., quotes from Civil Rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and, instead, non-Black people, especially white people, need to educate themselves on the truth about these figures’ work and legacy. White people also need to learn more about the episodes in this country’s history that are often left out of history books and school curriculums — a country formed on land stolen from Indigenous people and built on the backs of Black people.

How Should White People Approach Black History Month?

Instead of co-opting the movement during Black History Month, white people may like to reflect on their privilege and the ways in which white supremacy harms Black people. “It’s difficult to become anti-racist when most people do not want to admit racism or white supremacy is really a thing,” says Talkspace therapist Reshawana Chapple, PhD, LCSW. Participating in anti-racism work isn’t easy and may lead to feelings of guilt or denial, but it is imperative. 

“White people and brands should approach Black History Month this year from a perspective of wanting to learn and understand ways in which they can support Black communities.”

Dr. Chapple explained that brands will often put up ads and content “celebrating” Black history during February “because we have accepted that this is the time in which we can ‘celebrate’ Black heritage, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually changing their practices or thinking largely about the ways their organization supports or exploits Black communities.” 

Instead of performative ads and content, “They should strive to be anti-racist,” Dr. Chapple said. “Anti-racism is purposeful, meaning anti-racism requires active work to dismantle the system of white supremacy.” According to Dr. Chapple reading books by Black authors such as “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo or “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi can help white people become anti-racist. “They can also spend time with healthy Black people and Black organizations that do this work,” she says. 

Simply posting quotes from well-known Black figures or sharing an article won’t cut it this year. These actions can be harmful to the mental health of Black people especially after the year of racial unrest we’ve experienced. I do not speak for all Black people, but passivity is dangerous and has never worked when it comes to dismantling white supremacy. Although it may be an expectation in white spaces, it is not the job of Black people to educate or explain anything pertaining to the Black experience in the U.S., being Black, or Black History Month. 

How to Cope When Black History Month Celebrations Feel Performative

“Black people should remember the most important thing is to be safe; to protect our emotional and physical well-being,” Dr. Chapple said, when asked how to cope with performative celebrations. She also said it’s imperative for Black people to understand the cost of emotional labor, and that that labor is “some of the reason why Black communities have such vast mental health disparities in relation to white communities, and some of the reasons why Black individuals are more susceptible to certain illnesses.” 

Dr. Chapple explained that it is not our responsibility to fix racism and white supremacy. Because of this, she encourages people to say “No” and set healthy boundaries for themselves. 

Additionally, she advised not challenging or engaging with content surrounding racism and white supremacy (good or bad) seen on TV or social media, for example. 

In addition to setting boundaries and saying “No,” I’m a huge proponent of self-care and recommend starting a self-care routine, if you haven’t already, to protect your energy and peace of mind. 

Ideas for self-care can include: 

  • Setting boundaries with friends and coworkers
  • Muting people on social media
  • Consuming foods that make you feel good
  • Venting to emotionally safe people in your life such as friends or a therapist
  • Binge-watching your favorite shows
  • Exercising
  • Anything else that makes you feel good

The impact and influence of Black history, Black culture, and Black people transcends one month, and it’s important to honor and acknowledge this beyond times of turmoil and beyond the month of February. 

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