By: Natalie McCabe Zwerger, RE-Center Executive Director
Can this Black History Month be different? Only you can decide. It often feels the same like some dusty ritual we white folx perform for an audience of none, like an annual dentist appointment. How can we be more? How can this month be a measure of the health and wellness of our alleged commitments to disrupting and dismantling anti-Blackness? Not in a hyperbolic worldly sense, but in the sense of everyday anti-Blackness that lives inside us. You know the kind that serves everyday to undo any performance of co-conspiratorship we unveil every February in a few lessons and then promptly shy away from at the close of the month. The depth, reach, and evolution of our commitments is ultimately a health and wellness check for us. Our relationships with Black histories and futures are our relationships with histories and futures where we acknowledge, own, resist, and deconstruct our ancestries as enslavers and colonizers.
Can this Black History Month be different? Only you can decide.
Really you should have decided 5 minutes ago or yesterday or the day you started posting on social media after a police officer murdered George Floyd. Or long before that. But, now works as well.
Maybe this February you meditate each day on the ways anti-Blackness lives in you. And maybe that’s an internal conversation or better yet one you have with trusted family and friends where you actually acknowledge the myriad ways you are explicitly and implicitly participatory in the dehumanization of Black people.
Maybe these reflections lead you to analyze where you spend your money. Which Black-owned and led businesses have you supported in the last 365 days? Which organizations who support the fight for racial justice (*with receipts*) have you donated to in the last year? Have you invested in curating a personal and professional library of Black authors? Have you contemplated the uncompensated labor of Black people (emotional, spiritual, psychological, social) you have benefitted from in your life? Have you compensated Black colleagues and team members for this labor? If you hold positional power or authority in a workplace, have you ensured other people compensate Black folx? Have you educated yourself on reparations and what is owed for lifetimes that dehumanized Black people and humanized us white folk?
Next you delve into colorism and the internalized preference for white and lighter skin that people of all races have accepted as truth. You unpack comments and internal reflections you have had or have about skin color, hair texture, and “appropriate” or “professional” dress. Where you sit in positional power, you ensure workplace policies and classroom behavioral policies are not imbued with these racist ideologies that have become too common, if not expected.
Then we could shift to language and focus on letting go of age old phrases that reinforce negativity with Blackness. Black sheep, blacklisted, black hole… You build understandings of the ways that Black women (cis, trans, & femme) have shaped the way you move through the world. You learn history, you read about Black women as the original feminists, freedom fighters, shapeshifters, warriors, and literally the inciters of revolutionary acts, acts of justice, and movements over generations. You learn and you acknowledge and you cite Black women.
Now, you are cookin with gas. You are on the journey of unpacking the anti-Blackness inside. Time to turn closer to home. Who in your family is on your journey with you and who is not? Part of your own commitment to anti-racism must include getting other folx to join you. You recruit. You push back. You call out, call in. You call it as it is. You speak up. You are no longer silent in the face of others' ignorance. You are now responsible. And your responsibility doesn’t come with an escape hatch. You are accountable now to the other white people around you who you must support in their interrogation of self, their deconstruction of ancestry, and their intentional embodied actions to advance racial justice. You influence people. Your influence on people is a reflection of what you are risking in furtherance of your commitment to combatting anti-Blackness.
You influence policies that directly and indirectly harm Black people. If you are not a policy influencer, you advocate to those who are. You do not engage in practices that are racist, unjust, or inequitable. You change your behavior. You set intentions. You are brave. Brave enough to understand that risk looks different to white bodies. To shy away from something because it’s too risky means you haven’t fully appreciated the depth of your privilege and you surely haven’t committed to dismantling it.
At this point, it is time for you to center and experience Black genius in ALL the ways possible. Read books only by Black authors. Read ALL the banned books. I know you read Kendi. I am glad you read Kendi. I am less interested in the fact that you have read Kendi and more interested in how he changed you. How would people KNOW you read Kendi just by how you move? Read Black nonfiction, fiction, poetry…soak up experiences, ancestry, and lineages that are not yours. Watch television shows written by, directed by, and starring Black people. Not as an invitation to wield receipts that you have built knowledge of experiences not your own, but rather as an opportunity to see and live your own harms to Black folx as you deepen understanding of how you are a central character in the very narratives you thought you were reading about for the first time in books. You are now gifted access to understanding authentic love and care and have an opportunity to understand how your humanity is tied up with that of those people you harm. All the while ask yourself how the whiteness that propelled you to the satin-covered pillows of privilege you sleep on each night is built on a legacy of anti-Blackness and white supremacy and design your disavowal of it.
You influence youth. You are an educator. You might be a parent, caregiver, family member, friend of youth. You spend a month interrogating the ways you are actively resisting whiteness and it’s stealth pull in how you teach, engage, relate, live, and love. Pour into this child or children your learnings, model your accountability, be vulnerable.
In the remaining months you breathe into possibilities. You shift from only imparting knowledge about Black folx who have made history and in many cases transitioned on from this life to another. You center Black futures. You envision teaching and learning that centers Blackness and actively decenters whiteness. You decolonize your own mind. You incite. You lean into spaces that center indigeneity, that center Latino/a/x and folx of Asian descent because you now understand that decentering whiteness requires centering and recentering of all historically excluded identities. You come to realize that by centering the brilliance, joy, and power of others, you are actually learning more about yourself and what is possible in a world that is different tomorrow.
You always come back to your anti-Blackness because it’s endemic and perpetual and you are never free from it. But you are working on your health and wellness. And you are living into a different version of you that takes any opportunity to honor Black history, made and unmade, as a gift and a reminder of your accountability to the future version of your anti-racist self.
***Imagine if that was your homework assignment.*** Maybe your course syllabi. Your trajectory of learning one year to the next.
Imagine if you had started this Black History Month after those 365 days of reflection, contemplation, and action. Your lessons might look and feel a bit different. You might find yourself extending beyond your tired focus on Black people from the points at which they were lynched, enslaved, forced from their homeland, and colonized. You might stretch into liberation and Black futures and possibilities.
So, you decide. Is this year different? It starts now.
– Natalie is a white Puerto Rican cis-hetero, non-disabled woman with significant class privilege.