It’s that time of year again. For a whole month we strive to recognise the history, achievements and influence of Black people. Black History Month is hugely important, but already an inevitable question has been asked on social media: “What about white history month?”
Before we tackle just why this question is being asked (usually by the same people who adamantly declare that "all lives matter"), it’s perhaps best to try to answer the question in earnest.
The short answer, which might seem glib or dismissive to some, is that every month is white history month. It’s hard to deny that the history of white people is well-served. There’s no shortage of white historical figures who permeate the public consciousness – kings, queens, poets, explorers and a litany of others. Lauded in classrooms, memorialised in public statues, their stories told and re-told in documentaries and dramatised on film. So complete is the domination of white historical narratives that we don’t really notice when we’re hearing about them exclusively.
Conversely, Black history is wildly underrepresented, not just in classrooms but in culture as a whole. It can, for some, feel strange to learn about people who are different. The under-representation of the African diaspora in popular consciousness is also something of a vicious cycle, one which sees their stories left out of history books, both literally and figuratively. People don’t write books about people they haven’t heard of, and it’s those same history books which are used to teach the next generation.
As the dominant culture, in terms of sheer numbers and political power, white people prioritise their own stories. We don’t always do so consciously, but we identify much more easily with figures who remind us of ourselves. We extol their virtues and absolve their sins.
An excellent example of this implicit bias is Winston Churchill, voted the greatest Briton ever by a public BBC poll in 2002. The Prime Minister who saw us through our darkest hour, bringing an end to the horrors brought by the Nazis. That’s important.
The horrors he unleashed on Mau Mau in Kenya? Not so much. His use of concentration camps in South Africa? It was a different time. Letting up to three million Bengalis die from famine? Everyone makes mistakes. It's worth considering whether or not the White History Month that the right-wing seek would include such details.
Obviously, the ordinary people who put Churchill at the top of the “100 greatest Britons” Poll didn’t dismiss Churchill’s more unsavoury side in the blithe manner I’ve described here. They likely didn’t know, because at some point in the past, we decided it wasn’t important enough to teach.
The idea that we might need a ‘white history month’ relies on wrong-headed ideas about equality. Much like the mantra “all lives matter”, it works off the basis that society is fair and just. Perhaps a greater understanding is needed about the necessity of equity over equality. The latter aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives, while the former focuses on trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality only works if everyone starts at the same place, which in the cases of both gender and race is just not true. It is why the idea of white history month is completely unnecessary and a Black History Month is. The Black community need their contributions to society to be recognised and celebrated because they haven't been before.
If we’re being charitable, we could attribute the question of “when is white history month?” to genuine confusion. Why, when so many strides have been made in the name of civil rights and representation, do Black people need special treatment? “Isn’t that racist?” these people wonder on Twitter. “Surely we need a white history month to ensure race neutrality. Everyone should be able to express pride in their race.” If Black people were already properly represented in the day-to-day retelling of history, then that thinking might hold water. Sadly, this isn’t the case.
If we’re not being so charitable, the question is no more than dog-whistle for racists. a seemingly innocent statement which is picked up and understood by like-minded people. Viewed through that lens, advocating for a white history month is not too different from advocating for ‘white pride’ or men who campaign for an international men’s day.
These days, no doubt thanks to Black History Month, most people understand that ‘white pride’ is far from an innocent analogue to ‘Black pride’. The difference, the grisly uncomfortable truth, is this - white people have not been historically characterised as less than human just for being white.
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