Whiteness History Month
Tracing the history of white power and privilege in the United States and exploring how it remains relevant today.
Going through my school years at the turn of the century, I often heard fellow white students grumble when it came to observing Black History Month.
“What about white history month?” they’d ask, sometimes out loud.
My classes were often primarily, if not exclusively, white. The answer, one I didn’t know at the time, was that every month is White History Month — when you are white and live in a country founded to keep people who look like you on top, history is written through your eyes. It’s all white.
This confident way of walking through ‘our’ country, this (relative) ease with which white people largely go about our everyday lives, is difficult to articulate.
(The main course of history I consumed outside February until halfway through college was the history of white peopleª in Europe, and the history of white people in the United States.)
When you are the norm, the default, the “American” with no need of a hyphen, your presence and power and existence are taken for granted. This is an imperceptible wage, a social and psychological boost, an extra paycheck. We didn’t earn it, but here it is. Still accruing interest.
I grew up white in this all-encompassing, ever-powerful norm of whiteness; always the default, never the threat.
Although on the lower end of the economic scale, I was given a pass in school when peers who grew up near me but didn’t look like me were often treated thoroughly unlike me.
I’ve never worried about driving with a broken taillight, or had to reconsider getting angry while white. I can relate to all kinds of unique characters who look like me in the movies I watch, in the stories I’m told. I easily identify with the usual suspects, because they’re white like me.
I believe the grumble of my white peers to be honest, and so I honestly wanted to grapple with their question: to take a month and consider the checkered history of what it means to be white.
A month to focus on the ways in which these wages of whiteness• were (and are) privileged, protected, and prioritized in our history.
A month to remember rarely taken ways out of this death-dealing mixture of white power and white privilege, a deadly combination often showing up as violent white supremacy.
The United States of America’s original sin of racism continues to destroy this country from the inside out, from conception to insurrection.
It’s up to white people to understand how our particular history as white people is brutally intertwined with the present-day realities of racism.
Whiteness History Month is that attempt.
•W.E.B. DuBois described the ‘wages of whiteness’ in his Black Reconstruction in America.
ª The concept of race is a social construct, but not touch the way white supremacists have used that claim, or even white moderates, which often leads to responses of “then why are we even talking about race?”