Educate Yourself: Why White People Must Take Responsibility for Understanding Black History
By Laura Donohue and Sadie Kempner
Growing up, Black History month was a fun month for me. In my public school back in New York, (PS 261 represent!), we would learn about African American abolitionists, freedom fighters, and artists. One particular memory that stands out is dancing to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. It was one of the things I loved about attending a diverse public school. I was encouraged to learn about other cultures by reading, listening, and searching.
Unfortunately, instead of doing their own research, many white people ask people of colour to educate them on their history (which can be presumed to be “their history”, making it even more inappropriate). People who ask these questions are usually (but not always) starting from zero. Thus, they expect the person of colour to transform into a Google search bar and be a font of knowledge.
Sometimes this can come from a well-meaning place — out of a desire to amplify black voices or not presume to speak for people of colour on an issue. However, it can be problematic for several reasons:
For many people of colour, revisiting their history can be painful.
Remembering past atrocities can be triggering or at the very least upsetting. Usually, when someone asks a person of colour to explain a part of their history, it’s the part where there was extreme human suffering, human rights being violated, imperialism, the list goes on. Also…
They’ve probably been asked to explain it already.
Explaining the same piece of history or culture over and over again is emotionally exhausting. The person being asked, unless they’re a teacher or tutor, are also probably not being paid to talk about it.
Women of colour are disproportionately asked to do this emotional labour.
Just as women are expected to comfort and be empathetic towards men, women of colour are disproportionately expected to educate people about their history, culture, and struggles. There is a fantastic article about this in Everyday Feminism.
Here’s what you can do to help:
- Remember, as a white person, that the history of African American’s is NOT only “their history” — it is also yours. It is inextricable from white violence, colonialism and oppression. The reason Black History Month needs to exist is that white people systemically erased Black history. Don’t forget this important context.
- Pay people of colour (especially women) for their knowledge. Whether it be their for their books, articles, or supporting them through Patreon, pay them what they’re owed. If you can’t afford it, share their work on social media.
- Make a conscious effort to prioritise marginalised voices and stories in your learning all year round — if you read fiction on your commute, read books by black and other women of colour. I like reading about periods of history or politics, read (and as above, buy!) books and articles
- Before asking, do some research! The answers to your questions are almost definitely already out there to be found. Not much more to say other than that.
- Share what you’ve learned with your friends, but make sure you don’t drift into fake allyship territory. Show them because you care, not for a cookie or points.
- Relatedly, be earnest in your learning and take it seriously. Don’t make it about “performing” your goodness by #NotAllWhitePeople-ing all over social media.
- Bell Hooks (1984, 2015) Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (I promise it isn’t as dry as the title suggests) — or literally anything by bell hooks, she’s incredible.
- Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017) Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race
- Glory Edim (2019) Well-Read Black Girl
- Michelle Obama (2018) Becoming
- Anything by Toni Morrison — especially, (1970) The Bluest Eye