If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race. Such an effort would upset the program of the oppressor in Africa and America. Play up before the Negro, then, his crimes and shortcomings. Let him learn to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton. Lead the Negro to detest the man of African blood—to hate himself.”
― Carter G. Woodson, “The Mis-Education of the Negro”
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, noted historian of the Black experience in the United States, developed Negro History Week (now Black History Month) as a twofold strategy toward racial equality.
First, it was designed to educate Black people about their history, their contributions and their humanity in a country that from its founding considered them property and worth only three-quarters of a person. To counteract the deliberate strategy of keeping Black people in ignorance of their history, Woodson proposed creating intentional time and space to honor Black Americans and their achievements.
Woodson believed Black people needed to know their full history both for reasons of dignity and as a tool to participate thoughtfully and strategically in U.S. society and politics. Woodson wrote his classic masterpiece, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” to make the case that Black people would require a totally new education to attain full freedom and dignity. Even today, Black people continue to re-educate themselves and their children using the tools provided by Woodson and other Black intellectuals that are not available in most American schools.
Second, Woodson also promoted Black history to educate White Americans about the contributions of Black Americans as proof they were equally human: intellectually, culturally, physically and socially. In a country hellbent on denying the equality of Black people, Negro History Week served as a counterweight. Woodson hoped that eventually Negro History Week (today’s Black History Month) would no longer be needed because all Americans would honor the contributions of Black Americans to their country’s history without a second thought.
This year, I challenge all of us to a Black History Month thought experiment. Let’s assume Black Americans’ humanity, dignity, and equality as citizens of the United States is a given, just as Woodson hoped it would be.
This year, instead of focusing on Black people, let’s question why White people denied Black people’s humanity in the first place. Let’s really study racism to answer the profound challenge raised by James Baldwin:
What White people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary to have a n—r in the first place.
Part of doing that is taking a deeper look at what Whiteness has meant historically and what it currently means in our society.
Rather than spend the month of February “proving the value” of Black people by highlighting individual Black Americans and their contributions to our country, this Black History Month Racial CrossFit lesson challenges us to discover why there is still a need to “prove” Black worth, by studying how White racism has historically and systematically devalued the worth of human beings not considered to be “White.”
Before You Start This Workout, Explore the History of ‘Whiteness’
This Racial CrossFit is going to be insanely difficult for White people! It will be the racial workout of your life! It is the triathlon of racial introspection.
- There is a 99 percent chance you will cry.
- There is a 99 percent chance you will want to quit.
- There is a 99 percent chance you will be angry and want to fight me.
Do it anyway! As your Racial CrossFit coach, I expect you work through all your pain and emotions to reach our goal. Yup, it hurts, do it anyways!
Moreover, if you do this workout, there is a 100 percent chance you will learn something new and deepen your level of racial awareness. And all the pain will be worth it in order to gain the strength needed to finally guide us towards an end to racism.
To get you ready, this Racial CrossFit workout kicks off with some background on the history of Whiteness.
Whiteness and “the White race” as we know it today are relatively new concepts. The word Caucasian was invented in 1776. It may surprise you to learn how many people we now consider White Americans without a second thought only “became White” very recently. Here’s just one example:
The documentary, “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” produced by California Newsreel and shown on PBS, includes a timeline of how Whiteness and the idea of “races” developed. You’ll want to refer to it as you take on this tough assignment.
Now you’re ready for Racial CrossFit: Beyond Black History Month Edition!
Everyone must answer the question regarding racist Federal Housing Administration (FHA) policies. In addition, please answer one question from each category: Early Creation of Whiteness and Racism; Whiteness in the 19th and 20th Century; and Whiteness and Racism Currently.
- Who were the European tribes that the Romans considered “barbaric?” Choose one modern European country, name its ancient ethnic tribes and describe how and when they became civilized: Denmark, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden. (15 points)
- When did the term “White race” first appear in colonial laws? Through colonial times and early U.S. history, how was the law used to define and privilege “Whiteness?” (15 points)
- How and why did the Irish and Scottish, people who were considered non-White in the early Americas, participate in racism and White supremacy? What political, economic and psychological benefits did they receive after a period of oppression? (10 points)
- Create a timeline of when and where the following people became “White” in America. For extra credit, add a brief summary as to why they were included in the White race: Irish, Scots, Russians, Jews, Eastern Europeans. (5 points each)
Whiteness In the 19th and 20th Centuries
- Describe how the Homestead Act of 1862 was used historically to privilege White people, and how those effects persist today. (10 points)
- Define who Hitler described as “the superior Aryan race.” Would the White race in America today qualify? Why or why not? (10 points)
- Research the Marshall Plan. Take the viewpoint of a Black soldier in World War II, and write about the racism in the plan. (10 points)
- Read Ta-Nehshi Coates’ case for reparations in The Atlantic. Describe the FHA racial discriminatory policies and please give a personal example of someone in your family or a White friend that benefited from the racial policy? (Mandatory Question: 25 points)
Whiteness and Racism Today
Watch this clip of James Baldwin speaking on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1968 before answering these questions.
- If you live in a community where less than 20 percent of the population includes low-income people of color, please examine the resource gap between your neighborhood and neighborhoods where low-income people of color live, and reflect on how to change it. What are the resources your community has that low-income communities of color do not have? Name three actions you can take now to close the racial resource gap between your community and less-affluent communities of color. (10 points)
- If your children’s school population is less than 15 percent low-income students of color, please examine the resource gap between your school and nearby schools attended by large numbers of less-affluent students of color, and reflect on how to change it. What are the resources that your local school has access to that nearby low-income communities of color do not have? Name three actions you can take now to close the racial resource gap between your child’s school and schools in less-affluent communities of color. (10 points)
- Give three examples of racist policies in our criminal justice system that affect Black people but do not affect White people. (10 points)
- Name three tangible privileges possessed by people who are considered White in 2018 America, that are not available to non-Whites. (5 points each)
Read and review any of the following books:
- “Stamped from the Beginning”—Ibram X. Kendi
- “The New Jim Crow”—Michelle Alexander
- “The Mis-Education of the Negro”– Carter G. Woodson
- “Between the World and Me”—Ta-Nehisi Coates
- “Heavy” Kiese Laymon
Watch and review one of these movies:
Happy Black History Month!