February, Black History Month, is an important month. But how the hell do I write about it?
For one thing, I’m woefully uneducated. For another, my writing tends to turn everything into a joke and this is something that is not to be joked about. Finally, I’m a white dude, dude. And the focus of Black history is to raise and celebrate Black voices.
What in the gosh darn hell is to be done?
Let’s go through it point by point. Call my writing formulaic if you want. Perhaps the reason is that I keep returning to comfortable, somewhat predictable subjects.
Truly digging into any subject requires doing that scary thing, where you admit to yourself (often your own worst critic) that you don’t know squat.
Researching Black history, the Black experience and embedded racist structures in our society is scary and embarrassing. I don’t know how else to explain it. Anything beyond the Atlantic slave trade where whole generations were stolen, segregation, the actions of Rosa Parks, Viola Desmond and Martin Luther King Jr. and injustices through police brutality are all out of my realm of knowledge.
Leaving my comfort zone
To delve into any one of these topics is a big undertaking deserving proper attention. Meanwhile, I spent approximately three hours watching American Dad last night, completely procrastinating on my class readings. Perhaps you can see why it might be intimidating for me to start researching any politically and emotionally-charged topics.
As I understand it, this is what’s called “white fragility”. It’s a very complex, layered subject. Thankfully, somebody wrote a book on it.
Robin Diangelo’s best-seller White Fragility summarizes white fragility as the phenomenon wherein “good” white people — those who never owned slaves, don’t use racist language or otherwise make life shitty for people of colour — hate to be called out on their racial privilege.
Do I benefit from white privilege?
The first question I have is, do I benefit from white privilege? Probably. The second question is, does that mean my accomplishments are worth less? As I understand it, the answer is no. An accomplishment is still an accomplishment. There is a caveat, however, in the ease with which we achieve them because of the way we look.
Personally, that doesn’t really psych me out. Privilege is everywhere. I believe if you think what you’re doing has merit, race shouldn’t affect pride in your work.
The other side of this is confronting my own position within the racist structures that I live in. I know it’s not my fault that horrible things happened and are happening to Black communities. But I know I benefit from advantages as echoes of that bigotry.
My grandparents immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands after World War II. When they arrived, segregation was widespread in Canada, Viola Desmond had recently been arrested and the systems of racism in Nova Scotia still stood. My grandparents entered a country that actively set them up for success, at the cost of its Black citizens. Their accomplishments and struggles were still important and worthy of pride, but they did have a leg up compared to others in Canada. Specifically Black citizens.
Dude! That history is spooky to think about. The position I was born into was advantaged in a way I was never told about. Knowing this forces me to completely reevaluate my own family’s history, which is uncomfortable.
My grandfather was an old-world Dutch patriarch with an old-world attitude. By the time I was old enough to understand that, his outdated views on society had simmered down a bit. Probably only in the past five years have I really learned about the uglier side of him.
Now, don’t get me wrong, he worked hard, was a good man, loved his family and had some progressive ideas. But my grandfather was still a man of his time.
The reason I bring this up is when I talk to racialized people, I wish I could have the same naivety I once did. I just can’t. If friends open the invitation to make dumb jokes, I make sure to punch above the belt, but I’m always on eggshells to a certain extent.
Black history and white writers
When my editor pitched this idea to the Dalhousie Gazette contributors, she acknowledged the tricky situation the newspaper sometimes finds itself in. Many contributors are white and finding contributors for Black History Month isn’t always easy. But the discussion must continue.
Doing something like discussing Black arts and media highlights is beneficial and something we hope brings attention to Black talent. But this alone hardly strikes at the heart of the month.
When I received some ideas for this issue, fellow contributor Miles Anton and I had this discussion:
[MA]: Are you going to write anything for the Black history issue?
[JV]: I don’t know man. Nothing is really speaking to me.
[MA]: Fair enough. It seems a little weird for a bunch of white people to write about this.
[JV]: I had a similar thought, it feels really patronizing. Shouldn’t we just be recommending art done by Black students instead of appropriating their experiences to write about?
[MA]: Yeah exactly. Get some Black contributors.
[JV]: I’m with you. I don’t know man.
How does a staff of almost entirely white (and in my case, uninformed) contributors open up dialogue without sounding extremely patronizing or ignorant?
Even with my research, I worry anything I wrote would come out as entitled and white-knighty to our readers. On the other hand, I think this word salad I’ve barfed out above sounds just as whiney and uninformed.
It’s hard to write intelligently about something I’ve never experienced myself. Furthermore, when the topic is as important as racial violence and systemic privilege, how can one tackle it without sounding obnoxious? I still don’t know.
But I’m trying to figure it out.