In honor of Black History Month, my elementary school teachers barraged me and the other children with random facts about the accomplishments of Black people. For instance: Madame C.J. Walker was the first self-made female millionaire. Garrett Morgan invented the stoplight. Maggie L. Walker (also the namesake of my high school) was the first African American woman to charter a bank. By the first day of March, the parade of symbols ended, and the curriculum returned to its usual Eurocentric self.
As currently celebrated, each History Month remains a parade of symbols: individuals post about historical figures, and corporate entities proclaim their stance against the -ism or -phobia of the day. Tech giants like Google and Facebook promote “X”-owned businesses. There is nothing inherently wrong with symbolic gestures like these, but they are just that: symbolic. They are not enough to confront the realities of structural injustice.
It is necessary to recognize the limits of the History Month format and reimagine what we can use this time to do. Instead of making each History Month a social justice trivia contest, we can learn and talk about the systemic nature of injustice in the United States and around the world. We can also pay special attention to recognizing the unique struggles of those who live at the intersections of identities that are demarcated across different months.
A focus on the contributions of excellent individuals, as opposed to recognition of the systems in place to keep all people of certain social groups down, obscures the true nature of injustice. To return to Madame C.J. Walker, you may know that her success came from her line of hair care products. You may not know that she was born on a plantation to sharecropper parents who had formerly been enslaved. Walker was born into poverty under a system that disenfranchised Black people, undermined their ability to own property, and sought to keep them working for low wages.
Celebrating historical figures is important, but celebrating them out of context is pernicious: the latter promotes the question, “Well, why don’t all (members of certain marginalized community) just do that?” without paying any attention to the structures in place that result in these people being marginalized in the first place. While some are able to succeed in spite of these barriers, many are not.
Additionally, the focus on high-achieving individuals suggests a narrative that marginalized peoples should be treated justly because of their contributions to society. Marginalized communities should not have to earn the end of their oppression and exploitation. All people should have access to the conditions necessary to flourish by virtue of their personhood.
Another problem with the current nature of the History Month is vagueness. Take Women’s History Month. It is important to consider issues that affect women as a generalized social group, as opinion writer Sally Jane Ruybàlid recently did in an excellent piece that examines the prevalence of gender-based violence. However, it is also crucial to acknowledge that women have different lived experiences. Vague conversations about what can be done “for women” risk centering on cisgender, heterosexual, white women at the expense of all others.
A generalized conversation about violence against women cannot accommodate the lived realities of Asian American women, who have reported the majority of anti-Asian hate crimes in the past year according to Stop AAPI Hate. Often, episodes of violence against marginalized communities are written off as the result of aberrational individual perpetrators. In reality, these individual perpetrators are emboldened within the context of a system that devalues certain people on the basis of difference from a cisgender, white, heterosexual norm. To accept the Atlanta shooter’s explanation of a “sex addiction” at face value is to ignore the way in which anti-Asian racism is inextricably tied to hypersexualization and objectification. It is to ignore the much longer history of state-sanctioned sexualized violence against Asian women in the United States and abroad.
In the face of history and current events, it is critical to learn about anti-Asian racism and support organizations in service of the Asian and Asian American communities. Honor and grieve the lives of Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun González, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels, Soon C. Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Yong A. Yue, and Suncha Kim, and support their families if you are able.
Ultimately, Women’s History Month should mean recognizing the struggles of all women, no matter their race, sexuality, national origin, religion, and so on. This includes Black and Latina trans women, who are disproportionately subject to racist and transphobic violence and facing the prospect of further legal restrictions to access to healthcare, public spaces, and recognition on government documents in many states. You can contribute to mutual aid funds to support trans and gender non-conforming people.
The History Month can be a time to begin learning about and standing in solidarity with those who are usually only shallowly celebrated. Despite the University’s routinely inadequate responses to racist and sexual abuse on campus — and its continual failure to address the institution’s white supremacist legacy — students can put an active effort into learning about and challenging systemic injustice. These efforts can begin with academic engagement and become a part of daily life.
Brittani Telfair is a junior from Richmond, Va. majoring in SPIA and pursuing a certificate in African American Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.