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The case for 'White History Month'

WITH BLACK History Month -- the shortest of the year, it is often pointed out -- drawn to a close, we bid a fond adieu to public radio tributes to African-American icons and gaze one final time at heartfelt billboard salutes from car manufacturers. In grade-school classrooms across America, timeworn photographs of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, and Jackie Robinson are being removed from bulletin boards, tucked away to slumber for another year.

And as winter gives way to spring, the absence of a month that might make all the difference in this racially stratified nation is more glaring than ever.

White History Month.

I speak not of a period of celebration but one of excavation.

White people are everywhere, but whiteness itself -- as an identity, a shared set of assumptions, a state of economic and institutional empowerment -- is perhaps the largest uninterrogated concept of all.

If the initial image conjured by the idea of White History Month is one of white supremacists, it is only because whiteness remains so unanalyzed that hate-mongers have been able to claim it. Whiteness has no form of its own; it is simply normative.

Like an object thrown into the water, we measure the weight of whiteness by what it displaces.

We speak of "minorities," but no American has ever checked a box labeled "majority."

On the simplest level, consider how easily "black" leaps to the tongue. It is the first adjective any white person is likely to employ in describing an African- American. Now consider how many times in your life you have heard a white person choose "white" as the first adjective in a description of a member of his race.

The courage we once had in confronting race has waned, rubbed out by a few advances, an overwhelming white desire to believe they are sufficent, and an ever increasing identification with the cultural artifacts of blackness. Appreciating black artistic genius is as American as baseball, but with appreciation comes the temptation to trade action for identification for whites to absolve ourselves from responsibility for the oppressive conditions from which so much black art springs, simply because we relate so strongly to its truth. But our tastes do not dictate our access to power; our whiteness does. I say this as one reared, artistically and politically, on a diet of hip-hop and jazz.

Even as cultural crossover increases, the space for honest dialogue shrinks. "Race" and "race man" and even "race novel" have become anachronisms. Any suggestion that the skins we're in represent the central issue that cripples and divides Americans -- as it was 50 years ago, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, and 150 years ago, as the country hurtled inexorably toward civil war -- dates the speaker as surely as a dashiki, a pair of bellbottoms, and an eight-track player.   Continued...

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