This month should be a break from the struggle of being Black in a racist world.
February is Black History Month. It’s usually spent recognizing and celebrating the achievements of Black people.
From famed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast who consistently awes the world, we celebrate our leaders, athletes, and artists.
We celebrate Blackness itself.
In addition to celebration, however, Black History Month is a time for healing. The trauma racism causes needs to be acknowledged and repaired. We can’t move forward in celebrating Blackness unless we address our wounds.
Racism isn’t limited to isolated incidents. Black people deal with racism all the time, even when it’s invisible. There can be long-term and cumulative effects. They don’t simply go away.
There needs to be a concerted effort to realize healing. We can’t just sweep it under the rug and put on a happy face for Black History Month.
Black History Month can serve as a reminder for the ongoing work of dismantling racism and elevating the well-being and equality of Black people.
By bringing Black experiences into the limelight, we can use the momentum to make changes that last the entire year and beyond.
Validating experiences of racism
Identifying and naming racist experiences is critical to the process of healing. The first step to healing is acknowledging not only the harm but the system that makes it possible.
Many people in the Black community actively educate young people about racism and help them contextualize their experiences. This serves as validation of what they inherently know and feel when facing racism, but may be discouraged from appropriately naming because of other people’s discomfort.
Validation is important, and it’s one of the ways Black people support each other and help shoulder the collective burden on our mental health.
Black History Month helps highlight the very real, traumatic, cumulative effect of racism on Black people, bringing it to the attention of the general public.
We’re able to celebrate our Blackness while reminding people that survival under these circumstances is a feat.
In addition to talking with young Black people about racism, Black History Month is time to teach Black youth to love themselves and each other. We fill our social media feeds with work by Black artists that feature and honor Black people.
Importantly, there’s a special love for art that depicts dark-skinned people, people with bigger bodies, queer people, and people with disabilities. In sharing images of Black diversity, we learn to accept our differences and respect the differences in others. This is modeling what we demand of non-Black people.
The intentional focus on reveling in Black beauty breaks down the false notion that Black isn’t beautiful. This helps people of all generations recognize our own beauty without comparison. It instills a confidence that will not be overshadowed by racist beauty standards.
Confronting the source
Confronting the origins of racial trauma has always been a practice in activism and, more specifically, direct action. Today, it continues to be integral to the work of racial justice.
The source isn’t only racist people, but the system that allows racist behavior to proliferate.
Individual police officers are being confronted through legal action as in the case following the killing of George Floyd and the wrongful death suit filed by Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer.
Police departments are being confronted through mass protests calling for them to be defunded, and key decision-makers are being called on to make clear their positions on policing, violence, and racism.
Confronting trauma at the source also creates an opportunity for communities to band together, whether in person or on social media. It’s necessary to make known those who fail to respond to the call for transformation and the end of racism.
It’s often called “cancel culture,” but this is simply accountability. This is confronting the source and drawing attention to it.
By making this information public, it’s possible for everyone to make informed decisions about who they support and how they spend their money.
This often leads to the redirecting of resources to Black-owned businesses and organizations committed to racial equality and justice.
This helps Black people become empowered in the knowledge that we don’t have to finance the systems and people who are intent on killing us, and gives allies the information they need to support equality.
During Black History Month, Black people seek reparations.
People and organizations are called upon not only to recognize their wrongs but to repair them. Reparations for slavery is a large, nuanced, ongoing conversation that many assume is about money.
In reality, it’s much broader than that.
Reparations focus on the material conditions of the descendants of enslaved people beyond finances. For example, it includes healthcare in response to the chronic illnesses that are a direct result of slavery and its aftermath.
During Black History Month, the reparations conversation is extended to address more recent issues that affect smaller groups of people.
It’s important to ask questions like:
- What do reparations look like for people working at organizations perpetuating the racial wage gap?
- What do reparations look like for the families of people murdered by police?
- How can reparations have the greatest impact for the greatest number of people who’ve experienced harm?
- Who is responsible for making reparations?
- How can it be made clear that reparations aren’t a gift or unearned benefit, nor that they erase the harm caused?
Black mental health
When a wrong is acknowledged, it must be repaired. As all people become more aware of racial injustice, Black people are better able to hold them accountable.
Beyond diversity and inclusion training, Black people require psychosocial support as we work through trauma. The professional guidance of Black mental health practitioners is important and sometimes essential to healing.
So is having the space to care for our mental health on a day-to-day basis. We ask a lot of ourselves. We can support each other by normalizing taking care of our individual and collective mental health.
One of the most important practices that’s growing in popularity in the Black community is rest.
It’s a part of self-care but also a critical component of community care. We automatically associate rest and relaxation with holidays and days of observance, so February is a time to hit the reset button and revise expectations of ourselves and each other.
Experiencing and confronting racism, and demanding reparations, is work, and it happens within and outside of education and employment. Activism can easily take the place of hobbies and leisure, so rest must become an intentional practice.
As much as Black people form communities and create safer spaces for each other, we need to preserve our physical and mental well-being. This month, requests pour in for Black people to do more work.
It’s tempting, because it’s important to be seen and heard. It’s hard to turn down the opportunity to contribute to the transformation we need to create racial equality and justice.
There must be a line, though. There must be a space for rest and for being in community without organizing. We cannot labor unceasingly to fix a problem that belongs to white people.
Rest does not need to be earned or justified, but it must be taken.
White people often perpetrate, perpetuate, or witness racism without intervention. While our focus tends to be on the first two groups, the latter group has a responsibility to reject its own passive racism and rebuke the racism of others.
It’s important for white people to recognize racism when it’s taking place. This requires a basic understanding of racism and the impact of the power of whiteness.
White people can learn to question norms by paying attention to what’s said when Black people are or are not in the room, how Black people are treated differently, and the implicit and explicit expectations and assumptions made of Black people.
These are internalized. It takes conscious, consistent, and dedicated work to unlearn racist ideology.
Call it out
When they’ve learned what racism is, what it looks like, and can recognize it when it occurs, white people are responsible for calling it out.
Black people face racism on a regular basis. There are very few interactions with white people and institutions where it doesn’t exist. It’s exhausting for Black people to address every instance of racism. White people need to step up.
By its very nature, racism simultaneously obscures the truth of Black people and elevates the experiences and voices of white people. It’s essential that white people use their privilege to speak out.
Shoulder the burden
Black people deserve full lives that include leisure. We shouldn’t have to constantly work to be seen as valuable, both in economic contributions and affirmations of our humanity and human rights.
Once racist systems and behaviors are recognized and condemned, white people need to call for further action. It’s not enough to acknowledge what’s happened. Black people shouldn’t be burdened with problem-solving when we’re not the ones upholding racism.
Solutions need to be developed to have a real impact on the lives of Black people. They need to be more than symbolic. They must actually shift the material conditions and lived experiences of the people involved.
Black people do far too much work to address and end racism. Racism was created by white people, and it’s their responsibility to dismantle it.
Black History Month should be a break from the struggle that is being Black in a racist world. It’s a time to celebrate each other and our culture. We deserve to take the time to do so.
It’s a time for white people who consider themselves allies to make a plan for their allyship to last the rest of the year.
How will you continue to teach your own children Black history, actively practice anti-racism, and create an environment for Black people to safely rest?
We all know that one month is not enough.
Black History Month is simply a catalyst. The work to end racism and heal racial trauma is daily work. As Black people reclaim leisure, white people need to take responsibility for the work of anti-racism.
The transformation we need depends on everyone making the shift.
Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, women’s human rights defender, and writer. She’s passionate about social justice and community building. She enjoys cooking, baking, gardening, traveling, and talking to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.