Working to Pop a Bigger Bubble
February is Black History Month, and as a diversity & inclusion consultant and educator for the past two decades, I’ve heard a lot about the designation, both for and against. There are many who are simply insulted that the shortest month of the year is the one chosen to focus on Black history, and others who believe that the existence of a Black History Month gives everyone who isn’t Black an excuse to ignore this painful and prideful history between March and the following January.
Personally (and for the record, I am white—very, very white according to the genetic map that was sent to me after I mailed my saliva to a lab for analysis—my lineage doesn’t take a step out of Northern Europe), I like Black History Month. I also like Women’s History Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month, and Pride Month, and the months that point us toward learning more about Asians and people with disabilities.
To critics of these annual observances, I simply note that most non-Black people feel perfectly free to ignore Black history 12 months out of the year as it is. Yes, our schools should do a better job of teaching history. In particular, schools should teach the history of the United States in a complete and honest way all year long. This would include the truth about the horrors of slavery, the brutality of Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws, and the ways that the school-to-prison pipeline and redlining our housing districts contributes to inequities even today. As adults, we should be looking for news sources and reading material that doesn’t just reflect our own identities, but actively seek out different ways of seeing the world, 12 months a year. When enough of us do this, we will have indeed made progress.
But the truth is, most of us haven’t been very effectively coached in that regard. If you’re a white person above the age of 30 in America, it’s typical to listen to a podcast created by white people and think of it as a podcast, but then listen to a podcast created by Black people and regard it as a “Black podcast.” It’s typical for us to read a novel by a white author featuring white characters and regard it as a novel, and just as typical to then read a novel by a Black author featuring Black characters and regard it as a “Black novel.” It’s typical for us to watch a movie by a white filmmaker featuring mostly white actors and regard it as a movie, and just as typical to then watch a movie by a Black filmmaker featuring mostly Black actors and regard it as a “Black film.” If you’re both white and liberal, it might even be tempting to congratulate yourself for doing so. When we step outside of our own bubble, we feel like one of the good white people. It’s tempting to give yourself a pat on the back.
And it’s not so much that it’s difficult to leave the bubble—after all, how hard is it really, to listen to a podcast, read a book, or a watch a movie? It’s more likely that it’s just easy to stay. The bubble of white culture is just so vast that we never run out of material. But it’s deeper than that. The need to see ourselves reflected in the culture around us is at the core of our humanity. It makes us feel connected to the world around us in a fundamental way. Hearing a voice, reading a story, or watching someone on screen and being able to relate to what’s going on makes a person feel less alone in what can be a lonely, isolating world, particularly given a global pandemic that has yet to run its course. And it’s just easier to relate to what you hear, read, and see when the people in those stories are just like you.
So when February rolls around and suddenly your white liberal sensibilities draw you to choose Regina King’s brilliant One Night in Miami for your next movie night, Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking I May Destroy You for your next binge, or Colson Whitehead’s phenomenal The Nickel Boys for your next read, then I’d say that Black History Month has done its work. Because once you’re completely absorbed by these complex and utterly human stories, perhaps you’ll suddenly realize that the extra work that a white person does to connect with Black stories and Black characters is more than worth it—and once it becomes second nature, you might find that you’re even less alone.
Eric Peterson is a diversity and inclusion practitioner, novelist, and podcast host who lives in Washington DC and visits Rehoboth as often as he can. Visit rewindpod.com for more on the podcast.