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The Importance of Reeducation Beyond Black History Month

Paradigm is a strategy firm that partners with innovative companies to build stronger, more inclusive organizations. Paradigm believes that with the benefit of diverse perspectives, our clients will design better products, deliver better services, and build a better world.


For many DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) practitioners in the U.S. and Canada, Black History Month is top of mind for February (and will be for DEI leaders in the UK in October, when Black History Month is celebrated). At Paradigm, we work with organizations all around the world, and folks in those organizations are often curious about Black History Month (and racial equity in the U.S. overall).

Recently, a few of our experts on the training team were discussing how to respond to those questions, which opened up deeper conversations about U.S. history’s shortcomings around black history. Check out the team’s thought-provoking dialogue around the importance of re-educating and making changes beyond February’s Black History Month.

The Depiction (Or Lack Thereof) Of Black History in the U.S.

African American history is often shrouded by the white-centric view of American life and history. Paradigm members discuss this in-depth and highlight some of the too-often neglected accomplishments of African Americans who fought and continue to fight historic and ongoing oppression.

Kevin Pearson, Director of Training and People Development
When you all think of Black History Month, how would you break it down to someone who has little to no knowledge of U.S. racial history? 

Marcel Byrd, Paradigm Consultant, Training and People Development
I feel like the U.S. is seen as such a huge hub of cultural export where, especially being in the U.S., there is this American-centric ideology where it’s assumed that globally people just kind of understand the dynamics.

It’s interesting to play with the idea of how do we even explain this, because the U.S. obviously has a very pernicious, continuously horrid, history with Black people and Blackness. At the same time, we also know that anti-Blackness is global.

So, I would start by just explaining that the U.S. has this very specific history of American chattel slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow. Essentially Black History Month is a way of centering on Black communities and working to uplift history and legacy that’s often overwritten or that’s often dismissed. Or, frankly, just to kind of provide other elements to the realities of the depiction of what Blackness is and who Black people are as it relates to history and how that intersects with oppression, but also the cultural richness and beauty that exists in Black communities.

Erin Mindell-Cannon, Paradigm Director of Organizations Strategy and Transformation
This idea that anti-Blackness is a global phenomenon, right? It is something that happens everywhere, but it shows up in different ways.

I know that part of our history here, and part of the way that we erase Black history specifically, and non-White history more generally, is that we have a baseline for what we think of as history. When we talk about history and what most of us are picturing here when we’re thinking about history is the White European-led and conquering history of the world that most of us were taught growing up.

I remember in my middle school textbook, and I remember this so clearly, that when I was in 6th grade we were doing some history unit and there was a little call out box on the page and it was this Black person in history. I think it was Martin Luther King, but I remember looking at that and it suddenly clicked for me that we were supposed to assume that everyone in the book was White unless they had a little call out box about them being something other than White. That’s the first time I realized that OUR history here is really White European history.

I do think that part of the idea behind Black history is that reminder you spoke about Marcel, that history does not have a color, even though we treat it as such. And thinking about how to stop treating it as such. The other thing is really about the rich history that Black people and non-White people have contributed to our communities and our society were built off of those things.

The Need to Reeducate Oneself to Better Understand History

Systemic oppression evidenced through white-centric education is discussed in more detail.

Pin-ya Tseng, Senior Consultant, Training and People Development
The thought I had when I saw this question is, “We don’t need to go to another country.” Even for myself, as I was reading this, as someone who works in DEI, I would have to go and do so much more of my own research in order to be able to have this conversation and feel like I could do this any justice whatsoever. That was the thought that I had and a lot of that came back to what you were all saying in terms of the educational system and who was writing our textbook. Then, just the fact that in order to even have some correct understanding of it, you have to go and do so much of your own intentional research — like as an adult at this point.

There’s a lot of resources out there that are really helpful and important, but I think very few people, very few Americans, can say they grew up learning an accurate representation of U.S. racial history because so much of it is a “footnote” in our textbooks.

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the other challenges as I see it, within the United States and outside of the United States, is it’s so hard to keep a focus on any question when it has to do with systemic oppression, right? Because it is systemic and because there are so many pieces that go along with it.

The thing is that there’s so many layers to injustices that are all happening at the same time, that it’s really overwhelming and hard to know where to start peeling them back and how they connect with each other. It’s just exhausting and it’s particularly exhausting, to your point Pin-ya, because we have to do it on our own. It’s not just what’s coming at us. We have to go seek the information, we have to figure out the credible places to go, we have to figure out what to pay attention to and that’s a lot.

Finding Connections and Commonalities From Pieces of Erased History

Although many people want to believe that American life and African American life are closely intertwined, this mindset unwittingly erases the significance of events like the Civil Rights Movement and the daily struggles that African Americans have had throughout history.

No matter what your identity is, when you spend your life feeling invisible or feeling erased or feeling only negative things, it does make a difference. You want to have a chance to say something right, and it doesn’t really matter how much it connects to what’s being talked about or not, because this is the same hurt, this is the same place of oppression. We can look at it from the lens of “what-about-me-ISM”, like what about this group or that group and I think it’s really harmful or can be really harmful. There’s also something happening where people want to make those connections with each other. You know, like you’re hurting Marcel from your experience, I’m hurting too from my experience. What are the commonalities here?

To your point, I think that is very sound. When we think of various atrocities and how they look, there is an interconnected, very symmetrical sort of logic or stream of bigotry that leads to a lot of those actions. Ultimately, when we look at the erasure of so many different communities in history and even just how we rewrite and placate racial diversity like, “Oh, the U.S. is such a melting pot,” we use false cooking imagery that makes it seem like everything is coming together seamlessly. It erases that groups just have conflict, and oppression is one way of understanding it. But there’s also very nuanced ways in which people relate to each other and all of this rises in service to White supremacy.

I think there’s also something about our society and the way we come together, and it’s something else that came to mind when I was thinking about here versus explaining things to people in other nations. One of the big things is that we are a nation that was built on slavery, where we imported Black people to this nation for the express purpose of enslaving them. That is a difference from, not everywhere, but other places in the world where people were moving more of their free will. Or, or at least, did not have the long history of slavery that we have here in this country.

 And, that makes a difference too. Right? Speaking to that narrative, “Oh, we’re all a melting pot and everything’s fine.” There are definitely pieces of our history that not only get erased because they’re uncomfortable, but also that we haven’t even begun to understand what it means for people, generations later, to be representative of or representing that slavery, that forced movement.

Yes, the institution, at least in that era, is over. But, it is also reproduced in so many different ways. You know we can look at various labor conditions or mass incarceration. 

I mean, you can look at redlining.

Recognizing Black History Beyond February

Racial justice is an ongoing concern and a larger issue than can be fixed in one month. We need to celebrate black history year-round and focus on the efforts of the African American community as a whole in the past and present. 

Yes, right, redlining. The ideology is not gone. I like to think of months like this as a moment of specifically highlighting a community to, at best, examine and reflect and ask, “OK, why are we not doing this all the time?” With any cultural heritage month, why is it just like this one time? Shouldn’t we just allow this to just be part of the tapestry?

The “Yes, and” that I have to that piece is not just how we can keep this top of mind, but also, what can we do to keep it fresh? To your point about MLK as a call-out in a textbook, we see the same seven people represented when we’re talking about Black History Month, there are more than seven people who were Black and who are Black, who have been contributing in major ways too. But there are some safe things that we grab onto because we don’t want to be controversial in any way, shape, or form.

I’m really glad to bring that up because that’s also something I experience some tension with, right? Even the “relic” of Black History Month. It’s, to your point, as if all the major contributions or legacies exist in the past and that they don’t somehow still exist.

 Something I also find interesting too, is that we put such a focus on highlighting individuals. I believe that also exists in service of White supremacy in the same way that it allows people to say, “Oh well, these people are really, really great. These are the ones because, you know, they discovered this…” It allows the mainstream stereotype around a group to remain unchallenged while we just highlight certain people. So, I’m always thinking, how do we highlight both? Yes, highlight individuals AND highlight movements and culture so we have the amalgamation of Black people’s contributions. Highlighting that we exist and the various ways we have value innately and don’t have to demonstrate that it exists. What are the ways in which we can talk about that value as it relates to Black people and, culturally speaking, the various legacies and art and magic that exists in this community? Like, as a whole, let’s talk about that too. What does that look like? As far as music and art? That’s something I always think about as far as how to have this conversation.

Final Takeaways

Are there any additional key points you would absolutely want to prioritize around what Black History Month is all about? 

Black History Month was started by an African American person who wanted to celebrate the contributions that African Americans had in this country and that the expansion of Black History Month and the reason why we celebrate it now is to continue to highlight and try to remember, and I very specifically say try to remember, that Black history is relevant, is pervasive, is part of history, is part of human history, and that we need to call it out specifically and call it out separately because Black Americans are seen as other. We are still at a place where we need to bring it to the forefront and have it be a separate history month.

I would just add that, in addition, it’s also a time to recontextualize how it is that we learn about the world and bring awareness to education and the role of narrative, as far as collective understanding, that everything has a purpose. In highlighting Black people and the Black community, it offers an innate counter to the larger hegemonic system that exists. It also gives us a space to think about, “OK, what are some things that I can recontextualize in my mind? What are the mainstream ideas that I navigate the world with that should be revisited?” This is true for everybody, right? Everybody is socialized in this way. It really is just a moment to reflect and also be joyous and celebrate that, Black people are just everything.

With any heritage month, it’s an opportunity to shine a spotlight on a particular group because we as humans need reminders to do some work and to focus our intentions, and our focus, our curiosity at a certain thing because it’s too easy to forget to do so. And to have some structure and that societal reminder to do so.

Continuing Diversity and Inclusion Training Beyond National Black History Month

To continue educating yourself and your team on the importance of Black history and the culture that Black people continue to provide to our society today, check out our list of resources to help you become a better ally, here.

January 31, 2023

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