Black History Month: Tyre Nichols, Internalized Racism, and Why We Should Celebrate this February.
Today marks the first day of Black History Month, and it comes on the heels of the death of Tyre Nichols. I want to take a moment to address some of the conversations I’ve seen on social media about the event. I’ll also take a moment to talk about Black History Month more generally.
While I am not intending to take a political stand (because human rights are not political), I will talk politics for a moment. I recently read, from a conservative influencer on Twitter, that the liberals can’t call racism now because the officers who beat Tyre Nichols to death were all Black. Let’s address why this is unequivocally ignorant and incorrect.
Internalized racism is real. Racism is not just an act imposed on Blacks by White people. Yes, it stems from our nation’s violent and oppressive history, where Whites enslaved people for the color of their skin. It also creates a system of racism that begins to grow from within. Donna Bevins, from a chapter she authored in Flipping the Script: White Privilege and Community Building, says it eloquently.
“As people of color are victimized by racism, we internalize it. That is, we develop ideas, beliefs, actions and behaviors that support or collude with racism. This internalized racism has its own systemic reality and its own negative consequences in the lives and communities of people of color. More than just a consequence of racism, then, internalized racism is a systemic oppression in reaction to racism that has a life of its own. In other words, just as there is a system in place that reinforces the power and expands the privilege of white people, there is a system in place that actively discourages and undermines the power of people and communities of color and mires us in our own oppression…”
Institutionalized racism is real. The thing you need to understand about institutionalized racism is that, if it doesn’t affect you, you might not understand it. Racism is built into our systems: politics, environment, economics, and education. It is watching oppressive voter suppression laws passed in the state of Georgia. It is watching Florida reject AP African American studies for high school students. It is watching the City of Flint, Michigan change residential water sources to cut costs and then look the other way when residents’ drinking water was unsafe, and despite complaints by residents. Flint’s population was 51.5% Black in 2014 when the Flint water crisis occurred, in stark contrast to the general Black population of the state, at 13.8%.
White privilege is real. If you don’t have to worry about how a potential employer will perceive your name on a job application, you have privilege. You have privilege if you can learn about your own race and history in school. If books, magazines, movies and television, and toys regularly represent other people that look like you, you have privilege. If you aren’t afraid of what might happen to you if you’re pulled over by the police, you have privilege.
I have also seen these questions posed, perhaps flippantly, on social media: Why do we have Black History Month? Why don’t we have a White History Month? This is because White is “normative.” We learn about White history every day. We, and our best interests, are represented in politics, economics, environmental policies, and education. We do not need a month dedicated to our heritage because our heritage is ingrained in us from the moment we’re born. While every race should be given the privilege of being taught, understood, and represented 365 days a year, Black History Month is an incredibly important reminder for us all to continue to work together to celebrate Black History, and to learn how to do better. It is also an important time to celebrate all that African American people have achieved, contributed, and accomplished, despite our country’s history of oppression and racism.
Education is one of the most powerful and important tools we can give ourselves. We cannot ignore our nation’s past. Because it happened, and we cannot change or ignore that fact. What we do with the past makes all the difference. Use this month as an opportunity to learn your blind spots and become more socially aware. Learn how to be an advocate and ally. Ask questions. Do research. Follow Black influencers, politicians, and activists on social media. Throughout the month, I will be posting to my own social media accounts to recommend people and pages to follow, so give me a follow on Instagram @Millennial_MHC, Twitter @Millennial_MHC, and Facebook at Facebook.com/TheMillennialMentalHealthCoach.