When Black History Month arrives each February, I remember an exchange from a 2009 60 Minutes Morgan Freeman interview with Mike Wallace. In it, three important statements about the condition of racism in the United States emerge. Here is a brief YouTube clip of their exchange. It goes something like this:
:00 Wallace asks, “Black History Month you find…”
:04 “Ridiculous,” answers Freeman bluntly. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? What do you do with yours? Which month is White History Month?”
:16 Wallace is stunned. He’s tongue-tied. He stammers. “I’m Jewish,” he says.
:20 “Okay, which month is Jewish History Month?” asks Freeman.
Wallace: “There isn’t one.”
“Oh, why not? Do you want one?” Freeman asks.
“No, no, I uh…” mumbles Wallace.
:29 “Alright. I don’t either,” affirms Freeman. “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”
Let’s say it again: Black history is American history. That it is relegated to a single and separate month is the first statement about the condition of racism in America. Instead of digging into Freeman’s powerful point that Black history is American history, and to relegate it to a month is to diminish the rich history and countless contributions of African Americans in this country, Wallace swings and misses:
:36 Wallace asks, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”
By turning to a question of racism, Wallace’s seemingly innocuous question unveils an unspoken truth about Black History Month. People think its purpose is to be an antidote to racism. It is not. To see Black History Month as a way of ending racism in our country is to implicitly claim that there would be less racism if folks just saw and understood that Blacks are just as good and worthy as everyone else and have contributed to our country in innumerable ways far beyond Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. Black History Month as a remedy to racism is a racist idea in and of itself and is the second statement about the condition of racism in our country. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has said numerous times, “The only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people.”
Black history is American history, and it is misguided to believe that Black History Month could serve as a remedy to racism. The clip from the 60 Minutes interview with Morgan Freeman adds one final statement about the condition of racism in our country:
:37 Wallace asks, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”
“Stop talking about it,” Freeman answers. “I’m going to stop calling you a White man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a Black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman.”
Here, Freeman unwittingly evokes a perspective that is no longer right thinking. It never was. Like Freeman’s opinion, I was also raised during a time when colorblindness was seen as a curative to racism. However, that was never true. It is harmful. Children as young as three years old see color differences and, being socialized in a society that is systemically racist, are unconsciously taught to prefer White over Black. The final statement about American racism to be learned from this brief clip between Morgan Freeman and Mike Wallace is this: to fail to see the color of someone’s skin is to erase a core component of their identity. The covert racism hiding in our biases and stereotypes will not be overcome by pretending we don’t see color. It will certainly not contribute to the dismantling of systemic racism in our society.
This February, ask yourself: Why does Black History Month exist? On the whole, does it help construct an anti-racist society? Pay attention: How are the stories and histories of Black Americans told? In the process of honoring their legacies, are there subtle implications that they are being elevated to prove Black worthiness? Finally, we must see color. Colorblindness perpetuates racism because it pretends that we and our institutions are without bias, prejudice, and stereotype.
As a Reform rabbi, b’tzelem Elohim—that we are all created in the image of the Divine and therefore possess equal worth—demands that I speak out when I witness harmful acts of racism. As an aspiring White antiracist, it is my obligation to take action and use my privilege to fight oppression always—not just one month out of the year. Our covenantal relationship with God commands us to never turn away from the struggle and to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. I implore you to see, honor, and lift up our differences and be a committed ally in the ongoing fight to dismantle racism.
Rabbi David Spinrad serves Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia.