What to do when the privileged ask for a ‘White history month’

It seems like a good day to contemplate whiteness, since that’s what I’ve been doing in my driveway all morning with a shovel. (Eight inches of whiteness have fallen here in Chester County so far, with more coming down.)

It’s the beginning of February and thus, as Ari Kohen reminds us, it’s also the beginning of “Why is there no white history month?” month. As he wrote last year: “It’s February 1, so you know Twitter is lighting up with white people — mostly teenagers, which makes me so incredibly depressed — who are just baffled or angry about the fact that there’s no white history month when there’s a black history month.”

Depression is one appropriate response, but let’s shoot for something a bit more hopeful. Can we turn this depressing annual ritual of the privileged into some kind of teachable moment?

How come there’s no National ADULT Dental-Health Month? Huh? Answer me that!

“Why is there no white history month?” is an ignorant question, a question that can only be asked from a place of ignorance. But ignorance is a big place — a large, diverse continent with a large, diverse population. It’s important to keep in mind, as Tolstoy said of unhappy families, that every ignorant person is ignorant in their own way.

When confronted with an ignorant question, then, it’s always helpful to try to discern what kind of ignorance we’re encountering. There’s innocent ignorance, willful ignorance, ego-affirming ignorance and contemptuous ignorance. There’s the ignorance of children who lack experience and exposure to information and there’s the ignorance of the powerful who are so dependent on falsehood that they’ve come to believe it themselves. Some people are unaware of the truth, others are unable to see the truth, others are reluctant to accept the truth, and still others are resolutely opposed to the truth. And that last group, in turn, creates another: those who are prevented or prohibited from learning. Some forms of ignorance are genuine, others are cynical poses adopted in furtherance of some other agenda. Some forms of ignorance are expressions of power and extensions of power over others. Some forms of ignorance are the consequence of being powerless.

Those distinctions matter. They ought to shape how we go about responding to ignorant questions because in any event they certainly will shape how that response is received and perceived.

This matters too: We’re all ignorant about something. We may no longer be residents of the country of ignorance, but we were all born there, and no matter how many degrees we acquire to attest to our citizenship in our new homelands, we’ll always be expatriates of the place. We owe a debt to those who helped us resettle as refugees, and so we’re obliged to pay that debt forward.

Or, in other words, the Golden Rule applies here, just as it always does.

But what, exactly, does the Golden Rule mean in this case. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Fine, then, how would I want others to do unto me if I were spouting off ignorant, racist nonsense on Twitter, parading my pampered privilege as though it were a badge of honor? Well, I’d want to be corrected — quickly and firmly so that I stopped hurting others and stopped embarrassing myself as soon as possible. But, since I know myself to be headstrong and stubborn, particularly when cornered, I’d want the others offering this correction to be as winsome and persuasive as possible. It would be nicest if they could be nice about it, but niceness would be optional and nowhere near as essential as just doing or saying whatever needed to be done or said to get me to STFU and sit down and think and learn and stop hurting myself and others.

That’s what I would want others to do unto me, so that is what I will try to do unto others.

And but so anyway, for every variety of ignorance we have a corresponding variety of potential responses: education, information, condemnation, patience, impatience, dialogue, diatribe, debate, argument, relationship, ridicule, moral suasion, storytelling, jokes, friendship, ostracism, mockery, art, prayer, profanity, scripture, satire, sermonizing, sarcasm, sincerity, irony, sentiment, etc.

Some people expressing ignorance may need help from a teacher, some may need help from a prophet, some from a pastor, a jester, an artist, an advocate, an attorney. Always punch up, always reach down. We can be, as St. Paul wrote, “all things to all people, so that we might by all means save some.”

We should do so for their sake, and for the sake of the people their ignorance may be harming. But we should also do it for our own sake as well.

Because the alternative would be very bad for us. Toxic, in fact. The alternative is that instead of becoming people who try to do whatever can be done to correct ignorance, we will make ourselves into the kind of list-making Inquisitors and witch-sniffers who are capable only of prosecuting the ignorant, seeking them out, and silencing all questions. And that, in turn, would mean that no one can ever learn anything ever again (not even us).


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