February is Black History Month, a time when teachers and mainstream media intentionally celebrate the culture and history of black Americans. However, because our society still relegates this celebration to just one month per year, it also highlights that the stories of black Americans have traditionally gone untold and continue to be overshadowed.
The fact that black history is widely acknowledged and celebrated for only one month per year, provides us with a starting point for talking about racism and thinking critically about how to eliminate racism.
I am CEO of the YWCA Olympia, where the mission is to eliminate racism and empower women. Therefore, critical conversations about how to dismantle racism are an essential component of my professional position. In addition, I am a white woman. It is absolutely necessary for me to engage in critical thinking about racism within the context of my positional: What am I doing to perpetuate racism? What could I do to dismantle racism? What needs to be done to have a thriving and equitable community for all?
In the United States, white people hold power. Because of this power, white people have been able to enforce prejudice through laws, institutions and in many other ways, including carrying forward and amplifying stories that shape what is considered normal or best. In thinking about black history as the focus of one single month of study, and from my own experiences in school, the remainder of the year being focused on stories of white soldiers, white heroes and the founding fathers, we are able to see clearly that one racial group is overrepresented.
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This, in turn, systematically silences other racial groups and has a profound impact on the dominant culture’s perceptions about who had the most influence on our nation and who comprise our biggest assets.
Even at the YWCA USA — despite being the oldest and largest multiracial social justice organization in our nation dedicated to improving the lives of all women — the history mirrors this omission of the accomplishments and contributions of black people (and in the YWCA’s case, black women) in shaping where we are today.
While YWCA USA is digging into the archives of local associations to intentionally unearth and amplify these stories and the leadership of women of color who helped transform the YWCA over time, we must acknowledge that this limited history is a reflection of the systemic racism with which the YWCA existed during its founding years.
This decentering and negating of experiences and accomplishments of black people, which benefits white people, is one form of racism. By acknowledging this difficult history and recapturing and elevating these stories, YWCA USA is intentionally supporting racial justice from within the agency.
Today, in our local YWCA efforts, we continue to see staggering racial and gender disparities in our community within our program areas of economic advancement, health, safety and racial justice, and community leadership. However, naming racism doesn’t provide us with a path for eliminating it. It is essential to understand white privilege as a critical factor in the perpetuation of racism. As white people, it is important that we think about how white privilege perpetuates those economic and health disparities and how it influences the past and future legacy of our local institutions.
Until black history is celebrated every month, let’s continue to reaffirm our community’s commitment to racial justice and start by acknowledging the value and contributions of all people in our community as well as our individual positions within structures of power.
Hillary Soens is CEO of YWCA Olympia, an Olympia resident and member of The Olympian’s 2016 Board of Contributors. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.