Is Black History Month Fit for Purpose?

by Lauralee Whyte, Founder of Spectrum Speakers

I was recently featured on the first episode of the brilliant podcast, The Diverse Leaders Podcast, with its creators – Dawn Morton-Young and Cat Wildman – and conversation came around to Black History Month (and awareness months in general). This fascinating conversation led me to wanting to put down, and share, a discussion about Black History Month and what its role is going forward.

This is it. I don’t feel that Black History Month, in its current iteration, is fit for purpose. 

Here are, based on my own experiences, three uncomfortable truths about Black History Month.

  1. Black History Month Can Be Traumatic
  2. Black History Month Can Limit Inclusion to One Month of the Year
  3. Black History Month Can Artificially Elevate People for a Period of Time (Then Drop Them!)

Big claims, right? Before anyone tries to revoke my Black membership, let’s break these down – with some input from our fantastic exclusive speaker Dawn Morton-Young…

Black History Month Can Be Traumatic

I appreciate that Black History Month was brought about to recognise and celebrate the historical figures and events which have shaped the Black cultural experience in the UK today – and, when I think about Black History, I’m incredibly proud of our achievements and our resilience against remarkable odds. 

But, I also feel sad about the hundreds of years of torture suffered purely because of the colour of our skin – and I reflect on my own personal experiences; and at times I find this quite triggering. It’s impossible to separate the Black stories and experiences of our history from the slavery, violence and ongoing opression Black people have experienced. And by making the yearly public celebration of Black communities all about history, we reopen that wound every year – drawing out that Transgenerational trauma.

Black History Month Can Limit Inclusion to One Month of the Year

Having worked in the corporate speaking industry for many years, this is one of the experiences that led to me setting up Spectrum Speakers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’d receive a call just days before October rolled around asking for a Black speaker to ‘just do something about diversity’. It couldn’t be clearer that some events teams still regard Black History Month as a once a year box to be checked, bring in a person of colour to talk about their experience, and then forget about it until next year. What’s the use of that?

Black History Month Can Artificially Elevate People for a Period of Time (Then Drop Them!)

Following on from my previous point – the tokenism described above can lead to a flurry of short term demand for Black speakers whose expertise are relevant, necessary and informative ALL YEAR ROUND. It isn’t fair to these professionals or, crucially, the communities they represent, to place reverential value on their expert opinions for one month a year, if you then return to the status quo as soon as November rolls around. I’m Black every month. Every day, every minute. We need to do more to highlight Black excellence and influence TODAY and the intersectionality of black culture.

I’ll go on to say this for some (but not all) Awareness days / months in general: who are they really for? Most people are AWARE of Black History, most people are AWARE of ADHD (it’s also ADHD awareness month); we’re AWARE of Breast Cancer but what is being done beyond awareness?

What do you think? Is Black History Month, or any other awareness celebration, really intended FOR the community it serves? And is there a way we can make it more productive? 

Here’s an idea: while taking time to celebrate the intersectionality of the Black experience in the UK is a great thing to do, perhaps what should be the main focus is the to-do list your organisation has at the end of Black History Month. What, after spending the month learning about different facets of the Black experience, is your company going to do in the next 12 month to improve inclusion and cultural sensitivity? Then when the next BHM rolls around, take a look back, and see how you did!

Enough from me; here’s what the fabulous Diverse Leaders Coach Dawn Morton had to say: