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Do We Really Need A Black History Month?

It is February again, that time of the year when America celebrates Black History Month, just like the month of October in Britain. But do we really need that kind of celebration? Is it really helping understanding or, could the annual nature of it, like a cuckoo in a clock, and its exclusive label rob it of its validity and significance?

As one who has spent the last 14 years promoting multiculturalism from the rooftops in the UK, through the only book on the subject in Europe, and two annual national diversity awards, I have been pretty saddened to hear government ministers and others trumpeting that 'multiculturalism isn't working' or we 'cannot celebrate diversity because it encourages difference' and keeps us separate. But both statements are based upon ignorance and fear which does not really help a diverse community to move forward together.

Every human being desires four things in their life to feel good about themselves as individuals:

a. To be significant

b. To be accepted

c. To be valued

d. To be included

What I call my SAVI empowerment concept.

It means that the behaviour of every person in our world is related to at least one, or all, of those requirements because they all underscore respect. Minorities in a majority world desire 'significance' and 'inclusion' most of all, exactly what they have been broadly denied in the UK through their routine exclusion from high office, the media, arts and politics.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating diversity or encouraging multiculturalism. What has been terribly wrong is a marked absence of respect on both sides of the cultural divide which makes appreciation difficult. The word 'respect' is glibly shouted by everyone in times of crisis, especially in seeking those SAVI attributes, but it seems to be only in connection with our own needs and viewpoint and very little to do with others. We all seek respect, we feel we are denied it, we accuse each other of not giving it. But in reality, we are simply in love with the idea of the word itself, not its implementation. This could be because we really do not understand the meaning of this important word.

Respect is not a single word that we assign as a cure-all to any situation. Respect has six dimensions within it. Genuine respect starts with curiosity of another, then taking the time to give attention, then having a dialogue with them, and with sensitivity for their feelings. These actions should lead to empowerment and healing. Since 9/11, in particular, there has been little respect shown on both sides, particularly in the blanket targeting of Muslims, the insensitive way many have been treated and, for their part, the violence accompanying any criticism of destructive beliefs and behaviour. Vociferous minorities would also deny the same free speech they enjoy to any form of criticism or debate which concerns them. That is not respect. Even worse, an absence of respect has been alive and well in our daily lives, despite denials to the contrary, which makes it difficult for one side or the other to cry foul.

Let's cite a few routine examples which get to the heart of the matter.

Origins of Disrespect

1. Black History Month. This is October and, as usual, it is Black History Month to celebrate Black heritage and culture. This is not just a showcase but an educational opportunity for the White majority to learn about their minority neighbours. It empowers Black people to take pride in their identity and thus a wholesome cause for celebration. There are also many pointedly 'Black', 'Asian' or 'Muslim' organisations which were created for both a positive identity and to guard against isolation, primarily because of their exclusion from the mainstream. Nothing wrong with that at all. However, how would members of minority groups feel if they suddenly saw signs and promotion for a 'White History Month', 'White Women Forum', the 'White Professional Association' or the 'White Entrepreneurs Club', labels which are clearly racist and exclusive? They would rightfully be up in arms. But where is the sensitivity (respect again) for the pointedly White exclusion in those labels?

2. Negative media coverage. There should not be a need for a Black History month at all. There is a flurry of activities in October (February in America), a month saturated with events where everyone tries to be heard, to be significant and valued, and then nothing else for the other 11 months. Like cuckoos, they go back inside their clocks. That is very sad. But Black History Month emerged because of a lack of positive attention to minorities (respect again!) by the media. The only time you hear about minorities is when something negative (like the veil issue?) is being reported.

Minorities in Britain are virtually invisible in every aspect of life except crime. We hear about them ad nauseam in relation to terrorism and street crime but hardly in any other dimension. For example, the focus on celebrities is pervasive in our society. But where are the minority celebrities? The ones well known in their communities but are ignored by the mainstream press? Where are the minority guests and achievers on chat shows? On discussion panels? On entertainment programmes? Once again, they are deprived of significance and value through invisibility but take centre stage when it's negative. Such an exclusive and racist approach keeps minorities in the public eye as extraordinary and non-contributing beings. It uses them in situations that bolster national fear (immigration and crime) while ignoring the vast majority of law abiding, legal citizens playing their part in society. Minorities are also used in a cynical way to show national pride abroad, as with the Olympics, when multculturalism was suddenly cool and essential, but are largely excluded from the preparations and nearly all the service contracts.

Lack of Recognition

3. Absent Media Faces. Today I visited the website of a top national newspaper and, of its 24 writers paraded for the public, only one was Black. I won't even mention television and radio because commercial radio, in particular, is dismal when it comes to representation of their diverse audience among radio staff. Is it any wonder that the views in the media are so skewed against minorities when there is hardly anyone giving an alternative view? Especially when the service provided for them is so negative and exclusive. That is why there is very little sensitivity (respect again) to minority views and feelings. Being on the negative end of any reporting, they are fair game for people seeking sensational headlines.

4. Separate existence. We talk a lot about the need for integration and the separateness of communities, but it has not been minorities who have cut themselves off from the majority, especially in our schools, it is the other way around. Many Whites have a negative view of minorities, fed by the media, and actually move away from areas with a significant minority population to 'preserve their culture'. The result is virtual apartheid in certain localities. That is very sad because neither side is making the effort to learn about one another or mix together. So how can there ever be a better understanding of difference? It really takes both sides to compromise, to engage in dialogue and to be sensitive to each other's needs and perspectives. But simple racism has spawned a lot of lip service while discrimination and exclusion run riot.

Diversity is here to stay

Diversity and multiculturalism can work beautifully when all parties are prepared to compromise, and accord each other respect, but it has to be genuine in every sense of the word. We cannot simply demand respect for ourselves while giving none to our peers because no country can thrive with a divided nation. If we really love our country, we strive to make it a great place to live. There are rights and responsibilities attached to being citizens of any country and merely stressing the rights without the responsibilities is folly and can only lead to isolation, discrimination, resentment and divisions. Clear guidelines on what it means to be British is crucial if the country seeks the respect of all Britons, if it hopes to make them feel empowered and to bring about healing. The Government also needs to add, equally clearly, that if life in Britain is not to one's liking, a life which we freely choose, there are many other countries one can go to that could be more suitable. That should be the bottom line for unity while ensuring due respect for those who choose to celebrate being British, regardless of their culture.

Starting from that base, Black History Month should be scrapped and minority heritage and culture celebrated ALL year round, just like that of the White majority, but under a diversity label. For example, what about Our Diverse Music in January, Our Diverse Literature in February, Diverse Arts and Crafts in April, Dance in May, Diverse Foods in June?...You get the drift. It means that, instead of just focusing on minority crime and negative issues around minorities, the White media can actually begin to pay some proportional attention, throughout the year, to the positivity of being a minority, particularly encouraging involvement and patronage by White participants, sponsors and patrons. That is the only way to make all people feel included and to engender loyalty and pride. It is also the main way to change White perception of their Black neighbours and for all British citizens, whatever their origins, to feel significant, appreciated, valued and included.

ELAINE SIHERA (Ms Cyprah - is an expert author, media contributor and columnist. The first Black graduate of the OU and a post-graduate of Cambridge University. Elaine is a CONSULTANT for Diversity Management, Personal Empowerment and Relationships. Author of: 10 Easy Steps to Growing Older Disgracefully; 10 Easy Steps to Finding Your Ideal Soulmate!; Money, Sex & Compromise and Managing the Diversity Maze, among others (available on Also the founder of the British Diversity Awards and the Windrush Men and Women of the Year Achievement Awards. She describes herself as, "Fit, Fabulous, Over-fifty and Ready to Fly!"

1 comment:

danritavetsch said...

Giving children the right tools and encouraging making new and diverse friendhips will also help this world greatly!! Below is a great Multicultural Book for children of all ages:

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