My husband recently told me about a workplace conversation he was a part of that included a woefully ignorant woman in her fifties. I found myself saddened and feeling really sorry for her and others like her.
The situation that revealed her lack of knowledge and awareness began with a discussion in the staff lunchroom. The African American employees of the company were expressing their displeasure over the company’s decision not to acknowledge Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday, as such. This was surprising because it is a union shop, but it is small in comparison to the “Big Three” and receives only meager representation. But that’s another story.
The woman—who we’ll call Donna—is a white female in her mid- to late fifties. According to my husband, she is known for being duplicitous. Her statements and opinions change depending upon who is in the room. In the middle of the discussion, Donna, in an attempt to appear empathetic, declared: “I think they should celebrate Martin Luther King Day since he is the only Black person who has really accomplished anything big.” In the silence that comes between hearing something and trying to figure out if you actually heard what you think you heard, she quickly added: “Oh, and Barack Obama, of course.”
After a series of questions from her coworkers, it was discovered that she was indeed serious and sadly lacking knowledge of any achievements by people of color. She had no knowledge of the accomplishments and contributions of Elijah McCoy, or Drs. George Washington Carver or Charles Drew. In fact—and this is difficult to believe—she had never even heard their names. She had never heard of any of the many inventions that came from those of African descent. She had simply attributed all inventions and contributions to people who looked like her.
Donna lives in a world where Dr. King and President Obama are seen as outliers, anomalies, rarities. Such a warped, diminished view of history not only colors how she makes her way in the world, but how she interacts with people of color. This way of thinking produces individuals who, instead of seeing people of color as co-creators of and contributors to what makes this country great, see them as people who are just…here, adding no real value.
I’ve heard people question the need for a month that focuses on Black History, as if it were meant to divide us, but the observance is, in reality, meant to bring us together. An American history that neglects the contributions of Americans of African descent produces the Donnas of the world. We need a true and balanced history of America, and Black History Month is an attempt to inform all Americans of our true history.
Well, the questions got to be too much for Donna, and she turned on her heels and walked away at a brisk pace. We can only hope that, thanks to her coworkers, she will now add a few more African Americans to her list of those who have done anything worthwhile.
But sadly, she was later overheard saying to one of her coworkers of European descent that she didn’t understand why there was a need for a holiday for Martin Luther King, since he didn’t do anything all that great. For some folks, ignorance is bliss…