February is Black History Month, in which schools across the country will plan activities to spotlight the accomplishments of Black people. That recognition is essential, but it also poses a risk—some schools will plan events under Black history that really should be called something else.
That may be well intentioned, but the confusion hampers progress.
The confusion occurs in schools every year, particularly in February. I have seen this in multiple schools throughout my educational journey. There is a level of discomfort from non-Black teachers teaching Black history because of lack of factual knowledge or lack of depth of knowledge. Schools compromise and incorporate activities about race, acceptance, and equity instead of Black history.
America is in the midst of a much-needed social justice reform. The number of unarmed black people killed unjustifiably saw worldwide attention when police officers senselessly killed George Floyd. America was forced to realize the ugly truth that the rules for white people are much different from the rules for every other group of people, especially Black people. With the revelation of this truth, diversity, equity, and inclusion have become a significant emphasis for every organization, including schools.
While Black history and DEI are both critically important, it is vitally important to recognize the two are not the same. Without a proper understanding of the differences, schools will confuse the two. Planning activities in February that are more DEI-centric than Black history-focused does little to advance either purpose and may even set them back. Understanding the differences between Black history and DEI are crucial for all students and staff.
As James Weldon Johnson beautifully wrote, “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; Sing a song full of the faith that the present has brought us.” The celebration of Black history extends far beyond the United States and Canada, which speaks to the level of influence Black people have had on the world. Black History Month instills pride in young Black children to see the vast accomplishments of Black people on the foundation of the world despite the brutal hardships of the past, while at the same time educating those outside the Black community.
When Black history is taught correctly in schools, there is an intentional integration of pride in Black people’s accomplishments, past and present, woven into the school’s culture. There is no need to attempt celebrations about influential Black people because there is a seamless integration into school curriculum and culture; instead, Black History Month is a continuation of significant emphasis on influential Black people beyond the standard few.
The difference between Black history and DEI is that the diversity in DEI is far more than Black people. Diversity is a commitment in the thinking process of race, religion, socio-economic status, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Where schools fall short is the belief that teaching Black history is diverse in content. Diversity is an intentional process beyond Blackness. It is a commitment to acceptance in thought and action.
When referencing DEI, inclusion is an intentional commitment to change that is found in language. It is the acceptance of all people evident in the everyday words and print.
Schools issue statements supporting Black Lives Matter and think the support fulfills all inclusionary groups. Yes, support Black Lives Matter as a statement recognizing that Black lives matter because America has frequently not treated Black lives as if they mattered. Agreeing with Black Lives Matter, though, does not mean schools are inclusive for all. Knowing the difference between Black History and DEI will help schools become more effective both in teaching Black History and in demonstrating a DEI commitment.
How to Avoid Interchanging Black History with DEI
1. Understanding Black history and DEI enables schools to focus on teaching Black history while maintaining DEI. To avoid interchanging Black history with DEI, schools must acknowledge that teaching race is not the same as teaching Black history. There is a level of discomfort that sometime accompanies non-Black teachers when teaching Black History, which leads to educators shying away from leaning into Black History. In other instances, when Black history is taught, it is presented as content with no context, and content without context loses historical significance.
2. DEI quickens the ears of educators, but its meaning is rarely understood to the depth of what it deserves. Schools fall into the trap of tasking a committee to overseeing a commitment to DEI. When the committee approach is implemented, checking boxes becomes the primary concern. All racial distinctions, cultural differences, economic status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, equity, and inclusion wind up getting grouped together, including Black history.
3. Allow the rightful space for DEI and Black history to run without conflating the two. Approach Black History unapologetically and intentionally to help celebrate the life, accomplishments, and contributions of Black people worldwide. Also, make an intentional commitment in thought and action to DEI. Create a space where content is presented with ample context that lends to Black history’s historical significance. Commit to policy reform and analyze human resource practices to ensure DEI remains a priority in districts.
In the end, schools must remember Black history and Black History Month are direct and specific and while DEI casts a broader net. There is no shame or slight when teaching Black history as there is equally no shame or slight with DEI. Approach both with the passion, care, and attention they deserve, as Black history and DEI both deserve their proper lanes. Black history and DEI are both independent. Using the two interchangeably demeans their impact.
George Farmer is an administrator at an elementary school in Camden, New Jersey. In 2020, he earned a doctorate of education in educational leadership and management from Capella University.