How to Be an Ally During Black History Month

Want to be a better ally? Learn the dos and don'ts of celebrating Black History Month.
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  • Black History Month has been officially celebrated nationwide for nearly 50 years.
  • Learning to be an ally is key to supporting the Black community.
  • As an ally, there are ways to correctly — and incorrectly —celebrate Black History Month.
  • Understanding nuances and relearning history are critical components of being an ally.

The origins of Black History Month can be traced back over 100 years ago. In 1920, scholar and historian Carter G. Woodson gave the keynote speech during his fraternity's national meeting. He urged the men of Omega Psi Phi to promote the study of "negro history."

As a result, the fraternity initiated what became known as Negro Achievement Week, which took place in November. During this week, many Black communities celebrated the contributions of Black people across the country.

By 1924, Woodson, who also founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, was asked to oversee Negro Achievement Week. He changed the named to Negro History Week and moved it to the month of February, to commemorate the birthdays of activist and author Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

The U.S. has celebrated February as Black History Month since its official acknowledgment by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Black History Month is a time to honor Black people's achievements, history, and contributions to the country. In recent years, more communities have joined in to celebrate alongside Black Americans.

However, some efforts to celebrate Blackness can end up doing the opposite, leaning on stereotypes and harmful interpretations of Black culture that contribute to oppression.

Take some time to learn how to celebrate Black History Month as an ally with the following tips.

10 Ways to Celebrate Black History Month as an Ally

Intention does not equal impact. So what are the best ways to celebrate Black History Month as a non-Black person?

"Be open minded and aware of our rich culture and history, and be supportive and intrigued to learn more about the fighting we've done, the leadership we've done," Nakiyah Matthews, community chair of Columbia College Chicago's Black Student Union, said. "Be ready to learn and listen, be yourself, ask questions, and show you care."

Here are 10 ways to celebrate as an ally.

1. Attend Black History Month Events on Campus

When you learn about Black History Month events happening on campus, it's important to show up to support the organizations presenting them. Many student organizations that host these events support historically excluded communities on campus and are often underfunded.

These events are also often open to the whole student body — and they're no small celebrations.

"For Black History Month, we go big," Matthews said. "We try to have an impact on not just our culture and on African American students, but the entire student experience at Columbia."

Having a large number of attendees at their events shows genuine interest and support for the Black community on campus. It also gives these organizations tangible reasons to seek more financial support.

2. Uplift Black Voices

As an ally, ensuring your voice never outweighs the people you're supporting is essential. Therefore, take every opportunity you can to bring attention to Black voices.

This can be accomplished by promoting Black History Month events on your social media. Also, if you are part of an organization, consider inviting a Black person, perhaps a historian or a community leader, to speak at one of your meetings about Black history and other topics.

This means inviting these speakers to spaces they may not typically be invited to, allowing them to use your social platforms, and more.

3. Support Black-Owned Businesses

Though capitalism is not the route to Black liberation, acknowledging the shortcomings of the system in place is crucial.

Therefore, it's essential to support Black business owners — because they still face prejudice as an extension of racial discrimination. And their businesses are less likely to succeed than their white counterparts' businesses.

Seek out Black bookstores, restaurants, and even Black vendors and support them on a regular basis.

4. Learn to Spot Anti-Blackness

To appropriately aid Blackness, allies must also learn how to spot anti-Blackness.

Whether via spotting white supremacist dog whistles or understanding the nuances between overt and covert racism, Black History Month is a good time for allies to brush up on their anti-Blackness comprehension skills.

A good film to watch on YouTube is "White Like Me" by anti-racist activist Tim Wise. He breaks down basic issues that are historically and currently tied into anti-Blackness.

5. Learn the History

Many people know that, over the years, much of the history taught in U.S. public schools has been whitewashed. It's an ally's job to unlearn this history and speak out with the truth.

Seek sources that clarify and teach accurate accounts of history and learn from them — like the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" by James W. Loewen, which details an accurate retelling of American history.

In addition to visiting Black-owned bookstores, enroll in a Black history course if one is offered on your campus.

6. Join Causes

Black History Month is about celebration, but it also requires acknowledgment of the harmful acts done to Black people and active efforts against them.

Allies must also be prepared to join the causes created to support Black people, including intersection causes that champion all corners of the Black community.

7. Read Books by Black Authors

A book can open its audience up to different perspectives and experiences and champion Black voices.

This benefit is a great reason to pick up a book by a Black author. Through reading these books, you can gain a better understanding of the community, causes, and people you aim to support.

8. Listen to Black Podcasts

Aside from books, another great way to understand Black perspectives is to listen to podcasts.

There are a lot of Black podcasts out there that create accessible spaces for Black people to share ideas, engage in the community, and speak their truth.

9. Watch Black Television and Movies

Aside from books and podcasts, supporting other Black media is also essential. Positive Black representation on television can help reform public perception of negative stereotypes.

Supporting Black television and movies can also lead to more roles being created for Black actors in an industry notorious for discriminatory hiring practices.

10. Know That It's More Than a Month

Being an ally means understanding that Black history and the significance of Black people spans much more than just a month.

The contributions made to the culture and well-being of the United States are numerous and extend far beyond February.

How Not to Celebrate Black History Month as an Ally

Now that you know how to support the Black community, make sure you know what doesn't help.

"Some things that you shouldn't do is act as if [Black oppression] does not exist or disrespect Black history," Matthews said. "That's being disrespectful to every African American, disrespectful to our history. And obviously keep any inappropriate racial slurs, remarks, or opinions to yourself."

Here are five things not to do.

Don't Think It's Just for Black People

It's crucial to recognize that even though Black History Month centers on Black people, there is still an active part for allies to play. Following the tips above is essential to supporting Black people — during Black History Month and year round.

It's a time to actively and outwardly show solidarity — not to shy away from Blackness.

Avoid Attempts to Center Yourself

Even though this month is a time for allies to participate, it is not a time for them to overtake.

Supporters of the Black community must learn the balance between being an ally and centering themselves. That means listening to and internalizing the experiences of Black people.

Be Aware of Virtue Signals

Saying one thing and acting another way is hypocritical and damaging — especially when it comes to supporting the Black community.

Being an ally means actively using your privilege to help Black people. Avoid virtue signaling — public expressions only meant to paint yourself in a positive light — at all costs.

Don't Be Thoughtless

Black History Month is not the time to be thoughtless. When celebrating friends, colleagues, or the history itself, highlight accomplishments, contributions, and key facts about the Black community — not stereotypes that build on negative characterizations of Black people and culture.

It is important that you educate yourself and know the facts before you comment. It is especially essential to ask questions, read, research, and listen.

Don't Appropriate Black Culture

Finally, allies should help, not harm. Appropriation of Black culture through hairstyles, dress, or language is absolutely inappropriate.

Speak to your own community about why vital components of Black culture are sacred and why you shouldn't appropriate these cultural artifacts.

Celebrate Black excellence in college — and learn why allyship is more important than ever.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Nakiyah Matthews

Nakiyah Matthews

Born & raised in the West Side of Chicago, Nakiyah Matthews is an aspiring actress, director, and producer. She is a current student at Columbia College Chicago with an acting major and video production minor. She is the community chair of BSU, and is also a member of the Beautiful Beta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Nakiyah consistently demonstrates great character, integrity, and high scholastic achievement. As she continues to evolve, she will remain an active participant in her community, and apply the exceptional skills of leadership, creativity, and strong work ethic towards her passion and each organization, field, or environment she is associated with.