From the Community | Stanford, what do you think Black History Month means?

Opinion by Cat Sanchez
Feb. 15, 2021, 10:27 p.m.

It is hard to miss that we are now in Black History Month with all the “woke” messaging from companies and organizations about racial justice. While some real reckoning has begun to emerge (see the American Psychiatric Association’s open apology letter), the important distinction between thoughtful, meaningful action and empty, insensitive attempts at “woke”ness seems to escape a lot of organizations (see: all of the SuperBowl halftime ads, especially given the NFL’s vilification of Colin Kaepernick). 

In fact, our own university is guilty of performative attempts to placate their students. What might come to students’ minds first is the belated acknowledgment of Black History Month by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne nearly halfway through the month, but I have an earlier bone to pick. Stanford Recreation and Wellness was one of the first Stanford affiliates to mention Black History Month when it announced in its emailed Rec Report (2/3/21) that it would honor Black History Month by shifting its music selection, writing: “We invite you to Celebrate Black History Month with Rec & Well all February long! We will be incorporating black artists in our Virtual and Open-Air Fitness classes and sharing stories on our social media platforms!”

 “We will be incorporating black artists…” Is this news? What music does Rec & Well normally play?! What does this temporary increase in Black representation actually achieve? What is the point of this, Rec & Well, if not to simply check the boxes?

I went on their website to see if they had more to say, but could not find any other mention of Black History Month. Not on their website, nor on their social media. Just this one blurb in the email. I went back through the Rec Reports for the last 5 years to see how the Rec Report has previously communicated about Black History Month. As far as I can tell, this is the first time the Rec Report has mentioned any history month at all. November is Native American Heritage Month. No mention of that. No mention of Latinx Heritage Month either. (API Heritage Month 2021 is not till May, so TBD on that front.)

So why mention Black History Month specifically? We all know why. George Floyd. Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice. Tony McDade. Breonna Taylor. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Say Their Names. The Black Lives Matter movement and associated protests have not stopped. They have come to Palo Alto. They have come to campus. Students will not be quiet; staff and faculty want to speak out. The university feels the pressure to do something, but rather than make any attempts at meaningful change, all they are interested in doing is to placate. To do the minimum necessary to appear to be on board with social justice. This performative non-action is not only not helping the cause, but it is harmful because it masquerades as “progress” without creating any real change.

The Rec Reports are obviously not a traditional space of social justice advocacy — they just share news about recreation on campus — so perhaps there is an argument that it would not make sense to be more “political” in the Rec Report. But everything is political, and sports have long been especially political. Athletes are already participating in the current struggle against American anti-Blackness (for instance, Colin Kaepernick or the Warriors, who continue to strike for BLM). In that case, is Rec & Well’s acknowledgment of Black History Month an improvement from the University’s complete lack of messaging on Martin Luther King Jr. Day or its lackluster acknowledgment of Black History Month? Hardly.

In fact, it seems that Stanford has merely shut down any meaningful attempts at reform. It is unbelievably ignorant and disrespectful to continue to deny the departmentalization of African and African American Studies, refuse to properly house the King Institute, and then also stay silent on one of the few national moments Americans have to recognize not just Dr. King but Black excellence and Black contributions to our country. Over its 135-year history, Stanford has repeatedly demurred from or refused to take actions, like departmentalization, that would meaningfully demonstrate that it values Black studies and Black scholars. Nor have we really begun to confront the continuing role that white supremacist, eugenicist and other bigoted ideologies have played in making Stanford what it is today. Beyond just renaming buildings, Stanford should be funding research and education that directly addresses these issues. While merely acknowledging the existence of Black History Month with a playlist might squeak over this floor-height bar set by the intractable reticence of Stanford senior leadership, it is not okay.

While I applaud the staff at Rec & Well for recognizing that Black History Month is something we should celebrate, I would ask that they, and all of Stanford’s many departments, offices and programs think about what respectful and meaningful actions they can take to promote Black well-being that goes beyond merely adding some Lizzo to the playlist. If Stanford cannot do that, at least do not devalue what Black History Month is.

Contact Cat Sanchez at catsan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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