White History Week
Resetting the default
What if white history and white people were excluded from society's consciousness except for a handful of days? White History Week is an effective way to ask that question, says Jered Ebenreck, one of the event's planners. "How would you feel if you had just a month for your history? It's kind of a silly notion. We have the whole year for white people."
That's part of the genesis for White History Week at Out ch'Yonda. It's a temporary re-imagining of a world where the default setting isn't "white."
And it's not comfortable to talk about, say the organizers, who report nervous smiles and shocked silence when trying to tell others about the event. People don't know how to react, says Ebenreck, because they don't have a starting point. "Black History Month is always going to include Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 'I Have a Dream' speech," Ebenreck says. "We don't have anything like that to easily resort to."
The organizers are gathered around a pellet stove at Out ch'Yonda, a cluttered art space in Barelas that regularly examines issues of race in the work it produces. Their planning meeting has just finished, and as they speak, it seems the ever-evolving White History Week, its purposes and practices, are becoming clearer to them. But one thing has been crystal-clear to them from the beginning, and they're sure to emphasize it: This is not a white pride rally, nor is it a week of white-bashing.
White History Week used to be weeks, plural, but this year was shortened and refined. Discussions, or "chats," on racism, culture appropriation and what it means to "pass" as white fill out the days, along with music, art and theater. "The first year was way more focused on art," says Virginia Hampton, founder of the space.
In the United States, the shade of your skin has real priority, says Mimi Leland, an organizer. "So the lack of color becomes an issue, the whiteness. The world is dichotomizing in the that way." And when white people aren't in touch with their own varied cultures, they are prone to appropriate someone else's, she says. For example, when one conjures up the term "black music," specific genres come to mind, maybe blues or hip-hop. But what is "white music?" White History Week attempts to begin answering that question with performances from a variety of white musicians. "We know what everybody else is, somehow," says Ebenreck. "We've categorized them. Who is this that's [doing the] categorizing?"
Ebenreck will host the forum on gentrification, an issue he says is particularly relevant to the Barelas neighborhood that cradles Out ch'Yonda. "There's this thought going on that there are no direct, real personal relationships that are affected," he says of gentrification. When responsibility is given over to the real-estate market to manage issues of race, gentrification is unstoppable. "There's this overtone of ‘We can't control the gentrification, because we don't control the market.’ ”
What is white culture? the organizers are asking. It permeates everything, says organizer Janet Herrmann, yet it's somehow perceived as shapeless. A theater group working out of Out ch’Yonda conceived the first White History event. Many of its members practiced pagan religions and wanted to reclaim some of the lost European-American ancestry, she says. Herrmann is German, but she doesn't speak the language. Not that long ago, pitches in Leland, white culture in America wasn't so ubiquitous. "Until relatively recently, “white” wasn't an adequate word," she says. "It didn't cover the issue." And in other parts of the country, says Ebenreck, whether an area was predominantly Polish or Swedish used to be more significant.
Many topics are broad and open-ended, the organizers say. White History Week is meant to be a starting point for peeling apart “whiteness.” Anyone can attend White History Week, says Hampton. "You can come no matter what color you are. The conversation that many, many different people are having is about what it means."