Increasingly more countries are dedicating a month each year to the recognition of Black history, achievements, and contributions to human development. How can we best use this month, and what can we do to ensure that we achieve social justice, in health and across society at large?

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Mindy Schauer/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

The idea of Black History Month was born out of Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week, launched in 1926 in an attempt to challenge the underrepresentation of Black people in United States history.

It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s that this weeklong celebration was transformed into a month. The United Kingdom followed suit, recognizing and celebrating Black History Month for the first time in 1987.

Other parts of the world should do the same, even if the celebrations would involve diverse reflections, expressions, and events across countries.

In Africa, for instance, this celebration of our Black history is crucial, given that our world’s history has been extensively whitewashed to confirm the theory of Western supremacy and provide the rationale for colonization and imperialism.

For instance, many denied the African origins of Egypt’s great civilization, despite the Greek’s unanimous declaration of this fact and their description of Egyptians as people with black skin and curly black hair. It was impossible for the world to believe that Black people could be responsible for one of the oldest, most sophisticated civilizations on Earth.

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For political and economic reasons, white supremacists of the time made pharaohs whiter, ignored, looted, or systematically destroyed artifacts all over Africa, and distorted archaeological and historical findings in scientific reports and debates.

This was done in an attempt to cultivate a justification and their moral rights as white supremacists to ultimately enrich themselves — by enslaving and using Black people as commercial products and by stealing their riches.

This historical negationism has been coupled with pseudoscientific academic research to reinforce the propaganda of the inferiority of Black people.

However, one need not look further than the formal and informal educational systems feeding our children to observe the biased narrative and negative perception of Black people worldwide.

Children from the first drop of milk are taught that black is the color associated with negative actions and phenomena through stories and books that paint their understanding of society. For instance, villains in animated movies are often Black or Brown, while the majority of Disney princesses are white, thereby suggesting that Black is evil and white is ideal. Moreover, children’s books such as The Secret Garden contain outright racism against Black people.

The systematic inclusion of such books in curricula and the mass distribution of such movies create negative perceptions of Black people and foster low self-esteem among Black children.

In addition to books and films, languages often perpetuate and reflect racial biases.Take, for example, the difference between the terms “slaves” and “enslaved people.” The former simply admits an individual’s identity as a slave, while the latter puts the blame on the system that enslaved them.

Further emphasizing the impact of language on our beliefs, George Orwell in 1946 said, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” These ingrained racist thoughts and beliefs are evident in the photographic series Let’s Talk about Race, published in the May 2017 issue of O Magazine.

This series challenges the stereotypes surrounding the roles that different races play in society by presenting pictures with the subjects taking on reversed traditional roles.

The shock and debate that followed these images on social media is clear evidence that we have been conditioned to accept these racial stereotypes.

The repercussions of such racial biases in history, culture, and formal and informal educational systems are cross-cutting. By building a culture of white supremacy, white people have used Black people to build their own wealth to the detriment of the latter’s development.

Institutions in the Western world were built on the backs of enslaved people from Africa. For instance, in the 18th and 19th centuries, at least 25 governors of the Bank of England made fortunes from the slave trade.

White supremacy in science and health

Moreover, scientific research has openly used Black human beings as guinea pigs with the support of government leaders.

For instance, University College London propagated anti-Blackness by encouraging scientific studies promoting racism. And one shocking example from the U.S. is the 1931 “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.”

Moreover, colonial narratives around Blackness have created a reductive, false Black identity. While Black people largely originated from Africa, we had lives and cultures that diverged significantly, even before the so-called “discovery” of Africa.

There is significant diversity among Black populations, owing to differences in culture, language, history, challenges, and opportunities. While the common narrative around Africa is that it is one homogenous country, the diversity across and within African countries is astonishing. Owning this diversity is the first step toward challenging this stereotype about our uniformity.

The health impacts of this history of white supremacy are ever more present during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Minority groups who are overrepresented in essential services are more exposed to the virus. As of May 2020, Black people in Chicago and Louisiana comprised 30% and 32% of the population, respectively, but they constituted 70% of deaths in each state.

Not only have historical biases led to increased exposure in the present, they have also reduced the trust of Black people in the healthcare system. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 6 out of 10 Black Americans trust their doctor to do the right thing, compared with 8 out of 10 white Americans.

This distrust plays a key role in fueling vaccine hesitancy in minority communities — with data from 14 states showing that vaccine coverage among white people is twice that among Black or Latino communities. This hesitancy, caused by centuries of biases and injustice, can potentially cause immeasurable suffering and preventable deaths.

These are just a few examples of the repercussions of the negative narrative developed around Black people.

Black History Month should strengthen the celebration of our glorious past while holding all social justice activists accountable for challenging the racial injustice ingrained in societal structures and institutions.

Social justice requires the recognition of the distortion of Black peoples’ contribution to human civilization and the admission that passive and active segregation due to white supremacy’s ideals has perverted archeology, history, and social sciences — in everyday life, in all levels of the educational system, and in various institutions.

As Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who also heads the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery research initiative, has said, “We can’t dismantle what we do not understand, and we can’t understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history.”

Part of this battle also involves challenging current biases in language, books, and movies on a day-to-day basis to ensure that we stop the perpetuation of racist beliefs. Through conversations and actions in whatever position of society we are in, we can change the status quo and provide a more just future for the next generations.

However, while doing so, we need to acknowledge and respect the diversity among Black people. This allows us to provide tailored solutions to specific problems that Black communities are facing.

While it is important to band together in solidarity and share best practices, understanding local context is key. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us against the danger of a single story, which, in this case, can significantly contribute to Western stereotypes of Black people.

While remembering influential Black individuals and events of the past is critically important, we should not forget that Black History Month presents a unique opportunity to reconcile our duty of remembering the past with our obligation to fight current racial injustices.

We can’t change the past, but we can correct the systematic historical negationism and focus on a future based on equity by leveraging the momentum built around the celebration of Black History Month.

We should focus on actions for change and use this month as a checkpoint to measure, year after year, our progress toward equity, in health and across society in general.

Together, as a community of people guided by equity, we should set goals and actionable steps that challenge the representation and narrative around Black history, culture, and contribution to humanity, to continue the fight for social justice and equity.