Are ethnic-themed months necessary?


More than seven ethnic-related celebration months are recognized throughout the year in the United States.

The honorary months are recognized nationwide and intended to educate, celebrate and honor the rich historical and cultural contributions the ethnicity groups continue to make on American soil.

But does nationally recognizing a few ethnic groups, while excluding others, cause divisiveness among races as a whole? Is this method of singling out ethnic identity counterproductive to advancing the United States as an amalgamated people?

The Advocate asked noted scholars and civil rights leaders to weigh in on the subject. Responses varied, but the consensus was that ethnic-themed months are necessary, continue to serve a purpose, and are the result of a long history of some ethnicities being overlooked in American history.

University of Texas history professor Neil Foley said the recognition of ethnic months stems from a complicated past.

"It's not just the fact that they've been left out of history. They've been on the receiving end of discrimination, in many cases," Foley said. "Their struggles are ongoing."

Foley suggested the ethnic-themed months were forced out of an American society that refused to allow certain races and ethnic groups - even whites were not equally white in the early 20th century - to become equal parts American.

"Those groups said, 'You wouldn't let us be American, so you know what? We're black and proud, or we're women and we're proud, or we're gay and we're proud.' And then we had a series of people saying, 'We're all American, why can't we all be equal?' And those groups said, 'That's what we wanted in the first place, and you wouldn't allow it.'"

Exploring historical origins of other ethnic groups provides a complementary perspective to traditional historical teachings that center on narratives of the United States' Founding Fathers, or the "movers and shakers" of early American colonialism, who were mostly European men. But the ordinary U.S. residents who built railroads and erected cities weren't exclusively white men, Foley said.

"Inclusion of historical information is not in any way transforming the narrative," or the history of immigration, Foley argued.

Agreeing with Foley, Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that growing up in Texas, African-American history wasn't included in his studies.

"We did not learn when I was in school that Crispus Attucks, a black man, was the first person to die for the colonists in their war to obtain independence from Britain, or that some of the most important officers under Gen. Washington's command were of African descent, or that Samuel McCullough was the Crispus Attucks of Texas, or that Hendrick Arnold was one of the true heroes of the War of Independence with Mexico," Bledsoe said. "I was educated in Texas and learned none of this."

Celebrating Black History Month allows people of African descent to learn more about their ancestry and contributions to the U.S.

"So, what I am saying is that we need this kind of education," Bledsoe said.

When asked if celebrating ethnic-themed months were discriminatory toward other ethnicities, Texas League of United Latin American Citizens District 10 Director Benny Martinez said, "Absolutely not."

"People should be proud of where their ancestors came from. And we need to remember that all Americans were immigrants at one time," Martinez said.

But more than a celebration and presentation of historical contributions of certain people, Hal Smith, humanities and history professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, said the ethnic-themed months remind Americans that their homeland is indeed a collective body of cultures.

"I think ethnicity-themed months are valuable for a variety of reasons. One is that they draw attention to the fact that the United States is - and has been from the beginning - composed of a diversity of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Anyone who eats pizza, drinks French wine, etc., is benefiting from that diversity, and should be grateful for the cultural and ethnic diversity of the U.S.," Smith said. "A second reason is that ethnicity-themed months draw attention to the distinctive historical background of specific ethnic groups, thereby contributing to the education of people who are not part of that group."

Jennifer Preyss-Mathlouthi is an award-winning faith writer and columnist.