Celebrating Black History Month: tips for organisations and brands to get it right

Now more than ever it is important for organisations to meaningfully commemorate Black History Month. Although Black History Month is a time of year we look forward to, in a personal and professional capacity it can be frustrating and demoralising to see organisations produce initiatives that are rushed, tokenistic and sometimes offensive.

We are two sisters who are inundated with requests for the month of October and again wanted to share some advice and suggestions for how to properly commemorate Black History Month this year. Melissa (@HistorianMel) is a historian and community engagement professional and Hayley (@HayleyTVB) is an independent equity, diversity and inclusion consultant, speaker and campaigner. If you are an organisation or brand, and thinking of organising an event or creating some related content. Check out our 15 tips below:

1. Allocate budget and pay speakers and contributors
You may have gathered this from our introduction, but just in case DO NOT ask Black speakers to speak at your event or produce content for you for free. This is insulting and very problematic considering how much free labour Black men and women are already doing due in terms of both emotional labour and pay inequity. This also includes approaching people to advise you on your event programme, outward facing comms etc. You would not expect any other expert or consultant to come into your organisation and share their knowledge for free.

2. It’s Black History Month not BAME History Month
Black History month was established more than 30 years ago to celebrate and acknowledge Black history. It is not appropriate to conflate other minority ethnic histories with Black History Month and this could be a costly mistake in terms of PR and credibility. There are other history months set aside to recognise other groups and you should be acknowledging these as well. The first East and South East Asian History Month took place this year.

3. Challenge ‘whataboutery’
The focus on Black people during October always makes others uncomfortable and can lead to people questioning why attention apparently isn’t given to other groups. This is an expression of anti-Blackness and should be challenged. It is important to understand the origins of Black history month to be able to articulate why it is needed, and how Black people have led the way in campaigning for recognition and civil rights that others have benefited from. Do not be afraid of being pulled into debates about ‘political correctness’, ‘culture wars’ or ‘rewriting history’ but be prepared for some people not to appreciate your work and have support for staff and a comms approach planned in case this happens.

4. Recognise Black contributions that have paved the way
Properly recognise the contributions of Black people to your company. If historically these contributions have been limited, branch out to the contributions of Black people to your sector more broadly. Highlight Black innovators and achievers who paved the way in your field regardless of where they worked. If you have not had the best history when it comes to inclusion, be prepared for Black colleagues to question the story you are telling in outward and inward facing campaigns, give them opportunities to share their concerns and provide them with evidence of real measurable intentions to change.

5. Explore Black History beyond slavery
Make sure you acknowledge the variety of Black history without over emphasis on enslavement. There are lots of other significant events to commemorate and learn more about. However, you can be honest about the various legacies that have led the world to be the unequal place that it is. Always ensure that Black histories are told from Black perspectives not white perspectives. This means that you may need to double check who authored some of the resources that you might cite or quotes that you might highlight. Avoid ‘first Black person to’ clichés and narratives as these are often proved to be incorrect later down the line.

6. There’s more than the US Black experience
Make sure that you do your research and connect to Black History that is relevant and local. We all admire Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks but this does not mean that there are no Black British heroes that we can celebrate as well. There are lots of resources to help you with this including The Oxford Companion to Black British History, and Angelina Osborne and Patrick Vernon’s 100 Great Black Britons. Focusing on the US Black experience often implies a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to acknowledge the UK’s difficult past when it comes to racism and racialisation.

7. Plan both internal and external initiatives
Use your whole sphere of influence to engage your employees and customers, users, clients and wider community. BUT make sure your external communications reflect how you celebrate Black people internally. Don’t just talk about Black history externally as a branding opportunity when it hasn’t been properly acknowledged internally. This can alienate and disengage your employees, and come across disingenuous.

8. Consult with Black colleagues but recognise and reward them for their extra work
At this time of the year it is likely that your Black employees will be caught between already being really busy but also wanting to ensure that Black History Month isn’t forgotten within your company. Acknowledge this reality and acknowledge their input in shaping your activities through awards, objectives and promotion opportunities. Do not rely solely on staff networks or Black staff to programme and organise activities. Ensure that any additional work they do is compensated through time off in lieu, overtime, or other means.

9. Raise money and help to publicise Black charities and organisations
Use this time as an opportunity to fundraise for the charities who do this vital work. Engage with charities and community organisations, for example through social media posts and take overs, blogs and other campaigning. Bigger companies should aim to support activities for smaller community organisations through funding or providing resources. There are many Black-owned or Black-led venues and events professionals that are struggling post COVID-19. Think about how you can spend your money where it will have the greatest impact on the community, rather than supporting the same corporate venue hirers and event planners.

10. Represent the diversity of Black people fully
The theme for this year’s Black History Month is “Proud to Be” and it encourages us to celebrate Black History Month whilst also recognising intersectionality. If you have a programme of events, or are creating a series of content, ensure that you spotlight Black people with a range of different experiences and identities. Don’t perpetuate colourism by overemphasising contributions from light skin Black people. Ensure there is representation of all shades of Black people and don’t erase the experience of dark skin Black people. As with any event you plan, ensure that you include voices from different genders, nationalities, LGBTQ+ voices and the voices of people with disabilities.

11. Be mindful of just having Black people talk about racism
Black History Month is meant to be celebratory and shouldn’t solely focus on Black people sharing their experiences of racism. Whilst it can be powerful, it is very difficult to get this right in terms of balances of power and you should be wary of recycling trauma. Promote the Black experience in all its wonderful forms and create opportunities for Black people to talk about their work and their expertise. Promote Black Joy which is really needed in 2021.

12. Acknowledge that Black History is everyone’s history
It is important that you don’t unintentionally ‘other’ Black colleagues, especially when your intention is to be inclusive and celebratory. Black British History is British History, it has just not been integrated into the mainstream stories that we are more familiar with. You will exclude people if you imply that their community’s history is separate or something that went on over there. Good references for this are David Olusoga’s Black and British and Onyeka Nubia’s England’s Other Country Men: Blackness in Tudor Society.

13. Go beyond diversity and inclusion PR
Most organisations use the month of October to launch or celebrate initiatives relating to racial diversity. This can be problematic if it is the only thing you are doing during Black History Month. The focus shouldn’t be on patting yourself on the back for the progress made on race equity but about celebrating Black people’s contributions and the Black experience.

14. Build lasting partnerships and coalitions
Black History Month should not be a competition between sector peers or rivals. Addressing the marginalisation and under-representation of Black people is probably not something your organisation can solve on its own so see who you can collaborate with. This means working with experts and community organisations, as well as similar organisations who can share learnings and resources to make Black History Month more impactful. Consider how you can compensate/remunerate individuals and small organisations with limited capacity and low turnovers for assisting you.

15. It shouldn’t be just one month
Although Black History Month is a targeted month of activities, it should not be the only time that organisations work to support Black people. Plan other activities throughout the year and continue to support the work being done all year round to promote Black history and Black communities. For example, Black Pound Day takes place on the first Saturday of every month to support the growth of the Black economy. Black History Walks work with museums, schools, communities and government agencies and offer walking tours, educational talks and films in London.

How to meaningfully celebrate Black History Month - the Do’s and the Don’ts!

This piece was written by Melissa & Hayley Bennett and is an updated version of the original piece published in 2020.