When I think of the American history I learned in my K-12 years, I cringe. Not necessarily because my memories of “learning” are bad, but because I now know how skewed and whitewashed these lessons were. I learned the sanitized version of Thanksgiving as a day full of love between Pilgrims and Indians. I blindly celebrated Christopher Columbus as a great explorer. I dumbly learned and honored the names of our founding fathers, because “independence” and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Because America!
I didn’t learn until I was much older that we live on Native American land stolen from Indigenous people. I didn’t know Columbus is a stain on America, and I didn’t know that Thomas Jefferson was a flaming pile of racist shit. And the things that were outright omitted are just as eye-opening; I had no idea, for example, about the Tulsa Massacre — a literal mass murder and decimation of a flourishing Black community in 1921, committed by white supremacists. The erasure of Black history is just as unacceptable as the “alternate versions” of the historical stories we do receive.
We can do better, and we have to. I am educating myself and my children on race and racism, but I need their schools to be teaching the same lessons. Race can’t be ignored if we want racism to end. And unless it is actively anti-racist, a school curriculum is anti-Black.
The idea of anti-racist teaching is not new and has been demanded for years, but sadly it has taken the public consumption of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade for more folks—white folks—to get on board too. Black people have been telling white people for years of our downfalls when it comes to our part in racism and we haven’t been listening. This is partly willful ignorance, and partly failed education. We don’t know what we don’t know, right? Well, then let’s take the suggestions of folks who do.
Dena Simmons provides trainings throughout the schools in the United States to build social and emotional learning, culturally responsive practices, and equity. In an article called “How to Be an Antiracist Educator” she outlines ways teachers can change the way they teach to be sure they are part of the solution of dismantling ignorance and racism. The first step Simmons suggests teachers take is to examine their privilege and biases. One question she wants teachers to ask is this: “Do you and the academic materials you use uphold whiteness or lift up the voices and experiences of people of color?”
The answer will likely be yes, and that will — and should — make us uncomfortable, but that is where learning and change can happen. “Acknowledging the social construct of race and racism and the ideology of white supremacy recognizes the problem so that we are not harmful in our ignorance and so that, together, we can strive for solutions,” says Simmons.
I learned about slavery, racism, and the Civil Rights movement, but I didn’t learn how or why we got to those things. It wasn’t until I got out of school that I learned our nation was built on the idea of whiteness, created to put white people in positions of power and gain. I am learning so much of what I didn’t know because I, like most if not all people, was taught through a white lens that promotes systematic racism.
Teachers need to talk about race in a way that does not further traumatize Black students. Teachers also need to stop adding to the stigma and shame of race related topics by shying away from them. To avoid a subject means to build a prejudice against it. If a student thinks race is bad to talk about, they will then equate the person of said race as bad too. And Simmons reminds educators that when they see racism, they need to act and speak out against it. Some of this racism may be implicit. She asks schools to see which students are most disciplined and why. For example, is the dress code negatively impacting Black students, specifically based on their hair? If a student is required to cut his dreadlocks, the rule is racist and needs to change.
Harvard students, members of the African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD, recently outlined 13 demands for the Graduate School of Designs Administration to get their shit together in terms of institutionalized racism. First of all, the emotional labor put on marginalized folks is too heavy. Second of all, their demands are basic needs that should have already been met. The students want transparency in the way money is distributed and awards are given. They want more Black faculty and staff members. They want all courses to include the voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). They want people to be held accountable for racist remarks and biased-based teaching and decision making. This is not too much to ask.
Racism is not just about how we react to the color of someone’s skin, it’s about the systems that are in place that purposefully put people of color in disadvantaged positions. Systemic racism is about power and access. The criminal justice system, financial institutions, and housing and job markets were created to elevate white people. But they don’t teach this in school. Teachers need to be very careful about the sugarcoated lessons told in American history classes. Racism is not just about slavery; it’s about unpacking why, in 2020, cops still feel entitled to use deadly force on a black person when it is far from necessary.
Black history, which is American history, is not just a study of victimized narratives; it holds stories of resiliency and strength and everyone needs to see the positive representation of Black people. Yes, learn the horrors of what white people have done to Black people. But also learn the success stories of Black people despite the oppression. And celebrate the allyship of white and Black civil rights leaders who have worked together to untangle the roots of our nation. We need to see white people admitting their wrongs so that we learn from mistakes instead of perpetuating them.
And we need to make sure that what our kids are learning from the earliest age — both at home and at school — is an accurate picture of our country’s past and present, not a whitewashed version of the truth.