Educators need to teach about racism. It’s impact on America’s past and present is undeniable, and there needs to be a counter-narrative provided to the “all lives matter” deflection coming from places of power and privilege. Clearly all lives don’t really matter to them, or our domestic and foreign policies would look much different.
But what can we do? We face a couple hurdles:
- Teaching truthfully or speaking truthfully about ways America has fallen and presently falls short of it’s professed ideals can get you labeled an America-hater, as opposed to a true citizen who understands civic responsibility and action.
- Curriculum was scrubbed of much beyond college and career ready goals in the most recent wave of attacks on public education (a.k.a. “education reform”). This resulted in a disproportionate amount of effort going into ELA and Math-the primary areas targeted for testing and accountability.
“Accountability” in this paradigm means find a way to blame schools and teachers for problems our social and economic policies create.
Existing political and economic establishments continue to suppress human potential.
The establishment deflects from our social and moral obligations. It does this to draw focus instead towards easily measured and exploited data that will validate, serve and preserve the establishment and its agenda. That’s why “education reform” is such a joke: it’s defined and driven by an establishment that resists needed reform itself and seeks only to perpetuate itself. It’s hard to teach about racism when the message from that establishment is:
What do you mean corruption, growing inequity, police brutality and racism? Look how bad your school’s test scores are!
So why should we be educating learners on the topic of racism?
What good is “college and career ready” if a students aren’t reality-ready and society-ready? Currently, citizens’ rights, civic engagement, and cloudy definitions of patriotism are in-our-faces realities. Many people want to remove monuments to racist history, while other people defend those monuments as American history, or “heritage”. But a heritage made up of what qualities and beliefs?
Protestors are in the streets demanding verification of the fact that Black Lives Matter, because time and time again it has appeared that those lives do not matter, are taken for granted, or are simply taken with impunity. To address this, educators need to be prepared to teach about racism. From the beginning, educators in America need to be honest with learners: racism was baked into our society from day one.
Honest examination of this history does not mean you “hate America”, it means you genuinely want to understand America as you move forward as an informed citizen.
How can we educate learners on the topic of racism?
That is a bit heavy for primary and elementary students, but we can certainly start young with how people should treat each other, and move towards a look at how our nation has or has not risen to that ideal. Think about it in terms of starting with simple classroom rules that should apply to the world outside of school as well. Pretty much the type of rules you would and should introduce at the beginning of the school year anyway.
Robert Fulghum is a great place to start, I think. In his All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten Fulghum lists essential understandings regarding “how to live, what to do, and how to be.” Very basic, intuitive things, but at the same time things that are forgotten when doing the right thing is inconvenient or uncomfortable.
For example, the first things on Fulghum’s list are:
Don’t hit people
I try to keep my own rules short, simple and accessible-you know, kid friendly stuff. Fulghum keeps it warm and fuzzy, and teachers should at first too. Hold off on Don’t shoot little kids on the playground and Don’t choke people to death on street-corners until at least second or third grade.
Make the link between these things we intuitively know are right, and what we should be able to honestly admit is wrong later on.
Instead of planting any ideas, I like to let students lead this thought process and discuss. Try this exercise in early elementary school thought-you could apply it to any grade because it is more appropriate to further develop as students get older:
You are the captain of an alien spaceship sent out from your home planet to explore the farthest reaches of space. When you land on Earth, you want to record your observations about the strange new place and the creatures and beings living there. Describe:
The human beings encountered in the explorer’s log.
Knowledge or gifts you want to share with the human beings. What do you tell them?
Things you hope human beings can share with you- what do you want to find out from them?
The more endearing responses will probably come from the youngest students. That is where the more pro-social behaviors are reinforced. The Do unto others… code. Older students might have become more jaded or started to develop some world-view or political identity, but don’t be surprised if they are still overwhelmingly in the peace and kindness zone.
Regardless, this is a good opportunity to extend thought. Ask “How should you behave when traveling and meeting new people, especially when arriving where they live?” The discussion might even include some personal experience stories.
Where it can get interesting is when you shift to American history, the mythos supporting “discovery”, and relationships between races.
After having had the chance to discuss alien space-explorer “log entries”, and What should YOU do if vacationing to a new country, ask students:
1) What do you know about Christopher Columbus?
2) What do you think his observations were after arriving on land?
This is another share back and discuss opportunity. Groups are great for this because some know more than others, and some can articulate thoughts better than others. Older students may have already been primed for heavier discussions centering on European conquest, but younger ones are likely more familiar with the myth of Columbus’s “discovery” of the “new world”. Brave Christopher Columbus ventured out across the ocean, discovered a new world, and America is great.
Primary age students might truly think Columbus thought and intended good things-as a responsible traveler and visitor should. After discussing some student thoughts regarding what Columbus’s observations might have been, let students know that we actually know what he thought. He kept a log, he wrote letters…We have a pretty solid recorded history of what he did.
Share with students Columbus’s initial impressions of the place, and of the people who lived where he made landfall.
In a 1493 letter to one of his patrons, Lord Raphael Sanchez, Columbus wrote:
“…mountains of very great size and beauty, vast plains, groves, and very fruitful fields, admirably adapted for tillage, pasture, and habitation. The convenience and excellence of the harbors in this island, and the abundance of the rivers, so indispensable to the health of man, surpass anything that would be believed by one who had not seen it.”
Of the people, Columbus says:
“…they are very simple and honest, and exceedingly liberal with all they have; none of them refusing anything he may possess when he is asked for it, but on the contrary inviting us to ask them. They exhibit great love towards all others in preference to themselves: they also give objects of great value for trifles, and content themselves with very little or nothing in return.”
How do these words make Columbus sound? What does he think of this place and the people? Admiration, awe, maybe what sounds like fondness for these generous kind people? This might match some of the student thoughts regarding what might have been going on in Columbus’s mind.
Then you tell them that his communications and log entries also included
“But, should Your Majesties command it, all the inhabitants could be taken away to Castile [in Spain], or made slaves on the island. With fifty men we could… make them do whatever we want.”
Or when you let them know that Columbus and his brother were not brave heroes, but cruel rulers and thieves that brutalized and decimated the population and left what would become Haiti devastated. Aura Bogado, in this 2015 article wrote:
“Haiti remains the poorest country in the all of the Americas; the European Union region remains one of the wealthiest in the world. This isn’t because of some innate curse on Haiti. It’s because its peoples, their labor, their lands, and their resources have long been embezzled without reparation.”
This is what Columbus did. He didn’t discover, he pillaged.
When we teach about racism, we don’t want to share the gruesome details with our youngest students. They should simply understand how racism has hurt people throughout our nation’s history, how a race believing itself superior will tend to be inhumane towards other races.
Also: They should be able to see who has and does benefit from the implementation of racist policies and practices. For the elementary youngsters, a gentler and somewhat diluted version is more appropriate.
Even better, another reflection question:
What if space travelers arrived on Earth, looked down on us and treated us with disrespect? Enslaved us, stole our children and separated families? Forced us to work for them and were cruel to us if we failed to please them?
What would us human beings do if that happens? Would we protest in the streets? Should we?