We live in an age where American History is in our textbooks and all teachers are required to teach it. But the thing about US History in the classroom is that often the stories told in the textbooks are from the point of view of the oppressor, not the oppressed.
We see it so often how those who have not been oppressed think that certain time periods were amazing. There are those who go to civil war reenactments, renaissance fairs, and those who say “I should have been born in the 50s and 60s because life was so much better, and more peaceful.” To which I respond…for whom?
For whom was life better and more peaceful in the 50s and 60s? What exactly was better in the 50s or 60s for anyone really? “Oh, well, we didn’t have to strap kids to car seats.” Welp, at least you had a car.
Those who have not been oppressed look at life as though those who have been oppressed have made up their oppression.
How many times have I been told “well, did YOU pick cotton?” My answer to that is no. But the effects of my ancestors having to pick cotton creates a direct correlation to how I as a black person is treated. So yes, I indirectly picked cotton.
Or you hear something better like “well, I was not a slave owner.” No, no you are not, but the way you treat people of color and Latinos, and Asians, and any minority group has a direct correlation to the people in your family line who did in fact at some point…own slaves. You benefit from a system that continues to say that you are right and everyone else is wrong. You benefit from a system that continues to withhold loans from black people.
“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was not meant for people of color but is used on people of color when we talk about how our oppression has kept us from being able to advance.
So how is it that the oppressor is even allowed to teach the once oppressed and the still oppressed? How is it ok for a white teacher to teach about slavery? I am mostly curious about how white teachers feel when they teach about a time when their ancestors were horrible rapists, murderers and thieves.
For the most part, they don’t feel that bad. They don’t feel that bad because they have separated themselves from the actual events of the past while kids of color still suffer racism, hate, and modern-day lynchings. The teachers don’t feel bad because once again they are participating in the movie Dangerous Minds, partially aware that they are the main character in it.
White teachers are disconnected from their very past because many of them are the “liberals” who believe they are on the right side of history. They believe in equality, and unity, and all that fake shit that many people of color try to experience while their brother is shot by the police, or their sister just had their 5th baby and does not know who the daddy is. They believe in a good education for everyone but still have it that THEY can make a difference and take pictures for likes on facebook, instagram, and twitter while making that difference.
They are not affected by the content they teach black kids because they themselves don’t believe they are complicit in the systemic problem we have in the USA and all around the world. They have no idea what it is like to fear being pulled over because we failed to use our blinkers and the feeling that this could be our last day on earth is real. They have no inkling of how it feels when someone tells use “wow, you are so articulate” or “you are not like other blacks.”
This is why they are not hesitant when teaching American History. They don’t even see the problem and how it is actually an oxymoron for a white person to teach black and latino kids about slavery, about pain, about colorism, about hardships that are a result of the system.
This is not to say that white people don’t have hardships. They do. But it is not as a result of systemic racism. Their hardships can be resolved in a quicker and easier fashion. This is not to say that white people have not been abused emotionally, physically, sexually etc. This abuse is real, this pain is real and it has to be acknowledged. But the abuse suffered by a non minority in America is not as a result of racism, colorism, and plain hatred for a people group. The abuse is not a result of systemic racism. Their abuse is not as a result of prejudice, and an unequal amount of systemic power. It is easier to “rise up” from the ashes when the ashes are able to be cleared away. When a building is burned, and completely cleared, it is a bit easier to rise. But when a building is burned and the building is not cleared, it is hard to rebuild…it is hard to start over.
Teaching is complicated and very multi-dimensional. As a black woman, it is very hard to teach a US History class to a mixed group of kids. When there are white kids in my class, it is almost impossible. You see, when I teach, I teach from a place of being able to relate to the people of color who have suffered, and gone through much pain and misery and who are still suffering as a result of our beginnings. The white kids would immediately feel offended when I linger on a part of history that they are not comfortable with. They begin to feel as though my teaching blames them directly. They begin to question, and then they take their questions home and I receive phone calls at night.
Years ago I taught history to white kids from Spain. They got into a huge argument with me because they claimed that they themselves did not hurt anyone, or oppress anyone even though they were well aware of their own history. They felt attacked and yet, the history book was clearly stating that “Houston, we have a problem.” The fact that I as the oppressed group of people was teaching the group of people who oppress was the problem. There is a power dynamic, a structure that is not balanced.
This is the issue for me when white teachers teach kids of color about a very ugly past. They become the ones with the golden buzzer. And they get to press it when they feel like it. Do they allow the kids of color to grieve their past as they listen to stories of their ancestors being raped by slave masters?
Are the teachers allowing the kids to ask deeper and harder questions?
Are the teachers allowing the kids of color to say “this is wrong and you are complicit?”
Are the teachers allowing the kids of color to choose whether or not to participate?
Do the teachers understand for themselves that maybe, just maybe, they don’t belong in this very sensitive space in the first place?
In my last year of college I had a white teacher who was teaching American Literature and one day I walked into the classroom and the movie Roots was playing. I was the ONLY black woman in the class and I felt so uncomfortable I wanted to throw up. But I tried to be strong. I sat there for a couple of minutes until we got to the scene where they were dragging my people off the boat and we were naked.
In a room full of white people, I felt their eyes were on me. They were looking from the screen, to me, to the screen again. Not only did they see what my body potentially looked like, (every aspect) but they were seeing how my body was being beaten, touched, pulled on, evaluated…like some animal.
I asked to be excused and opted out of the rest of that particular class. I later explained to my professor how uncomfortable I felt. She did not understand me at all. See, in her mind, a movie like that is supposed to open the classes eyes to how bad things were and how much better they are now. But here’s the thing…I know how bad things were, and how they are now. I didn’t need Roots to remind me of how white people treat black and brown bodies. I didn’t need Roots to tell me how evil many white people are and how you really can’t trust them. I didn’t need Roots to tell me how unfair society is and how my feelings and my thoughts were not important.
My options were, write a paper or stay for the movie. I opted for a paper and got a C on it. Yep….that was my worth in that school, in that class, and with that teacher. I would have gotten an A had I stayed and allowed the views to continue to visually rape me. I would have received an A if I had stayed and let white people see me as an object but then feel good about themselves because they didn’t directly participate. I would have gotten an A if I had stayed and allowed her to think that maybe a movie about slavery with a black student in the classroom was a good idea. She didn’t ask me what I thought or how I felt before showing it-she just played the movie. Because after all, she knew my history better than I did. Like an object has no opinion, so she left me.
It is a power dynamic that is imbalanced and unfair when a white person is asked to teach US History to kids of color. It is wrong and should not happen in any school system. US History is not a course that can be taught in a detached fashion, there has to be passion, feelings, heart. There has to be understanding, empathy, and love. There has to be knowledge, humility, and an overall desire to teach what really happened, not what white textbook creators want us to think happened.
So what is my solution?
There are several.
- Schools need to be better staffed with diversity.
- Teachers need to take a course on how to answer harder questions without worrying about being offended, or showing their fragility.
- Teachers need to teach from a non hierarchal standpoint.
- Teachers need to focus on what they understand and NOT use black and brown bodies to further their own understanding of the pain we go through.
Please add what more to this list if you come up with some good solutions.