Begin with the Truth

By:

Hand holding compass

The American Medical Association recognized last year that racism is a threat to public health. While the harm is greatest for Black and Brown people, it in fact hurts us all. We must, in John Lewis’ words, work out how to “lay down the heavy burden of hate at last.”

Last year, amid countless reasons for misery, I saw a few signs of hope. Multiracial throngs protested peacefully in cities and towns across the nation to support Black Lives Matter. Thousands of educators shared antiracist books lists and joined online conversations. Local coalitions – many of them student-led – demanded that their schools do better. Hundreds of districts responded with resolutions promising to make their schools antiracist.  

Schools offer the greatest chance for fulfilling Congressman Lewis’ hope. Schools touch almost all of us. Our children spend hours in classrooms where they learn more than math and reading; they’re seeing how the world works and where they fit.  

Most of the districts that resolved to be antiracist this summer committed to review policies and institute diversity training. Those are essential, but insufficient.  

We need to look at curriculum and ask: How do the narratives, texts, and content we deem important sustain or challenge racism?  

You can start now by taking a close look at your U.S. history program materials.

What we teach matters 

The narratives children learn, especially in elementary school, matter. They whitewash the past, hide more than they reveal, and even deal in outright lies. Too many secondary teachers and college professors spend time “unteaching” what their students learned before. Sometimes, the unlearning leaves students angry about what their education left out; sometimes it’s impossible to dislodge the firmly embedded narratives. 

These incomplete narratives tend to center white experience and leave gaping silences for everyone else. They leave children asking, “where are people like me?” Worse, when marginalized people do appear, we rarely hear their voice or perspective, or appreciate their agency, strengths or resourcefulness. 

You can find examples of the traditional narrative throughout U.S. history: 

  • In the Age of Exploration students learn about the adventurous spirit, scientific ingenuity, and names of European adventurers, but rarely learn even the names of the peoples they encountered. 
  • State histories note the “first permanent settlements,” a subtle erasure and denigration of the people who lived on the land long before interlopers arrived.  
  • Westward expansion gets coupled with terms like “Manifest Destiny,” and a litany of geopolitical deals like the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession, details that erase and ignore the experience of the people who were marginalized  along the way.  
  • Students absorb a simplistic narrative of the civil rights movement for years before they learn about the violence and oppression that made it necessary, the foot soldiers who made it happen, and the organizing and strategy that shaped the results.  

The wrong lessons learned 

These incomplete narratives teach children that the experiences of marginalized people aren’t worth much, that only the decisions of the powerful matter, and that “inclusion” means tacked on paragraphs about people of color scattered here and there like seasoning.  

Most of all, when students are denied the chance to see how power, race, oppression, and resistance played out in the past, they are left ill-prepared for the present and the future. They may well wonder how a nation that is always moving closer to its ideals could still have such a long way to go? 

At CARE, we’d like to turn that around. We will advance curriculum aligned to our CARE Principles. We plan to build a magnifying glass to identify how the learning resources we rely on either perpetuate or challenge those dominant narratives. We’ll be reviewing resources alongside educators so that we can all have better choices – and our students can have a better history.  

In the months ahead, we’ll be building digital tools for educators to use to review learning materials, and we’ll be crafting professional learning experiences to support teachers .  

Right now, download “Is Your U.S. History Text Racist” to take a magnifying glass to your current program.

And, if you think a learning resource IS racist, let us know about it.  You can email it to care@stand.org

They may well wonder how a nation that is always moving closer to its ideals could still have such a long way to go?