Though it was conflicting with my newly-started (or rather re-started for the 25th time) low-carb diet, I ordered the shrimp puttanesca and a good glass of Chianti. I was at one of my favorite restaurants and my boys, who typically answer my questions with fewer than 3 words, were openly relaying details about their first week of school. I was inordinately content; that is until my high school junior started telling us about his latest History assignment.
My son naively relayed that his teacher divided the class (which is 98% White) into two groups – representing the Northern and the Southern states respectively – to debate whether slavery should be abolished or continued. My son was randomly placed with the Southern States group, who started with compiling reasons that slavery was a good thing and should be maintained; and then argued in favor of that position.
I placed my wine glass down and looked at my son in disbelief.
“Yeah, it was uncomfortable now that I’m thinking about it,” he said reflectively.
Of course, it was an uncomfortable situation; and I am sure that his teacher, a White male, didn’t consider that possibility. I’m sure he isn’t a cruel man, just an oblivious one. He doesn’t have to think about race any more than a fully able-bodied person has to think about whether a building is equipped with a bathroom or entrance that is accessible for people with disabilities.
But all teachers need to begin thinking about race — indeed, diversity as a whole – because their failure to do so doesn’t just create uncomfortable moments for students; but can lower self-esteem, make it difficult to create authentic bonds between diverse groups, lead to stereotyping and alienation, and impair performance.
The slavery debate assignment is a perfect example. It provides yet another time when Black people are portrayed as subservient slaves (instead of hardworking, normal people who were ripped from their families and homes, terrorized and abused simply to provide free labor for greedy White Americans). I assert when children repeatedly (because for some reason, American slavery is oftentimes the only aspect of Black history that is taught every year in school from 2nd grade until 12th grade — as if it is our only history) are presented with half naked Africans chained together, on fields, treated and owned as property, that it has an unconscious effect on how Black children see themselves and how others see them.
If the majority of a child’s curriculum about his people is that they were slaves and subservient to White people, how is he supposed to dream of greatness for himself? If a teacher must talk about slavery, he should ensure that it is made clear that Black people’s history didn’t begin in slavery nor did it end there. To the contrary, the history of the Africans /Black Americans should be presented both pre and post slavery. It should be clear that we are a people whom have participated in the very building of America (and not just physically but though fighting in every war, writing, inventing, etc.).
Even when a Black child in a majority White classroom is not consciously aware of how his 12th lesson on slavery is affecting his self-esteem; he is very aware of how embarrassed he is as he sits amongst his peers. I remember feeling as if everyone was looking at me when I was taught about it in school (I also painfully remember when my 11th grade English teacher decided – out of all the books possible – that our class should read Huckleberry Finn aloud including its pervasive use of the word “Nigger”). My sons, year and year have said that they feel ashamed. Would we teach about menstruation in a class of 2 girls and 22 boys? Would we adhere to a physically active lesson plan in a class with two children in wheelchairs? Would we ask a Jewish child to defend Hitler’s agenda? Then why is in acceptable— almost expected – to teach Black children year after year about slavery? Particularly in majority White classrooms?
I want my son to receive an education from people who see and appreciate his entire history rather than a thin slice of it. Slavery was a discrete, constituent part of his history – the vast majority which is often ignored. From the math and engineering skills of the Egyptians through the greatness of Barack Obama he comes from a strong and talented people. That history needs to be recognized, embraced and celebrated.