How Racism and Patriarchy Is Taught at School
Wrapt DISCLAIMER: This article, by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, is an interesting ‘think’ piece concerning history, ownership and the role of education. We have shared this article today not because it represents our perspective, opinions or thoughts, but rather because it is an issue that is not exclusive to America and PARALLELS are evident everywhere.
The America that was founded in 1776 was one designed to benefit the rich white men who set up shop on the indigenous land they “found.” Today, we are seeing modern manifestations of that same patriarchal norm that has been recycled, generation after generation, in history textbooks.
By Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, published in Harpers Bazaar, Oct 16, 2018
I come from small-town Ohio—Green, Ohio to be exact. I was often the only little girl in my class (and sometimes the entire school) with brown skin and thick black braided pigtails with bobbles on the ends. This meant a lot of “can I touch your hair?” and “can you get a tan from the sun since your skin is already dark?”
But nothing quite compared to the discomfort of our school’s history lessons, which would swiftly move from the excitement of dinosaurs to the discomfort of America's own T-Rex-sized terror of slavery.
I noticed very early on that the versions of history I heard my mother and grandmother speak of were very different to what we were taught in class. Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Americas? Something we’re told to be proud of at school—the reality of which caused fury at home. “Separate but equal” segregation? A hopeful transition according to my teacher, but to my grandmother, a simple recycling of slavery ideas. The “immutable peace” of Dr. King? Teachers taught it as a heroic calm call to justice, but for all we knew, Malcolm X’s approach was just as valid.
Race, slavery, anti-blackness; most prefer not to talk about it. A sweep-it-under-the-rug approach to dealing with this ugly birthmark of American culture has long been an accepted way of “protecting” students in the classroom. But what are we protecting them from? Because here’s the thing: our historically misinformed students turn into our lawmakers, and the classroom prepares those who end up running our courthouses.
"Race, slavery, anti-blackness; most prefer not to talk about it."
The recent events in the nation's capital have led a lot of people to ask, “how did we get here?” The uncomfortable truth is, we’ve always been here. The America that was founded in 1776 was one designed to benefit the rich white men who set up shop on the indigenous land they "found". Today we are seeing modern manifestations of that same patriarchal norm that has been recycled, generation after generation, in school textbooks.
In 2015, a mother in Texas was outraged when she found in her high school son’s history book—in a chapter about "immigrants" to America—a section describing black slaves as people who came "to work on agricultural plantations". That same year, textbook company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was called out for its own oversimplification and distorted romanization of the slave experience. An excerpt reads: "Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves."
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently issued a long overdue report on the ways that history books are misinforming students, and how teachers are struggling to teach with those resources. When it comes to teaching students about slavery’s legal roots in the nation’s founding documents, only 52 percent of teachers include this in their classroom. Just 53 percent take time to teach on the extent of slavery outside of the antebellum South. Only 54 percent teach the continuing legacy of slavery in today’s society. I say “only” because this is where is this type of teaching matters as we work to grow conscious citizens in America.
And we, as adults, are suffering the effects of a lackluster education system that has left this country’s history in a haze. Every time I give my lecture Unpacking White Feminism, I have dozens of women of various ethnicities approach me to say that not only did they never learn the very basics of the feminist movement’s racial divide, but that they feel slighted at never being taught about all the powerful black women who made leaps and strides for women's rights. They tell me how much it could have changed how they see themselves—and others—as a part of the movement.
"We, as adults, are suffering the effects of a lackluster education system that has left this country’s history in a haze."
One thing is for sure: there is a very real connection between today’s continued deep racial tensions and our passive acknowledgement of our very ugly history—one of that is quite literally founded on the slaughter, colonization, enslavement, segregation, and ongoing systematic oppression of millions of indigenous peoples and people of color.
So who is responsible for telling our children the truth? The answer is every single one of us. Every adult in every school district can pressure administrations to include more robust curriculum. Parents can speak frankly with principals and teachers about what is being taught in the classroom and how these lessons are being learned by the students. Teachers themselves can access resources at no cost on teaching American slavery from Teaching Tolerance. And I would never leave out the students who can raise their hands in class and ask questions that push their instructors to dig deeper into the truths that they deserve to know.
Maybe then we can actually live in a country where truth—for the sake of progression—holds more value than the safe comfort of dismissing our hateful past.