Several weeks ago a reader wrote me a question in regards to my pointers on teaching about race in the classroom: “Do you think it’s acceptable to incorporate anti-racist parts of our history with other events and people who, while maybe not anti-racist, were neutral on the matter? For example, teaching kids about the racism towards Chinese railroad workers in the mid 19th century and celebrating their accomplishments as well as the good that their work brought to our country?”
I think that this is a great question and the first comment that I would make is that I am absolutely not trying to come across as an unequivocal expert on the matter. We are all unique as teachers and I’m sharing my professional opinion as someone with 10 years in multicultural education here when I say that we absolutely should teach about the Chinese railroad workers in a way that shares our appreciation for what they accomplished, thus building up esteem and gratitude for their contributions, while also talking about how they were mistreated and – and this is the new trend – by directly discussing the governmental policies on immigration and housing and voting rights that impacted them. This is because in anti-racism work nowadays, we focus on policies and not just interpersonal racism, which is what people call microaggressions and hate.
Case in point, Ibram X. Kendi is a renowned scholar of anti-racism and one of the proponents of an anti-racism movement marked by policy consciousness; he advocates for teaching children to discuss policy from a very young age. His books are excellent, and may come off a bit radical, but are definitely worth a read. The book of his that is coming to mind as a write this is his recent book Antiracist Baby, which argues that we absolutely must teach children to recognize rather than ignore racial difference and that we should teach children that policies and not people are the problem.
Kendi teaches us, and I agree, that our silence is what causes us so many problems now. Kendi himself has a 4 year old. As an expert on race and father of a Black child, he has not only studied but has also personally seen how racist ideas take hold of the imaginations of children as early as two years old.
In fact, I remember one professional development presentation I attended several years ago featuring a clip of children under 5 reaching for White babies no matter what their actual race or ethnicity was – all of the children wanted to play with the White doll.
What messages must the children have already internalized about their own skin color if they automatically defaulted to the White baby doll?
In the words of Kendi, “If you claim to be color-blind, you deny what’s right in front of you.”
I recently spoke with a professor who said that it was problematic that so many educators see themselves as activists, because it silences debate and coerces people into a grade based on if they are speaking liberal orthodoxy. This is definitely worth considering. However, given our nation’s constitution and also our valuing of equality and freedom, the fact that we have a history of so many racist policies in the U.S. that were passed without dissent reflects the failure of our educational system to teach civics in a way that honors the dignity and rights of all. We must do better. There is no neutrality, antiracist educators would say. We’re not activists – we’re realists.
On a more practical level, what it comes down to is what you view the purpose of education to be in the first place – so my advice to my reader would be to act in your integrity as regards what you think the purpose of your teaching ultimately is. We are works in progress as educators. Find a book group and discuss civil rights literature and become more comfortable talking about race.
In a later post I will discuss the colonial aspects of education and try to defend the views of antiracist educators, but for now I will say that we are heading for a clash of peace studies and ethnic studies – the people debating at the feet of monuments about whether they should be torn down or stay up often were taught history in radically different ways. There is not a shared pool of meaning anymore, and I worry about the direction public discourse is taking as a result. What I continue to ponder is how far decolonial and antiracist policies will lead to anarchy and violence. However, the opposite, which is the White supremacy we have now, must not go on. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.