“If we would start telling the truth in schools, we would not have racism. We could cure racism in this country” —Jane Elliott
These words by anti-racist educator Jane Elliott are taken from her appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992 as part of a rebuke where she informs the audience of the many uncelebrated contributions by people of color to civilization. She takes to task a school system that she labels “racist” for overstating the achievements of Europeans and deliberately reinforcing the notion of White supremacy. It’s hard to argue with her logic.
In fact, I see no lies here.
As a former high school world history teacher in an urban district, and socio-politically conscious Black male, I’ve often struggled with how to deliver such a Eurocentric curriculum to students who descend primarily from African, Asian and Latin American countries. It’s a challenge that takes cognition and resolve.
Finding Every Student’s Place in History
I’ve always liked to think of history as one big group picture, similar to one you’d take at your family reunion. As soon as it’s taken and shown, the first thing everyone wants to know is, “Where am I?” When we crop out certain groups of people, we inadvertently tell them they don’t belong or their stories are unimportant.
From the outset of my class I’d promise, “Everybody is going to learn about themselves in here.” I didn’t just mean individually, but historically, because my belief is we all come from great people.
What is apparent however, is that most are not exposed to history from diverse perspectives. One could get upset at the likes of Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) for saying White people are hated by Blacks because they’re successful and Black people aren’t. Or at Rep. Steven King (R-IA) who contended that Whites have contributed more to modern civilization than any other subgroup. But honestly, can you blame them? What information have they received to the contrary in their educational career?
If journalist Roland Martin’s epic takedown of alleged “alt-right” (I prefer neo-nazi) front man Richard Spencer tells us anything, it’s that the belief in White Supremacy has been facilitated through a severe miseducation process. It’s the only thing that makes the myth of racial superiority believable. A true historical examination of the aforementioned claims would most certainly force a shift in paradigm.
I’d be willing to guess believers in this ideology have likely never been exposed to a historical education where Europe is not completely centered. Or exposed to authors like Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, Martin Bernal, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, or Basil Davidson.
They’ve probably never entertained the thought that indigenous people of Ancient Kemet (Egypt) were the teachers of the Greeks, waging their greatest building campaigns before Ancient Greece even existed. Or that North African Moors were responsible for many of the cultural and technological advancements that led Europe out of the Dark Ages.
They probably never entertained the thought that pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations were charting the movement of the sun, moon and planets, and engaging in complex architecture prior to making contact with Europeans. Or that innovations aiding Western European development like printing press technology and gunpowder have their origins in Asia.
I could go on, but my larger point is the accomplishments of people of color are hidden in our everyday curriculum and contribute to notions of inferiority.
Calling It By Name
At some point, as an instructor I had to give this phenomenon language. After trying for several years to teach around it, I decided to call this issue by name. I concluded that my students’ sincere questions about the course content deserved an honest answer.
“Mr. Ford,” they’d ask, firing off questions like these: “Why did Columbus feel like he could brutalize the Native Americans like that?” “What was the justification for the three-fifths compromise?” “What made Europeans feel like they could just split up Africa amongst themselves?” “Why wouldn’t the British give India their independence?” “How could the Australian government forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their homes?”
The questions kept coming. There was no need to dance around it any longer. “Among other things…White supremacy,” I said.
Although several complex political, cultural and economic factors were at play, at a base level, belief in the inherent genetic superiority of Europeans inspired everything from the exploration to imperialism. I had to grapple with this in front of my students, to not distort history and rob them of the hard truth. I’m certain my decision gave them a more acute understanding of the past as well as current events.
In the end, I’m in agreement with Jane Elliott. Nobody is born racist, it is taught. It’s likely introduced in the household, but is certainly reinforced in the schools. As teachers, we may not know how much racism is kept alive both by what we teach and don’t teach.
I tried to confront the biases embedded in my curriculum for the sake of all my students. I can only hope more educators will be emboldened to do the same.