Changing how we teach American history

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By Sheila Weathers

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” This was the tweet that President Donald Trump sent after protests erupted in response to the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers. When asked about this particular rhetoric, he stated that he didn’t know where it came from and that he had heard the statement used for a long time. The president, like many Americans, has a hard time connecting the dots of how painful racist moments in our country’s history keep repeating themselves. But when we as Americans don’t know our history, how can we as a nation take the proper steps in dismantling white supremacist ideology that is embedded in our culture?

The National Assessment of Education Progress reported in 2014 that only 18 percent of American high school students were proficient in U.S. history. We cannot afford to forget about our country’s history and especially how it impacts people of color. During Jim Crow, one accusation from a white person against a Black person could mean a death sentence of vigilante justice. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered due to a false accusation from a white woman. Earlier this year, Ahmaud Arbery was lynched by two white men, all due to a biased complaint, serving as a reminder of those painful memories in history. The historical connection of our country’s past to present day events is undeniable, how many of my non-Black teacher counterparts acknowledge it?

I am convinced, now more than ever, that we need all educators to teach history, especially Black history. History lessons centered around a ‘patriotic’ white supremacist lens can no longer be the aim in quality pedagogy for our students. We don’t need the historic tales that support a white privileged philosophy, which therefore supports systematic racism, but history lessons that empower students to become true patriots within our society. These lessons should motivate our students to yield toward action to make our country a better place because the remnants of past injustice still remain. Here are some things that teachers can do to support their teaching of anti-racist history.

Educate yourself. To understand the protests that are happening across our country, it is time for educators to reflect on how our country’s history has created a volcanic eruption of emotion. We have no other choice but to face the fact that for decades various perspectives were not taught and that this has promoted white supremacy. Start by educating yourself on how systemic racism first began in Africa through colonialism and how it systematically traveled to America.

Become an anti-racist. Many of us would say that we are not racist, but are you anti-racist? According to Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to be Antiracist, a racist supports racist ideas and an anti-racist supports anti-racist ideas. To be silent is to support racist ideas because you are not standing up against racist systems in this country. This will take honest self-reflection and analysis of our perceptions of others. Start researching racial disparities in our country and confront racist ideologies that you have held in the past and/or continue to still hold onto as truth.

See Your Students. “Sawubona” is an African Zulu tribe greeting which goes beyond “hello.” It means “I see you. You are important to me, and I value you.” Many educators will claim they are colorblind and that color does not matter to them because we are all the same. But, for many students, teachers saying that their color does not matter means that they do not matter. Learn to see your students’ experiences and their connections to the world. Teachers must not be colorblind because if we are, we become the catalyst to the very thing we were trying to avoid, which is racism.

Dismantle racism in your pedagogy. It will clearly not be enough to go on Amazon and order a variety of African American texts. We must make sure that the teaching of the content is culturally responsive and anti-racist. In James A. Banks’ Hierarchy of Multicultural Education, he refers to five different teaching approaches. The Transformation Approach and Decision-Making/Social Action Approach are both powerful because they enable students to take action on issues. Celebrating food, music, and holidays is simply not enough to help dismantle pedagogical racism. We must work to take on a “windows and mirrors” approach in regards to our teaching pedagogy.

Educators must work with fidelity to make sure all aspects of history are taught in the classroom. If we continue to overlook white supremacy in our history lessons, our students will as well. We must work to systematically change our own teaching pedagogy by continuing to assess ourselves in a white-centered society. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the events of the past that lead us to reveal our country’s sins. We must now make a pledge to dismantle the white supremacist ideology that has now pushed our country to its breaking point.


About the author

Sheila Weathers teaches 5th grade at Tanaka Elementary School in Las Vegas. She is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Nevada Teaching Policy Fellow.

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