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We’ve all shown up tardy to class, and as expected, had to face the inevitable anxiety of being the center of attention as everyone stopped what they were doing to look up at you. You’d clutch your backpack and make your way to one of the few empty seats in front of the class in hopes of no longer being the cause of such silence, only to still feel the awkwardness of 27 pairs of eyes still watching you. If you could recall this happening to you a couple of times, imagine experiencing this same anxiety as the only black student in a majority white classroom discussing the “history” of the United States.
I, along with many other African American students, have endured such acute trauma. I can recall the many times I’d been the only black student in my history class when my fellow peers felt the need to stare at me whenever we’d discuss slavery — as if my identity was tied to the relentless suffering of another human being. You can only imagine how this created an unpleasant atmosphere and learning environment for me.
This is the unfortunate reality many students of color face in history classrooms, leading to an uncomfortable shift in the way many of us go about learning history. No student should feel out of place in class. School is where the discussion and appreciation of all cultures and people should be celebrated, not where the falsehoods of history should be displayed. That being said, it’s time we address the almost-invisible elephant in the classroom: white supremacy — and its very visible shackles on American history.
Let’s begin by defining white supremacy in its simplest form: the (false) belief that the white race is superior to all other races. It is a dangerously held belief that is implicit throughout many history books via “whitewashing.” Whitewashing refers to the tendency of catering to or resembling that of the white race. Through whitewashing, history textbooks often justify and sugarcoat the immoral and unethical acts done by white people onto other races and cultures.
We first see this when we open up textbooks to the first chapter all about how Christopher Columbus “stumbled upon America.” As textbooks further explore the impacts of the Columbian Exchange, students are then taught the idea that Europeans brought law and civility to the indigenous peoples — oh, and happened to kill off about 90 percent of them along the way.
This is directly related to a similar idea held in white supremacy that if it weren’t for colonization, black people wouldn’t have been brought to America. The notion that white people are the saviors of people of color, despite the apparent irony, is a dangerous tale to expose to students.
The white savior complex reinforces the false perception of white superiority and that without white people many races would have failed to sustain civility throughout history. These ideas imply that certain groups of people were ‘savages’ and were in need of saving.
America clearly has a problem with acknowledging the flaws within its history curriculum. Our schools have history books containing hundreds of pages of content, yet still fail to portray people of color in ways other than “savagery” or slavery.
The misinformation of students and the sugarcoating of America’s history are the surface level to a more deep-rooted problem. Until America’s history is addressed in a nature that doesn’t idolize Christopher Columbus or similar historical figures of the like, our schools will continue to spread messages of white supremacy and white superiority.
Instead of allowing our schools to spread a false pretense of American history, we need to ensure that every student and teacher is given the proper knowledge, resources and support to tackle the whitewashed United States’ history curriculum.
Until then, I may never get to experience a setting in which my non-black classmates keep their eyes to themselves whenever I’m the only black student in our class discussing historical events involving race.