Recently, I realized all of the American history classes I’ve been enrolled in thus far have taught primarily white American history. In my history classes, the teacher would briefly touch on the Trail of Tears, talk even more briefly about Japanese internment camps and discuss slavery. Slavery and related topics were always the most extensively taught part of U.S. history primarily concerning people of color. However, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) revealed when a group of 1,000 high school seniors were asked to answer a multiple choice question about why the South seceded from the Union, only eight percent chose the right answer. So while my peers and I, who attended Ann Arbor public schools, might know the answer to that question is “to preserve slavery,” most people don’t know that answer. It seems as though none of us know much about the history of other cultural groups in the U.S., at least from what I’ve observed. This is problematic because people of color make up a huge chunk of the United States’s population and are a huge part of its history; omitting their histories creates a false and incomplete portrayal of United States history as a whole.
The problem of not teaching the histories of American people of color is not necessarily rooted in carelessness. The SPLC report also interviewed teachers, some of whom expressed why they feel uncomfortable teaching the histories of minorities. One teacher in Maine admitted, “I find it painful and embarrassing (as a white male) to teach about the history of exploitation, abuse, discrimination and outrageous crimes committed against African Americans and other minorities.”
Another teacher in California explained their fear that learning about slavery reduces Black people to slaves in the eyes of other students, commenting, “Sometimes it gives students the idea to call Black students slaves or tell them to go work in the field because of the lack of representation in textbooks.”
It’s understandable that teaching about how white Americans oppressed Americans of color could be embarrassing as a white person; however, this is not a valid excuse not to teach such histories. Leaving out the histories of people of color in the United States only acts as another way of oppression because it silences the voices of those who suffered. As painful or as embarrassing as it may be, their struggles must be remembered so we can learn from them to keep fighting against oppression.
As for the statement that textbooks have a lack of representation of certain groups and result in racism: Unfortunately, people will always find a way to be racist, no matter what is taught in schools. A foundation of racism is the idea that certain groups are homogenous and no differences exist between individuals. In addition, the teacher seems to be assuming that the only parts of history regarding minorities that are worth teaching are the injustices committed against them. While learning about such moments is clearly important, there’s more to people of color than their suffering. Therefore, if teachers are willing to perhaps go beyond the textbook and teach more about the history of minorities than just how they were (and still are) oppressed, students would also begin to understand people of color are not all the same.
Other than the lack of representation in my history classes, I’ve also noticed most of the books my English teachers have assigned for class, both at the University of Michigan and the schools I’ve previously attended, have been written by white writers. Occasionally, I would be assigned books by Black writers. I read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” senior year of high school, and I’ve been assigned to read a few of Christopher Paul Curtis’s books over the years as well.
However, books by other writers of other races have always been notably absent. While some of my teachers have assigned books by Black writers, as an Asian American, I am disappointed I had never been assigned to read a book by an Asian-American writer until this semester in my American culture class. I had also previously never read a book in which the main protagonist was Asian-American until this semester. I’m not sure if I’ve even ever been assigned to read a book with an Asian-American character at all.
I think that part of the reason teachers choose not to pick books by Asian Americans or books about the experiences of Asian Americans might be because they don’t have the confidence to teach it well — and the reason they don’t have the confidence is because they themselves as students barely learned anything about Asian-American history in history class. As a result, I think when teachers attempt to diversify their reading assignments, they tend to choose books by Black writers, since they are at least a little more familiar with the topics of slavery and racism against Black people. Of course, not every book by a person of color is about the oppression of people of color. In addition, care should be taken not to read books by people of color and believe them to have no identity other than that of a victim. However, it is still important to teach the histories of America’s people of color to build a more comprehensive view of not just United States’ history but also of the United States today.
While I only touch on race in this article, and only three different ones at that, there is so much more that makes the U.S. such a diverse country, and these histories should be taught, too. Instead of only remembering white, cisgender and heterosexual historical figures and what they did for the country, we must remember what many, many others have made an impact too.
Krystal Hur can be reached at email@example.com.