Saartjie Baartman was a fetish for European scientists. An indigenous Khoikhoi woman from South Africa, the “unique structure” of her sexual parts made her the ultimate object of interest for the 19th-century biological notion of race: During her lifetime, she was paraded as a “sexual freak” in Paris and London, standing naked before a gaping and laughing audience, and after her death at the age of 26, naturalist Georges Cuvier pickled her remains in jars for display in a Paris museum.
The modern notion of race and racism was not born from innate fear, confusion or interest in peoples different from us; in the 19th century, white people justified domination through colonialism and “confirmed” the white man’s superiority with physiognomy and phrenology — a pseudoscience. Sara Baartman’s biological uniqueness, her steatopygia, was determined to be a sign of a diseased and morally degraded character—inciting fear, terror and hatred against the “inferior” races.
Horror sickened and sloshed my insides as I sat reading Sander Gilman’s Black Bodies, White Bodies for my philosophy class. Why hadn’t I known this? Why hadn’t I learned this—until now?
According to Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, a fascist education glorifies the nation, omits sins of the past and impregnates a student’s heart with pride. It teaches the great mythic past, and the dominant racial group is posed against the inferior while political opponents are deemed a threat. A fascist education promotes obedience under the fascist leader who sets the rule on what is true and false by feeding lies and depriving people of critical tools to weigh in on policy.
We see omissions of historical realities in Texas textbooks, where African American slaves are “workers” or “immigrants.” Former President Donald J. Trump’s response to the 1619 Project, the 1776 commission, promotes a “patriotic education” in which “our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.” One day before the first national celebration of Juneteenth this summer, Trump demonized critical race theory, a curriculum aimed to provide an understanding of racial disparities persisting in institutions and systems, calling it “psychological torture” and a curriculum meant to “brainwash” children.
Since President Trump’s executive order banning “diversity training” following protests in light of George Floyd’s death, he has used the term as a political weapon to fear monger Republicans against Democrats in a new culture war. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has since called it “state-sanctioned racism” and Republican parents parrot Trump’s words in recent school board fights. Last week, Michigan Senate Bill 460 passed, banning the teaching of critical race theory, the 1619 project and related “anti-American and racist theories.”
In contrast to fascist education, according to Jason Stanley, a democratic education elucidates different perspectives on a nation’s complex and variegated past. It enables citizens to make individual judgments about policy in order to overcome divisions and make for a more perfect unity. In a democratic education, all people have voices, not just those that came to dominate. The center of democracy is truth.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times and creator of the 1619 Project, echoed the same principles at Rackham Auditorium in late September: “The classroom should be teaching us to question and have skepticism.” Hannah-Jones argued that the American education system’s emphasis on “propagandistic history” and “American exceptionalism” fails to address and critique the social inequities underlying history.
German Jewish scholar Victor Klemperer’s book “The Language of the Third Reich” warns us against the dangers of a fascist education: After the fall of the Third Reich, Professor Klemperer watched as his young adult students began to fill in missing gaps in their “neglected education” as he taught concepts of culture, democracy and humanitarianism. Yet as soon as someone referenced heroic propaganda or the patriotic language of the Third Reich, the concepts would become “blurred, and we were adrift once again in the fog of Nazism,” making rational deliberation impossible. Even young women who had not seen any military service were “clinging to Nazi thought processes.” According to Klemperer, the purpose of “The Language of the Third Reich” is to “strip everyone of their individuality, to paralyze them as personalities, to make them into unthinking and docile cattle in a herd driven and hounded in a particular direction.”
Nelson Mandela told us that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Indeed, education can be a weapon when its purpose aligns with fascism and undermines America’s fundamental notion of democracy.
President Trump, critical race theory is not dividing the nation. The deliberate denial and erasure of the truth and the loud cries of wolf over a curriculum that is not being taught does. We cannot commit horrific crimes and then say that educating future generations about these crimes is racist, poison and brainwashing. Critical race theory does not teach us that America is “evil.” It teaches us to learn from disgusting realities. It teaches us that race is a social construct and that all peoples’ voices matter and are equal. It teaches us that we are in dire need of just reparations in order to one day heal and reconcile as a united nation.
Lily Kwak is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.