The American Identity: Education in Deciphering the Racial Divide

Societally, Americans perceive their history through a single perspective. This interpretation, though biased, is engrained in each student while they receive their education in schools. In a previous post, I wrote about the ‘Eurocentric’ domination that has plagued our world history curriculum. I noted that, students who learn about Asia, Africa, or South America in world history classrooms, only do so when these continents have come in contact with Europe (i.e. Triangular Trade, Silk Road, Columbus’ New World, etc).

When we study ourselves as Americans, we similarly turn to the ‘Eurocentric’ idea that has established itself in our world history curriculum. American history textbooks overlook the racial divides that played an integral part in the formation of who we are today. We identify Abe Lincoln as the President who freed the slaves, but don’t identify the consistent battle African-Americans endured until the 1960’s when Martin Luther King Jr. walks down Washington. We acknowledge the life of Native Americans, fail to confess our injustices against them, and briefly mention the forcing of Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations on the Trail of Tears. Yet don’t identify how that has impacted them, what it has done to today’s view of these people, and why during this time, we as Americans, felt that the color of one’s skin, the religion of one’s ethnic group, or the language one speaks was justification for discrimination, murder, and the social alienation these people have endured to this day.

How can we teach such disparities in our curriculum if in American history textbooks we glorify ourselves as a ‘melting pot,’ and establish the idea that the racial divide and discrimination are a thing that hasn’t happened since MLK?

I recently watched the documentary Precious Knowledge, a film that follows various ethnic studies classrooms in Tuscan, Arizona as lawmakers make an attempt to close the program. The Tuscan ethnic studies program focused on inspiring young Mexican students, as well as other minorities or those interested, to learn more about the culture of Mexico, the surrounding Arizona area, and the obstacles minorities [including women] have faced since the birth of our nation. The program uses Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed as one of the textbooks to encourage students to critically think about the education they are being provided, as well as the racial divides that still are prevalent today.

Unfortunately three years ago, the program under the duress of politicians, was eliminated due to the subject of ethnic studies demonstrating “racism and classism toward Anglos, advocation of ethnic solidarity, and suggestion to overthrow  the government.” At one point, a major politician within Tuscan sat in one of the classes and was taken back by the statement of a teacher proclaiming that Ben Franklin, despite being considered critical to America’s development, was actually a racist. Later, this politician while voting for or against the ethnic studies class admitted that the class portrayed Ben Franklin, in a negative light [as a racist], thus demonstrating the racism toward Anglos and desire to overthrow the government. All in all, the act of shutting down the program by politicians demonstrated the unconscious racism that occurs within today’s society; the idea that the ethnic studies program challenged. [There is good news, at the beginning of this year the ethnic studies program was reinstated by the Tuscan school system]

The issue is that Americans aren’t intellectually stimulated in schools. We have a fetish toward facts, numbers, and statistics and demonstrate a fear of questioning and theorizing. We lack the realization that the world around us has been shaped by individuals who haven’t been mentioned in history textbooks, the television, or news. Educating our youth needs to begin with the construction of our country as how it was, not how we wanted it to be. As someone studying history, I want to know who the real Benjamin Franklin was, I want to know how we as a nation treated other races and genders, I want to know why we are who we are today. American history isn’t a study of dates and facts, it’s the study of identifying what it means to be an American, and Americans can be racist or sexist, they can have cool accents, they can win gold medals at the olympics, they can be narrow minded or open minded, they can speak Spanish or any other language. All in all, who we are as a country is who we are, and an American history textbook should never cover that up.

Check out this article by the Clarence Lusane as part of the Zinn Ed Project!

10 thoughts on “The American Identity: Education in Deciphering the Racial Divide

  1. We tend not to think of anything outside of America. I was in Mexico City with my wife and kids. We hired an guide to take us around. Considering the drivers I felt more comfortable with avoiding the roads and letting the guide drive. We were at a monument of some cadets who developed a hill. The guide spoke of the bravery and I foolish asked who they fought. He hesitated, “We fought you” I felt foolish. We are indeed the Ugly Americans in many eyes of other countries.

  2. Wonderful Article…And I agree. Social Media can also be a form of ‘education’ in it’s own way. I’ve noticed that there doesn’t appear to be a divide on some social media sites anymore….I love that!

  3. It’s such a challenge for a lot of people in our country to question conventional, traditional understandings of our history. A unified story is simple and convenient. Considering multiple perspectives, however, destabilizes us. Our civilization has reached the stage at which we must truly recognize the experience of all of our individuals. Despite the bigotry and harsh rhetoric of some of our prominent politicians, we see meaningful progress in the form of progressive public policy, landmark court decisions, and, of course, the more inclusive worldview of many young people. This painful process will move forward, and textbooks and course offerings will reflect the process in varying ways.

  4. Pingback: The American Identity: Education in Deciphering the Racial Divide | The grokking eagle

  5. Pingback: News and Notes: February 17, 2014 | Exploring the Past

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