Why We Need to Discuss How We Teach Kids About Racism in United States History

In the second part of my two-part blog post on Critical Race Theory (CRT), I said that it seems like the theory has gotten mixed in there with larger, yet important, discussions on how classrooms should navigate through topics of race and racism. I even conveyed in my post that such discussions are needed. This is an opinion I feel strongly about as someone who was a history major in college and is still a self-professed American history nerd.

However, what I didn’t go into in said post was why those discussions are needed.

So, why are these discussions necessary? Why can’t we just go on with history lesson plans that teach about America’s greatness, without even so much as questioning it?

Simply put, not teaching about the parts of America’s past and present that involve racism is not a complete teaching of American history.

How can you have a truthful teaching of American history without talking about how there were slaves for nearly the first 80 years of the history of the United States, and how those slaves counted as 3/5 of a person?[1] Or how it took a bloody civil war to end slavery?[2] Or how it took nearly a century beyond that for legalized racial segregation to become a thing of the past? Or how the “War on Drugs” in more recent times has jailed millions of African Americans, thereby taking away millions of African Americans’ right to vote?[3] All these things are a part of our history.

If we start talking about Native Americans, we run into a whole other element of American history that is inconvenient for some to teach about, yet would leave us with an incomplete picture of American history if we don’t teach it. This includes the killing of so many Native Americans, one of the most infamous examples being the Trail of Tears during the period in which Andrew Jackson was president.[4] It includes the largest mass execution in American history—38 Dakota warriors were hanged during the Sioux Uprising in 1862.[5] Policies were so brutal against many Native Americans that the idea of “kill the Indian and save the man” (an ideology which relates to Native Americans being taught at white boarding schools) was considered humanitarian reform.[6]

And then there is our history when it comes to many other groups of people not considered white during their times. Internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II,[7] the Chinese Exclusion Act (which specifically prohibited a group of people; in this case, Chinese people, from immigrating to the United States),[8] and the despise many Americans felt towards Irish escaping strife during the mid-19th century[9] are but a few notable examples of dark elements of America’s history when it comes to the treatment of people who aren’t or weren’t viewed as white. The treatment of people coming from Ireland in the mid-18th century, in particular, gives me a lot of pause, given the parallels I’ve seen between how those from Ireland were treated and the treatment of certain groups of refugees today (particularly refugees coming from places that are majority-Muslim).

All of these things need to be taught in American history, even though such parts of American history are unsavory, and even if such parts of American history may challenge certain beliefs some of us may hold about this country. In particular, teaching such parts of American history may challenge the idea that America is and always has been morally superior to other nations—an idea often associated with American exceptionalism. But sometimes, a truthful looking back at any history, whether it be with the United States or with one’s one family, contains some difficult aspects that we wish didn’t exist.

As to how to teach these elements of American history, I will not comment on that. I am not a teacher or professor, and therefore I do not have the sort of knowledge about teaching methods that are needed for me to give an intelligent opinion on how these things should be taught. However, what I do know is that these are things that should be taught if we are to give the students of today and tomorrow a more complete picture of American history than what some teachings of American history currently provide.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/three-fifths-compromise

[2] https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-xv

[3] https://apnews.com/article/war-on-drugs-75e61c224de3a394235df80de7d70b70

[4] https://www.britannica.com/event/Trail-of-Tears

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/American-frontier/How-the-West-was-won#ref1262439

[6] https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3505#:~:text=Pratt’s%20motto%20was%20%22kill%20the%20Indian%20and%20save%20the%20man.%22&text=During%20the%20late%2019th%20century,reservations%2C%20and%20eradicate%20tribal%20organizations.

[7] https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation

[8] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-Exclusion-Act

[9] It is also worth noting that the notion of whiteness has since expanded to include the Irish. The subject of what whiteness means is its own topic though, and beyond the purview of this blog post. https://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis

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