Teaching History from an Anti-Racist Lens

When I was first approached to contribute to this blog series, I was a bit intimidated. I love teaching American history and encouraging critical thinking skills in my students. I like to think I’ve been doing the work to my lessons more anti-racist – still, I know that I’m not an expert. Also, I’m white and most of my students are also. Despite this hesitation, I recognize the fact that all teachers need to be teaching from an anti-racist lens.

Anti-racism is not just a topic for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), and it should not be left to them to do the work. We need to make sure that all of our students develop a critical awareness of how bias and racism interact in our society, and what it means to be anti-racist. Beyond that, teaching is a long gradual process of improvement – none of us are at the end game. Therefore, I thought I would share the guidelines I’ve developed for myself as a history teacher. Hopefully, they will help you to process what it means to be anti-racist and encourage you to continue this work in your teaching – or maybe just to start. Our students deserve this.

Guideline 1 – White people should not be the default.

This may seem ridiculously simple, but the first step in combating racism in teaching history, and teaching from an anti-racist lens is to look at the voices you’re including with your primary sources.  Not just the actual focus of your lessons but the names you use in examples, and the images you utilize to reflect the voices of your students, etc. They need to reflect the culture as a whole, not just the students in your classroom.

When I first began trying to address racism in my lesson plans, my initial instinct was to start by adding competing viewpoints to the narrative my students were already familiar with, their own. Coming from a rural and mostly white district, I thought it was natural that the lessons I developed included mostly included white students as examples. It seemed logical at the time, how could students relate to people and events beyond their own experiences?

Eventually, I recognized the fact that this made absolutely no sense! Presenting students with only familiar figures means that that they never stretch their thinking beyond their own world. Students should see all types of people in any lesson. Take a look at the voices you’re including with your primary sources, the names you use in examples, and the images you utilize to reflect the voices of your students. They need to reflect our culture as a whole, not just the students in your classroom.

Guideline 2 – Update the language you use to reflect the humanity of the group you’re discussing.

This one is big. The words we use frame our understanding of the people of history, and it’s incredibly important that we update those terms to reflect an anti-racist lens.

I recently updated the way I talked about enslaved people in my classroom. I had previously referred to those who were enslaved as just slaves. After reading about anti-racism, I changed the way that I talked about this group to enslaved people. I updated my lessons to include this textual change also. It makes such a difference in my thinking and I saw a change in my students’ dialogue also. They began to see those in slavery as people first. As people in peril.

This Instagram post from @theconsciouskid is really helpful in how to update language discussing slavery. This post gives some helpful ideas for updating your language relating to Native Americans. (Just a warning, it does utilize some adult language.)

Obviously, you may not remember all of these ideas all the time. Still, with each lesson you utilize or conversation you have with students, think about whether the terms utilized acknowledge the humanity of the group discussed or whether they’re trivializing or stereotyping the group discussed. Just make sure your voice reflects that point of view.

Guideline 3 – Re-write the narrative

I previously wrote about this topic when I discussed how Black History Month wasn’t Enough. The narrative of U.S. History was originally written by those whose voices were most dominant. A good portion of the historical voices that exist were left out or glossed over in order to support and uphold that narrative. As I previously discussed:

The whole narrative needs to become more cognizant of the fact that there are actors in our history that were purposely left out of the history books and the storyline. They were left out because they were members of groups that were purposely being marginalized, or because they were reacting against the narrative of progress that U.S. History likes to promote. With that erasure, the story is incomplete. When we frame history without those stories, it really changes how the story is told.

Every society wants to have a set of ‘national myths’ that support the idea of a shared past and what it means to be a part of the broader community. However, only a small portion of the approved commentary is ever added to that process. That means a good portion of the historical voices, especially those coming from marginalized groups, were left out or glossed over in order to support and uphold that narrative. Therefore, with each historical event, think about the voices that have been left out and add them. This work is imperative for all historical events, not just those that obviously and directly impact marginalized groups. (See my post on Black History for more details on this topic.)

Guideline 4 – Don’t forget about the agency of groups who have been oppressed.

As teachers, we sometimes go a bit too far in our desire to compensate for the lack of inclusion to the point of stripping BIPOC historical figures of any agency in their own lives. I’ve noticed a trend to only discuss the difficulties and the oppression that BIPOC have experienced throughout history. There has been an overwhelming amount of oppression, so it’s often easiest to focus on those details. Still, one of the most important lessons I learned from college (and from my own reading), was that people facing oppression always have agency. Most often, those facing oppression do not just absorb those experiences. Instead, they resist! Our students need to have a better understanding of how those important figures helped shape their own destinies.

This resistance can take many forms. It can be physical or mental, and it really depends upon the type of oppression that group is experiencing. Still, that resistance is most often there. It is essential that students learn about the resistance and the resilience of people who have faced oppression, otherwise, history characters remain two-dimensional. History is most accessible when students see those in history as fully developed human beings. ⁣Therefore, make sure that any time you take about oppression, you also need to mention resistance and resilience. (This section was adapted from an Instagram post of mine.)

For instance, if you’re discussing the fact that George Washington held people in slavery, also discuss Oney Judge, and the fact that she liberated herself from Washington’s plantation, and ran to New Hampshire – never to return.

Guideline 5 – You are not alone, utilize resources to help you make this transition.

You don’t have to make these updates in isolation. As you reflect on the lesson you teach, its helpful to consult antiracist texts. One of the most useful to me has been Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X Kendi. It tells the whole of U.S History from an antiracist lens. It’s a LONG text, however, you need to see it more as a reference. Before updating your resources for any era, just read over that section of the book. It’s really helped me to reframe the way I speak about history. The author (with Jason Reynolds) is also coming out with a young people’s version for the classroom this spring. I’ve already preordered my copy!

There are also many reputable and researched websites ready and willing to help. They include:

Guideline 6 – Amplify BIPOC voices who are approaching this subject matter.

Finally, as you modify and transform the history you teach and how you teach it, make sure you’re consulting texts from those who have been doing the research all along. Use their voices (through both primary and secondary sources), to change the narrative of the history you teach. By including those voices, you’ll be focusing on the individualism of everyone, and restoring their agency, and that is anti-racism at its core.

This is only a brief discussion about how to approach this topic. Hopefully, sharing some of my insights from my own process of building an anti-racist narrative of U.S. History can offer some useful pointers to other educators. Twenty-two bloggers are taking on this topic in the month of October to raise awareness about anti-racism in the wake of the shooting in El Paso, Texas. Click here to follow the posts as they occur.

This post is written in honor of Maria Flores, whose life was tragically taken in an August 3rd, 2019 shooting in El Paso, Texas.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post! I’m a homeschool mom who had been planning to teach Early American History next school year, and I’ve realized in the last couple months the curriculum I purchased is going to need tweaking and filling out to better represent a truly American history. Bookmarking this to come back to it throughout my planning!

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