While Katherine Kersten’s commentary rests on untenable ground throughout, I respond here by outlining two key points about the current state of public education in the United States. Understanding these ideas sets the stage for understanding why school districts throughout the country are changing the way they educate all children.
First, racism was a founding element of this nation and, by extension, its schools. The savagery of colonization and enslavement are far more than historical legacies; they continue to shape how things work in U.S. society and in our institutions.
For example, we white colonizers (from whom I am descended) stripped American Indian children of their languages, cultures and families by forcing them to attend English-only boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, those children’s descendants struggle to reclaim those languages and cultures in a society that rarely acknowledges this history.
Research consistently demonstrates that children of color, American Indian children and white children alike benefit from opportunities to expand their knowledge of their own and others’ histories, present conditions and possible futures. This learning is what it means to become racially conscious. While these stories can be difficult for some to hear, we cannot change things that we do not understand. Efforts to address these violent legacies through professional development for teachers and changes in school curriculum and practices are important steps toward better understanding the past to strengthen the future.
Second, the race that we call “white,” like all races, is a creation of history. Racist practices (such as enslavement, indentured servitude and broken treaties) allowed this country to expand geographically and to amass its great fortune. These practices also contributed to the development of the white race, and for those identified as white to gain and maintain what Kersten refers to as “white privilege.”
Students of color and American Indian students in our own communities will often readily articulate their experiences with the underbelly of white privilege: Hypersegregated schools and communities, Eurocentric curricula, limited access to teachers of color and American Indian teachers, and biased standardized tests, among many other examples. A growing number of white students are also able and willing to explore how their own world views are limited by whiteness.
These young people’s perspectives are held up by the lessons long offered by lauded writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Waziyatawin, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and others on the negative impacts of this unearned power. Recently, authors such as Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Minnesota’s Kao Kalia Yang have emerged as influential figures for the general public and, notably, for white people who want to understand how being white has shaped how they see and experience the world.
Recent research shows the importance of white teachers engaging in careful study of how their lives and identities interact with those of students and families. When white teachers do this work, they are less likely to get stuck in feelings of guilt or shame about their white privilege. Instead, they can turn their attention to building teaching practices that promote solidarity between communities and justice in schools.
Minnesotans concerned about the state of schools should turn their attention to the bravery of teachers and administrators in places like Edina. All who are invested in the future should consider spending a few hours learning about what the children in their communities are up to. As I write, children and young people in my neighborhood are busy doing things like organizing teach-ins at their schools, attending mayoral forums and engaging in action research projects to strengthen their schools.
These young people know that civil rights and other liberation movements have never been and never will be “colorblind.” Instead, they know that to change the future, we have to reckon with the past. To unlearn racism, we have to be willing to face what it is, what it has created and how we are all implicated in it.
Annie Mogush Mason is program director of elementary teacher education at the University of Minnesota.