The common approach to teaching the history of race and racism in the United States tends to oversimplify it, according to professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board at Teaching Tolerance. Jeffries describes it as “the Disney version of history...in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better.” This version of history skips over the problems that continue to pervade society, and implies that we are always progressing as a country. Some teachers and scholars argue that teaching about race and racism this way is a disservice to students because the progress made was, in fact, not inevitable or continuous, and it frames racial justice as a struggle of the past, giving students the impression that they don’t have a role to play in racial justice today.
Anyone committed to diversity and inclusion benefits from understanding the dangerous precedent set by a simplified understanding of race. When people think racial struggles are a thing of the past, they view a racial discrepancy in areas like education or employment as, in Jeffries’ words, “a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging it as the result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity.”
How It Affects You
Consider how these guidelines from Teaching Tolerance inform your approach to diversity and inclusion at work or on campus:
1) Teach the history of racial progress and the history of racism.
2) Teach the missed opportunities. For example, you could ask, “If women could have voted before 1920, how would that have shaped our country differently?”
3) Teach the present, like the connection between Colin Kaepernick taking a knee and those who did so during the Civil Rights Movement.
4) Let activists be models: “How might students relate differently to Dr. King if, instead of a martyr, they saw a model?”
Massachusetts education officials recently pulled an essay question from the 10th grade MCAS exam after the Massachusetts Teachers Association, New England Area Conference of the NAACP, and three other groups issued a statement calling it “racially troubling.” Based on a passage from Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the question asked students to write from the perspective of “a white woman who is ‘openly racist and betrays slaves trying to escape.’” Despite reassurances from the state education department that all exam questions are reviewed for biases, New England Area Conference of the NAACP President Juan Cofield raised the question of who exactly reviews the exam, and called “the lack of cultural sensitivity... a serious matter for all communities and certainly for communities of color.” Upon learning how his novel was used in the exam, Whitehead condemned those who came up with and approved the question, and said, “What kind of idiot would have students imagine the rationalizations of a racist coward who shrinks from moral responsibility? There are plenty of heroes in the book—black and white—who stand up and do the right thing in the face of terrible consequences; certainly they are more worthy of investigation.”
Even though the question will no longer be scored, students at 255 high schools across Massachusetts still had to answer the question before it was pulled. MTA President Merrie Najimy couldn’t have said it better when she said that this exam question added “a new layer of trauma” to the “unconscionable aspects of standardized testing,” especially for students of color. To avoid similar future situations, diverse voices must be included and uplifted in test design and administrative decision making.
How It Affects You
As Cofield points out, it’s crucial to consider whose voices are heard and prioritized in issues that necessitate cultural sensitivity and responsibility. Are diverse perspectives considered when making decisions in your organization? If not, how can you amplify the voices that aren’t being heard?
Lucky Lee’s, nutritionist Arielle Haspel’s new “clean” American Chinese restaurant, has raised concerns about racism and cultural appropriation. Haspel is white, and she positions the menu as a healthy alternative to the "oily," "salty" Chinese food that she says makes people "feel bloated and icky the next day." Critics of the restaurant point out that even though the word “clean” is meant to refer to unrefined and unprocessed foods, it evokes stereotypes of Chinese restaurants being dirty. They also point out that American Chinese food evolved to be sweet and starchy to appeal to the white American palate. Esther Tseng, a freelance food writer, writes, "It's very much erasure, the way that she's stepped on years and decades and centuries of tradition, of the migration of Chinese immigrants who were actually banned from taking jobs that were reserved for white people...Either doing a Chinese restaurant or running a laundry were the only jobs that they were allowed to do. Does she know that?”
As a restaurateur, Haspel’s choices reveal a lack of knowledge about Chinese American history and further marginalize Chinese American culture, rather than honor it. Her critics raise an important question: Why is her engagement with Chinese American culture not more thoughtful, respectful, or collaborative?
How It Affects You
The questions author and Gothamist co-founder Jen Chung brings up (after trying the food at Lucky Lee’s and being very disappointed) are exactly the questions to ask before engaging in another culture to the extent Haspel has: "Did she study Chinese cuisine? Or work with Chinese chefs or go to China to better understand the roots of the cuisine she loved?...Right now, there's no acknowledgement that she's done any work to understand the culture she says so interested in."