Examining Whiteness in Curriculum
Updated: May 15, 2020
By Tracy Sangare, Elementary ENL Teacher, North Colonie School District
On January 16, 2020, the day after Dr. King’s birthday, NCTE published their updated Position Statement on Indigenous Peoples and People of Color (IPOC) in English and Language Arts Materials. In part, NCTE states, “Indigenous communities and People of Color in the United States, including Native Americans and Alaska Natives, Pacific Islanders, Asian Americans, Blacks, Chicanx, Puerto Ricans, and others, continue to suffer debilitating and systemic discrimination in jobs, housing, civil rights, and education. Part of this discrimination takes place in the form of erasure, and these communities continue to face a school curriculum that frequently downplays or does not include their communities’ work and contributions.”
Debilitating and systematic discrimination.
Sit with that for a moment. Reread it. What does this mean for us, teachers, educators, administrators all part of the educational system? In his book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. states, “Our children and our families are maimed a little every day of our lives.” (p.115) It is no exaggeration to state that we hurt students of color every single day in our schools.
I don’t know if we as white educators can truly comprehend what erasure feels like. How do we understand something we have never experienced?
More than 80 percent of public school teachers are white. Our whiteness has structured the curriculum and shaped the norms of education, rendering students of color invisible. This is especially evident in the books we read with our students. These are our students - children who are impressionable - what could be more important than the stories we tell them? The stories that we share? The stories that shape our classroom community?
What messages are we sending in elementary schools when we insist on reading Dr. Seuss even though his racism is well-documented? What messages are we sending to students and families when our nostalgia is more important than the dignity of our students? This is how whiteness works. It lets us believe that we are the standard, to the point that we do not even consider representation in books. It allows us to read "Because of Winn Dixie" year after year and never wonder what message is sent to students when the only character whose race is mentioned is Gloria Dump, the Black woman who is an outcast. (By the way, whiteness is so pervasive in the book that author Kate DiCamillo never mentions the race of any other character; it is just assumed the other characters are white because that is our assumed norm.) Our students deserve so much better than this.
In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about the importance of representation in the literature we share with our students. “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” (Sims Bishop, 1990) We are responsible for providing all of our students opportunities to see themselves positively reflected in our classroom. Not just one book thrown in, but consistent, positive representation. My husband has gorgeous Amplifier posters affirming many identities in his sixth grade classroom. One of them has a picture of a person wearing a t-shirt that says, “Unapologetically Queer.” For the first time, my husband has had students talk to him about their sexual identity. While these posters make a statement, we must go beyond classroom objects and make conscious efforts to tell the stories of our students and communities every day. This means not waiting for Black History Month to read Kwame Alexander’s book, "The Undefeated," but using it when we talk about prose or author’s craft. Not saving "The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family" for talking about Islam, but using it when we talk about character traits. We need to be deliberate with everything we read to our students. If we are not intentionally working for positive representation of historically marginalized communities, they will continue to be ignored or stereotyped.
Our inaction on curriculum is not neutral. Our inaction is a statement of our values. We are telling our students that we are too busy to see them, that we value our comfort more than their learning. They deserve so much more than that. Look at the “canon” in your school. Who are the characters? Who are the authors? Which students are seeing themselves reflected?
We have real power in our classrooms. We have the power to examine every book in our room and question whose story is being told, who is telling the story and whose voice is missing. We have the power to read books that center students of color and honor the richness of their stories. We have the power to send the message to our students that each of them deserves to be seen. How do we choose to use this power? Will we embrace it and embrace our students’ identities or will we choose our own comfort and safety and pretend we don’t see the damage caused by a homogenous curriculum? Author Yuyi Morales says, “Through books we can find our path and our purpose.” We must ensure that our books reflect our diversity so that all students can find their path.
Nothing that I have written above is new or original. Everything I have learned comes from amazing educators (mostly educators of color) who have given so much of themselves so that we all can be better. Below are some resources that have shaped my thinking.
We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be
by Cornelius Minor
So You Want to Talk About Race
by Ijeoma Oluo
We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
by Bettina L. Love
How to Be an Antiracist
By Ibram X. Kendi
Seeing White Podcast