Whose perspective are we telling the story from? Teachers must bring narratives of achievement, resistance and beauty into ethnic studies courses to empower students of color

By Adina Goldstein posted 08-04-2020 05:09:38 PM


Social justice and anti-racist education are finally having their moment. As a teacher of color, I’m proud and excited that my colleagues, districts, and local officials are ready to acknowledge the need for diverse studies that reflect the students we teach. At the same time, I hope that our anti-racist social studies teaching paints a full picture of those we hope to teach about, one that does not shy away from the vast history of oppression, but one that also depicts joy and culture as well. 

A lot of the anti-racist teaching discourse focuses on shedding light on the severity of oppression inflicted upon communities of color as a side of the American narrative that has long been neglected. I agree that it is important not to gloss over the harsh realities of the black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) experience, but I do not believe that it is “enough” to simply incorporate historically neglected narratives of oppression into our classrooms. We must also bring historically neglected narratives of achievement, resistance, and beauty into our classrooms if we are to empower our students of color and adequately arm all students with the factual knowledge and passion they need to fight white supremacy.

In reflecting on our experiences in our required high school African American history course, a dear friend of mine from high school shared that she struggled a lot with internalized racism in high school and expressed that she wished the Black community and its accomplishments had been celebrated more within the class. For all the skills and language the course gave us in understanding the history of oppression against Black folks in the United States, our course focused largely on oppression, and left little room for what Dr. Bettina Love calls, “Black joy.” In her book We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom,  Dr. Love writes that making room for Black joy and “finding joy in the midst of pain and trauma is the fight to be fully human.” She writes that “joy provides a type of nourishment that is needed to be dark and fully alive in White spaces, such as schools,” and that “embracing Black joy is loving seeing dark people win, thrive, honor their history, and be fully human.” Only teaching stories of victimization of any marginalized community does not honor the full humanity of the members of that group. It can be an easy trap for educators, particularly white educators, to fall into as they work to establish themselves as anti-racist allies by acknowledging the oppression inflicted upon BIPOC communities because it can quickly become a performative space in which white guilt takes priority. As we prepare to highlight BIPOC narratives and honor BIPOC students (who, in many cases, are the majority in our urban classrooms) more authentically, it is important that we deliberately create space for our students of color to be fully human; to acknowledge their pride for their identities and to celebrate their history.

How can we do this? First, we can do the work that those before us did not do: we can spend time finding primary sources that show joy and resistance. It may not be as easy as looking in the Library of Congress archives or searching on Google, both of which often fall short on depictions of BIPOC joy. Our courses on BIPOC history must not center the power of the oppressors. It cannot ignore or gloss over oppressors, but can more actively center the power of resistance. Second, we must remember to center BIPOC voices rather than those of white academics writing about BIPOC folks. We must commit to elevating those voices within our classrooms, the ones that are the true experts in BIPOC joy, and the ones who live it. Next, teachers must be a part of broader scholarly discourse. As a teacher mentor and longtime role model of mine said, “we teach the things we know,” so we must make sure we learn about the latest research being published by BIPOC academics and authors. As new primary sources and artifacts are uncovered, as narratives previously deemed unworthy of documentation are pieced together more fully, our courses must reflect this work, both to honor the tireless work that many BIPOC academics are doing to complete these narratives, as well as to create a classroom culture that acknowledges and celebrates the full range of humanity of our students. 

Districts and states can help this culture of learning become possible both by committing resources to furthering teacher growth as well as by creating and encouraging a culture that emphasizes the importance of continued learning - particularly in a field that is overwhelmingly white and reflective of educational experiences that are incomplete and dated. History is living and breathing and constantly being added to. Our practice as educators must be able to reflect that. Our districts and states must prioritize that. 

For our commitment to anti-racist education to be authentic and truly work to dismantle systems of oppression, we must push the scope of our courses past victimization and allow our students and their histories full humanity by recognizing the joy and resistance that can be found amidst the oppression. We must educate students on a fuller narrative and create a classroom culture where BIPOC students can openly feel pride for and celebrate the cultures and histories of their ancestors.