On 4 May 2019, I received this email inquiry from an Arizona parent:
My daughter's elementary school in Tucson does a Civil War reenactment play. The 5th graders write the play based on their readings/studies, and act it out. Some children act as slaves and Confederate soldiers. In my opinion, the exercise is fraught with problems. I believe it minimizes the real terror and horrors that slaves endured and minimizes the violence of slavery and war while simultaneously still being too violent (scenes include a hunt for escaped slaves, a military gun battle, onstage deaths, and an amputation). I'm approaching the school with a request to eliminate or change this program. Can you please point me to any resources--websites, studies, articles, experts to talk to, etc.--that could help with this issue?
As an African American born and raised in the Deep South, I do not fully understand the popularity of or the rationale behind adult dramatic reenactments of the Civil War moments and the antebellum South. I halfway get this peculiar tradition for too many as an ahistorical romanticizing and longing for the “good old days on the plantation.” Think the Disney “classic” Song of the South (1946), the tune “Dixie” (1859) and myriad American minstrel shows and songs that constructed and glorified “happy darkies” as benevolently-owned human property. My befuddlement though has skyrocketed in recent years, months, and weeks as related practices have gained a peculiar and disturbing foothold in classrooms across this country. I read about and hear from parents—not unlike the one above and mostly from parents of color—who are dismayed, frustrated, and angry about what their young elementary, middle, or high school students are experiencing in American classrooms far too often. Sadly, the headline and incident catalogue below is not exhaustive but underscores far too many local and national instances of educator deliberate insensitivity or downright ignorance, far too many instances of what we can rightfully call “curriculum violence” happening in US classrooms from kindergarten to college: “Every level of education has been affected by the presence of racial trauma. K-12, private, public, parochial and higher education institutions are reporting racist incidents that include the isolation, bullying, taunting, stalking, intimidation, and physical assault of Black and Brown students.” Equally disturbing is the fact that “Schools Keep Defending Racially Insensitive Classroom Activities in a Worrisome Trend” (2019).
While an incident or two of a white teacher’s or administrator’s cultural insensitivity here and there might get a pass from me as an African American teacher and scholar of American race relations, the frequency and gravity of these incidents is overwhelming. These headlines alone speak volumes about this pressing issue in recent years: “Teacher Suspended for Racist Comments about Obama” (2008), “Kentucky Teacher Calls Student the Nword” (2011), “White Teacher Sues to Use the Nword” (2012), “Irving Middle School Teacher on Leave for Using Nword” (2015), “Kentucky High School Apologizes for Homework on the Nword” (2016), “Teacher Allegedly Tells Class She Can Use the Nword because She Reportedly Had a Black Nanny” (2018), “Wisconsin Teacher Repeatedly Spews Nword in Class Because She Couldn’t Understand Why Students Use it and She Can’t” (2018), “A Teacher Used the Nword and Told Students Dating Black People Was ‘Not Worth It,’ District Says” (2018), “Florida Middle School Teacher Suspended for Allegedly Using Racial Slurs in Classroom” (2018), “Baltimore City Teacher Uses the Nword to Students” (2019), “Teacher Fired after Calling Student the ‘N-word’ at Virginia School” (2019), “School Official’s Point about Racist Language Went Astray with Term, Superintendent Says” (2019), “Student Called the Nword Is Suspended for Striking Bully: ‘African American Students Are Suffering in Silence” (2019), “High School Students Stage Anti-racism Walkout after Principal Uses the Nword” (2020), “Black Girl in Texas Says White Teacher Told White Students That ‘White People Can Say’ the N-Word” (2021), “Video Purportedly Shows Teacher Singing Racial Slur; LCS Reviewing Incident” (2021), and “Only Black Student in Class Says White Teacher Gave Pupils Permission to Use N-Word” (2021). Interestingly, some white parents actually push back when a school district tries to address issues of diversity, inclusion, and justice: “When a Viral Video Pushed Southlake to Confront Racism. A ‘Silent Majority’ Fought Back” / “A Texas School District Had a Diversity Plan. Parents Fought Back” (2021).
Clearly, racial unawareness by mostly—but not exclusively—white educators goes beyond instances of racial slurs and the Nword. Classroom reenactments of slavery, American slavery simulation games, minstrel masks worn during an elementary school assembly, a play with high school students wearing KKK costumes and walking through a theater audience, and reenactments of Civil Rights Movement reveal several things about our students’ teachers: blatant cultural incompetence, absence of critical thinking, lack of empathy for students of color, ignorance of American history, and discomfort in talking openly and honestly about American race relations, past and present. While some insist that these are innocent mistakes—isolated occurrences from well-meaning and well-intentioned mostly white teachers—the negative impact of this racial trauma in a classroom is not mitigated by a teacher’s ostensibly good intentions. As Stephanie P. Jones contends in “Ending Curriculum Violence” (Learning for Justice, Spring 2020), “Curriculum violence is indeed detrimental, but it does not have to be deliberate or purposeful. The notion that a curriculum writer’s or teacher’s intention matters misses the point: Intentionality is not a prerequisite for harmful teaching. Intentionality is also not a prerequisite for racism.”
Teaching “sensitive” parts of our American history is to be applauded as long as lessons are accurate and age-appropriate for students. Given the prevalence of what can amount to poor teacher choices, I can only imagine the negative impact on students and their parents directly and indirectly: “Cobb Teacher Under Siege for Class ‘Slavery Game’ Shares Her Side” (2016), “Slavery Simulation Game Causes Outrage at Phoenix Elementary School” (2017), “Elementary Students Hold Mock Slave Auction During Class” (2017), “School Apologizes Over 2nd Grade Blackface Masks” (2018), “Elementary School Teachers in Idaho Dressed Up as a MAGA Border Wall for Halloween” (2018), “Phoenix ASU Prep School Students Dress as Ku Klux Klan for High School Play” (2018), “Class Lesson on Civil Rights Flies Off the Rails as White Students Take the Opportunity to Spew the Nword: ‘They Took It for a Joke’” (2019), “Phoenix Mom Outraged Over History Lesson” (2019), “Parents Lash Out after Video Shows Fifth-graders Singing and Picking Cotton on Field Trip” (2019), “Classmates Instructed to ‘Yell, Humiliate and Berate’ Black Son for Lesson on Segregation, Arizona Mom Says” (2019), “Illinois School Under Fire for Using Black Faces to Represent ‘Out of Control’ and White Faces to Portray ‘Ready to Learn’ on Feelings Chart” (2020), “Virginia Chemistry Teacher Suspended after making a George Floyd Pun on a Chemistry Quiz” (2020), “Assignment Asks Students to ‘Pretend’ They’re Slaves, ‘Write Letter to Family in Africa’” (2021), and “Racial Slur Held by Missouri Teachers Playing Human Scrabble Caused ‘Hurt and Offense’” (2021).
From these many instances at schools, I am left baffled by who is approving these lessons and how these teaching strategies amount to sound classroom pedagogy. I also question what critical resources these teachers are using to equip themselves for culturally responsive pedagogy. It is likely that too many of these white educators—and not a few others—are not adequately trained to teach competently about the US history of race relations. Teaching the obligatory American history lessons—especially those that underscore ongoing generational racial trauma—entail additional research and training on how to teach these lessons with accuracy, empathy, sensitivity, and awareness. These pedagogical “missteps” speak to educators’ own white privilege and unconscious bias. White educators must examine their attitudes toward race as a social construct when they are approaching texts and subjects about American race relations across the board, whether about undocumented immigrants (“Georgia 3rd Graders Asked What US Does to ‘Illegal Aliens,” 2011), Indigenous mascots, George Floyd (“Virginia Teacher Fired and Under Investigation after Asking Students to Describe How George Floyd Died,” 2021) or Breonna Taylor (“Breonna Taylor: Georgia Teacher Says She Caused Her Own Death,” 2021).
Although I am not a k-12 teacher, I have a degree in secondary education and have worked extensively with pre- and in-service teachers and administrators on diversity issues for over thirty years. While “The Nation’s Teaching Force Is Still Mostly White and Female” (Education Week, 2017), many white teachers and administrators thankfully are indeed aware of how to confidently, effectively, and respectfully present lessons on such perceived “sensitive” topics as race, gender, religion, sexuality, and class. One need not be an “academic expert” to grow one’s own typically homogenous social circle for exposure to new and different ideas and perspectives rather than willingly existing in bubbles that do not challenge problematic perspectives or correct misguided and potentially damaging notions about difference. It is also okay to make genuine mistakes in efforts to understand and to accept ownership of one’s shortfalls in this regard. These shortfalls are no reason to deprive all students of diverse perspectives about living in this world from well documented critical and credible sources. About US Black/ white race relations, there are 400 years of content from which to draw. Again, the key here is a white teacher’s honest self-reflection and self-assessment of how they really feel about the subject of race and racial difference. Whether or not a teacher engages in this deliberate self-reflection, their perspectives and attitudes will surely play out consciously or unconsciously in their classroom.
My advice to all teachers when considering these kinds of American history simulations and any other pedagogies related to race specifically is to understand fully what the potential negative ramifications might be and how the lessons will resonate with all students in a classroom. I also ask white teachers to self-reflect on their racial positionality as it relates to a subject and topic that is not about their own race or ethnicity. Classrooms by their very nature constitute uneven power dynamics; the teacher is the authority and what a teacher does in that role as authority figure matters and lingers in a student’s experience—both negatively and positively. Good teachers can and do teach about cultural difference without incident.
I hope that white teachers do not retreat from teaching and sharing culturally relevant and validating materials. Available resources abound, especially since George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 which prompted an almost frenzied clamoring of white people generally and of white teachers specifically to engage in non-performative allyship, in authentic anti-racist work. Toward that end, I highly recommend the myriad of well-written, far-ranging, thoughtful, and grade-appropriate k-12 educators’ resources available at Teaching Tolerance (now Learning for Justice). For any teacher contemplating classroom simulations of American history, I recommend both “Classroom Simulations: Proceed with Caution” (Drake, 2008) and “Slavery Simulations: Just Don’t” (Bell, 2019). As for the infamous Nword in classroom content material, I ask that white teachers not fetishize this word in their lessons but rather acknowledge their own personal relationship with and understanding of this word and its history: “Sticks and Stones: When Kids Use the Nword” (Trimble, 2014). We adults might also listen to our students as in the case of this first grader who resists the curriculum violence she experiences: “Muted: Fifth Grade Conversations about Slavery” (Lukolyo, 2020). No student, parent, or marginalized community should have to endure yet another teacher’s bad pedagogical judgment—like “slavery yoga” (2021) or “pretend you are a slave trader” (2021). No student, parent, or marginalized community should have to read or hear yet another school district’s apology or justification for a pedagogical mishap that amounts to yet another disruption of another Black or Brown student’s learning. No matter a teacher’s intentions, such adverse classroom experiences can and do create racial trauma for a student, a student’s family, and a student’s community; trauma that can last a lifetime:“Mock Slave Auctions, Racist Lessons: How US History Class Often Traumatizes, Dehumanizes Black Students” (2021).
Ahwatukee resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is the Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.