The Cavalier Daily
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​WALLS: Talk about race in the classroom

Elementary schools should not offer students a “happily ever after” picture of race relations in America

Though it has been nearly a decade since I finished 5th grade, I can still recall much of my historical education, back when history was referred to as “social studies.” Through picture-filled textbooks, school plays and the occasional art project, my teachers covered all the basics of child-friendly American history: how Columbus discovered America, the Puritans showed up at Plymouth and became best friends with the Native Americans, and of course a condensed overview of the Civil Rights Movement.

Civil Rights education for elementary schoolers was fairly simple. We covered Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruby Bridges. Like most of the history we studied at the time, my teachers made an effort to give it a “happily ever after” spin. The general narrative was that racism had been an issue in our country at one point, but a few great leaders changed all that, allowing us to live in the perfect, racism-free harmony that we enjoy today.

It didn’t take for me long to notice some cracks in the story. By high school, I’d gotten the real story about the supposed end of racism. When I came to college, I discovered that most of my friends had a similar education. We teach racism as a historical event in the United States. It is represented in our textbooks the same way as the Declaration of Independence or World War I — it happened, it’s over, let’s watch a movie about it and move on.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the newspaper can usually offer some evidence that racism is alive and well, whether it’s the Ku Klux Klan threatening to use lethal force against Ferguson protesters or Alaska Congressman Don Young’s reference to immigrant workers as “wetbacks.” When we’re young, we study a story that just isn’t true. It might seem harmless to lie to kids about the existence of something as awful as racism, but the ramifications continue long after our classroom days have ended.

With Martese Johnson making the national news, University students have been forced to confront the idea of racism in our own backyard. As with any major event at the University, many students have taken to YikYak to voice their opinions anonymously. In a recent article in The Cavalier Daily, the Managing Board referred to many of the insensitive and hateful posts that have shown up on Yik Yak. Some have complained black students cry racism where it does not exist. Of course, race relations in the United States are complex and multifaceted issues, but this view one that is clouded by a lack of understanding — a lack of understanding that begins, for many, with elementary education. If you have never experienced racism yourself and you grew up being told Dr. King and Rosa Parks fixed the United States decades ago, it is easy to believe that racism just isn’t something we have to worry about anymore. But current events tell a different story than the one your third grade teacher might have handed you in your textbook.

American schools ought to teach race relations as a current event — provide the history and inform students about where we are today. Of course, kids are not equipped to handle the full complexity or intensity of the issue, but teachers could easily address the fact that racism still exists in our country without getting into some of the darker or more complicated details or bringing politics into the classroom.

We cannot begin to address racism in our country or try to change the status quo until we recognize that racism still exists. Our schools have done us a disservice by teaching racism as a thing of the past. Fortunately, we have the power to correct the problem simply by educating ourselves. An increased understanding of the issue would not cure every one of those insensitive YikYak posts, but it would serve as a catalyst. If we start to pay attention and call out the inaccuracies we were once taught, we can begin to make a change.

Nora Walls is a Viewpoint writer.


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