Out of the Mouths of Babes

Even young students notice when their cultures are relevant only during heritage months.
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Something happens in February. Someone flips a switch in classrooms around the country, and—suddenly—students are reading the works of African-American authors and learning about the contributions of African Americans in all manner of disciplines. It is the start of Black History Month, and black history and perspectives make their yearly appearances via lessons, films and activities reserved for this time of year.

Think students don’t notice the shift? Think again. Even students in the early grades pick up on it.

Two friends of mine wrote Facebook posts on the same day this year documenting conversations they’d had with their young children about Black History Month.

Take 7-year-old Henry,* a child with a black parent and a white parent, who had this exchange with his mother: 

Mother: What are y’all doing for your new unit in school?

Henry: We’re learning about Black people for Black History Month.

Mother: Oh, that’s nice.

Henry: Yeah. But it seems like all the Black people are part of American history too. Why can’t we learn about them all year?

Mother: Don’t you learn about all types of people all year round?

Henry: Not really. Most of the year it’s white people.

Mother: …

Henry: It seems stupid. And it’s not fair, because white people get all year, and Black people get a month. But what about Japanese people? And Chinese people? And people from Sweden? There’s not enough months for everybody to get one, and we’re all in America. We should just learn about all of us all the time.

All of us. All the time. Henry’s got the right idea. Whatever one’s views about heritage months, it makes no sense that, in 2016, so many students still learn about the contributions of people of color only during a particular group’s allotted “month”—and that’s only if their group gets a month. That’s so clear even a 7-year-old can see it.

But then there’s another perspective. When Black History Month generally means intentional, pointed appreciation of black people’s contributions to the United States, 6-year-old Jason* still notices that being black—being himself—at school is unacceptable. Here’s what his mother shared about their conversation:

Mother: Oh, it’s February 1st! It’s Black History Month. Today, we celebrate all of the accomplishments and contributions of black people. Well, actually, we celebrate that every day because we’re black every day.

Jason: Yeah, except sometimes we’re white.

Mother: (chuckles) What do you mean by that?

Jason: Like sometimes we have to act like we’re white to fit in. Like, I can’t act at school the same way I act at home.

She closed her post with the hashtag #sadbuttrue. At only 6 years old, Jason understands that he needs to code switch to belong at school, and celebrating black people during February doesn’t change that.

The gems coming out of the mouths of these babes reminded me of two things: 

  • It’s vital that all students see themselves and their histories—and those of others—year round. It would seem that’s a given, but that’s clearly not the case in every classroom.
  • Appreciating and honoring identity groups during heritage months means going beyond the curriculum and school-wide assemblies: It also means cultivating an environment in which students who belong to any identity group feel safe being themselves.

Sure, use heritage months as opportunities to dive deep into the histories and experiences of the months’ respective groups, but limiting coverage of diverse cultures and perspectives only to the month in question does students a huge disservice—and they know it. Do away with the switch.

*Students’ names were changed for this post.

Bell is managing editor for Learning for Justice.