Texas, Textbooks and Truth

A McGraw-Hill textbook is under fire for its characterization of enslaved people as “workers”—the latest example of our national unwillingness to face white supremacist history. 


It seems at least once a month we read a news story about dubious education practices that spawn national outrage. This week’s news featured pages from a geography textbook that identified Africans forced into the horrific transatlantic slave trade as “workers” and “immigrants.” 

Here’s the story: 15-year-old Coby Burren took a picture of a fishy page from the textbook and sent it to his mother, a former teacher and current Ph.D. student, with a text message: “[W]e was real hard workers, wasn’t we ☹.” Roni Dean-Burren, his social media-savvy mom, made a video of herself flipping through offending pages, and it went viral.

Before talking about all that is wrong here, I’d like to point out two aspects of this story that should hearten us all.

First, it shows that speaking up sometimes can effect change. You don’t have to storm the barricades. As the Dalai Lama is reputed to have said, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Second, Dean-Burren raised her son right.

As for the problems here, they’re complex and deep, and they go far beyond the Texas suburb where Coby attends school, and beyond McGraw-Hill, the company that publishes the textbook. What we face, especially in education, is an aversion to confronting our history. The textbook in question is simply the latest example of national denial, or what Coby’s mom called “erasing history.”

Last March, Teaching Tolerance released a classroom film called Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot. Designed for students in grades 6 through 12, it tells the story of the voting rights movement from the point of view of the high school students who were the movement’s backbone. The students endured verbal and physical abuse daily, and the abusers often used the n-word.

We included the recorded use of that word in the film. It’s part of the story, and it shows how the word was used to support white supremacy. It’s what really happened.

Several teachers objected strongly to that decision. One wrote, “Our board policy is to educate about the word, but not to use it in the classroom, as it draws attention to students of African descent.” OK, I understand not wanting to tokenize students, but how exactly do you educate about something if it can’t be used in the classroom, even in a context that shows it’s repugnant?

Another teacher wrote that she would not use the film because she does not allow racial slurs in her classroom, as “they cause discomfort to many students.” Another wrote, perhaps more honestly, “I do not feel comfortable about the use of the n-word … [T]hough I know it’s historical, I think the message can be made without offensive vocabulary.”

No wonder Dean-Burren worries about erasing history. Forget the textbooks. The problem, dear teachers, lies in ourselves.

Consider the case of the Confederate flag. In Michigan, a place where few students have Confederate ancestors, a group of high school students has appropriated the flag to show that they are “rebels,” like James Dean.

If that is truly how these students interpret the term “rebel” in the Confederate context, their education failed them.

There is no simple solution when it comes to teaching about painful—and shameful—history. Teachers care about their students. They want to build their self-esteem, give them positive messages and set them on a bright path to the future. They’re also aware that, as one teacher wrote to us, “some students and families are very sensitive about the use of that word.”

I wonder, though, who’s really uncomfortable in those classrooms? Let’s review the demographics of U.S. education: Over half of students in public schools are kids of color, while about 80 percent of their teachers are white.

Maybe the discomfort sits not with the students but with the teachers who truly don’t know how to square their concern for students’ well-being with the ugly scars of our nation’s history. What we need is some truth before we can have reconciliation.

As Coby showed us, it’s not like African-American kids don’t know what really happened.

Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance

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