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Opinion

A Reckoning of Systemic Racism and U.S. History Is Long Overdue

It’s critical that educators be free to teach the truth and not be forced to perpetuate comfortable lies about the country and its past.

June 17, 2021
Brittany M. Williams headshot

Brittany M. Williams

Columnist

Brittany M. Williams headshot

Brittany M. Williams

Columnist

Eleven days before the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Fletcher, the eldest living survivor, and two others testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee.

Over the course of her testimony, Fletcher recalled the tragedy: 

“I am 107 years old and I have never ... seen justice. I pray that one day I will… I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams… I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot."

Against the backdrop of Fletcher’s testimony and the Tulsa Massacre anniversary, a number of Black Americans like myself are preparing to celebrate Juneteenth. Juneteenth marks another event in U.S. history typically ignored in schools—another event that many Black Americans refuse to overlook. Thanks to increased media coverage, though, more and more people are learning about these histories.

Over the past month, numerous people have lamented their frustrations with learning more about Tulsa and Juneteenth online as adults than they ever did in U.S. schools. Many went on to pair their distress about the incidents with questions of why it has and continues to take so long for America to recognize and to reconcile the injustices perpetrated across the nation. Contrastingly, I found myself shocked most by the dismay of others because most generations of Americans fail to fully grasp the complexity of American history. 

“How can we fully acknowledge Juneteenth and the Tulsa Race Massacre when many of us do not want to teach these truths to ourselves and our students?”

Brittany M. Williams

For decades, Black educators and their allies have lamented how Black identity, history, and experiences remain relegated to small sections in the margins of Reconstruction and civil rights eras in history books. These realities are similarly stark for Indigenous people and Asian Americans. Worse yet, our nation’s educators are equipped with textbooks that fail to accurately portray U.S. history for all of its gore and horror as well as its beauty. So how can educators effectively and accurately teach U.S. history when the very source materials used in their classrooms convey a whitewashed reality of the nation? How can we fully acknowledge Juneteenth and the Tulsa Race Massacre when many of us do not want to teach these truths to ourselves and our students? 

If we, as educators, take seriously our role in helping students to retain valuable information, to hone their critical thinking skills, and to more fully embrace themselves for who they are, we cannot expect them to do this without understanding the society from which they come. Nor can we expect our students to make informed social, political, and educational decisions without knowing how the choices presented before them directly connect to the past. Accurately teaching history matters because it can help to dispel the myths that have permeated and continue to permeate U.S. culture. Disrupting these sanitized narratives is more important now, than ever, because they have been promulgated for so long that many American adults find it hard to believe facts, no matter the amount of new evidence presented before them. Accepting myths rather than facts and failing to recognize that facts can change based on new information does a disservice to our students because they grow into adults unable to accept historical truths. In these contentious times, to do anything less than demand that we present accurate information in our schools is to continue teaching a version of U.S. history that is steeped in whiteness. 

Educational leaders and other educators at the K–12 and postsecondary levels are increasingly finding themselves barred from contending with race and racism. This legislation of what can or cannot be taught poses a threat not only to the knowledge production process but also to our students—some of whom will pursue careers as teachers. Not only will Black and brown students, who make up more than half of public school enrollment, find that their classrooms are returning to the more whitewashed history that has been standardized for decades, but white students will be severely disadvantaged too. James Baldwin best encapsulated this tension in his 1962 essay Letter to My Nephew. White people are, Baldwin explained, “trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

“We as educators owe it to ourselves and to future generations of students to reckon with the full accuracy and weight of the United States’ legacy of racism.”

Brittany M. Williams

Some 59 years later, Baldwin’s words still ring true as white adults with legislative power are viscerally responding to and broadly calling for the banning of critical race theory in schools. Few K-12 educators actively teach critical race theory as a concept. Instead, critical race theory is being colloquially leveraged to mean “any uncomfortable discussion about race and racism.” But our students cannot understand these tensions through avoidance alone. Abstinence-only did not work in sex education and race neutrality won’t work for U.S. history. In fact, one could argue that a direct line can be drawn between our societal desire to shield students from the truth and myths of American history, to inaccurate textbooks, and to our current legislative tipping point. It remains to be seen whether the same government leaders calling for critical race theory bans would feel the same disdain for the concept if they had not spent their entire lives learning an inaccurate version of U.S. history. But we as educators owe it to ourselves and to future generations of students to reckon with the full accuracy and weight of the United States’ legacy of racism. We also owe it to our students to name how this history has an ongoing impact on U.S. society writ large.

Critiquing the legacy of racism and the inaccurate portrayal of U.S. history is inherently American. As a proud daughter of the Black American South, I have been socialized to criticize that which I love, and to say “Bless your heart” to that for which I do not care. Put another way, as Baldwin once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” As educators, we cannot mitigate the realities of racial injustice without acknowledging, teaching, and allowing students the space to process the full existence of our errors as part of our nation’s history.

I have personally been lucky enough to celebrate Black Independence Day, or Juneteenth, and read about the Tulsa Race Massacre both at home and at school. I also learned about the increase in white violence as a result of Reconstruction. In fact, I found myself most enthralled with the massacres of Rosewood (in Florida) and Atlanta because they were closest to and quite literally home. It wasn’t until I left Georgia for college that I realized the true privilege of being an Atlanta Public Schools kid and having teachers who did not wait for the curriculum to center Black identity because they felt a responsibility to us as (mostly Black) educators. I was similarly privileged again, in college, to take Africana studies courses that deepened my knowledge of these historic events.

The average U.S. student will not have the same experiences that I have had, but taking the time to reckon with our full history can give more of our students a fighting chance. The teaching of U.S. history cannot and should not be about one’s comfort or feelings of goodness alone. Dealing with our history (and current realities) more directly can help to lessen the cognitive dissonance some adults may feel when learning about tragedies such as Juneteenth and Tulsa many years after high school. In fact, preparing students to accept pluralism by learning more about and thus critiquing the society in which we educate them may actually deepen their commitments to and reverence for our nation. To do anything other than contend with our reality is not history, it is fiction; and fiction must always be appropriately labeled. 

Our Inaugural Columnist

We are pleased to introduce Brittany M. Williams as One Day's first columnist. Her columns will appear monthly for the next three months. If you are interested in serving as a future columnist or would like to suggest someone, email us.

Brittany M. Williams, Ph.D. is a writer, speaker, and assistant professor of higher education who has the distinct privilege of having been born and raised in Southwest Atlanta. She is a proud product of Atlanta Public Schools. Williams researches social class, inequities, and the career development and workplace experiences of Black women in higher education contexts. Learn more about her at DrBritWilliams.com.

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.