When Our Schools Are Racist by Omission
“Throughout one’s educational experience as a person of color, there are many signals which subliminally, and at times overtly, assert who controls how we are taught our history. Whether it is the eyes of a teacher, the disregard for slavery as a cause of the Civil War...or the failure...to condemn the actions of White supremacists on UNC’s campus, the resounding message is that educational institutions in this country are more concerned with pandering to the experiences of White students.”
Since Monday’s toppling of Silent Sam, the Confederate monument’s effect on the UNC campus environment has stretched beyond students of color and those who empathize with them. With Monday’s protests and the counterprotest on Saturday, the tangible hostility on campus has impacted the entire school environment. Students have shared that they have even received racially-charged death threats on various social media platforms.
The events of this past week beg a larger question which we believe is inextricably linked to education — who controls the narratives regarding race in our learning environments? For instance, the discourses regarding Silent Sam’s place on campus harken back to what we learned, or did not learn, in our K-12 education.
When learning about the Civil War and its causes, most students will be taught one of two basic narratives: that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, or that it was fought over slavery. Unsurprisingly, these are the two most essential arguments regarding the place of confederate monuments on college campuses: that they commemorate Southern states, or that they memorialize the enslavement of Black bodies.
According to a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8% of high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. While 97% of teachers said that teaching about slavery was essential to understanding American history, more than half of teachers said that their textbooks inadequately addressed slavery as a central cause.
Another study, aimed at testing the implicit bias of teachers, used eye-tracking technology to find that even preschool teachers are watching Black students, specifically Black male students, much more closely than their White counterparts. It is unsurprising, then, that Black students are suspended at grossly higher rates once they are in high school.
Combined, these two phenomena create a learning environment in which educators are hyper-aware of the Black students in their classrooms but ironically unaware of teaching material in ways that recognize and validate their presence.
We see this same trend persisting into our experiences as college students at a public university. Despite growing concerns, administrators have remained ambivalent about the racism inherent in Silent Sam’s standing. Their statements have emphasized the “mob actions” of Monday’s actors. Chancellor Folt signed a joint statement with President Margaret Spellings and other administrators that their focus is on the “safety” of students. In none of their communications did they condemn the White supremacists who’ve protected Silent Sam. None of them have used the word “racist”. While they continue to direct the conversation toward the idea of campus safety, alluding to ideas of “law and order”, they’re only further cementing a hostile environment for students of color. The persistent defense of Silent Sam and administrators’ responses are collectively a poignant example of a sinister trend starting so young as preschool.
Throughout one’s educational experience as a person of color, there are many signals which subliminally, and at times overtly, assert who controls how we are taught our history. Whether it is the eyes of a teacher, the disregard for slavery as a cause of the Civil War in grade school curriculum, or the failure of an email to condemn the actions of White supremacists on UNC’s campus, the resounding message is that educational institutions in this country are more concerned with pandering to the experiences of White students.
This is not to suggest that every arm of curriculum must be taught through a racial lens. Rather that when race is a crucial component of a historical narrative, our educators are intentional about discussing the role of race instead of protecting White supremacy by omission. For example, we should be clear that Silent Sam is a memorial to the rights of Southern states...to enslave people of African descent.