White students need more information about race and racism, not less

It’s not about making white children ‘feel bad.’ It’s about teaching them how to build a better future.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

As an assistant professor of education at Howard University, I have watched over the past two years as state lawmakers and governors have made it harder to teach public school students about American racial history.

These “anti-CRT” and “divisive concept” laws make teachers afraid to talk openly about the history of race and racism in this country, which will leave gaps to fill in years to come. As many have pointed out, a lack of accurate history harms all students. I want to offer my perspective as a white woman who, like many other white people, grew up without exposure to accurate information about race and American history until later in life. I use it to underscore why white children, in particular, need more information about race and American history, not less.

(Courtesy Kathryn Wiley)

I went to high school in a blue-collar, midwestern city where the automobile industry fed the local economy. I attended a mostly white high school and had no idea that just a few miles away, the schools were mostly Black. In fact, we lived in one of the most segregated cities in the nation during the 1980s.

In high school, we read Maya Angelou and Mildred Taylor, and learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But we did not learn how racial segregation laws had shaped the schools we attended, nor how redlining and racial covenants had shaped the surrounding neighborhoods.

We did not learn why it was that our school had so few Black students or so few Black teachers. Each day, the ebb and flow of mostly white students and teachers went unquestioned, leading me, and likely other white students, to assume it was perfectly normal. At home, we did not talk about race, history, or politics. Maybe it was because, like other working-class families, we went to work and did not ask questions. Or maybe it was because, like many white families, talking about race explicitly is taboo.

It wasn’t until graduate school at a predominantly white university at the age of 25 that I began to learn about the history of race in America. And, importantly, it wasn’t by choice. I was not a “race and ethnicity” or “ethnic studies” or “Black studies” major. I was an education major. Making the difference were my professors, who integrated information about race, racism, and the histories and contributions of Asian Americans, Black Americans, Indigenous peoples, and Mexican Americans into the class curriculum.

As a result, my entire understanding of this country changed. And in fact, it improved. I understood more about laws and civics and social movements, and the history of the United States and the colonies. I gained significant respect and reverence for communities of color and a new understanding of my own history as a white person. It opened my worldview and expanded my perspectives and relationships. It made me more committed to our democratic ideals and to building community.

Learning about race and American history fundamentally changed my entire trajectory, and for the better. It shaped each personal and professional decision that I made thereafter.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I began to learn about the history of race in America.

But what if, instead of learning this in my late 20s, I had learned this history as a child? It was only by accident, to some extent, as a first-generation college student, that I attended the graduate program that I did. And it was only through the work of my professors, many of them faculty of color, that I was exposed to anything different. Think of all the other white students in my high school who have proceeded through life, casting votes and making decisions that impact the lives of other people, without an understanding of this nation’s past.

Many white people that I talk to from my own generation, even now, do not know much about America’s racial history. Just this past year, I’ve talked with white people about the ways white lawmakers segregated schools and universities, how Klan members held public offices in the 1920s and 30s, and how Massive Resistance unfolded during desegregation. And it is new to them. When they hear this, it’s like a light bulb goes off. Suddenly, anti-racism and diversity efforts make more sense.

Opponents of addressing this history are afraid that it will make white children feel bad. And yes, I did learn of the brutality and violence of white people. I know that we have the potential to act with malice and disregard for the lives of people of color. But did this make me feel bad? No. It made me feel a healthy sense of responsibility to those different from myself. Teaching our children about the harms white people have perpetrated will not make them feel bad; it will keep them from doing the same thing in the future. And importantly, we must teach them how white people can contribute responsibly and with reverence to the work of racial justice.

White children notice race and internalize prejudice and superiority early on. If we do not inoculate our children from these ideas, we leave them vulnerable to the rising tide of prejudice and race-related hate. Today we are seeing the political impact of my generation, who went through school without enough information about race, racism, and American history to make better decisions in the interest of democracy. We will continue to pay a collective price as a nation if we censor this information in schools.

As white people, we have a lot to learn about the history of race and racism in America. As adults, we have our own gaps, and those of our children, to fill. We need to learn the accurate history of white people, the bad and the good. We need it to better understand ourselves and the world and human dignity. We need it to be better members of our community and to make informed policy decisions and to inoculate our children against racial extremism and xenophobia.

Learning about race, racism, and American history has fundamentally changed my life, and for the better. What I needed as a young white student — what so many of us need still today — was more information about race, racism, and American history, not less.

Kathryn Wiley is an assistant professor on educational policy and leadership at Howard University.