American History Education: Whitewashing, Cherry-Picking, Racial Taboos, and Other Injustices against People of Color

Anthony Agnelli

February 17, 2021

Racial inequality has been at the forefront of discussion in America for the past year. But the question remains: how are racial stereotypes, misconceptions, and false history instilled in American youth? This editorial takes a deep dive into how current American history curriculum in primary and secondary schools has contributed to the conveyance of skewed history and how it can be amended to be more inclusive and equitable.

If one were to ask a high school student today to complete this sentence: “In 1492…”, most of them would immediately produce this response: “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. Subsequently, if one were to ask high school students to name the three ships that Columbus sailed to America on in 1492, one would receive a resounding chorus of “Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria''. However, if one were to ask those same students what was the name of the people who Columbus encountered upon setting foot in the New World, it is probable that one would be met with a deafening silence. That silence, in and of itself, speaks volumes about what our current education system prioritizes. Do students attending American schools know that Christopher Columbus met the Taino people when he arrived in the Carribean islands in the year 1492? Are they aware that Columbus kidnapped many Tainos and brought them back to Europe as slaves? Do they know that he forced them to search for gold, of which there was very little on their land, and would maim, torture, or slaughter those who failed or refused? The answer is likely no.
In America, the education system tends to place historical figures on pedestals, infallibly grand and free of faults. At least, that is how it is often taught. Yet, most curriculums gloss over the not-so-ideal parts of these figures. Eight presidents of the United States of America, including Founding Fathers and American favorites, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves (Andrews). The same men who proclaimed values of freedom and liberty for all aided in the perpetuation of owning human beings solely on the premise of race. Dancing around this topic, most curriculums fail to mention the ugly facets of the beloved notables of American history. President Abraham Lincoln, regarded as “The Great Emancipator” and a champion for progress, in fact, believed that black people should not have the same civil rights as white people, including the right to vote. Lincoln’s “landmark achievement” , the Emancipation Proclamation, did not in fact free all the slaves in America; only those in Confederate states (Pruitt). The last slaves were not freed until June 19, 1865, now celebrated as Juneteenth (Encyclopaedia Britannica). How many public school students enter high school with the fullest extent of their education on slavery being limited to “America used to have African-Americans as slaves, but Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation and freed all the slaves and everything is better now!”? Many flaws of American history and the untold stories of those oppressed throughout American history are not being taught in some schools across the country. This is contributing to what Ronald Takaki refers to as “the Master Narrative”: the notion that America is a country of white Europeans, founded by white European men, and that only their stories make up American history. This narrative is the one that Americans, especially public school students, know all too well.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, this is the year 2021. Racial inequality is returning to the forefront of the social and political conversation. It is already much too late to face the issue of personal and systemic racism. This is an issue that should have been addressed long before today. The Black Lives Matter movement and protests ruled the headlines of 2020. Looking inward at their own implicit biases and looking outward toward the systemic racism firmly rooted in society today, Americans are finally recognizing racial inequality as the pervasive issue it truly is. However, in order to fully understand current problems, it is necessary to see where it all started. History. For years, Americans have been taught an inaccurate, whitewashed, skewed version of American history, causing the erasure of BIPOC and other marginalized groups’ history, causing race to become unmentionable taboo under the idea of colorblindness, and the indoctrination of naive idealism and idolism. While at the Winchendon School, our curriculum includes the history of all Americans, the remarkable BIPOC individuals that have contributed to it, and the examination of white historical figures’ flaws, this is not the case in many public schools. If our society truly hopes to root out racism and do justice to people of color, our country must reimagine our public school American history education to be more inclusive, accurate, and equitable.
There are a number of criteria that this new American history curriculum should meet. The first step to mending the curriculum must be the examination and discussion of the parts of American history that we are not very proud of. Curriculum must include full histories of the abomination of slavery and what the Civil War was really about, it must chronicle the history of segregation and black discrimination post-Civil War, and it must cover current issues such as mass incarceration. In addition to injustices against black Americans, it must include the history of oppression against Native Americans from the very beginning of white presence on this continent. Finally, it must touch upon civil rights violations, discrimination, and oppression against other marginalized groups, such as Asian-Americans (Japanese internment camps in World War II, for example), Latinx-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc. As previously mentioned, these courses also must not idolize white male historical figures, or teach about them at all, without delving into the problematic aspects of their actions and character. Some of these include Christopher Columbus, various Founding Fathers, and later presidents (Andrew Jackson and his despicable acts of injustice against Native Americans, such as his actions following the Cherokee v. Georgia decision and leading to the Trail of Tears). Two core texts that could prove useful in teaching these aspects of American history are A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn and A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki.
While it is so important for education to recognize the oppression of people of color in American history, it is equally as important to recognize and teach about BIPOC victories and the BIPOC figures who have contributed to American history and American society. While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a household name, public schools should spend more time teaching about other Black Freedom activists such as Malcolm X and James Baldwin. Teaching about important black individuals who fought for the advancement for people of all races, such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, should be part of the standard curriculum. When teaching about the women’s movement for the right to vote, while teaching about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, schools should be recognizing outstanding black suffragettes such as Sojourner Truth. These were incredible individuals who truly contributed to America and they should be acknowledged in school curriculum and known by schoolchildren across the nation. Many of these figures are described in A People’s History of the United States and A Different Mirror as well.
All of this sounds great, but what is the purpose of implementing this? What problems will this solve? While the prospect of having all Americans’ experiences and voices represented in education should be reason enough to consider these changes, there are a multitude of benefits resulting from implementing this new, redesigned curriculum. By including this new information, it forces white students to learn about the history of a different America, one they likely have never seen or heard of before. Throughout this learning process, these students will develop empathy and improve at recognizing experiences beyond themselves, as well as relinquish some of the implicit biases that can develop due to lack of proper representation of people of color, history lessons of cherry-picked information, and environmental influences. This will also help students, particularly older students, put current events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, mass incarceration, immigration policy, and Native American land rights, into context with knowledge of their precedents.