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Your Ignorance Is Not My Bliss

The radical right strategy for accessing the deep pockets of the American taxpayer, and diverting the billions set aside for public education into the pockets of the for-profit charter school industry, is simply to sow discontent—lots of it. The charlatans don’t need to win any battle.

They just need to touch a nerve with enough parents on one topic or another to create a groundswell of angry mothers clamoring for something—anything—that is different. They attempt to villainize our elected officials and intimidate anyone who disagrees, then they will swoop in with the panacea of charter schools to better educate our kids. Not so fast.

Nowhere have these scare tactics been more obvious than in the backlash against the proposition that we cease white-washing American history, and instead, own the sins of our forefathers—not with guilt or shame, as the detractors want parents to believe, but with understanding and hopes for reform. What’s more American than that?

We teach history so that we can learn from its successes and failures. We teach about the Nazis and the Holocaust, for example, to prepare us to see totalitarianism and genocide when they, inevitably, raise their ugly heads again.

At the Fairfax County School Board meeting on February 10th the At-Large Representative Karen Keys-Gamarra presented a resolution celebrating Black History Month. In her remarks, she noted the increasing lack of comity in discussions with constituents, and referenced an email she’d received in which the author threatened to “tar and feather” her. Either the author was unaware of the sordid history of this reference for African-Americans, or they knew and didn’t care.

The Courtney brothers, pictured tarred and feathered inside the livestock-viewing pavilion on the University of Maine’s campus. Credit: Seth Pinkham Papers / University of Maine's Fogler Library via The Conversation

The regular performance artists in the “Public Comments” portion of the meeting behaved as expected—hurling insults and donning large paper bags and Vendetta masks, in mockery of the pandemic mask mandate. In their midst, however, stood one elderly, earnest, white male.

He’d come to decry teaching the experiences of Black Americans, referring to those lessons as Critical Race Theory (CRT), because it “makes everyone look at race instead of the person.” He was afraid his grandchildren would be “made to feel ashamed of their skin color.” He grew up in a small New York city apartment with five others, and with his sister “we shared time on one beach chair. That’s not white privilege,” he assured the room.

It would be easy to lump this man’s fear with all the other theater of the evening. A better course, for a better world, is to note the irony of a white man who grew up poor, who now believes that gives him a pass on white privilege, and who is now against our schools teaching his own grandchildren the origins and implications of that privilege.

He couldn’t understand how his dad’s opportunity (like my own father’s) to get a college degree after World War II, with its attendant opportunity for advancement, was denied to black veterans, so the post-war boom left them behind. He couldn’t understand how, because of red-lining, his family had an opportunity to live in better neighborhoods, with better schools, than an equally-placed black one. And he doesn’t want his grand-kids to learn this because they might feel bad.

Teachers don’t teach to shame kids. This is a myth devised by those who believe that a rose-colored view of our history will shield our children from some manufactured trauma that the truth will unveil. That is ridiculous. I’m of German ancestry. I did just fine learning about World War II. My son learned about men’s subjugation of women without needing any therapy.

White students are not so fragile that we must shield them from the truth about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Just the opposite is true. We need to teach all our children that our places in this world are due to our drive, our brains, and our luck–and also teach them about the accidents of our history, including our race, gender, place of birth, and time.

We must be wary of the child who believes that their own bootstraps, however broken or worn, are solely responsible for their upward (or downward) mobility. Indeed, it is the most important lesson we can teach if we strive for a more just and caring world.


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