The Road to Racism is Paved with Good Intentions

Recently, a friend of mine introduced me to the Comedy Central web series “Drunk History.” The host of the show conducts a boozy interview about a specific topic based on U.S. history—primarily unconventional stories—that are then retold with famous people. Given the fact that the interviewer and interviewee are at various levels of intoxication throughout the conversation, I was surprised to find how factual the events truly are. Specifically fascinating is the Harriet Tubman story, in which they discuss how, during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was a spy for the Union. She is most notably revered in U.S. history for her contributions in freeing slaves through the Underground Railroad. Yet, this piece of history, as valorous as it may be, was information I had never come across before.

This struck me as odd considering the fact that I grew up and received my pre-college education within a 30-mile radius between the birthplaces of both Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass. However at no point in my education did we delve into the influences of these historical figures. It was almost as if they never existed, and all the while they made major contributions to the history of our country. Of course in courses such as Advanced Placement U.S. History we never skipped a beat on evaluating the presidents of the United States, generals of major wars, and major industrialists, however when it came to people of color and female figures, much of their influence was left unexamined and ignored. It has left me perplexed and contemplating why this may be. Primarily, if the College Board is less likely to test it, the teachers will not include it in their lesson plans in preparation for the AP exams. Yet even in middle and elementary school, we focused on the White men that took part in American history.

Deceivingly, we justify that there is nothing wrong with removal of these figures from our history, and are convinced that it is not a racist action because it is not a blatant act of injustice. As we have discussed from instances such as the Sue article (2010) where microaggressions send racist messages, but are kept insidiously under the radar. Within the confines of excuses such as “I was just joking” and “I didn’t mean any harm by that,” these messages conveyed through the lack of representation sends an overwhelming sense of supremacy. That the impacts of influential actions people of color contribute are not as noteworthy as White people. Instances such as these permeate throughout the information that we are presented with in classrooms across the United States. Evidently it is not just such specific regions and states that are to blame for altering historical representation in textbooks and education: the absence of representation is also an omnipresent force that deepens the whitewashing of our educational system. Since these instances of racial representation are clearly widespread and promote racist messages, how can we go about ensuring that people of color are acknowledged throughout the fabric of our history starting with educational safeguards?

Harriet Tubman is played by Octavia Spencer. (Note: Profanity)

2 thoughts on “The Road to Racism is Paved with Good Intentions

  1. I wish I knew how to answer that question or that I thought there was a solution but I’m not feeling particularly optimistic. We are so entrenched in this system that climbing out of this hole seems like it will be really difficult. I think the approach to solving the problem is through systemic change like you said, especially because we have so many curriculum requirements in our primary and secondary education. I think it’s important to note that the people who are creating the requirements, tests, textbooks, teaching the classes, evaluating the teachers, etc. have all come from the system that is disregarding the contributions of people of color. How can we expect them to look at our education with a critical/objective eye when they have all been indoctrinated into the system that they are supposed to be monitoring?

  2. I think your comments about omitting a history that is so relevant and important to be taught, but is still unfortunately, in many cases, omitted from education, gets at what ‘the system’ wants us to know. In a colorblind system, the system wants us to know that ‘we are all equal,’ and the Civil Rights Movement was the moment in time where we became equal and thus talking about race and skimming over these figures and topics is justified because what really matters is something other than this. And realizing how problematic that was for my education, and it seems like, from this post too, yours, I am beginning to recognize it as a source of ambiguity that we do not want to address. Because these figures and their importance could stir up further conversation, they are glanced over, but because we, as a predominantly white education system, don’t have all of the answers, it just doesn’t become a topic of discussion. And that, is just so sad.

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