Research informs us that the majority of social studies classes in upper primary, secondary, and postsecondary schools have as the central substantive core an emphasis on white society and culture. This neglect and dismissal of the critical roles, perspectives, attitudes, and actions of people of color are deliberate and the ramifying consequences of a country steeped in racism and xenophobia. The exclusion of traditionally underrepresented groups—their coping mechanisms, their development of sociocultural identifiers, and their persistent endurance, despite adversities, resulting in meaningful and essential contributions to the nation’s character and metier—is a false narrative of the past and a flagrant distortion of the dialectical path that entails where we are today.
To compensate for these shortcomings and the failure to depict historical and contemporaneous realities, there have been countless attempts to diversify social studies curricula by integrating the philosophies and actions of people of color. Because of the ineptitude of bigotry, scholarly obstructions by various disciplines, weak challenges to the value of such broadened analyses by largely picayune disagreements with historical minutiae that do not abrogate the salient and conclusive contributions of so-called racial and ethnic minorities, these genuine endeavors for inclusion have been primarily in vain.
Therefore, recourses to make available a more realistic presentation of the evolution of the American experiment, so to speak, instituted specialized classes designed to spotlight the challenges, achievements, sociocultural distinctions, and critical scholarship of BIPOC individuals, groups, and organizations. Needless to say, many of these resorts, or alternatives, met with much resistance by the dominant scholastic culture. Programs in Black, Chicano/Latino, Native American, and Asian Studies were significantly marginalized, unsupported, underfunded, mocked, ignored, and truncated or discontinued.
In one university where I taught, I chaired a committee that established a Black Studies minor. At the same time, there was developed a Woman’s Studies minor. The following fall, as the two minors commenced, a group of us on the two separate committees went to the new president’s meet-and-greet gathering. We were eager to share what we had accomplished. After we had exchanged hellos, we introduced him to the two minor programs. Without any hesitancy whatsoever, that new president responded that he did not like “specialty” classes in the curriculum! His unashamed expression of sheer ignorance and reflexive stupidity initially astounded us despite our visceral understanding of the pervasiveness of such insipid disinterest! In spite of his pet peeves, both the programs still exist today and he is no longer president!
At yet another postsecondary institution, I chaired a committee to form an American Ethnic Studies Minor. It passed all the required curricular hurdles and became an official academic program. However, when it came for a coordinator to be assigned to oversee and market the minor, none was assigned. The committee had recommended me for the coordinator, but because I was an administrator in another division and an adjunct faculty, I technically did not qualify. For two years, there was no coordinator named, and this inattention led to the removal of the program within two-and-a-half years! It was clear that many did not wish the program to succeed.
When I was a student at Boston University in the mid-to-late 1980s, I had the privilege of becoming friends with the renowned scholar-activist Howard Zinn. I took a graduate seminar with him called Politics and History, and we worked together on Free South Africa movement activities outside of the classroom. In the course, we discussed how the writing of history is often based on the author’s perceptions in addition to scholarship. One reason why he wrote A People’s History of the United States is because he found much scholarship to ignore the role of traditionally underrepresented groups in the making of U.S. history and the concomitant failure of interweaving their roles into the developing tapestry of this nation. It is necessary, he averred, to learn the conditions, cultural expressions, worldviews, and perspectives of those oppressed, exploited, and marginalized—yet the mechanisms by which they survived and contributed masterfully in the creative processes over time. Would that there were more like Zinn in the academy as far as submitting a comprehensive view of our variegated past is concerned!
Currently, there is a negative ideological thrust that is trending in our extremely divisive society and culture. Specifically, there is an intensification of notions of white supremacy and nationalism. Whereas we know these ways of thinking are puerile, crass, foolhardy, and inept, we are also aware that actions emanating from these distortions can be violent, insidious, dangerous, and destructive of living peaceably together—especially if people are radicalized by such lies and self-serving propaganda. What is equally disturbing is the continuous denial of historical facts that inevitably place their “whiteness” in a terrible light. Concealing the truth because it is shameful and causes some to feel guilty does not validate such silence. The truth must be confronted: addressed and, hopefully, redressed.
For example, it is ludicrous to claim there has not been any institutional and systemic racism in our past and that subsists until today. The disparities in the quality-of-life indices among racial and ethnic minorities are sufficiently researched that it is downright nonsensical to refute the evidence. The reality of past and present is transparently clear. A basic course in sociology would establish in rudimentary fashion the structures, processes, policies, and services that manifest the machinations of racial and ethnic discrimination and comprise the very definition of systemic! The way our foundational xenophobia is exhibited in our daily lives is the warp and woof of interpersonal relationships and the organizing of social institutions.
Perhaps, a slight digression will be instructive. Male chauvinism in one sense is expressed by beliefs that females are relegated to certain sectors in our society and not to others. If men believe women are frail, nurturing, unintelligent, emotional, and desirous of fulfilling men’s lusts, then it isn’t a leap to ascertain why women were considered property, could not vote, were not afforded formal education, and told they needed to be homemakers—but if they worked away from home, they did not deserve the same pay as their male counterparts who simply performed the same or equivalent duties. When the prejudicial views of women devolve into patterns of oppression as delineated above, the perduring and pervasive result of such suppression is called “systemic.” To deny systemic sexism in this country is naive and stupid, on the one hand, or deceitful and malicious, on the other hand. Such denials are lies for they misrepresent reality.
In The Life of Reason published in 1905, George Santayana asserts, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That happens a lot as we go through cycles of hateful views of specific others. The perpetrators and circumstances can be different, but the developing dynamics are frequently very similar. We need to learn from the illogic of our past fraught with the objectification of other human beings and change the way we behave presently and in the future. The sustaining of old prejudices because we do not understand or appreciate history often results in new expressions of hate that reflect Mark Twain’s nuanced aphorism: “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Or another saying that complements it: “If you tell truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
Until the day arrives when traditionally underrepresented groups are fully integrated into the national story found in already established curricula, there remains a need to educate future generations by making available programs of study that incorporate the whole truth. Such studies must be fully accredited and carry as much value and weight as any comparable sleight of classes.
Stop the fear-mongering and the vicious omission of facets that further define and make more accurate the content of social studies courses! All learners of the whole story will be more knowledgeable, well-versed, competent and astute than their predecessors and contemporaries devoid of the whole reality. Ultimately, the true story about this country will be grasped and appreciated more and more, and as a result, the sad repetition of our hateful past will disappear and we will be gratefully challenged by new rhymes!