The Effects Whitewashing History has proven to have on Developing Students of Color

Sofia Prieto BlACK

As a new school year approaches, districts across the U.S. might want to reconsider history classes’ curriculum.  In a New York Times Magazine article, written in 2019, reporter Nikita Stewart found that U.S. states are not required to adhere to any academic content standards for history courses. As a result, many schools teach a white-washed version of history, effacing the existence of certain historical events and/or occurrences that center non-white perspectives and ones where people of color play a significant historical role. 

I believe the young adults of this nation are not being armed with the information they need to be productive citizens of a democratic society. Though if they are taught to become critical against the system, I think true change will occur and therefore this new generation will be able to make educated decisions at the polls and in their general day-to-day lives. 

I decided to interview Allison Cota, a Piedmont High U.S. History and AP Psychology teacher, to get her perspective on how erasing or neglecting components of U.S. history affects students of color. 

The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.

Sofia Prieto Black: As a psychology and history teacher, how are you trying to better educate others on the subjects you are passionate about? 

Allison Cota: I see my role as a U.S. History teacher to be more directly in line with your question. I place social justice standards at the center of the curriculum, and I introduce students to an inclusive history that integrates voices from a wide variety of demographic groups all throughout the year, not just in a single unit or month. We work together to understand our nation’s complex narrative, which includes both progress and decline in pursuit of our stated values of liberty, equality, and democracy.

SPB: How would you define erasing or whitewashing history? 

AC: We often talk about the dominant narrative in historical spheres where we ask ourselves, “who wrote this story, this narrative, this book.” It’s always been, white people. In the 1970s, we started to see a TON of books produced that really brought a new thought to African studies, black liberation, but that is not what was happening on the smaller levels in schools. That wasn’t happening yet for Asian stories, Native Americans, and other minorities in our country. There were only white authors, white narratives, and a continuation of colonization studies (that of the celebration of the colonizer, not the colonized) that continues today. 

SPB: Why might this be problematic?

AC: If you only learned about the celebration of the American Revolution and the expansion towards the West, but you never learned about the indigenous cultures, languages, and history–you’d think that there was NO ONE else in the United States in the 1600s. Then you have generations of children who become adults and have NO idea about real history. If you don’t know the history–then you won’t care about the present. Why would an adult care about the water issues for the Navajo Tribes if they don’t even know who the Navajo people are? Further, if you only talk about indigenous cultures as if they were passed, then you wouldn’t know about the hundreds of thousands of indigenous people who still live in tribes all around North America. It creates such a disconnect, that there is nothing left for empathy or for growth. 

SPB: How often have you seen specific and very significant pieces of information left out from textbooks? 

AC: This is something that differs from state to state. Most of the big textbook companies are in Texas…so they reflect a ton of conservative [and] surface-level information. In California, they have a review committee that promotes certain textbooks, books, and curriculum guides over others. 

The Trail of Tears is one of the most commonly butchered topics in American textbooks. Besides that, the criminalization of black protests during the Civil Rights Era is another that is done poorly. They write things like “it was good for the Native Americans to move West so that they wouldn’t be subjected to having to live amongst the new White cultures of the 1800s.” Or they will say, “there were good protestors and bad protestors–the good ones were MLK, and the bad ones were Malcolm X.” If you are a persecuted person, there is no good or bad way to protest…only protest. 

SPB: Why might companies be doing this? 

AC: Everyone has an agenda to fill. I also have an agenda as a teacher–to create well-rounded informed young adults who love to uncover the truth. Textbook companies have an agenda because they are lobbied to promote and print certain information. Through that money, they are able to have a monopoly on the printing of textbooks. There are people out there who are afraid that if Americans know real American history that they will not be patriotic, so they continue to feed the masses a watered-down version of history. 

SPB: What’s the impact, for students, of missing these pieces of history? 

AC: I think it’s important for students to see themselves (and their ancestors) in the curriculum they study and to understand the relevance of the past to their own lives. When connections of this sort are made, it not only makes the content easier to remember but allows for deeper understanding. But more importantly, when young people see themselves represented in the curriculum, they will hopefully internalize the truth that courageous, intelligent, and innovative people of color were/are absolutely essential to the story of our nation.  Conversely, when history is “white-washed,” students might come to believe that their ancestors have not contributed in valuable ways, or worse, students might internalize the racist notion that the groups of which they are members are less than their white counterparts. 

There are numerous examples of this damage to the psyche, but perhaps none more well-known in Kenneth Clarke’s “Doll Test” which was used by Thurgood Marshall to demonstrate the destructive emotional legacy of segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education case. [“The results of the test showed that the majority of black children preferred the white dolls to the black dolls”.]Conversely, an event such as the election of Barack Obama was a watershed moment in that, for the first time, kids of color could see the presidency as a viable aspiration.

SPB: How are people of color, more specifically teens, directly affected by the whitewashing of history whether that means not fully learning about their background or simply not seeing themselves represented in what they learn about? 

AC: One of the major things I would like to point out about this question is that 79% of public school teachers are white… so already there is a disconnect between the students and their teacher. Since we know that representation matters, students of color are not seeing themselves reflected in their schools. This also presents itself in colleges. 

But in regards to curriculum, we know what happens. There is a greater resentment with students of color when they realize they aren’t equipped with their own history. What would it feel like to never know about people who look like you? Teachers are often very blind to their actions and forget that not everyone looks like them or even has the same interests. They have gone their whole life knowing the complexities of their heritage, their history, and their lineage… it’s empowering to be equipped with that knowledge. 

Knowing the struggles, the accomplishments, the language, the culture of your ethnic past is SO important. White kids are exposed to ethnic studies, but not students of color. Studies show that when white kids were exposed to these topics, they were more inquisitive, more empathetic, and more knowledgeable… so why wouldn’t that be the same for kids of color? This is a funding issue, [and] a teacher issue.

SPB: What would you say to a student of color who is currently experiencing these struggles? 

AC: I would advise these students to educate themselves about what they feel they should be learning so that they can effectively speak to their teachers and administrators (and even political representatives) to advocate for more inclusive history that includes narratives from more diverse individuals, readings authored by people of color, and assignments that invite personal connection and reflection. I would also encourage them to get involved in like-minded clubs and committees in their school and community that are actively engaged in this work or to establish their own organizations where they see the need. History teaches us that it has often been the passionate activism of young people that initiate meaningful change.

SPB: What do you suggest people do to take action and fix this problem? 

AC: For one, we need more kids of color to become teachers. It starts there. Especially in elementary schools. 

Secondly, we need parents to help us in this quest. Schools are not the only way for students to receive information. It really starts at home. From a young age, we must be exposing our children to all people and all cultures–and history starts at a young age, too. You don’t want to have to UNLEARN something, it’s best to learn it correctly the first time. If history is spoon-fed to our students at a young age, then they won’t be able to stop the cycle until they are adults. 

We could probably do away with textbooks altogether. If teachers change their curriculum to reflect more secondary and primary sources, then we wouldn’t need to unlearn things. We need to get big money out of our textbooks. We need to get the state curriculum to be more even for each state. Until then, it is up to the student to push their teachers to show them real history and do not take no for an answer.

SPB: Thank you so much for your time!

AC: No problem!