Every February, we eagerly celebrate Black History Month and tend to focus on the “firsts” – the first Black fill-in-the-blank. In White Fragility, Robin Diangelo uses Jackie Robinson as an example. We celebrate him as being the first Black man allowed to play major league baseball. A great achievement, right? But on page 26 of my paperback copy, she makes this eye-opening observation/statement:
“While Robinson was certainly an amazing baseball player, this story line depicts him as racially special, a Black man who broke the color line himself. The subtext is that Robinson finally had what it took to play with whites, as if no Black athlete before him was strong enough to compete at that level. Imagine if instead, the story went something like this: ‘Jackie Robinson, the first Black man whites allowed to play major league baseball.’”
Wow. Just let that sink in for a moment. In some ways, it is almost like a “duh” moment and seems so obvious. But think about how frequently we do not make that important distinction. In a sense, we are again whitewashing history, are we not?
Words are so important and the ones we choose to use as we shape our youth are almost more important.
Think back to the history you were taught as a child. Can you see now how we were indirectly taught to think this way about notable Black historical figures? How much would our perception of history be different today if descriptions like that second one about Jackie Robinson would have been used instead?
So now think about the history you are teaching to your students now. (And hopefully you are embracing Black History Month, but then also extending it throughout the year.) Take a hard look at how you are portraying those people. Evaluate the resources that you are using and figure out how to fill in the gaps. Outline additional discussions or estimate those resources that fall short.
We have a lot of work to do. What is the first step you can take?
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