This past October I sat in the assembly room of my children’s primary school for the Year 1 presentation for parents. After a group of children in animal masks told us about their visit to the farm, and a few songs, another group of children came to the forefront of the stage to act out the story of Rosa Parks. Eight chairs had been arranged in pairs of two, to simulate the Alabama bus. Four black children sat in the back chairs. Two white boys had been chosen to play the police officers. They boys were smiling and fiddling with their police caps throughout the performance, clearly pleased to be wearing them. Both they and the small Rosa Parks appeared to enjoy the scene when they bundled her off to the imaginary jail at the back of the stage. In the end Rosa was released and the narrator told us something to the effect that, thanks to Rosa, we can all sit on the bus together now.
Seeing these small children on the pretend bus reenacting Jim Crow was a fairly surreal experience. On the one hand, I felt sure that if Rosa Parks, sitting in her jail cell in 1955, could have somehow seen that in the distant future and across the ocean, black and white and brown children, who play and learn together, would be taught to celebrate her act , she would have felt some sense of gratification. Yet, the lighthearted tone of the play, recorded by smiling adults on their iPhones, so completely extracted the brutality of Jim Crow that it was barely recognizable in historical terms. And, in particular, the resolution was so neat and positive that it essentially dissolved any relevance the story of Parks’ struggle might have for the present. While the true horror of such painful histories may need to be sanitized to some extent for children to engage with them, in this case, I wondered what exactly was the lesson they were learning. This brief moment in one South London school, I believe, reflects broader difficulties with the way histories of racism and resistance are rendered in mainstream and educational discourses.
We would hope that the incorporation of Civil Rights figures into national curriculums in both the US and the UK would signal the institutionalization of the equality that the movement fought for. Yet, in the United States, glowing narratives of individuals now construed as American heroes are evoked to deny racism as easily as they are to fight against it. The Republican National Congress was recently and deservedly mocked for tweeting their remembrance of Rosa Parks, commemorating her ‘bold stand and role in ending racism.’ After a barrage of ridicule, the tweet was changed to say that Parks contributed ‘to the fight to end racism.’ Nevertheless the first version betrays a belief central to much of right-wing American politics – that racism has, in fact, ended – that it ceased to exist after the legal foundation of segregation was dismantled. The problem is not, of course, that stories of civil rights heroes become well known but the way in which the conception of what ‘real’ racism is – or more to the point what it was – has ossified around them.
The teachers in my son’s school do not have the cynical intentions of the Republican party. But through an entirely different sort of motivation – the desire to tell children a story in a simple way with a happy ending – Parks’ struggle was construed as a finished product and racism was implicitly presented as something long ago and far away. The story was told in a manner to confirm the rightness of the present (‘we can all sit on the bus together now’ –itself an ahistorical assertion as transportation in the UK was never segregated) rather than inviting reflection upon the ways in which our here and now might be changed for the better or the ways in which structures of authority can sometimes be unjust. Of course, these sorts of reflections can be difficult to encourage in a school system that is itself shaped by entrenched social inequality and which has continued to reinforce it, despite the good intentions of many educators.
Unsurprisingly, Parks’s subversive and confrontational act becomes notably de-politicised in its popular telling in institutional settings. My son’s class was taught the same version of the story that I remember growing up with. Rosa, the story goes, was too weary to stand up; her feet hurt after a long day at work. Through the soft-focus of mainstream historical cannon, the central image is of a gentle, older woman keeping her seat out of weariness rather than resolute defiance. Frequently left out of this familiar narrative is that Parks was a trained political activist who had already been participating in the ongoing organized struggle for black civil rights. As Parks herself later insisted, she was not physically tired when she refused to move. Far from meekly pleading about her aching feet to the policeman who arrested her, she challenged him with the question, ‘Why do you all push us around?’ When it comes to memorializing black resistance, even resistance against conditions now universally repudiated, the suffering of the oppressed remains infinitely more palatable for mass consumption than their anger.
The manner in which these histories are embedded in the broader curriculum pose even deeper problems than the filing away of their sharp, potentially subversive, edges. As has long been noted, in both US and British schools, slavery and racism – when they are discussed at all – are often conflated with black history, essentially reducing one to the other. Recently, campaigners successfully lobbied against the removal of Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum, pointing out that she was the only black historical figure that students would learn about whose story was not linked to civil rights struggles or slavery. This reduction of black people’s historical experience and historical importance to racism and enslavement — even when these phenomena are unequivocally condemned as moral evils — reinforces deep and long-running discourses which construct the presence of black peoples as socially aberrant and disruptive. In her research documenting the experiences of Afro-Carribean students, Kay Traille has noted that narratives of history taught in schools, in which black people are often presented as abject and victimized, reinforce notions of black people as a ‘problem’ people. She found that many Afro-Caribbean students felt hurt, angry, bewildered, and excluded after lessons in which they were supposedly being taught their ancestors’ history.
An underlying assumption, if often unspoken, in the understanding of racism and slavery as ‘Things That Have Happened to Black People’ is that -as ‘black problems’ –these things have been caused by black people’s supposed difference from white people. Whether in the form of explicit doctrines of black inferiority or more liberal laments about ‘intolerance’, blackness itself, either in its pathology or in the regrettable reaction that it somehow incurs in unenlightened white people, becomes the explanation for inequality and oppression. As the historian Barbara Fields has written, such interpretations substitute ‘race’ for ‘racism’, ‘transforming the act of a subject into an attribute of an object.’ In other words, she writes, ‘disguised as race, racism becomes something that Afro-Americans are rather than something racists do’ (p.96-97).
Of course, the flip side of reducing black people’s history to slavery and racism is that it effectively removes them from everyone else’s history. Racism and slavery are seen as historically relevant as the tragedy of their victims, rather than as vast and pervasive global institutions that have been economically, politically and ideologically central to the making of the modern world. Reflecting the fact that racism is largely conceptualized as a ‘black problem’, it is significant, that in education as well as much public discourse there is a greater focus on the experience of and resistance to racism rather than the causes and conditions of its emergence. When Nelson Mandela died, I asked my older son what he learned about him in school. That Mandela was a good man and a great leader, he duly reported, because he tried to make things more equal and he didn’t try to get revenge (see above about the mainstream distaste for black anger). What had he learned about apartheid, I wondered? Did he know why ‘things’ in South Africa needed to be ‘more equal’ in the first place? Well, he replied, he knew that the white people there were bad and Miss had said that they had very stupid ideas. Of course I want my 8-year-old to think that ideas of racial supremacy are ‘stupid’ and that their implementation is ‘bad’, but I also want him to understand that systems like apartheid do not arise from the waywardness of a few evil people in some far off place.
Children may learn about Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela in lessons about black history, but in their ‘regular’ world history lessons, will they learn, for example, how and why the United States or South Africa designed and implemented systems that enforced economic, social and political inequality? These are the stories that are far more complicated to tell. It is easy to understand why Rosa Parks did not want to give up her seat. It is far more difficult to understand how it came to be that anyone had the legal right, sanctioned by the Supreme Court, to make her stand up.
Lack of attention to such questions has had distinct consequences for our understanding of racism. Zygmunt Bauman’s observations about the manner in which the Holocaust has been collectively memorialized are useful here. Bauman argues that the Nazi genocide is widely seen as the malfunctioning of modernity, a lapse in which the forces of enlightened civilization couldn’t repress humanity’s latent violent urges – in short, the Holocaust is seen as ‘a failure, not a product, of modernity’ (p.5). Similarly, without an examination of the specific material conditions in which it arises, racism is often understood as a problem rooted in our human nature rather than the modern and ‘advanced’ social arrangements we have constructed. It is perceived as some primal, innate animal urge to hate or fear those who are ‘different’, which occasionally leaks through the cracks of our social structures, despite all best efforts. The late Stuart Hall eloquently refuted this, as he called it,
‘racial itch’ theory: ‘Appeals to human nature are not explanations; they are an alibi’ (p.338).
Like all aspects of life, children learn as much as from what we don’t say as from what we articulate. If we never even attempt to explain why unjust systems of inequality come to exist, we implicitly teach our children that no explanation is required, no questions need be asked. Even if we vocally condemn oppressive institutions and hateful philosophies as immoral or unjust, we may assert with our silence that they are, after all, only natural. Teaching our children to refuse all alibis and to critically investigate the ways in which our societies have produced and reproduced oppression would render us unable to offer them the refuge of happy endings. But ultimately we can give them the conviction that racism, though powerful and present, doesn’t have to be inevitable.
Margarita Aragon is a sociologist whose research focuses on histories of racism, and in particular on the experiences of Mexican and African Americans in the United States. She recently completed her PhD at Goldsmiths College in London and is the mother of three young children.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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