In a recent Education Trust report, researchers discovered a significant absence of racial representation in many high-quality and highly rigorous texts. This lack extended to themes, characters, and authors. According to the report, as per Ed Week:
- White authors and characters were significantly more prevalent than authors and characters from any other racial or ethnic background.
- Nearly half of the people of color featured in the studied books were one-dimensional, portrayed negatively, or lacked agency.
- Books that included groups and cultures of color often perpetuated stereotypes, disconnected culture from individual people, or depicted these groups as inferior or unequal to others.
- When historical and social topics were covered, they were almost always sanitized, told from a single perspective, or detached from the structural realities.
Tanji Reed Marshall, Director of P-12 Practice for Education Trust, commented, “I think what was bothersome … is the limited representation of people of color, of cultures holistically, and the ways in which important topics are just completely sanitized… They really have this kind of intellectual condescension towards small and young children.”
The ongoing struggle against Black history and Black studies, as well as other subjects deemed divisive and accusatory by political conservatives, bears responsibility for this deficiency. Recognizing the issue itself is the first step in addressing it.
To rectify this, policymakers and educators must embrace culturally relevant, high-quality texts, which political conservatives often label as controversial or “woke” because they reveal uncomfortable truths. Books concerning Black history shed light on uncomfortable realities about the United States, often touching upon topics like slavery, Jim Crow, and more. Consequently, explaining the historical context of these terms and related concepts, such as white supremacy, systemic racism, and racial capitalism, becomes necessary.
Take, for example, John Lewis’s graphic novel about the March on Selma, a text that delves into intricate issues designed to provoke thoughtful reactions, reflections, and analysis.
Books like these achieve several objectives. They challenge the reader’s perspective, presenting situations and circumstances that prompt a fresh view into previously unexplored territories. This exposure encourages critical thinking as students grapple with the meanings and impacts of real issues within the narrative. Moreover, students expand their vocabulary as they encounter new terms, enriching their conversational abilities. These elements often culminate in inspiring action, not necessarily in the form of protests or civil disobedience, but within their personal lives and relationships.
In this process, students acquire new knowledge—academic, societal, and self-awareness. Books have the power to motivate action and promote change, encouraging young people to do what’s right both in the context of school and society.
Reading books about figures like MLK, Harriet Tubman, John Lewis, Shirley Chisholm, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, or Carter G. Woodson stimulates discussions and reflections that prompt educators to address injustice, molding young individuals into advocates for justice. These texts also shed light on the fact that doing what’s right can disrupt the status quo and challenge oppression, often causing discomfort.
Teaching children to do what’s right within the bounds of maintaining order is commonplace, but instilling the belief that they can disrupt the status quo for the sake of justice is a political act. This highlights another unmentioned issue: white teachers may find it difficult or choose not to extract, teach, and discuss uncomfortable themes found in culturally relevant texts.
Perhaps these teachers are uncomfortable discussing these topics due to a lack of knowledge. Maybe they question their students’ ability to handle challenging conversations. Some may disagree or hold conservative views, while others might fear losing their jobs.
Regardless of the reasons, teachers must recognize that authors of color, particularly Black authors, write from a perspective of liberation. Their words are intended to empower and liberate readers like themselves in a systemically racist and anti-Black society. Teachers should not hesitate to explore these themes in books and encourage discussion. If teachers don’t initiate these conversations, how will students learn the truth and confront issues of justice?
While parents and community stakeholders can certainly educate students about history and liberation using culturally relevant texts, schools must do more than mold good citizens. They should foster young individuals who, as adults, contribute to society guided by the conviction of truth. This begins with educators confronting their own biases and racism.
If we want young people to engage with higher-level and quality curricula and texts, we must practice what we preach and expose ourselves to the truth.