Are Our Children Safe From Cultural Incompetence?

I find it somewhat fascinating, as I find it infuriating, that there’s a lack of sensitivity concerning anti-Black racism in education spaces.

Certainly, our society should be very sensitive to the way anti-Black racism shows up directly and indirectly in the experiences of Black people, considering the history of this country. But in 2024, that isn’t the case. The constant attempt to prevent the teaching of Black history in schools is a common example.

What’s worse, however, is when educators fail to use the right judgment when attempting to execute learning.

The Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) put on a play earlier this year, during Black History Month called, And There Were None. It was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s popular mystery novel published in the UK in 1939, originally titled Ten Little N******—which drew inspiration from a minstrel song of the same name. The song title and contents were changed to “Ten Little Indians,” and later “Ten Little Soldiers.”

Understandably, there was outrage at the performance. In a letter to school and district officials, CAPA parents and students complained about the “racist, xenophobic, and violent content” in the production. In response, the school has agreed to host a town hall in April to address the concerns of the staging of the play.

On its face, one might question how such a play could be performed. If one saw the play before its presentation or read the story before its presentation, it might be judged to refrain from executing this in a school setting. But I can attest, that not every educator has a critical or sensitive eye concerning race/racism and their content.

Just last year, a colleague brought to my attention that in the hands of our music department was a sheet of minstrel music. Thankfully, the music, if it can be called such, hadn’t been performed by any of our students. Nevertheless, it remained in the department’s possession. My colleague and I informed district-level administration and it was promptly removed.

I can’t assume that this wouldn’t have reached the hands of our students. However, I’m glad that we were able to prevent that from happening. Nevertheless, it’s concerning that that content would be in the possession of our music department, considering that our student body has a sizable population of African American students.

Anti-Black racism can be found in the policies, procedures, and postures, in systems such as the criminal legal system, the health care system, and the public school system. Such policies, procedures, and postures are problematic and speak to the depths that racism is embedded in our society. When anti-Black racism appears in the mainstream of culture, like in popular forms of entertainment, it speaks to the core of what we value as people and what we don’t value.

That anti-Black racism appears in music and entertainment speaks specifically to the evaluation of Black people.

One can say that as a society, we don’t carry those views anymore. But that’s just false. As I mentioned earlier, our society is preventing the teaching of Black history. Not only that but civil rights and voting rights protections are being challenged regularly. Additionally, minstrelsy is not a thing of the past. There are modern examples of minstrelsy as in previous years.

To perform a play based on literature inspired by a minstrel song goes to show that culturally our society is not where it believes that it is.

Generally, the response to moments of anti-Black racism is to hold a conversation to “learn”. But more times than not these conversations don’t bring about any substantive change. I don’t mean to say that CAPA should not have this conversation amongst its community. I’m sure some things will come out of it in terms of an awareness of issues that can help chart a course forward for the school. But more often than not, these conversations are performative; they portray the urgency of action yet only serve to placate the aggrieved and things return to business as usual.

But we have to move beyond conversation to combat anti-Black racism.

It’s going to take a lot to change the minds and hearts of those who believe that Black people are inferior. It’s going to take a lot to change the cultural mindset of those who believe in the stereotypes that influence how Black people are viewed and treated. But we can change the policies, procedures, and approaches to how we do things.

Doing so in schools means having more Black people, aware of and dedicated to racial justice, in positions to make decisions to prevent things like this from happening. It also means inviting Black parents into the process or school processes to ensure that all stakeholders are being heard.

A creative license is something that all education institutions, specifically performing arts institutions, ought to have. But with that creative license responsibility; the responsibility of being aware of history and being sensitive to that history. An administrator once told me that when weighing a decision or a choice, if it is worth second-guessing, it is not worth going through with.

But if you do go through with it, you must prepare all those who will be impacted by what it is that you do. The reality is that the school shouldn’t have performed this play. But when the decision was made to do so, school officials should have followed the words of Temple University Professor Molefi Asante, that is talking:

“About the history of racism in Britain and America. You have to have some discussion about why this place is significant now. The Director of the opportunity to educate the students about the meaning of the play.”

Educators must be very mindful of how things can be perceived, even when there is value to lessons and activities. Racism can never be negotiated with. If one is about to engage in an activity that is considered racist, they likely should not engage in that activity. If they’re unsure, there should be an educator in the district to support in the decision-making process.

The school signed off on this, and if the school was unaware of what could be considered racist, that is an indictment on the school and the lack of “woke” people within the institution. It seems like there ought to be a set of protocols to prevent such things like this from happening. Then again, in America, racism is the protocol.


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