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Racist Curricula in the 21st Century Do Exist

Racist Curricula in the 21st Century Do Exist

Any curriculum, even the most enlightened, has traces of racism. This is simply because we all have biases that come through in multiple ways. Our responsibility as educators is to be critically self-reflective and continuously monitor ourselves, our work, and our interactions with both the students we teach and those around us.

Invariably, believing we are culturally and linguistically responsive and sustaining is an indication that we still have work to do. This is because we are always in a state of becoming. New experiences and knowledge expand our ways of thinking and intersect with our lived experiences making the familiar strange. This is true for individuals and curriculum. That is why continuous critical self-reflection is essential as it affords us the opportunity to negotiate uncomfortable and challenging spaces, experiences, and interactions. It is through this disruption that we learn.

As Jerome Bruner notes “knowledge is not point of viewless.” Thus, as an educator, when I look at various curricula, in addition to examining the materials, I ask myself several questions:

  • What am I bringing to the curriculum?
  • Have I identified my biases? My assumptions? My preconceived ideas?
  • Without answering these questions early and often, how can I give my students inclusive spaces to learn and grow?

Learning requires a space where we can be brave enough to have difficult conversations and challenge ourselves to discuss and explore our own biases—while also feeling supported and heard. As uncomfortable as cognitive dissonance is, it is essential for learning to take place. 

What does a racist curriculum look like?

It is one that is written from a single frame of reference, specifically from a dominant group or viewpoint. It is a curriculum that presents diverse individuals as less than or in which those that differ are disturbingly absent, misrepresented, and/or silent. As educators we have a responsibility to consider whether our students who look, sound, or learn differently are represented in every aspect of the classroom.

Racist curricula are dangerous because they further the status quo in which the dominant group retains its power and privilege. These overt and covert practices are pervasive and inevitably have lifelong impacts on young people. But the implications are vast even beyond PK-12 environments.  Long lasting inequities become internalized and normalized influencing day-to-day interactions. Many times, these biases seep out into society in various incarnations and are experiences in a variety of interactions—purchasing a home, applying for a loan, seeking a promotion, the list goes on. Because these biases become so ingrained, teachers need to be armed with the tools to provide a counter narrative and subsequently act upon injustices. This means ensuring an inclusive and equitable learning environment that facilitates our students’ growth and development as critically aware individuals.  This is essential given that our experiences shape our sense of self and others.

As a teacher, am I ensuring that the students in my classroom are represented by the curriculum I am provided to teach? Is representation within the curriculum expansive and inclusive? Are these young people reading about individuals like them—individuals who share similar backgrounds, journeys, successes, and struggles? Are they learning about their ancestors’ contributions to mankind? But curriculum is more than the knowledge and skills students are expected to master as presented in textbooks. It also pertains to knowledge gained in various other ways such as the manner in which we apply disciplinary practices, identify gifted and talented students, engage with parents from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, as well as the null curriculum, or that which is left out as what is not said also speaks volumes.  We must look at the whole picture of what takes place within our educational settings in order to make change—real change.

But how?

I still have complete faith that the role of education is to make this world a better place. It comes down to accountability in ensuring that what we do is inclusive and equitable throughout our curriculum practices. In addition to being critically self-reflective, we need to act. Educators must be willing to stand firm and be a real advocate for change while recognizing that what they have believed for years, may not be in the best interest of their classrooms or society at large. I would like to see more teachers stand up when something is wrong, and have the tough, awkward conversations about inequity and racism with their peers, superiors, and students. Are we brave enough to stand up for what is right? This is a complex question and one that is not easily answered. But it is one that must be seriously considered when an individual enters the world of education. Analyze, critique, and design curricula to be inclusive and anti-racist. This is increasingly important given that the curriculum has become more prescriptive. 

Offering a safe brave space

I came across several articles recently that spoke about brave rather than safe spaces.  A safe space is one in which there is no danger or risk. But as we already determined, learning is fraught with risk, and difficult and challenging conversations are often distressing.  With brave conversations, it is likely that someone will get hurt or offended; that is part of learning. In a brave space, we are willing to be vulnerable and acknowledge that we have much to learn about bias, prejudice, and racism.

Our role as educators is not to tell students what to think; rather, we have a responsibility to teach them how to think. I want students to be aware enough to analyze and critique what they see as they engage with the world and then to act. We do this by bringing something new to the learning environment that awakens students to a new way of thinking, seeing, or feeling. This is the gift we give our students. 

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Patricia Alvarez McHatton

Dean of the College of Education and P-16 Integration at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley