Learning about “American” ideologies, values, and identities in public schools
By | Yuri Kim
The brilliant Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reveals “The Danger of a Single Story” in her TED Talk of that name (2009). Adichie argues about how providing a single perspective leads to a narrative that is biased and exclusive. This kind of narrative affects young, impressionable minds that only the dominant White group contributed to America’s development, which then creates a culture of disbelonging. How can all students feel “American,” when historically that meant “White, Eurocentric American”? This is the reality of what US history classes enforce, which also affected me as an Asian American student.
When reflecting on my experience as a high school history student, I realize that whiteness dominated the space. From Eurocentric expectations of behavior to the White male–centered curriculum, the stories always emphasized my feelings of being a “perpetual stranger.” We would rarely hear stories about other racial/ethnic groups, even though many people of color contributed to American history. Students of color, like myself, have difficulty bonding with the content and feel constant alienation from the mainstream narrative of being “American.” We feel like we do not belong here, and we never have.
While trying to preach nationalism, people falsely describe a United States that has always done good things and that minority groups have always struggled and endured conflict. In the main article, Denver area community members argue how “schools can teach students how to understand themselves as individuals with identities that are not fundamentally antagonistic to being an American” (p. 2). Asian American students feel excluded or not “American” when their history is reduced to terrible working conditions for Chinese railroad workers, Japanese internment camps, and “yellow peril.” They grapple with feeling shame and lack of cultural pride for one’s identity when only negative stories are taught. Minority groups should not feel like their contributions to American history have always caused problems and tension.
As a teacher, is essential to provide multiple perspectives and a meaningful, honest history of the United States. With the reality that the “American past is neither deeply explored, nor explicitly connected to the American present” (p. 2), it is the responsibility of teachers to create connections to current events. History does not matter if educators teach about historical events without relating them back to the personal lives of students and present struggles of Americans of color. For example, when discussing territory issues between Mexico and the United States during the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, one must also connect that with the immigration controversy that is occuring at the southern border today. The teacher must discuss how the land once belonged to Mexico (after the Indigenous population) before it was forcefully sold to the United States. By providing this narrative, teachers can encourage the narrative that Mexican immigrants didn’t “invade” this country and that they are just as American as anyone else. Educators need to continuously link the past with the current reality that our students of color face in the outside world today.
Last, but not least, I want to address the expectations of educators to be inclusive and antiracist. Educators cannot just be diverse in their lesson plans, they need to be inclusive for every student to feel “American.” For example, it is not enough to mention the depressing negative histories of minorities; teachers need to offer positive, celebratory moments as well. This will create an environment of culturally responsive teaching and inclusivity as the norm. Then students can feel like there were people who looked like them that contributed to the America we have today. Consistent with the feelings of the Denver Metro–area community members, I believe it is the responsibility of White teachers to believe the racialized experiences of their students, incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices, and dismantle systems of whiteness. Too often, these expectations are put on the shoulders of the few teachers of color within schools. In order for real change to happen, the dominant group needs to intentionally advocate for their students of color by providing multiple perspectives, checking their own bias, and being inclusive of all groups.
It is obvious that I share the same sentiments as the Denver area community members. Being both a student and teacher of color, my experience in America’s educational system is truly reflected in this article. There should be a sense of urgency to reform current practices in our history classes because ultimately it is doing more harm than good. Schools can no longer preach a single story to their students; they need to address the complete history of the United States, with all the atrocities and minority contributions. Then students can feel a sense of belonging and solidify their place as an American. Once these changes occur, students can truly believe and reinforce American ideals of “equality for all.”
Adichie, C. N. (2009). The danger of a single story [Video]. TEDGlobal. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en
- Social Studies Teacher at Overland High School (Aurora, CO)
- Racial Equity Leader for Students Organized Against Racism (S.O.A.R.)
- Korean- American community member