Reflections on a #WhiteCurriculum

Zhaleh Boyd

“There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” -Junot Diaz

In 7th grade, my favorite teacher distributed a handout on Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World. Actually — let me be truthful: the handout stated that Virginia Dare was the first child born in the New World. I knew this to be false, but that is not why I raised my hand. When I was called upon, I said, “We already learned about Virginia Dare last year and the year before, and also in second grade. Is there someone else we can learn about instead?” I was threatened with detention and sent out into the hall.

Although I had been carefully educated and instructed by my parents on challenging the public education canon, and did so on a regular basis, this experience stuck in my memory with a clarity and persistence that I did not understand until recently. It represented an aspect of what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as ‘the single story’ that I had not yet considered: that white people, too, felt helpless and hindered by a curriculum based solely in whiteness.
My teacher could only have responded to me in anger for a few reasons: a) she has a real or perceived connection to Virginia Dare that makes her believe that we should learn the same few facts about her every year for as many years as possible; b) regardless of what the lesson is, no student should ever ask to learn anything outside of the day’s lesson plan; c) she knew this lesson was rehashed, knew we deserved to learn about as many interesting persons as possible, but also knew she was not allowed to stray from the canon, and lashed out in embarrassment. Based on what I know of her character from spending 20 days per month with her for 9 months, I have decided that option c) is the most likely answer. My teacher was probably tired of teaching about Virginia Dare. Being the history buff that she was, perhaps she had a long list of notable figures she wanted to teach us about who were also tragically but systematically erased from 7th grade social studies curriculum. It is entirely possible that my favorite teacher was just as frustrated as I.

Canonical curriculum, which comprises a set of narratives communicated through media propaganda (which includes state-compiled and -approved textbooks and accredited courses) to the masses. It gives rise to a very narrow and particular epistemology designed to maintain control of information, of knowledge, of history, of society, and of self. Whiteness, in the singular way in which it was constructed, is itself an bastardization of a wide variety of European cultures; it is itself a distorted reflection. It can only give rise to a monstrous curriculum.

There is currently a movement on both sides of the Atlantic in which university students are demanding more manifestations of racial equality on their campuses. They are urging their institutions of higher learning to actually lead society in cultivating safe spaces for higher levels of conversation around racial equality. What started as youtube videos of organized campus protests developed into mini-documentaries of Black experiences of otherness on university campuses. The I, too, tumblr campaign was begun at Harvard, and inspired similar tumblr campaigns at Princeton, Cambridge, NYU, UW Madison, Oxford, Berkeley, Iowa and a host of other colleges and universities across the US and the UK. These gave rise to mini-docs that examined some of the recurring themes present in the I, too, compilations in greater detail.

This mini-doc, for example, examines how Black students at Harvard construct spaces for themselves within the Harvard community.

Absent from the Academy” unpacks the impact and reproduction of the dearth of diversity among UK academia.

“Raina’s doc,” done at Columbia College Chicago, discusses the experiences of Black students processing the lack of mentorship and diverse curriculum in the film program.

At University College of London, a notable movement gathered strength around a groundbreaking forum convened by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, PhD, entitled “Why isn’t my professor black?” The panel discussion sought to address the underrepresentation of Black professors in UK academia. The event announcement reads:

There are just 85 black professors out of 18,510 in the UK and the number has barely changed in eight years. The percent of black professors (0.4%) shows a striking disparity with the proportion of black students, which has increased steadily each year and now stands at 6%.

As the conversation developed, it became clear that several issues were at the forefront of restricting Black intellectuals from academia; namely, the reproduction of whiteness and the notion of white supremacy within academic traditions. The exclusion of identity groups not associated with whiteness within academia has extremely far-reaching repercussions. It means not only not having Black professors; it means:

a higher likelihood of not being exposed to contributions by non-white thinkers
a higher likelihood of not valuing contributions by non-white thinkers
a loss of opportunity for balanced intellectual growth and stimulation
the mainstreaming of a narrower perspective on the world
characterizing academic thought as not ‘for’ thinkers from other traditions
limiting the breadth and profundity of classroom discussions
raising up generation after generation of students fed a limited epistemology
fostering the myth of white epistemological superiority
cultivating a false connection between overrepresentation and superiority
cultivating a false connection between underrepresentation and inferiority
alienating students that value concepts and ideas not espoused by a white curriculum
silencing students who perceive that their ideas will not be received as valuable

—to name a few.

This conversation grabbed me. I thought immediately of my favorite 7th grade teacher and that one day she lashed out at me. I thought also about my 8th grade history teacher, who, when I asked why there were no Black or Native people in our lessons, responded, “oh we talked about Dr. King, but you were absent that day.” I thought about my 5th grade teacher who required that we memorize the definition of ‘continent’ and memorize the names of all the continents, but refused to explain why Europe was named but did not fit the definition. I thought about the director of my undergraduate English department, who told my classmate that he could not do his analysis on the works of Tupac Shakur because he was not a poet. I thought of the joy I experienced during an entire semester of an English lit class entitled, simply and perfectly, “Baldwin.” I thought of how I’d been told my whole life that Africans were illiterate; that “ours was an oral tradition,” despite the fact that humankind’s first university was in the Kingdom of Mali, and that millions of texts from its libraries remain, to this day, in Timbuktu. I thought of my professor during my masters, who devoted an entire section of a lesson to discussing the “positive effects of colonialism,” which included cross-cultural communication — as if far-flung peoples had not been communicating across cultures for centuries. I thought of a million gaps and inconsistencies throughout my formal education, and the fears people exhibited when I questioned them.

I thought of how unnecessary it is for fear and curriculum to be so associated.

Dr. Coleman spearheaded a project to examine the issue of a curriculum that reproduces white supremacy, and invited me to participate. The result was this mini-documentary, entitled “Why is my curriculum white?” It brings together students and faculty in examining how they’ve personally, educationally and professionally been impacted by a curriculum based in whiteness, and sharing ideas for a greater epistemological inclusivity.

Now, as our languages and plants and animals and viruses and bacteria and ice disappear at alarmingly accelerated rates, we are perhaps in the best space in 500 years to re-imagine our approaches to life on Earth. We have accomplished amazing feats based on a single epistemology; and while I shudder to consider all the opportunities we have ignored, I am heartened to consider the dimensions we are on the brink of exploring more completely.

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