The White Teacher's Civil Rights Hero

The role of white narration in American history classes

Within spaces of white privilege, an unspoken fear is the consequences of perceived racism. In professional spaces, a bigoted phrase, a harmful action, or using the word we all fear most has inexplicable power. For children growing up in liberal spaces, education is the solution. From a young age, I was exposed to a variety of different speakers and writers within the Civil Rights Movement, in hopes that I would never end up as a racist. In reflection, I realize that a large majority of my education was to prevent a mistake on my part, to protect my future, instead of being about the pursuit of true knowledge. This is because fear, fear of being called a racist, fear of cancel culture does drive the majority of educational spaces.

In my history classes, the majority of my history teachers who stood at the whiteboard were white themselves. Early on, I was taught about Martin Luther King, in a sort of fantastical way. He was praised in all of my classes, for the way that he chose unification, a path of nonviolence and love. It never occurred to me to ask the question, why did he not choose violence? It wasn’t until later years when I discovered Civil Rights leaders that had been muffled in high school classrooms for their “radical” methods of protest. Martin Luther King was praised for his ability to bring people together. White teachers gave him an all-knowing god-like reputation. What about those who were violent? Weren’t their methods equally justified? In the face of white narration, these methods were never acceptable. The classroom praises those Civil Rights heroes that forgave years of oppression and called for love in the face of hate. Can hate and violence be justified? Can separatism be a viable argument? I believe so. 

One of the most radical and oversimplified Civil Rights figures is Malcolm X. Commonly flattened for the role of violence and separatism in his beliefs, Malcolm X is dismissed in the young learner’s classroom. Part of his activism argued that black Americans needed an entirely separate nation, explaining that “if you love revolution, you love black nationalism.” In the time of the Civil Rights Movement, his ideals targeted white insecurity. This is also true today. In a sense, white Americans feel less attacked by the protest methods of Martin Luther King because there is a level of forgiveness. Malcolm X speaks with justified anger and distrust. 

Whether it is “right” that Martin Luther King highlights forgiveness and Malcolm X does not is less important in modern discussion. The white response to their protest is the most inherently revealing aspect. Malcolm X holds white society accountable, at a level that makes educational spaces uncomfortable. Teachers don’t want to highlight what is beyond the surface. All of my teachers were able to admit that slave owners acted with malevolence and hatred, but Malcolm X to them was an angry and disgruntled protester. What allows the distinction? I believe it is the ability to reach beyond what is socially acceptable. We as a society have accepted that slave owners were bad, at least in most educated spaces. There is another level of accountability required to entertain the possibility that Malcolm X was justified in his separatist mindset. White discomfort leaves Malcolm X out of classes, making him a short paragraph in a textbook whilst Martin Luther King takes up an entire chapter. 

Another Civil Rights figure, James Baldwin, said in his novel The Fire Next Time, “it takes great spiritual resistance to not hate the hater whose foot is on your neck.” He speaks of a maturity that is praised in our modern society. Baldwin and Martin Luther King identified that “the white man came to the Negro for love,” and were able to find sympathy for the hatefulness of white Americans in their lifetime. However, I believe it is important that we justify the opposite response. Are hatred and anger not valid responses? Now, it is not necessary that we agree with the outcome of Malcolm X’s sentiments, nor the methods that he suggested. However, all reactions to systemic racism must be justified and explored by our educational system. There lies epistemic danger when we limit the presentation of all ideas. Bias is inherent in everything we do, but there must be a conscious effort to eliminate it within high school and elementary schools across America. By doing so, we give children the ability to think and reason critically, not just the ability to recite what they’ve been taught. 

There is a needed shift within liberal education in America. We must stop educating children to respond within a pre-approved dialect. The presence of fear and “saying the right thing,” nearly always takes precedence over learning. There will be moments that we are racist, that we make bigoted statements, or act with implicit biases. However, when we take away the power of cancel culture, stop focusing on what we are saying, and instead on the meaning behind it, productive discussion can begin. 

References:

1) The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

2) “Message to the Grass Roots” by Malcolm X

3) https://www.watchtheyard.com/history/listen-james-baldwin-debate-malcolm-x-black-identity-1963/