I recently read a post called “Teaching White Privilege in Education: Is it Important?” on whitemomblog.com that has really had me thinking. She discusses a case from a Wisconsin school where a parent accused a teacher of teaching that minorities are disadvantaged by white oppressors and white people have special privileges. On an interview on fox news she said “They’re teaching white guilt”.
The article on whitemomblog.com took the side of the school saying:
“I did feel burdened. I felt guilty. I felt angry. I felt a lot of bad feelings about what it meant for me to be white. But then I got fired up. I read books I would have never read before, I watched documentaries, joined anti-racist organizations, and started asking more questions.”
This seems like a pretty innocuous testimony claiming simply that education leads to understanding and social justice, I have to disagree with the conclusion she reaches. This time I have to take the side of the parent.
While I suspect this mother’s motives were misplaced, I agree completely with the sentiment. Academia is not about teaching people to feel a certain way. Specifically in the field of history, my own field of study, right and wrong serves only to pollute argument, evidence, and truth. If a class chooses to teach all the ways in which white Americans mistreated black Americans through history that’s fine as long as it’s factual. If you want to study the social and economic inequalities of people of different races I take no issue. When you introduce guilt, shame, and responsibility into the curriculum you cross the line.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that would be a particularly helpful or comprehensive way of understanding history and culture. If you read a book like David Northrop’s Africa’s Discovery of Europe, you get a much more race neutral view of world history and the slave trade. Black warlords and imperialists captured enemy combatants as POWs and sold them to European and North American slave traders. African warlords also enslaved people of every race. Only when slavery arrives in the Americas is it a strictly black-and-white issue. This view of history, based on power and authority, leaves no room for white guilt, it demonstrates simply that people in positions of power will exert that power over others.
To ask whether or not teaching white privilege is a good thing is to make a methodological mistake. To find the truth, you begin with a question then try to answer it. Instead, both those who want to teach white guilt and to suppress it are starting with an emotional, cultural objective and then looking for a way to influence students to believe it. Canadian history is plagued with this kind of historical activism. We spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about women’s history, native history, black history, japanese history to appease political interest groups and create the kinds of people that we want to see. I say save it for the pulpit. Schools are for learning not for promoting the western, liberal-democratic, judeo-christian values of love for one’s neighbor.
I feel strongly about this methodology because I think that it doesn’t mean anything to be white. I think that to suggest that whiteness somehow led white cultures to oppress other ethnicities is as racist as it is to suggest that blackness made Africans predisposed to oppression. It’s a repulsive thought. Whites should no more feel guilt for the deeds of their forefathers than blacks should for selling their brother and sister Africans to european slave traders. You’re only responsible for your own actions.
But what do you think? I’m sure you’ve got opinions on this!