In order to establish and implement new strategies of how to study and teach race in US History, we must first address the common ways in which race and law are addressed or not addressed in the classroom and recognize that in order to begin deconstructing the classroom, these practices must be challenged.
Colorblindness to History - The purpose of this seminar was to address and dismantle the notion and practices of colorblindness in the classroom. Often times, especially in the history curriculum, history teachers tend to take the approach that in order to accurately view history, we must view it through a “neutral” and “objective” lens. We, as a society, have adopted race as an individual prejudice rather than a structural presence in which we all operate. As a result, we guide ourselves throughout history by taking a neutral approach and in doing so, fail to effectively critique and understand the very structures that have formed to marginalize different groups. We see the law as being a colorblind party, in which neutral decisions are made, when in reality, the law can work like any other force in society, shapeable, malleable and influenced by human behaviors and ideas.
This attitude often taking form in statements such as “if we stop discussing race, racism will go away” or “we must live in the present and view everyone and everything equally.” We look to entities such as the law to put these unrealistic notions into tangible form. We use our lack of context of these forms to strive towards and idealize, while not seeing their full functions in our societies. To not see color, is to intentionally not see the full picture. In order to fully confront this attitude, and be historically honest we must admit and recognize that race has been and continue to be an ever-present force within our society. However, this will require us, as educators to fully address our true intentions of why we choose to implement a colorblind approach. Without doing so, it will cause us to take the stance of being the neutral, force in the classroom. To dismantle colorblindness, we must recognize that the students and ourselves are all inheritors of history and reckon with our complicity in the history of racism in the United States and that all aspects, including the law, have been stained with its residue.
Victors, Villains, and Victims- We tend to see history through a binary lens and more like a movie focusing on individual characters who perform particular roles to comfort and appease the interpreter of the history. I divide these groups into three groups.
- There are villains who commit horrible atrocities throughout history. These take the form of hate groups such as the KKK or the slaveholding founding fathers or the infamous ultimate historical villain historical Hitler. These characters serve the purpose of giving the interpreter of history the ability to disavow the actions of the villain and in doing so, remove and disassociate ourselves from the atrocities and render ourselves not complicit in the real consequences of colonization and white supremacy. This, however, also allows us to view these villains as individual culprits and in doing so, fails to identify how systems and structures formed. This allows us to feel that if we condemn these people, racism can in itself be phased out. The law interacts with the villains in very explicit terms, with no nuance. This is best illustrated in the laws that enabled slaveholding. Once the 13th Amendment was introduced however, slavery ceased to exist or operate in the United States.
- The Victors act in the opposite role, allowing us to use their accomplishments to reassert ourselves as not only separate from the villains but as the saviors. However, these characters are often not members of the marginalized groups themselves, such as figures like Nat Turner or Malcolm X, but rather we see them through the lens of white allyship. We see these roles performed in the cases of abolitionists throughout the enslavement era, white allies during the Civil Rights Movement or Abraham Lincoln. We allow ourselves to cling onto these well-intentioned characters, resulting in the denied agency of marginalized groups and the ability to detach from the real-life consequences of white supremacy The victors are able to challenge the laws and change them, and by doing so erase the consequences of the laws.
- The final group of Victims acts as the beneficiaries of the victors. The saved. These are in the characters we see as in slaves, or immigrants in the modern-day. By seeing these groups as the beneficiaries of the victors, rather than as agents in their own liberation, we deny the humanity of being able to act for themselves. These characters are those who are impacted by the law in them being beneficiaries of the law changes.
By setting up our classroom and dividing individuals' historical figures into these groups, we, the educators allow ourselves and the students to take sides and take unrealistic positions in the classroom, resulting in a lack of real critique or acknowledgment of the systems at hand. Each of the precedents interact the law, however, they are seen as revolving around rather than working collaboratively alongside of the law.
Individual Triumphs rather than Collective Activism- Part of the Victors, Villains and Victims strategies in the classroom stems from a tendency to focus on individual achievements of historical figures rather than viewing them as apart of long political systems and structures. This can be seen in the use of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, although both of these figures were picking up a mantle of a fight that had begun long before the sixties. By studying the law, we are able to see how the structure of racism evolved and those who were benefited from and challenged it inhabited those systems. This unit will not focus on individuals but rather focuses on how the racial legal system emerges in the context of the United States and global history.
The Race and Law are fixed- Another notion that is consistently invoked in the classroom is the fixed nature of the law and race. We see these structures as being immovable and fixed rather than having legs. Changing through time, shapeable. This unit will show just how alterable the law can be.
Power Blindness- In her thought-provoking piece, Power Intersectionality, Barbara Tomlinson argues that the practice of colorblindness allows its user to also invoke power blindness. If one is blind to color, one is blind to power (Tomilson, 2012). It is important that we as educators and our students understand not only the law has worked to construct race, but also recognize how the law has worked to distribute real, tangible and continuous power, and deprive others. The Whites-only signs were not only for decoration but to tell a certain tribe that, no matter their station in life, some parts of the world, indeed the best part of the world was carved out for them (Coates, 2017). By understanding the ways in which power has been bestowed to certain portions of our society through the law, we can also begin to see the purposes of law in a more nuanced way. And more importantly, as Milton Reynolds argues, when students are able to understand the inequality and injustice that produce such outcomes, they can channel their civic energy toward confronting and reforming these institutions, ideas and ideologically driven practices.”
The Law Has Consequences, and they are not always explicit- Similar to Power blindness in terms of who is the recipient of the power that power allots, when we refuse to see color, we fail to see the real consequences that laws have had on our society. When we relegate the explicit nature of the law to the historical past, we fail to acknowledge or analyze its contemporary consequences. This unit will challenge that by promoting students to make real, relevant connections to our modern-day system, with the purpose of allowing them to see the world they live in as movable and view themselves as agents of change.
All of the strategies listed above will be addressed in the following lessons in some shape or form. However, before attempting we must first reflect on why we institute these moves. Comprehending motivations for investment in colorblindness is essential to the development and ultimate adoption of alternate practices. In order for this unit to implemented, we must, as educators embrace and challenge our own notions surrounding race before teaching it to the students. Each of the strategies discussed in the previous paragraphs has some us for both us and our students. We cling to the strategies as a way to sedate ourselves from the real consequences and soothe our discomfort. We are not the mediators between our students and the bloodstains of a trauma-filled past, but rather, we are walking in the journey with them.