We all wish dry long lectures during our monotonous days at school could sometimes be broken up by a little whispered joke, or better yet a fun day-long exercise. Only weeks ago though, Queen Elizabeth’s Girls’ School in Barnet, UK took the idea of classroom fun and turned it into a disgusting trivialization of one of the most painful era’s the world has known: slavery.
In short, a lesson plan was presented to Year 9 students telling pupils to create a business proposal whilst devising a plan to enslave “African people”. Students were given imaginary tools such as manacles, whips, thumb screws, iron brands, and muskets. The lesson plan included details on bribing African Chiefs with alcohol, slave raids, and encouraged them to do “the best thing about slavery”: make the slave trader have an affair with a “beautiful African girl” so that their “mixed race” offspring could run the family slave business in Africa while his white father sailed to America.
Actual image from Powerpoint instructing students on slavery “business plan”
Although the teacher who handed out this lesson plan failed to see what was glaringly uncomfortable with the excercise, a 13-year-old black girl told her mother of the humiliation she had felt in the class. The mother met with two teachers who claimed they didn’t see the error in the lesson or how it might have hurt her daughter, stating that the lesson was an innovative way to get the children to learn. The teachers actually said that the slave trade was largely “divorced from moral and social issues” and had been taught for three whole years without objection. Ultimately the student’s mother contacted Pan-African Human Rights Organization Ligali, who filed a formal complaint and press release about the school’s policies.
Well what do you know – quickly the Head Teacher Mrs Kate Webster apologised to the mother of a child distressed by the insensitive material by writing “On behalf of the school, I apologise unreservedly for the distress and anguish caused to [the student] and to her mother, as well as to you and others in your community who this material may have been shared with. Now I have had the opportunity to view the Powerpoint in its’ entirety, I share your concerns.” The lesson plans were withdrawn and possible disciplinary action is being considered towards the teacher who created the exercise.
I won’t even go into how vile and horrific a lesson plan is that calculatedly encourages what used to be the rape of African women and the crushing degradation and suppression of entire populations for centuries without a shred of humanity. We should all be able to see the problem there.
But I will describe what I believe the larger issue at hand is here -Mrs. Webster failed to grasp that this single incident is symptomatic of a greater issue of global institutionalized ignorance that is consistently ingrained in our children’s brains day after day as they sit behind their desks. Only one teacher should not just be disciplined for a disgusting business plan – there should be multiple teachers conferences being called to train teachers to understand why the enslavement of an entire people is not a cute little business plan and that it very much affects many of their students of color today. The real picture the principal clearly does not comprehend is not that one teacher devised the lesson plan, it is that two more of his staff members actually backed it up and justified it.
The issue of school and race is constantly a subject being brought to light only to be shoved back when the school board, government, and parents have screamed at each other so much no one can hear who is talking anymore. The fact of the matter is, school is where our children go five days a week throughout most of the year, for at least 10 years of our lives within the Western World. It is a crucial foundation for not just academic knowledge but social norms that will inform our outlook on the world and how we relate to each other.
However schools across the globe have issues addressing students of color because the curriculum is still devised on the centuries old ideology of the White Male Pioneer, who fills our history books and leaves at best a chapter for black people and a couple of pages for Latino and Asian historical figures. Teachers are provided this curriculum – the same one they themselves were taught – and systematically teach a history that minimizes the presence of black people, reducing our population to a small asterisk at the end of a sentence.
This continual minimization eventually manifests itself in other ways as well – in 2011 the great American classic Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had a renovation when the 219 occurrences of the n-word were deleted from the newest edition of the book . Thomas Wortham, Twain scholar at UCLA stated that this new version “doesn’t challenge children and their teachers to ask, ‘Why would Huck use such reprehensible language?’” The teaching moment is scrubbed away from the book and classrooms everywhere are led to believe in a fantasy history where ugly hurtful prejudice does not happen.
As Huffington Posts’s Michaela Pommells stated, “The outright denial of the institutional racism that afflicts our schools and classrooms is reinforced through bad policies and educational malpractice. This lends little value in criticizing the circumstances in public schools when most schools fail to even recognize the presence or impact of racism. Yet, it’s a problem because the actual process of dismantling racial inequality in education requires an outright revolution. Power structures and institutions cannot change without getting everybody involved.”
Yet the new modern answer many people have given to the Great Problem of Racism is to claim it doesn’t exist and that by continually engaging in our differences of skin color, we only fuel the problem more and build it up into a bigger issue than it truly is. However loud cries of a “post racial” society only drown out and repress the uncomfortable microagressions our children face everyday at school and within their own neighborhood. The continual claim that we have moved on from race is an implicit suggestion that any feelings of discomfort or prejudice due to skin color must be “hysterics and overreaction.”
But when our education begins to essentially neuter away the ugly truth of slavery and produce a nice stylized package for our students to absorb – this is a problem. When black children can only learn about their history for one month a year – this is a problem. And it is not just the African-American problem – it is OUR problem, yes, the African who will scoff and say that they had nothing to do with slavery. African immigrants in the United States tend to distance themselves from the heritage of Black Americans but frankly, the legacy of slavery is an institution that affected even those who didn’t get forced onto that ship. Entire tribes were taken aboard, histories lost and ravaged, and our uncles, cousins, sons and daughters were split apart irrevocably. We are all affected by the legacy of slavery and that is why we must all continuously fight to honor and dignify the pain that our distant mothers and fathers bore.
Let us not blame the teachers completely though. Our entire educational administration needs to be reformed to challenge institutional racism and ignorance. Educators must be engaged in the process of retraining the classroom to celebrate differences, respect heritage and resist cultural appropriation and dismissal. Or what will be the consequence?
Another generation of children removed from our heritage who have become so desensitized and brainwashed that they covet white pioneers and see our own ancestors as “just cotton picking slaves” – instead of leaders who proudly rose as their blacks bled with whip lashes.