In the eighth grade I was asked if I wanted to step out of the room while the class learned about slavery. When I politely declined, I was allowed to sit with my classmates as we were taught the wonders of slave culture — the music and religions cultivated from a beautiful blend of two cultures, the education and opportunities presented to the slaves, the friendships formed on the underground railroad. The slavery narrative I was taught was that of freedom. Sure, we shouldn’t have enslaved hundreds of thousands of people, but eventually, with the help of the brave white people, the slaves were freed! Then racism was over.
It wasn’t until I was 16 years old that I was truly taught what “separate but equal” meant. I never learned the mutilations slaves underwent, how the majority of slaves died on the ship to America, how they were ripped away from their homes, separated from their children, families, forced to sleep in their own waste for months.
“How lucky we are,” my eighth grade teacher said, “to live in a time when racism is over.” And I believed him.
America’s racial history is obscured by the educational system. The American education I’ve experienced works to promote the American Dream, a fantastical idea that doesn’t take socioeconomic status, citizenship or race into account when it broadly claims that all people have equal opportunity to rise in society as long as they work hard enough. It’s this belief in the American Dream that fuels racial and socioeconomic tensions. When we subscribe to this meritocratic delusion, it’s easy to believe that racism no longer exists, that all black people are lazy, that all homelessness is a product of a failure to work. This belief in the American Dream makes it easy to justify why 22 percent of Black americans fall below the poverty line or how racial minorities account for 37.4 percent of the population but 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by the police. These disparities are thought to arise not from structural inequality but innate qualities of African Americans.
When you learn that everyone is equal, it makes you deaf to the cries of the marginalized.
America is a great country but a flawed country; one of its greatest flaws is in the teachings of race and inequality. One of its greatest misgivings is its inability to recognize its flaws. Some Americans fiercely hold onto the concept that all are equal, that racism isn’t engrained in the culture of our people. Problems can never be solved if they are ignored — worse yet, if they are never acknowledged.
Prior to Stanford, I was never explicitly taught about modern racism — I was left to experience it myself. I was never taught that I’d be accused of shoplifting, that I must fear for my life if I’m pulled over by the police or that every dream I’d ever have would be topped with a seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling. I understand when some people don’t believe me. We were taught that racism is over, that all human beings are equal, that we can all do whatever we set our minds to. I understand when some men believe that women are completely equal; I understand when some women believe that women are completely equal.
Education is the way to change that narrative. I’m not claiming that every harsh truth about racism or slavery should be taught to third graders, but I do believe we should learn that the fight is not over. Women’s equality was not solved after the 19th amendment was passed. The civil rights movement didn’t end after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. We need to be taught that America isn’t necessarily an equal space — but it can be. We need to be made aware so we know what to change. So those that are oppressed aren’t screaming into the crowd of privilege begging to be heard.
Education is different everywhere. I went to a public school in a rich, white neighborhood. My experiences with education are unique — everyone’s are. However, there is always room for growth. I had excellent teachers that told the truth to the best of their ability, mainly in high school. But racism and bigotry is learned and should be addressed as soon as possible.
Change can come in simple ways, whether it’s updating textbooks to redefine slavery and oppression or writing the study of inequality into syllabuses. Because race, and subsequent racism, is cultivated at an early age, racial education must start early. Elementary schools can infuse discussions of race into celebrations of Thanksgiving or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Instead of saying MLK helped end segregation, we must say he started a fight we must continue. Celebrate women leaders by saying we must continue to break the glass ceilings they made visible for us. Talk about the men — and other women — that were in their way. The same way we teach children stealing is bad we should teach them discrimination is bad. There must be guest speakers, new lessons dedicated to the fight of the marginalized. No more covering up America’s flawed history. We must point out our issues and say, we’re making it better, and we can make it great. These teachings must follow kids from six years old to 18 years old and can be with them for the rest of their lives.
Racism is taught — it’s a learned process manifested in the smallest ways: demonization of black men in the media, the promiscuous black woman trope, the fear a black man walking down the street can inspire. I learned that “racism is over” the same day someone asked me why I don’t look like them. The same month eyes traced my every step in a clothing store — many clothing stores. The same year I learned that I was the other and would likely always will be.
Education is part of the answer. The narrative we learn as children manipulates our views of race: who is our equal and who is lesser. Who we choose to fight for. My childhood education taught me many truths. I know good versus bad, right versus wrong. I learned about lying, cheating, stealing, bullying. Maybe if my classmates and I had learned about race we’d laugh in the face of inequality, racism, bigotry and hatred. Maybe black lives would matter, maybe men and women would be equal. Maybe, just maybe, we would redefine the American Dream.
Contact Natachi Onwuamaegbu at natachi ‘at’ stanford.edu.