Good Teaching about Race Does Not Make White Children Feel Bad About Themselves

One of the myths about teaching accurate racial history and institutional racism is that it will make white children feel bad about themselves. In most cases, this is a trumped up idea intended to dissuade teachers from teaching accurately and it is a rationale for abusing teachers, administrators, and school boards into supporting a white supremacist curriculum. It makes NO SENSE that an accurate education would make the learners “feel bad” about themselves. What they are learning is what was done BEFORE they were alive; they didn’t do anything wrong. They are learning about what OTHER PEOPLE did. 

It’s like saying we shouldn’t teach about World War II because it might make Germans, Italians, and Japanese people feel bad about themselves. I’m ¼ German, and I never once felt the slightest bit of guilt or self-loathing when I learned about Nazi Germany. In fact, I felt good because I learned that people who share my heritage who were wrongheaded in their ideas were defeated and then later they made peace with their past, established a better set of conditions, and became important leaders and global citizens–although far from perfect, of course.

It’s not fun to learn about injustice, especially if you are benefitting from that injustice. We can file these feelings under “growing pains,” which is when you learn something that makes you feel temporarily bad but is ultimately important to be a functioning, ethical adult. For example, think about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or any myths that are prominent among children in your culture. Eventually, the truth must out. Life is not fair, and it’s less fair from some than others. Much less fair. To a degree that takes lives and livelihoods from some and makes it much easier for others.

Think about tee-ball. (Yes, a sports metaphor from ME!) Eventually, that tee has to be removed and the children must learn to hit the ball without the stand. The tee was a privilege, and now they have to give it up. White supremacy, however, would have it that only wealthy and white children would get the tee to begin with, and they would get to keep it forever. Imagine what pro baseball would look like with some getting to use a tee and others having to hit a pitch.

Over the course of centuries, white people have allowed themselves to be treated with a level of care and respect they have not granted to people of color. After so much time, it can seem natural that some deserve more than others. THAT’S where unfair privilege comes in. Some of us (white, wealthy, male, straight, abled) have a lot of privilege. Yeah, it sucks to have that pointed out, but we have to be adults. We need to learn about it, accept it, and make the necessary changes to make ourselves and our world better.

Children and adolescents are especially attuned to fairness, and as they mature they are rarely wounded when they understand that they must share in fair ways. The problem is that we have many adults who WANT their children and other loved ones to have unfair privilege, and they will fight very hard against anyone who tries to change that. Some very powerful and self-justifying versions of “family values” directly indicate that it’s the right thing to do to keep the unfairness privileging your loved ones over others. But it’s not right, and we all know it.

The reason people are saying white students will “feel bad about themselves” is because:

  1. They misunderstand what is being asked for.
  2. They are invested in keeping themselves on the side of unfair privilege. 

Stop the nonsense and stop encouraging some children to think they are more deserving than others. Teaching issues of race well will help children become better, more confident, smarter, less defensive, more ethical adults. If parents don’t want that for their children, then THEY are a big part of the problem. 

4 thoughts on “Good Teaching about Race Does Not Make White Children Feel Bad About Themselves”

  1. “What they are learning is what was done BEFORE they were alive; they didn’t do anything wrong. They are learning about what OTHER PEOPLE did.” Agreed; however, aren’t we also telling white children that they – themselves, currently – are privileged? And aren’t we telling white children that privilege makes them – themselves, currently – treat non-whites unfairly, take unfair advantage of non-whites, and use unfair methods to get by in the world? Those are 3 damning qualities to lay on anyone, and more than enough to make them feel bad about themselves.

    1. Ken – I've been a high school English teacher and then a college English professor since 1988. I'm a former teacher education program director and former dean. I blog on teaching writing and English and on educational policy and academic culture. If you like my blog, please check out my 5 books! Grammar Rants (Heinemann, 2011) Making the Journey (Heinemann, 2016) The Continuing the Journey Series (NCTE): Literary & Informational Texts (2017) Authentic Writing Instruction (2018) Language, Speaking, & Listening (2019) The opinions expressed in my blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Stony Brook University, NCTE, UUP, or any other group of which I am a member. Please follow me @Klind2013

      First of all, thank you for your comment and for reading my post. I appreciate it!

      “And aren’t we telling white children that privilege makes them – themselves, currently – treat non-whites unfairly, take unfair advantage of non-whites, and use unfair methods to get by in the world?”

      I don’t think being privileged makes anyone bad or unfair, so I don’t agree with your proposition above. But learning that one has unearned privilege should make one more aware that those without the same privilege suffer unfairly. Learning that, most good people would work toward making things more fair for all or–at the very least–would acknowledge that they don’t mind benefitting at someone else’s expense. If one learns about structural unfairness and does nothing about it and keeps benefitting, well then that is an ethical problem. And blaming people without privilege for their suffering is really bad–gaslighting–and should be called out. All that said, being white does not make one bad.

  2. Arthur Camins – Stevens Institute of Technology – Arthur H. Camins is a science educator. He writes about education policy and social justice. He works time as an Assessment Specialist with FOSS developers at UC Berkeley. He retired, recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught, been an administrator in NJ, NY, MA and KY, and led numerous National Science Foundation funded professional development and curriculum projects.

    The problem with the discussion of privilege is that too many have come to believe the twin myths that inequity and scarcity are unalterable. So they think one person’s gain must cause another’s loss. Challenging privilege must be tied to challenging the myths and how they hurt all but the wealthy.

    1. Ken – I've been a high school English teacher and then a college English professor since 1988. I'm a former teacher education program director and former dean. I blog on teaching writing and English and on educational policy and academic culture. If you like my blog, please check out my 5 books! Grammar Rants (Heinemann, 2011) Making the Journey (Heinemann, 2016) The Continuing the Journey Series (NCTE): Literary & Informational Texts (2017) Authentic Writing Instruction (2018) Language, Speaking, & Listening (2019) The opinions expressed in my blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Stony Brook University, NCTE, UUP, or any other group of which I am a member. Please follow me @Klind2013

      Agreed. That’s capitalism. “There can be only one.”

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