Opting Out of Black History Should Not Be an Option

Between the "White Discomfort" bill and parents opting-out of Black history lessons, Black students are sent a clear message about where they stand and romanticized history is prevailing.

Boy and girl classmates sharing book about famous African-Americans in library
Photo: Getty Images

Consider me lucky. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and from kindergarten to the sixth grade, I had only Black teachers. During the month of February, we went extra hard and we would create plays that depicted our favorite Black historical heroes. Our teachers would organize cultural extravagant assemblies—that took place in the evenings so our families could attend—where our sponge-like minds could absorb the arts and stories of Black people throughout the Black African diaspora. Who would have known then that my teachers were committing an act of treason according to a growing number of parents and politicians?

Recently, several states have been leading the charge on restricting history lessons and books not just in the classroom but libraries as well. In Indiana, a school counselor sent a memo to parents allowing them to opt out of Black history lessons as if it's similar to a class field trip. The counselor explained the importance of Black history and the positive impact it would have for white students but ended the memo with giving parents the option to have their children opt-out. By the counselor giving parents the option to not participate, they are allowing those parents to perpetuate white supremacy with permission. Would the same consideration be given to Black and Indigenous parents or would the idea of opting out of romanticized history be laughed at?

Bill SB 148, also being dubbed as the "White Discomfort" bill, is legislation being pushed to allow racist parents, their supporters and enablers to further skew education as a mere propaganda resource instead of an institution that will shape brighter minds for tomorrow. But the bigger question is where was my option to opt-out?

"It's sad to see white discomfort attempting to eliminate Black excellence. It shows that our joys, our achievements, our struggles, and our lives are too uncomfortable for white children to know. But, what does this say to Black children? How does it feel for the Black child to know that white adults are uncomfortable with their history and their existence? How does it feel for them to know that white history and white children are acceptable in schools, prominent and continuously on display while Black history and Black children are cast aside, hidden from the innocent eyes of white children," argues Dr. Stephanie R. Tolliver, Assistant Professor of Literacy at Colorado University Boulder and author of Recovering Black Storytelling in Qualitative Research.

None of this is coincidental of course. The New York Times published a report that compared several textbooks and how the language differed depending on what state the book would be utilized in. Those slight but impactful differences showed up in cases where non-white narratives were being discussed as well as anything that made made white people look bad. In short, white discomfort has been in motion for years especially in education, except now, parents can voice their ignorance proudly and receive countless support from politicians, media pundits, and celebrities.

White discomfort doesn't just impact Black children. Indigenous and POC families have also endured their children sitting in classes and participating in countless history lessons that have romanticized slavery, colonialism, and the eradication of people of color across the globe. To white people that's considered patriotism. And if Black and POC families continue to push back on white supremacy rhetoric in education, we run the high risk of being harmed and having our patriotism questioned.

Before the pandemic hit, my family drove to Philadelphia to attend a talk with Dr. Angela Davis at the University of Pennsylvania to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's life. Part of our trip included stopping at a Black woman-owned comic book store and taking our then 15-month-old to a public indoor playspace. While I thought the play area was lovely in design and concept, I felt uncomfortable. I wasn't uncomfortable because we were the only Black parents. I was uncomfortable because the children treated my child like she was the first Black child they ever saw.

The children all gave her the look—you know what look I'm talking about, too. The look where curiosity, confusion and slightly appalled meet. I watched the white children gather in small groups and all look at my daughter with that look throughout the room. Initially, I thought I was projecting but I saw my daughter trying to engage, and I watched them scatter like roaches when lights are turned on. Those children acted the way they did because their parents have no real investment in engaging in communities outside of their own.

As they grow older, those children will be the face of white discomfort while my daughter will have to fight to be seen and heard. However, when those white children discover the truth, it's their parents and grandparents who will have to answer for their deeds and come to reckon with the role they played in keeping white supremacy alive and thriving.

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