In January 2022, many were surprised to see news reports about a new “Barbie” made in the likeness of Ida B. Wells, the legendary African American journalist and anti-lynching activist. While doll collectors rejoiced to learn that Mattel made a new addition to its Inspiring Women Series of Barbies, many weren’t aware that the series even existed. Though this subject may seem tangential to the concerns of middle and high school educators, the emergence and evolution of Barbie provides meaningful insight into changing conceptions of gender, race, and education—as well as the role that educational objects like dolls play in young women’s development today.
As battles rage surrounding how we narrate history in the classroom, there are broader debates unfolding about how we approach diversity, equity, and inclusion work within our schools and personal lives. Irrespective of the identities we hold, questions abound. Where do we even begin this work in our schools and in other contexts? How do we find common ground? And why is there such enduring disagreement about the definition and significance of keywords like racism, antiracism, intersectionality, microaggressions, and civility? Is there just one answer?
On Tuesday evening, it was announced that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been found guilty of all charges leveled against him in connection with the death of George Floyd in May 2020. The twelve-person jury reached the unanimous verdict that Chauvin committed second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter against Floyd nearly a year go. As we exhale in the wake of this decision, we must remain present to the unending stream of historical and contemporary violence that surrounds this guilty verdict.
On Monday, March 29th, a Filipino woman was brutally attacked in New York City while bystanders, including security guards, looked on without intervening. On Tuesday, March 16th, six Asian Pacific Islander (API) women lost their lives in three consecutive shootings in the Atlanta area. Weeks earlier around Lunar New Year, a wave of xenophobic violence swept the San Francisco Bay Area, metro New York and other US cities where numerous API people were attacked and some lost their life.
Pause. Take a breath.
In the past few years and, more urgently, in the past months and weeks, some Americans have used the language of division to describe the United States—a "divided society." We are and have been. Using these kinds of labels helps, I think, because they allow us to begin giving language to our problems and then open up possible solutions. We have many fractures. There's not one thing that divides us. In other countries, people speak more freely of identity-based conflicts—sectarian, racial, and ethnic. We, too, have identity-based conflicts—this is one legacy of our unredressed history of racial injustice, violence, and oppression. We are also divided by additional vectors of inequality and we are divided by partisanship.
“We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.” —Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
This past September, I had the privilege to speak with Dr. Dena Simmons during a Facing History webinar about how social-emotional learning can help us realize an anti-racist future. It was on the day that the grand jury in Louisville, KY made the decision not to charge anyone for the murder of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old unarmed African-American woman fatally shot in her apartment. Both Dr. Simmons and I felt the heaviness of this verdict, and the need to have an honest conversation about the times we are living in as Black women educators. Dr. Simmons has since written an article for ASCD in which she notes that Black women educators always “show up...because we know our work is critical to Black youth in white-dominated school systems...even if it comes at a cost. But we are exhausted.”
During this election season, educators are navigating conversations with their students about politics, race, and racism in ways that seem without precedent, all while facing real pressures to remain nonpartisan. This tension notwithstanding, it’s necessary to understand race and racism as a political issue of membership and power, rather than a partisan one of liberal or conservative ideology. Doing so creates space to more truly confront injustice in policy and practice. As educators, this critical distinction can help us have the nuanced discussions we aim to have with our students around civic engagement, with a historical lens that contextualizes our moment.
At Facing History, we stand with educators who are working to disrupt rising white nationalism.
Since the Unite the Right Rally of 2017 in Charlottesville, white nationalist groups have become increasingly visible on the national stage, deepening threats of racial and antisemitic violence across the country. Indeed, these threats are so severe that the Department of Homeland Security prepared draft reports (recently released to the press) indicating that “white supremacist extremists” currently pose the greatest terror threat to the nation.
We ended last school year in a time of unraveling. On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was murdered under the knee of Derek Chauvin while three other police officers stood by as accomplices. We as educators rose to support and hold space for our students to process and situate this moment in its larger movement, in defense of Black lives, and in the mourning of so many others. A reckoning took hold on the conscience of the nation, and James Baldwin’s words rang loud and clear: “History is literally present in all that we do.” We each were personally called to face our own positionality, our own biases, and our own complicity in sustaining systemic oppression—a call that is and will be ongoing.