“What Black History?”: Giselle’s Story

I was 22 before I really understood what had happened during the Civil Rights Movement. That was the year I learned that segregation had been widespread, that people had fought, marched, suffered, and even died merely for the right to be equal citizens in the eyes of the law. And it had all happened, not one hundred years ago, but in the decade before my birth.

The majority of my educational years were spent being homeschooled by my parents, who were well-intentioned, kind-hearted people, but who pretty much left out any aspects of Black History from my education.

I was raised to believe that people were equal, no matter what color they were, and I even had a few black friends growing up, but in my mind racism was something from the past, something that happened during the time of slavery, something that was obviously over and had been for a very long time, except in the cases of a few backwards folks who hung on to hate—but no one paid them any attention, anyway, right?

During the years when I wasn’t homeschooled, I attended various church-related schools where the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t a big topic of study. There weren’t any black children in my kindergarten, and I only remember one in my first grade class. I don’t remember learning about any famous Black Americans or any aspect of Black History at all in the early years of my life.

In fact, the entirety of my Black History education was practically encompassed in the stories of two Black Americans who were included in my third grade American History book after we had started homeschooling. The text was set up as a series of chapters, with each chapter outlining the life and accomplishments of an important American. There were two African-Americans included: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Both were born slaves, but luckily both had helpful white people in their lives who made sure they got great educations and went to college. (Paternalism, anyone?) Both became professors—one a scientist and inventor, one a school administrator. So rosy and happy were their stories (even though they came from difficult beginnings) that I naturally assumed all Black Americans lived similar lives to mine. After all, now that slavery was over, it was so much easier than it had been for these men, whose lives already seemed pretty good overall.

The whitewashing of struggle influenced me in ways I wouldn’t and couldn’t understand until decades later.

This was in the 1980’s. Interracial dating was prohibited in one of the colleges associated with a school that I attended. A law against interracial marriage, which went against the Supreme Court’s ruling, was still on the books in one of the states where I lived.

Basically, I lived in a rosy bubble of privilege, blissfully ignorant of what had really taken place in my country a mere 20 years previous. I was a happy little 8-year-old, learning about a few token Black people from my history book, with absolutely no conception of the trials that children had gone through in my very city to integrate their schools, or the governor that had blocked the door of the state university in defiance of a federal order of desegregation.

I remember maybe one or two conversations with my mother about how, as a student, she had watched protests on the evening news, and thought it was horrible how the people were treated. But those topics of conversation somehow felt small and far away, insignificant. I never knew how huge the fight for equal rights had been, never knew how common discrimination was (and still is) in our country, never knew that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end all the horrors that slavery had established.

Not only was my conception of slavery and the ease of its end unrealistic, but my understanding was also severely limited by the fact that most of my history education consisted of repeating topics from colonial and early American history over and over again, rather than moving forward to the history of the 20th century.

At my tiny school in 6th grade, I remember hearing Nelson Mandela’s name from my (black) South African teacher, who was thrilled that he had finally been released. I don’t remember much about it, except that my parents had shaken their heads a bit because they thought she was a “liberal.” I had no idea what apartheid was or why Mandela’s release was significant.

In 8th grade I attended a southern, Christian school. I recall hearing from my well-loved history teacher that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but primarily about states’ rights. I was surprised, but I assumed my teacher must be right. We studied American history that year, but there was little, if any, mention of the struggle or contributions of Black Americans.

In high school, my family became part of a homeschool organization that believed backbeats were from the devil and rock music opened you up to satanic influence. I realize now that by forbidding the music of other cultures, this group ensured that white people would be more likely to view other races with fear and disdain. This in itself was a subtle, but significant form of racism.

Eventually, I learned that most of what I had learned from this homeschool organization was inaccurate, harmful, and even unbiblical. It took some time, but eventually I broke free from the ideology and attended a community college where, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a racially diverse group of people. This was where I learned about the fight for Civil Rights, the Birmingham church bombings, lynching, sit-ins, and Emmett Till.

We went on a field trip to the Civil Rights museum, watched documentaries, studied poetry about Civil Rights issues, and created our own. We saw statues of the dogs that had attacked protesters, visited the church where little girls died, and learned about the local high school honors students in our city who had walked out of school to participate in sit-ins.

I drank it all in, wondering to myself how I could have been so ignorant for so long…how did I never learn about this?

I remember sitting, wide-eyed, in my community college auditorium, watching a documentary about Civil Rights leaders, staring at the faces of men and women my grandparents’ ages (and even younger) as they told of the struggles they had faced just to vote, sit at a lunch counter, or obtain an education in an integrated school. It was the beginning of the erosion of my ignorance.

I soon developed an intense thirst for knowledge of the Civil Rights period of history. I read books, articles, fiction, nonfiction. I watched documentaries and talked with people. I wanted to learn everything I had missed. I wanted to understand. Another decade passed, and many patient friends and a helpful church with an integrated community of leaders helped to teach me even more about racial justice, white privilege, social justice, and the continuance of racism in our country and the world. I purchased recommended books and continued to learn and grow and immerse myself in environments that would help me grow towards a greater understanding of the challenges faced by people of color. Friends have reached out, patiently shared with me, talked about their own experiences and invited me into their lives.

Now, 30 years after my experience with that third grade history book, I am a third grade teacher myself. I sit in front of a classroom full of 8-year-olds with black and brown faces, and I read them a book about segregation. They know the history all-to-well, even though it seems like ancient history to them. Their faces are sad, resigned, concerned…but also aware, indignant, resolved. This will not happen again. Their determination confirms it. Even the occasional white students in my school are generally vigorous opponents of racism and inequality of any sort.

This generation of children is full of determination and activism at an age when I wasn’t even aware it was necessary.

They know names like Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks—and they aspire to be like them. They give me hope for our future.

When You’re Raised by Racists: Junia’s Story

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Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Junia” is a pseudonym.

I was raised by a mother who was intensely racist.

I didn’t realize it for years, but she was, and is. My father is as well, but less obviously, more in an oblivious sort of way.

As far as education went, I always thought that we received above average education. My mother was committed to good education, erudition was a trait that my parents prized highly, to the point that friends of the family would comment on how intelligent we were and note it as a family thing. I will always be grateful for the education I received from her and from the other teachers, both in co-ops and online, that she arranged. But one area that I completely missed was race.

We’re white, with one distant Native American ancestor. But otherwise we’re Western and Northern European through and through. I never realized until the past year how much this has colored, no pun intended, my life and worldviews.

With history we were raised on the motto, “The South was Right.”

Slavery was justified because of Bible passages about how to treat slaves. If slavery was inherently wrong God would have banned it, wouldn’t He? We listened to speeches from the group The League of the South and read its literature. It’s still hard for me to admit that this group promotes racial inequality by justifying slavery. I was really into the Civil War, or as I called it, the War Between the States, in high school. I spent hours reading about it, but almost nothing from the perspective of anyone in the Union or the perspective of people like Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. I even had a livejournal account about the War. Mostly copy/paste of historical documents or letters etc. Inspirational stories about specific individuals.

I had only friend growing up who wasn’t white. She was mixed race, her dad was black and her mom was white. She and I used to play together a lot. I’m not sure why my mother was okay with us, why she was friends with the family, but I guess the whiteness of the mom made the family safe as far as my mother was concerned. I know my friend was really sensitive about being mixed race. She didn’t feel like she fit in anywhere, she was too dark for whites and too white for blacks. At one point in high school she saw my livejournal account and asked me to take it down because she was offended.

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t.

I told her that she shouldn’t be offended, I was just posting historical things. We drifted apart, for a lot of different reasons.

None of this is to say that I believed in white superiority or hated blacks or anything like that. I just obliviously dismissed stories of racism as playing the race card. I was uneducated about the true story of racial inequality and hate and the continuing structural racism that exists today. I was never allowed to read To Kill a Mockingbird as a child because my mother said it was racial propaganda designed to stir up race hate. I thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist because the only times I heard my parents mention him were in negative contexts. A friend asked me within the last year if I knew who Jackie Robinson was and I had no idea. My boyfriend, now my husband, was the first person to tell me about the LA Race Riots. That they even took place.

Even this year I still clung to the idea that Southerners weren’t racist, they had slaves, but they weren’t really racists. There must be some misunderstanding. There’s just misunderstood regional pride. White people have moved on now anyway, we don’t allow slavery any more. People just play the race card when they don’t want to face that they didn’t get a job because they weren’t as qualified, etc. That minorities use their race as a weapon to get ahead.

I was blind to my privilege because I was born with the skin tone I have.

Then there was the murder of Trayvon Martin. I was angry and sad. I saw it as a crime that was at the very least made more likely because of Martin’s race, and at worst as racially motivated. But my awareness was still embryonic. It was after that that I decided that I should read To Kill a Mockingbird and find out what it was all about. I was shocked. I thought it was an exaggeration for monetary profit on the part of the author. I wish that had been true.

A few months later I read a newspaper article about the conviction of the ringleader in the murders in 1964 of the civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. I was horrified. I read the comments on the article and I didn’t know what one of the commentators was talking about when he referenced Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 at the age of 14. I felt sick to my stomach as I read accounts of what happened to him. A 14 year old boy was beaten and murdered for daring to flirt with a white woman, at worst for being obscene (if you were to believe what local white people said of him).

I now realized that To Kill a Mockingbird really wasn’t exaggerating.

It was all to true to reality. Then I followed more links and saw the records of more deaths, schoolgirls blown up in a church, men and women murdered sometimes just on the side of the road because of their race, men and women both white and black murdered because they were peacefully protesting inequality.

There was a whole world of pain that I was utterly unaware of.

When I was in middle school and high school I vaguely remember that my older sister who had married at 18 and left our home say things about racial inequality. My parents would say that she was just full of white guilt, and that it wasn’t right for us to feel guilty about the crimes that some white people committed against those of other races. I had never investigated for myself, to my shame.

I was perpetuating racism without being aware of it. And I would have been more in tune with reality if I had been taught about racism and black people with any depth. If my knowledge of blacks in American history hadn’t been limited to knowing a lot about George Washington Carver and that Rosa Parks was tired and said no. If I hadn’t been told that Harriet Tubman was making the problems worse by encouraging runaways, which was clearly in violation of things like the book of Philemon.

But I was taught a white centric view of American history and life.

I feel deeply handicapped in dealing with life today because there was so much racism in my family of origin and I am so far behind in what I should know about what minorities, especially blacks, have been facing at the hands of a white dominated society.

I’m grateful in so many ways that I was educated at home. But because of the issue of race, I would never be a homeschooling parent.

Yes, I Am Latino; No, I Am Not Joking: Joe Laughon’s Story

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Also by Joe Laughon on HA: “Engaging the World — Debate and the BJU Protest: An Interview with Joe Laughon.”

First I think the sensitive nature of this topic demands me to explain what this piece is not about. It is not intended as a litany of racial incidents I saw or a list of microaggressions allegedly inflicted upon me. It isn’t some blanket condemnation of the society home education creates, painting it as a reborn White Citizens’ Council. Nor is it intended to be a condemnation of identifying as American, being of European background, middle class, Christian or conservative. Lastly, I am not going to pretend like I was oppressed by any means. (Sidenote: For those who are far more learned in this subject, I would like to note that my subject of study has not been critical race theory, postmodernism or even sociology but rather was rather early modern European political theory and the Near East. So, mea culpa, if I use imprecise terminology. By all means let me know.)

That being said, I feel like my experience in home education can possibly provide a helpful perspective. My experience in homeschooling has slowly taught me how race operates in our society. It’s rarely some KKK bogeyman but rather is often unconscious and structural rather than personal, and is usually unthinking. In particular it’s made worse by what theorists call whiteness.

Now what do I mean by “whiteness”? By this I do not mean simply being of a European background but rather a society system in which being labeled as “white” (a constantly changing definition with several criteria such as light skin, European background/features, English speaking, Judeo-Christian and being seen as “respectable” and middle class) is the unconscious presumed default in society and is seen as best, where one is given the benefit of the doubt. The more checkboxes you can list off the more benefit of the doubt you will be given (throw in American born, and male in there and you won the bingo game). Today that has often meant:

1. Not being classed as a criminal.

Pastor Matt Chandler, of the Acts 29 network, made a really helpful insight when he stated that his son, blonde and blue eyed, would never be followed around in a store with the assumption he was up to no good.

2. Historically seen as more accepted in society and those people of color who do conform to what we see as respectable are labeled as “courageous” or peculiar.

3. Thanks to the mistakes and outright misdeeds of history, someone who is white is more likely to be better off, better educated and safer.

This does not discount personal success or personal failure but it does mean that history does play a role into where in society we start. Historically being white has afforded economic privileges such as not being redlined, being considered acceptable for credit, being shown houses that were often denied to people of color. This meant that their children could use equity to build more opportunities such as college education and business loans, which creates more opportunity. There is nothing inherently wrong with this ladder of opportunity itself, but the fact that the rungs have been traditionally denied to people of color.

4. Lastly, and most powerfully with recent news, it means that, being white, you will not be inherently defined as suspicious or a threat.

For instance, even the rate of drug usage, possession and sale is the same across the board among ethnic and racial groups, people of color will find themselves targeted for prosecution more often and, when equally prosecuted given harsher sentences for the same crime o the same severity.

Now how did my experience play into this? Specifically I saw how the way we racially and ethnically construct identities is a game in which whiteness determines the rules and gets to decide what identity you have. For instance my family’s identity is not monolithic. English is my language, I have an Anglo sounding surname and my mother’s family is pretty stock European Midwestern-southern white folks. On the other hand, my father’s family is entirely from Mexican from South Texas and Los Angeles and I usually identified most with the Latino community, especially growing up in a neighborhood dominated by this demographic and going to Catholic school in which I was certainly the whitest there.

In my old neighborhood I was certainly an anomaly perhaps but not totally unheard of as “gueros” (“blondies” or “whiteys”) can be more common in some parts of Latin America. Thus my friends didn’t really question what I called myself (although I do remember parents laughing when I had told my class my father was born in Mexico. I simply assumed, “We’re Mexican, he must be from Mexico.”). However once we moved and I began to homeschool, I noticed a subtle shift in how the identity game was played. If you don’t even fit into one identity, one will be chosen for you. Period. I can’t remember the amount of times I’ve explained to folks, “Yes, my skin is very light. Yes, I am Latino. No, I am not joking.” (This could turn into an Abbot and Costello routine as one father literally refused to believe me.) My particular favorite was during our testing and a mother witnessed me filling in the “Latino/Hispanic” bubble. She quickly pulled me aside and noted that if I was mixed I needed to put mixed. No exceptions.

However, I won’t pretend that being white didn’t bring privileges. Besides those listed above, I didn’t have to act as the spokesman for all things Latin. What was also interesting was, as my hand was stamped, I got to see how history and society is shaped by the default of being white.

In particular I saw that a self-reinforcing narrative is created when being white isn’t just assumed to be the default, but it often is the default in homeschooling (especially when you get to subsume everyone else’s identity into the team). Which means seeing the events of history and issues in society entirely through the eyes of one “side.” Every other narrative is conveniently ignored because it is assumed to not exist.

This occurred most notably in the NCFCA and in the wider homeschool debate scene.

Having to combat civil war revisionism (Did you know that it was just over tariffs and slavery was just totally incidental to the entire war? Yeah, me neither), or even remind some students that slavery was not a “win-win” for everyone involved, became a full time occupation as a competitor and coach. But by being white, no one would think twice about sharing their fairly one sided opinion with you as they unwittingly reinforced whiteness by engaging in a host of presumptions about undocumented immigrants or why democratic governance “can’t work” in Arab society. Around me, there was no self aware look over the should to see if any of “them” might hear but rather the opinions about how Latin immigrants will “balkanize” America and how a “Euro-American majority” is needed for society to work could be shared freely.

The catalyst for this realization came when the BJU protest occurred. To recap, NCFCA chose Bob Jones University, a school associated with racial segregation, discrimination combined with a virulent fundamentalism combined with a healthy dose of violent anti-Catholicism (if you don’t believe that last one ask why Northern Irish loyalist demagogue Ian Paisley has an honorary doctorate). Many, in particular coaches, competitors and families of color objected to associating a multiracial, multiethnic and multiconfessional organization with a tainted institution.

The response was total tone deafness from some. We were asked why we were so bitter about “ancient history”, why we can’t bring ourselves to forgive BJU (I was unaware institutions have souls to absolve) and why it was acceptable to let historically black colleges exist but there were “no colleges for whites.” I finally realized that whiteness meant not only getting to decide the rules of identity, not being afraid of spouting off nonsense about race, but also never having to acknowledge the legacy of racism today and in the past.

This is not to say that I experienced a culture of open bigotry or one filled with racial strife. More often I saw a loving, tranquil multiracial group that genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. However I also saw implicit racial assumptions and privilege reinforce itself through a lack of acknowledgement and understanding in a way that was somewhat unique to the home education scene.

So how do we move forward? I think the obvious way is to rely on what unites us and it’s not our identity as homeschoolers, as Americans or as conservatives, but rather our common faith identity, which clearly rejects such constructs (Acts 10:34-35).

The first way we do this is by listening to each other.

This is some basic advice given from James as we are told to be “quick to hear.” However unfortunately our lack of hearing has created a huge perception gap. Last year the Association of Religious Data had a telling study which demonstrated a wide gap in how different groups in America viewed the interaction between race and society. The first step to overcoming our empathy gap is to overcome our perception gap. That is going to take listening. In particular that is going to take hearing narratives on race and how it effects us from others that don’t include ourselves. Rather than get defensive and jump to meaningless tropes such as “What about black on black crime?” or “What about affirmative action?” maybe we should be quicker to hear and slow to speak.

But we need to take this further.

Pastor Scott Williams, author of Sunday: The Most Segregated Day of the Week, pointed out how the institution homeschoolers are most likely to share in common is also the institution that is most racially segregated. Roughly 90% of American churches are dominated by 90% of one ethnic or racial group. Now part of this trend reflects simple demographics and part of this trend reflects the effects of historic exclusion of people of color for mainline Protestant churches. However it should give us a reason for concern. How can we understand each other and start to break down the toxicity of race in America if part of our lives that is most significant to us is the one that is the most racially segregated? Movements like Church Diversity and Operation: Desegregation are the beginnings of something that could be truly healing.

I’m not saying this will solve everything. Homeschoolers who aren’t Christian or are excluded in other ways, such as gender or sexuality, may not find much solace in this. But it could be a start.

The general principles of listening and engaging in community with The Other hold real promise to ameliorate the problem of racism and white privilege in homeschooling.