Honoring Black History, not White Supremacy, Part 2

It is now February 4th, and Black History Month has begun. So, what am I teaching? Am I presenting an informed and truthful view of Black History? Is my teaching impacting my students in a positive way? Good question, but I’m not yet ready to answer it. I have a few things to discuss first.

Step 2: Keep learning.

I have been reading recently about social identity theory and development so that I might better understand what is happening inside the hearts and minds of my students. In 1979, Henri Tajfel and John Turner wrote that social identity is formed over time through a series of steps, and that an individual’s social identity impacts their perception and action. Simply put, we desire to belong, and this sense of belonging pushes us to choose groups. We categorize ourselves into certain groups and out of other groups. This process influences who we are and what we do. Tajfel and Turner define a group “as a collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category, share some emotional involvement in this common definition of themselves, and achieve some degree of social consensus about the evaluation of their group and of their membership of it” (p. 40). The authors call this first step Social Categorization.

The second step in the formation of social identity is that of Social Identification. This is the internal experience of identifying oneself as a part of a particular group. You form your identity based on characteristics, qualities, and values that either align you with your group, or differentiate you from other groups. Once identified, we tend to mirror the predominant patterns of our in-groups, and compare ourselves to the shared perceptions of the out-groups. This perception-based comparison is often inaccurate or incomplete, because it does not reflect understanding. This is the third step, Social Comparison, and is the source of stereotyping, which leads to prejudice and discrimination.

This is why our intentional work during Black History Month is so important. If we are not careful with the narrative we present, we can cause the development of social identities founded on unnecessary and inaccurate perceptions about self and other.

Professor Kimberle Crenshaw’ s work on intersectionality in 1989 expanded on the implications of social identity theory, but pointed out a crucial flaw in previous understandings. She wrote specifically about how Black women are ignored through single-axis comparisons:

“With Black women as the starting point, it becomes
more apparent how dominant conceptions of discrimination
condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring
along a single categorical axis. I want to suggest further that
this single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization,
identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination
by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged
members of the group. In other words, in race discrimination cases,
discrimination tends to be viewed in terms of sex- or class-privileged
Blacks; in sex discrimination cases, the focus is on race- and
class-privileged women.”

Professor Crenshaw has continued her work over the past 30 years, founding the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies.

Professor Crenshaw’s more recent work connects intersectionality to critical race theory. She has a TED talk titled, The Urgency of Intersectionality, and served as an editor in a collection of writings titled Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed The Movement.

This simple introduction to resources on social identity theory, intersectionality, and critical race theory is intended to open the door into these topics and frame this next step in my work around Black History Month.

Step 3: Establish Goals

Keeping in mind all that I have referenced here and in Honoring Black History, not White Supremacy, Part 1, I have to set a few goals for my work this month. Here is my list:

  • Be intentional with every teaching decision around Black History.
  • Honor the profound contributions of African Americans throughout history.
  • Establish in the minds of all of my students an in-group of humanity, including all races, classes, genders, and creeds, so as to prevent the tendency to discriminate on the basis of out-group prejudices.
  • Ensure that the images I present to my students do not cause trauma, but instead grow a sense of empowerment.

Step 4: Research and Plan

In order to achieve the above goals, I will need resources. As a white man, my perception of any resource or lesson plan has inherent blind spots. It is important that the resources I use to support the learning in my classroom represent voices beyond my own.

Here is a list of curricular resources and perspective resources I am using to guide me:

As always, this is just a start. I will continue seeking out additional resources throughout this month and all year.

Step 5: Teach!

In order to accomplish the goals I outlined above, I need a comprehensive approach, meaning I will be teaching Black History both directly and indirectly.

  • A Breadth of Understanding: My school is including a short biography of an important figure in Black History each morning on the announcements. To reinforce the importance of these individuals, I am collecting their names and a few important pieces of information in our classroom. We are discussing each person during our Morning Meeting.
  • A Depth of Understanding: Our most significant study is through a biography research project. We are currently in the midst of a 9-week study of winter weather which will culminate in our students developing designs for new products and strategies to help our town respond to ice and snow. We thought it fitting for our students to learn about inventors, scientists, and mathematicians as a part of this study. We chose to focus their research on African Americans and Women in those fields since it will stretch from Black History Month into Women’s History Month. Our students are using books and online resources to collect information and then write biographies about their chosen person. They will share their learning with classmates, families, and our school community through their writing.
  • Filling in Gaps and Reflecting on Messaging: I will be reflecting on the list of people I have covered, and be sure that it accomplishes the above goals by representing:
    • An expanded timeline from ancient times to the present
    • A breadth of contributions across fields
    • A balance of women and men
  • Opening Up the Conversation: This year, I am allowing my students open dialogue during our 10 minute snack and bathroom break in the morning. We have used conversation dice and question starters to guide those conversations. I am providing the Urban Intellectuals Flash Cards for my students to use to spur on conversations during this time. I am curious to see what discussions are sparked by the cards.

This month, I hope that as my students develop their social identities, they see the value of their own family and culture, but also reach beyond the historical in-groups and out-groups to recognize our common humanity. Their understanding of self and others will impact the remainder of their lives.

This process is a reminder that the work we do as educators carries weight beyond the elementary years. We must see it as foundational, not elementary, and we must understand the implications of the narrative we present.