Jain: We need to correct America’s white-centric education

Priyanka Jain, Staff Columnist

Being an Indian American—a person of color in America—it dawned on me one day that I did not know much about the history of people of color or Asian Americans in the U.S. How did Asian Americans immigrate into the U.S.? What were their experiences adapting to a new country? What were some significant racial conflicts they faced coming to America? I quickly realized that in my high school English classes, the majority of books we read were written by white, male authors depicting the narratives and struggles of white people. Even in my past history classes, the achievements of white men like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson were often glamorized. But I learned little of, say Black freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B DuBois, or Ida B. Wells. It was eye-opening when I realized that the atrocious realities that marginalized groups faced are neatly glossed over in history books for the pursuit of preserving a white America. 

In acknowledgement of the escalating amount of hate crimes directed towards Black and Asian people, it is important to recognize that these acts are committed by American citizens who are ignorant and desensitized to the struggles of BIPOC––a system that is brought about by the Eurocentric education we are given in America.

This past fall, many colleges and universities canceled their diversity, equity and inclusion programs as a response to former President Trump’s executive order which forbade teaching “divisive concepts” in federally funded programs and sought a “patriotic education.” But the president and provost of the University of Michigan denounced Trump’s proposal. They contended that fostering diversity, equity and community among all students and teachers is revolutionary not only in strengthening communal appreciation and acceptance for our varying backgrounds, but also ensuring equitable social and political power in society. 

When I think of the history we learned in high school, my mind—and likely all of yours—automatically defaults to the contributions of one of our white presidents. But we do not know much about the many prodigious contributions that Black individuals or other people of color have offered the country. The history we learn in the American public education system heavily favors white figures while undermining marginalized peoples and the sacrifices they made for the country. 

Sociologist Jim Loewen wrote a best-selling book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” where he dismisses many of the biased, historical information we are taught from high school textbooks and divulges the real truths of the time periods. For example, you may have learned that Abraham Lincoln was a savior for Black people as he disbanded slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation. But Lincoln did not really believe in the equality of Blacks and whites; he did not want Blacks to assume equitable social and political power as whites and also did not agree with interracial marriage.

Furthermore, Washington and Jefferson are two other beloved figures in American history whose achievements are often highlighted in history classes and in mainstream media. But the blunt truth is that Washington and Jefferson achieved much of their prosperity off the backs of slaves. Jefferson is even more of a hypocrite as he was the one who penned the ubiquitous and inspirational words: “All men are created equal” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence while owning hundreds of slaves on his plantation. If Jefferson truly believed in the equality of humans, he would not have sanctioned the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of his slaves all for the sake of his wealth. 

In American public education, children are indoctrinated into society by learning a heavily skewed perception of our nation’s history that favors whites. We are taught that whites are the only ones that sacrificed labor, intellect and time for America and so we inadvertently associate American patriotism with the adversities of white people. That is why in many hate crimes—specifically Asian hate crimes—white people accuse Asian Americans of not being patriotic enough, of stealing all the opportunities of other Americans and of not making enough sacrifices for the country but reaping the benefits nonetheless. 

In truth, Asian Americans, Black Americans and other BIPOC alike have all endured so much racism and unfounded hate for decades while still contributing to the social and economic advancement of America. For example, we think that all of America’s hallmarks were created by whites, but in reality, it was the enslaved people who built our nation’s Capital and the White House. It was Black people who invented the traffic light, the gas mask and mobile refrigeration used in long-haul trucks. Even a Black architect, Benjamin Banneker, had a central role in designing the layout of Washington DC. 

This white-washing extends beyond high school history classes. When I reminisce about books I read in my high school English classes, it certainly was not a repertoire of diverse narratives. We mostly read classic American literature which included white-centered narratives by white, male authors: Nathaniel Hawthrone, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. Although we may have read a few books by white women like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, we read even less books by people of color. 

Schools around the country are starting to challenge these standards. An article in Stanford University’s student-run newspaper, The Stanford Daily, questioned the need to continue reading and teaching classics in schools. One student estimated that in her high school English class 90% of her high school literature curriculum was written by white men, 9% by white women, and 1% by BIPOC authors. Students at other universities are similarly challenging these common, Eurocentric English reading lists. 

By only valuing and sympathizing with the stories of white people written by white authors, American institutions essentially devalue the narratives of colored people and muzzle their voices. Classic works of American literature may still be valuable as it teaches insightful, moral lessons of human nature, integrity and gender, but they can only scratch the surface on key issues like racism because they only cast white protagonists. Classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” raise issues of Black racism and discrimination, but since they are both stories of white people, it does not detail the struggles of Black characters, thus we do not empathize with them or realize the soul-crushing severity of American racism. 

In an increasingly diversified America, it is important to realize that being American does not just mean being white, but it also means being Black, brown and every color in between. As such, the literature we read and discuss in classes should represent all of us, not just white people. By including more works by people of color, like the renowned Black author Toni Morrison, we learn about the differences in our experiences and then unite in shared suffering, compassion and gratefulness to be part of such a colorful country. 

As college students, it is important to promote cultural diversity programs, in part because they can help mitigate hate crimes, racism and cultural apathy. But it is also important in many of the conventional mandatory English, humanities and history classes to include more insightful books by authors of color, rather than subjecting those works to optional courses (i.e. African American studies or gender studies) which not everyone takes. 

In the backdrop of so much racial vitriol in our country, we have to acknowledge and address the role that white-washed American education has played in spreading naive beliefs that have culminated in public outcry.