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Teachers and Students Respond to Black History Bans
For the past few years, Republicans have been politically attacking the teaching of race, discrimination, and “controversial” topics in history in schools. According to Education Weekly, 44 out of 50 state legislatures in the U.S. have proposed anti-critical-race-theory laws. Some have been vetoed, some are still moving through the legislative process, and 18 have been enacted. Since the introduction of these laws, many students are left to face ripped-out pages in their textbooks and teachers fear a slip of the tongue might cost them their jobs.
How Teachers Navigate Texas Laws
The laws banning or curtailing history education vary by state. Texas and Florida, two Republican-dominated states, have been early proponents of these policies. For some of these legislators, Black and diverse history appears to not be a valuable part of the U.S. educational curriculum. In early 2023, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida rejected the College Board’s new AP African American history class, claiming it “lacks educational value.” Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who seems to agree with DeSantis, signed Senate Bill 3, a law that would prohibit the teaching of current events without “deference to both sides,” into law in 2021.
Jesse Arrieta, a high school history teacher at the Young Women’s STEAM Research and Preparatory Academy in El Paso, Texas, says she struggles when teaching about race. “Some of my colleagues were nervous at the beginning of last school year due to declarations by Greg Abbott that [he] would crack down on teachers in this anti-CRT moment.” But, she adds, “my goal as a Chicana educator has always been to disrupt the ‘grand narrative,’ to be inclusive, and to help students understand that their history, whoever they are, is part of U.S. history.”
Anti-CRT laws have only increased Arrieta’s resolve to teach what’s being denied to students. She says, “The revolution is in the classroom, and it is up to teachers to resist oppressive bills and bans, as it does not coincide with our job as state employees who have to follow a certain curriculum.” She explains, “Social Studies TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills] state what we are to teach, not how. Teaching about race, racism, sexism, etc. is not Critical Race Theory. It is simply part of the reality of life and of history.”
Although Arrieta is committed to teaching through such a lens in her classroom, other teachers may not do the same. She points out, “Those teachers who never cared about the ‘isms’ and never cared to highlight Black History Month or any other month will continue to ignore it. Unfortunately, I have worked with many of those teachers too, over the years.”
Chandra Woods, another educator at the Academy, relates her experience, saying, “I just had a conversation with a really good friend of mine about how I can appropriately implement Black history into my classroom while not going against state law. It is truly upsetting and unfortunate that this is happening in today’s world, especially with so many racially charged situations happening all around us.”
For Woods, talking about race in the classroom doesn’t violate the law. This month, she is focusing on “Black excellence” specifically centered on her all-female school. She says, “Although very limited in what we can cover, I think that discussing influential Black women in high spaces, such as former First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis, etc. are just a few starting points on still being able to provide impact during February while also keeping with the theme of my school—women who succeed.”
Students Speak Out
Students across Texas worry that their education is going to remove them from the realities of the past and present. Jahzara Wheaton, a high school junior attending the same school where Arrieta and Woods teach, says there was a lack of diverse perspectives in Texas education even before these laws: “When I was younger, I, as most children, was taught a very one-sided version of history. And in this version, the role that Black people played was largely that of a victim.”
Now, she is concerned that accurate depictions of her community’s past will be even more elusive. “It is very challenging to get an accurate picture or an account of history.” Wheaton speculates that the bans are in place because “if educators were allowed to teach students about the reality of oppression throughout history, it would go against everything this country prides itself on.”
Otitodilichukwu Ikem, another high schooler from Coronado High School in El Paso, shares that she has had similar experiences: “I go to school in Texas, so the topic of Black history is very filtered. I try my best to learn more on my own, but it is very discouraging when schools paint what I’m learning in a different light.”
Ikem believes the educational system is undermining Black voices, saying, “It’s very hypocritical and harmful. We learn about European, Spanish, French, Italian, and even Japanese history. Why is African American history the one that’s banned?” She says, “The message they are sending to everyone is, ‘Hey, you can learn everything in school, but learning about African American history is too much.’”
When asked how this is changing the way her classes function, Wheaton explains there is fear among students and teachers. “Many teachers have been intimidated into teaching what others feel should be taught and not what needs to be taught. Even those teachers I’ve had who were not afraid to challenge what is accepted had to do so in secret.”
Such secret conversations on social issues seem to be a new normal for students. Worse, some worry it changes the way they navigate their lives outside of school as well. According to Wheaton, “The impression that it left on me was that of fear. Not just for me, but for anyone willing to learn about social issues outside [the classroom] for themselves.”
Aina Marzia is a 16-year-old independent journalist based in El Paso, Texas. A multi-lingual, cricket fanatic, and avid Twitter user. Her work has been seen in Prism Reports, BElatina News, The Austin Chronicle, Muslim Girl, So to Speak: Feminist Journal of Language, The City Magazine, and more. When she is not writing hot takes on the internet, Aina tends to her online chess addiction. She can be reached at muckrack.com/aina-marzia.