In Alabama, we often get education wrong. Despite our low nationwide rankings, our insistence on maintaining corporal punishment in schools, and our reluctance to move away from the football-coach-as-history-teacher model, the most serious flaw seems to be a determination to hold on to white supremacy and bigotry. White supremacy is often manifested in Alabama by a belief that what happened in the past was better. We protect our Confederate monuments; we celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday; we hold our plantation Christmases. As accomplices and allies, it is imperative that we challenge these beliefs whenever possible—and use our platforms as educators to do so.
As an ally engaged in advocacy work centered around racial justice with Project Say Something, it is important to me that I not only provide a safe space to explore racial injustice, it is critical that I challenge white supremacist viewpoints and assumptions. I’ve come to understand that education is a mindset while working as an educator at historical sites and with community projects. Education is an openness to learning. An openness to change. A desire to understand, to empathize. While young learners are full of wonder and curiosity, do not see race as a controversial topic, and are quick to point out injustices, older students are much less open and much less willing to learn about race and racism. This reflects a failure of allies to challenge the system of white supremacy and encourage life-long learning based around critical inquiry. In short, we must do better so that young learners never stop questioning, never stop being curious, never stop addressing injustice.
A few moments stick out that emphasize my point. I was asked to fill in for the docent at a historical site-turned-museum that focuses on the Civil War for a 4th grade field trip. Unbeknownst to me, the docent had arranged for two members of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans organization to “assist” with the field trip. Stunned, I watched in dismay as they appeared in full Confederate regalia and set up a table with various weapons and implements of war on the front porch of the museum. I asked myself how in the world this could be helpful to a 4th grade class: do we need to know the types of guns we used to kill each other with? Do we need to know the uniforms we wore to march off and kill each other?
The class did not show up that day. I suspect they drove by the museum, saw some men dressed in Confederate uniforms playing with weapons and decided to return to school. That’s what I want to believe, anyway. When it comes to teaching the Civil War, the focus on weapons and men and tactics and maneuvers elides the main issue that we should be focusing on: race. And that is on the part of educators. Students can talk about race. Students do not see race as controversial. Adults do, however, and they do their best to downplay it or ignore it. Allies can challenge these assumptions. Allies can shift the focus to something that will produce a lasting understanding.
Allies need to talk about race—specifically whiteness—and how that has operated in the historical moments they teach about. Whiteness is a construct that has shaped and colored how we talk about the past. Columbus was an explorer because he was white. De Soto was an adventurer because he was white. Robert E. Lee was a general because he was white. Change the race of any of these men and we’d have different words for them.
The first step for white ally educators is to recognize our own privilege. The second is to interrogate how that privilege affects how we teach. And the third is to put that perspective into action; to challenge a white supremacist, Christian-centered viewpoint. It is this challenge that unleashes the most resistance.
I’ve encountered this resistance numerous times. It can feel undermining, humiliating, and sometimes intimidating. That’s because the person resisting is scared or upset. It’s important to let these emotions exist without co-signing or enabling them. It can be in the form of a challenging assertion; an undermining remark; an indignant response; or something even more intimidating. It’s important to understand that this is likely because the people reacting this way have never had their beliefs challenged before.
Another example comes to mind. I was giving a presentation on redlining and segregation and pointing to the obvious racial bias in racially restrictive covenants and Federal Housing Administration practices—a topic that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying. A well-respected white community member challenged the racial assumptions in my research and speculated that segregation was due to income inequality rather than race. I again was stunned. Had he not heard my entire presentation? Such assertions come from a comfortable belief that white privilege does not exist, that racial inequality stems not from race but from other factors. The denial of racial inequality is one of the cornerstones of comfortable white supremacy.
Bigoted, white supremacist beliefs need to be challenged, if for no other reason than to get people to stop and think. If these beliefs are not challenged, no change can take place. And here’s the difficult part: even if they are challenged, they may not change. White supremacy is the default model for white people and black people. We live in a society that does not see whiteness and therefore the ways in which it contributes to white supremacy. But that change will definitely never happen if people do not escape their comfortable worldview. As advocates, accomplices, and allies, it is our job to make things uncomfortable.
Brian Murphy works as a historian for the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the City of Florence Museums. His research interests include African American history, the history of urban renewal and public housing, and Civil War memory.