When children learn about black people in America, what is the first thing that they see in textbooks?
“The first thing they see is slavery,” said Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor of Science Education, when that question was put to him recently by NBC’s Rehema Ellis. “They may see a family that’s half-dressed. They may see slave quarters.”
Emdin’s answer to Ellis’s follow-up question — is that racist? — was unequivocal.
“Absolutely, that’s racist,” said Emdin in an interview that focused on the battle to remove racial bias from America’s textbooks. “If your introduction to my history is my down-troddenness, you never see me as a victor.”
Emdin, a pioneer in the field of hip hop education who is the author of For White Folks Who Teach in the ‘Hood…And The Rest of Y’all, Too: Reality Pedagogy, added, “Our books are the bricks that build our society,” and said that deliberate omissions are just as bad as misrepresentations. He cited a textbook passage that describes post-WWII government policies as encouraging home ownership, but neglects to describe how those policies “intentionally discriminated against black Americans.”
There are signs of change, Ellis reported. For example, in North Carolina, social studies standards are under review. She spotlights a class at one high school in Chapel Hill where Phyllis Wheatley, who came to the United States as a slave and became the first African American author of a book of poetry, gets equal time alongside the Founding Fathers. And Pearson Education, the largest publisher of college textbooks, is checking 100 of its textbooks for content and author diversity.
Still, there is much work to be done.
“We fix this by having new textbooks with different perspectives,” says Emdin.
[Watch the full NBC interview with Emdin.]