On July 14, 2021, the Arrowhead Union High School District Board of Education listened to public input on curriculum related to race and equity.
One of the persons who testified was high school senior Oliver Lee, in defense of curriculum that is being threatened by a small but vocal organization as part of the national attack on history education through anti-CRT bills. He explained that contrary to the right wing characterization of the curriculum:
This is learning about your neighbors’ history. Your colleagues’ history. Your peers’ history. This is to teach your children how to best enter the world that is rapidly realizing the mistakes of the past. Plain and simple, this is about empathy.
Oliver was able to share three minutes of his testimony, which we have published in full below. His teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, provides background to the hearing:
The reason Oliver Lee and many others testified in defense of teaching honestly about U.S. history is because currently our district and community are under attack by a group that refers to themselves as “We the Parents,” some of which do not even reside or have children in our district.
They bullied our school board president out of his position in June, and have since threatened to overthrow the entire board and install themselves. Their primary concern is that they believe our initiative to incorporate anti-racist/anti-biased curriculum into all of our courses is “reverse-racism,” “Marxism,” and “unpatriotic.”
They also demanded the resignation of our superintendent and curriculum director for providing staff with professional development from Vernita Mayfield and her book, Cultural Competence.
The meeting on Wednesday night became very contentious, and one of them even called out a Black woman in the audience by assuming she was going to “play the race card.” Another one gave my friend the middle finger when she politely asked her to stop talking so she could hear the presenters. Needless to say, this has become a very frightening situation, and we are terrified about what will become of our school/community if these people continue to bully their way in.
To School Board Members and Community Members;
There is a proverb that states, “Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” And while that is true, I think it leaves something important out: until the lions have their historians and we share their tales, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” After all, the lions can record thousands of years of hunts, and if the hunter simply pushes them under his leather knapsack, it’s as if they were never written.
I am often told that teaching about equality will provide only more division. Listening to the points of those on the other side of me, I have managed to summarize them into three main concerns:
- This type of teaching focuses on the past instead of the present and future.
- This type of teaching teaches my child that they are the oppressor just because of their skin color, sexuality, and/or gender.
- This type of teaching is, at its core, anti-American.
I suppose, though, first I should address what “this type of teaching” is: the culturally relevant and competent curriculum being debated all over the country–the teaching of unbiased and uncensored history. We are talking about the discussion of a system built with only certain people in mind; we are talking about the discussion of the crimes of humanity committed; we are talking about how to make the future inclusive, with liberty and justice for all.
First of all, this type of teaching does indeed focus on the past instead of the present and future.
We are talking about the teaching of history; of course it focuses on the past. But the past, I have learned, is perhaps the greatest teacher of them all. Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it: George Santayana. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes: Mark Twain. Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history: Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, the teaching of history is not infallible — remember the lions. But the direction of history must push the lions’ tales out towards the sunlight, not back into the muted shadows.
People say we should focus on the future; after all, they didn’t own slaves, they didn’t lynch anyone, they never pushed a Black woman to the back of the bus. To which I say, the past makes us who we are, no matter how far back the past is.
My grandfather came to the Western world with a suitcase, the clothes on his back, and a mountain of debt. He is convinced, to this day, that it’s his fault my father went to a state school instead of an Ivy. And that conviction, that guilt, whose basis lays 30 years ago and three time zones away, is laid on my shoulders; the push to be ever-better, to be worthy of that Ivy title my grandfather still dreams of.
I have dealt with more comments than I can count detailing that trans and queer people didn’t exist back in the “old times.” And I remember honor killings, and shame, and the AIDS epidemic. Queer history impacts me every single day as I walk along the same path my elders blazed by lighting themselves on fire.
Owners of enslaved people were paid when their slaves were set free. Formerly enslaved people still couldn’t find a job. So their owners got to double and triple their wealth with no setbacks, and they got to will that fortune to their sons and grandsons, and those sons and grandsons got to explicate that wealth, all while their peers of color lived in poverty after being denied education and wages under their condition of enslavement.
Of course the past impacts the present, and if we are not taught the past, then the present doesn’t make sense. In order to go into the world with a full understanding, we must be taught about the generational advantages some people have over others. We were taught in kindergarten to treat everyone kindly. Now, in high school, we must learn how to think critically about why these morals are so important.
A second argument I have heard against culturally relevant and competent curriculum is that it teaches children that they are the oppressor just because of their skin color.
No. In fact, the primary purpose of Critical Race Theory — the big, bad elephant in the room — is to point out that racism is the result of complex, changing, and subtle social and institutional dynamics rather than explicit and intentional prejudices on the part of individuals. Broken down, the idea is that racism comes from the very system we are living in, rather than the consciousness of your child or anyone else.
The system of America was built by upper class, white slaveholders. Is it so surprising that the system was built without the interests of minorities in mind?
By teaching history in an unbiased and uncensored manner, your child will learn about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the failure of the ERA, and more. They will learn about red-lining, institutional slavery, and generational poverty.
No teacher tells a child that they are guilty for the sins of their ancestors. If your child feels guilty after learning history, that is through nothing but their own critical thinking skills and developed empathy.
Besides, proponents of ideals such as Critical Race Theory don’t want your child to feel guilty for being white. Because in the long run, that doesn’t do anything. We know that you, personally, didn’t build this system, unless anyone here is over 250 years old? We don’t need your apologies, we need your commitment to do better, to unlearn the standards other white people have taught you, and your help amplifying our voices.
We don’t need you to cry over the tales glorifying hunters, we need you to pull the lions’ stories out from the darkness.
The third and final argument I’d like to acknowledge is that this type of teaching is, at its core, anti-American.
America was founded on the principle that all people were created equal, and thus all people are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While at the time this ideal only applied to white, rich men, we can make it true today.
Striving to be better than our past is engraved in the foundation of this country.
I deserve to be represented in Arrowhead’s curriculum. My friends, my family, and my peers deserve to learn their own history. And more than that? Everyone in Arrowhead deserves to learn about the rich, diverse history of our country and our world.
In order for us to be equal, we must understand and fight the system that keeps one group of people above the others. It’s not about individual differences but rather that the system, as a whole, was built to benefit white people. And the thing is, many people don’t even realize it. They think they’re getting ahead in life because they work harder, or longer, or maybe they’re just plain lucky.
You may think we’re already equal–after all, maybe you “don’t see color”. But to not see color is to ignore the generations of abuse that people of color have suffered. Not seeing color is akin to brushing under the rug every single struggle, every extra step people of color have to climb, to be equal. I understand that the concept of “not seeing color” sounds PC, but it still encourages people to ignore a system that was built to favor them and to ignore the reality that minorities face every day.
Not seeing the difference between the lion and the hunter doesn’t make the hunter’s bullet not fly.
This is not indoctrination. This is not extremism. This, really, shouldn’t even be political. This is learning about your neighbors’ history. Your colleagues’ history. Your peers’ history. This is to teach your children how to best enter the world that is rapidly realizing the mistakes of the past. Plain and simple, this is about empathy.
Arrowhead’s motto is a Tradition of Excellence. How will our children, your grandchildren, feel about that motto if we bucked tradition and ignored the calls for equitable, universal education? Education that includes every student in the school, not just the majority? Equitable education is not a new concept — the Wisconsin Department of Public Education has mandated equitable practices for decades now. The tradition of equity is there.
We can only be One Team if we support everyone. Teaching a culturally relevant and competent curriculum is the first step to doing so.
Oliver Lee is a rising senior at Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, Wisconsin. Oliver has been fighting for social justice causes (especially anti-racism, LGBTQ rights, and against ableism) for most of his life.