Shame is powerful and debilitating — perhaps the most destructive of human emotions. Worse than fear, which we can overcome given enough time, shame can paralyze.
As such, when conservatives accuse anti-racist educators of seeking to shame white people with discussions of racial injustice, historically and today, they know the emotional power of the buttons they’re pushing.
But not only is it absurd to think educators want white children to feel ashamed — shame not being a helpful prod for learning or activism — anti-racist instruction can actually prevent shame from overtaking whites who learn of racial injustice.
This is not to deny that learning about these subjects can produce a kind of guilt, just as learning of the Holocaust of European Jewry likely provokes feelings of shame in some Germans. But this would be true no matter how that history was taught, whether through a deliberately anti-racist lens or a more traditional one.
So long as we learn about enslavement at all, many whites (especially those who discover, perhaps from family or Ancestry.com, that their forebears owned other human beings) might feel residual shame or embarrassment.
To learn of segregation, even in traditional coursework, would likely cause many whites to wonder where their families stood during that period. And if they weren’t speaking out against it but were going along with things as they were — which, sadly, was true for most white Americans — then some guilt or shame may understandably attach.
But the only way to avoid that possibility is to ignore history altogether. And since no one advocates that, there is only one other way to solve the problem. However, it’s doubtful any conservatives would endorse it. And the reason why they wouldn’t, exposes their concern about that shame as counterfeit.
Namely, we could teach students the history of white anti-racist solidarity with Black and brown peoples fighting for full equality and freedom.
Rather than historically fetishize elites who owned other persons, fostered genocidal land grabs, and rationalized it all under the banner of white supremacy, why not introduce students to white people who chose a different path?
Surely, if we did that, there would be less risk of white guilt or shame. After all, white students would learn powerful examples of white freedom fighters standing with and following the lead of Black and brown movement leaders, not working against them.
We could teach about 18th century white abolitionists like Anthony Benezet, who started one of the world’s first anti-slavery organizations.
Or the fiery Benjamin Lay, who stood just over 4 feet tall but whose thundering voice insisted God would smite “Man-stealers” for their iniquity.
Or 19th-century white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Or Abby Kelley, who joined Garrison in advocating full civil rights for blacks — beliefs for which she was attacked as a “Jezebel” and “infidel” by those entrenched in racism.
Or David Cooper, who, in 1783, wrote a 22-page declaration addressed to the leaders of the new U.S. government, which accused enslavers of treason against the natural “rights of man,” and of betraying the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
So too, we should study the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke. It was the latter who, in 1836, wrote her “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” encouraging them to embrace abolition and insisting they use their power as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the male elite to help bring down enslavement.
We should study the example of John Fee, a radical abolitionist preacher who was disowned by his enslaving family, dismissed from his pastorate for refusing to minister to enslavers, and founded interracial Berea College in 1858.
Or Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns, who formed the “Secret Six” — abolitionists who funded the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry as a strike against slavery. However doomed the attack proved to be, its moral rectitude is hard to deny.
Or the “Immortal Ten,” a group of white Kansans who launched a raid to free Underground Railroad operator John Doy from jail, where he was being held for helping enslaved persons escape.
Or John Rankin, a Tennessee-born Ohio minister who sheltered in his home dozens if not hundreds of persons who had fled enslavement until they could be safely spirited further North, away from bounty hunters who might try and return them.
To get a sense of the history of white anti-racist solidarity — however much broader it should be — students could read Herbert Aptheker’s book, Anti-Racism in U.S. History: The First Two Hundred Years, which chronicles white anti-racism dating to the colonial period. By refuting the idea that all whites lined up behind enslavement, indigenous genocide, and white supremacy, such a book can provide the antidote to whatever guilt or shame white students might feel upon learning of the nation’s history.
In more recent times, students could study the examples of Bob Zellner and Dottie (Miller) Zellner, two of the principal white activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), or Freedom Rider, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland.
Trumpauer participated in over 50 sit-ins and other demonstrations before she turned 23 — actions for which she was disowned by her family, assaulted, and hunted by the Klan, which sought to murder her.
Students could read David L. Chappell’s Inside Agitators, which examines the brave white Southerners who fought from inside the belly of the segregationist beast and in opposition to the dominant trends of the time.
As Braden put it, explaining the moral compulsion of fighting segregation, even at great risk to herself and her family:
I came to realize that no one can go untouched by segregation in the South. Either you find a way to oppose the evil, or the evil becomes part of you and you are a part of it, and it winds itself around your soul like the arms of an octopus…
These and many others offer examples of white folks who opted for a different way to live in their skin — not as active oppressors or passive collaborators with injustice, but as resistance fighters.
Now ask yourself: Why do most students never learn their names?
Why do you likely know so few of them?
Is it because we’ve been doing too much anti-racist education?
Of course not. It’s because we’ve done too little.
The irony of the backlash to anti-racist instruction is that only anti-racist educators seek to impart the lessons of allyship demonstrated by those referenced above.
Meanwhile, the traditional curriculum focuses on white folks who most often stood on the wrong side of racial justice, thereby reinforcing the notion of white people as inevitable bad guys.
If any approach is likely to instill guilt, it is the traditional way of teaching history, not that being encouraged by anti-racists.
So why would the right resist such a corrective to the historical record, especially since doing so would minimize the risk of white guilt and shame?
Simple: to acknowledge anti-racist whites throughout history is to challenge the dominant narrative of America as a uniquely good nation from the beginning.
If even many white folks knew America was flawed and white supremacy was evil, it becomes more difficult to paper over the crimes of Jefferson, Washington, and Andrew Jackson, among others.
It’s one thing for them to have ignored the entreaties of Black and indigenous peoples — after all, their voices didn’t matter to them — but altogether different if they equally ignored the moral pleadings of their white contemporaries.
To have done that suggests they knew full well there was another way of thinking and living — and despite that fact, they chose evil.
Even more, to teach of white allyship in the most difficult of moments and against such enemies as enslavers and segregationists is to inspire today’s white students to ask, what might white allyship look like in this generation?
And that is a question the right desperately doesn’t want asked, let alone answered.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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