When my daughter was in high school, she was given the assignment to trace her family roots to America. The assignment was called “My American Story.”
We immediately rejected the assignment and advised her teacher she would not be completing the assignment. It is one of those moments you don’t forget.
It is an example of what African-Americans mean when they say racism in America is systemic, and entrenched in the nation’s institutions.
The students had a week or so to ask relatives about their past. Some of the questions required for the assignment sort of went like this:
When did your family arrive in America?
Who came to America?
When did they come to America?
Why did they come to America?
What was the name of the ship?
Where did they arrive (what city)?
The assignment is so Eurocentric, it should have been called “My American Story For the White Students.” The high school is like 30–40 percent students of color so the assignment is a leftover relic from the school’s not so distant segregated past.
As expected, most of the white students in the class were enthusiastic about the assignment. They were of various ethnic (European) backgrounds and the records of the arrival of their family member or members to America is readily available.
They completed the assignment with ease and quickly.
Yet, for the Black children in the school such as my daughter, the assignment was racist and insulting. It also told them they were not part of America really and not relevant. My daughter was completely confused by the assignment.
I told a co-worker about the assignment who is Latino, and he had a similar reaction. He said one of his children got the assignment and he threw it out.
The majority of African-Americans are traced back to family members who were “enslaved people.” In addition, “name changes, family separations and lack of written records all make family history research difficult,” according to Char Dotson of WBEZ Radio-Chicago.
While some of my family members have been able to trace our roots a little, the trail usually runs cold at some point. Usually, when slavery was legal, the story becomes, tricky and elusive.
We were so ticked off at the assignment we (my wife and I) addressed the teacher directly to try to bring an end to the assignment altogether in the school. Here is a redacted copy of the email we sent:
Dear Ms. ______,
I hope that all is well with you and that the school year is shaping up to your expectations.
I’m writing about your “My American Story” project; _______will not be completing this project. Beginning with _______’s reaction, we discussed this as a family and agree that this assignment does not reflect careful consideration of the varied stories of children in a public, rather than the self-selected classroom. The learning outcome does nothing to challenge students’ limited background knowledge of the actual race, class, and societal factors that create the story of every American. Certainly, an opportunity is missed here.
Thank you in advance for providing ______with an alternative assignment of equal weight and point value.
I am available to speak with you if there is anything further that you would like to discuss.
An alternative assignment was provided by the teacher and that teacher did commit to not using the assignment again. Yet, we were unable to verify if other history teachers in the school decided to eliminate the assignment.
Years ago, when I first began to think about these issues I was advised by an educational consultant that one of the minimum changes to the educational system that had to happen was to “decentralize whiteness.”
We addressed the issue of the decentralization of whiteness in a follow-up correspondence after we were told the assignment would be changed but for only our child because we had objected:
Overall, the assignment is inappropriate and insulting. It is dated, and the wording emphasizes European “immigration” as the default American narrative beginning with question one and continuing with ”Please check the Ellis Island website.” Many children in this community are marginalized by this assignment. Hispanic children, Africans, Asians, and children from Indigenous populations do not share the story suggested by most of these questions. The lesson allows no entrance for these voices. Ironically, the east coast settlement narrative doesn’t coincide with the Michigan settlement story where many of the children in the classroom were raised.
This is not the first time that _____ has spoken with us about the subject matter and teaching methods in the classroom that continue to place “whiteness” at the center of U.S. history lessons despite the fact that this is not the actual history of the country. There have been questions posed to the class that ask students what “decisions” they would make if they “chose” to be a “western settler”. This question requires students to imagine what it would be like to be white. A more helpful lesson would be one that requires students to research the population and the political climate that defined the developing territories.
I have not met you and have drawn no conclusions regarding you on a personal level or your own beliefs. However, these arcane “canned” assignments perpetuate the myth that the white cultural experience is hierarchal, an idea that is both egregious and untruthful.
This is just one example of how entrenched white supremacy is in the actual system. This is the point of the 1619 Project. It is also why there is fierce opposition to the 1619 Project.
More and more Americans, of all ethnic backgrounds (African-Americans are an ethnic group by the way, with culture, traditions, and history) want a different country and that country includes all of us.
It is either that or we don’t have a country, do we?
Previously Published on Medium