The nation is in the midst of an ongoing conversation about how the country’s history of racism is—or is not—taught in schools. Many states and communities are considering formal legislation or other policies to limit these discussions, while others are working to more proactively educate students about the country’s roots of oppression. America’s Promise sat down with three high school students who attend three different schools in an area that has been directly affected by a recent incident of police violence to learn their perspectives on this question.
This article has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In school, have you learned about our country’s history of racism?
Ashton: I go to a predominantly white school. Before, I went to a predominantly African-American school. There is a difference in how things are taught, and the person teaching it could be subjective, based on what they most feel is important. At my [current] school there is less history taught about Indigenous or different ethnicities or racial histories than when I went to a predominantly African-American school.
Shyon: I think I haven't learned enough, because there's so much that's not being taught. It’s to the point where I’m going to do the research on my own. I think when it comes down to it, it's something that will never be fully learned until you do it yourself.
Samantha: I am fortunate to attend a racially diverse school that focuses on student success. For a lot of us, school is our reality, and in our reality, we should be able to learn about these topics because they are happening real time. Eventually, we are going to be in the real world, where it’s going to be necessary for us to know these things. In one of my classes, we are having deep conversations about police brutality, racial disparities in men’s imprisonment, school funding, and so much more. In English class we are reading, writing, and watching Ted Talks about injustices in the imprisonment of minorities and how this affects communities.
In school, do you celebrate the history and contributions of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian-American, or other specific ethnic groups?
Samantha: In my school, we celebrate Black history during Black History Month as well as in history class. We have recently been having more conversations about race in class.
Shyon: In the past they have done some things for Latinx Heritage and Black History Month, but in February this year we didn't talk about it much. Our principal left it up to the teachers, so if the teachers didn’t want to talk about Black History Month, then we weren’t going to learn about it. I only have white teachers, and only two of my teachers did anything.
Do you think it’s important to learn about our country’s history of racism, as well as the important contributions of people of different racial and ethnic groups? Do you think you should learn about these topics in school?
Shyon: I think it is very important. I think it should be in every part of the curriculum for the fact that people of all races have done things in science, math, history, even gym, in ways that many people don’t know about. In my gym classes, for example, they teach us about sports, but who invented the sport? Where did it come from?
Ashton: I think it is very important to learn about in school. The most important thing that is always taught in history is: in order to not repeat the past, you have to learn from it. So it's definitely important to recognize racism in the past and different pasts of discrimination, whether it be xenophobia or whatever. You have to learn information like that.
Samantha: I just think that it's very, very important to learn about this kind of stuff in school because we live in a world where this affects real people in real time. We all deserve to be able to know what is going on, as well as to know about our past and our heritage—where we come from, who has done amazing things, who has overcome challenges.
With current conversations about white supremacy, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Stop Asian Hate movement, and other conversations moving into the mainstream, is there anything you know now about systemic racism that you wish you had been taught in school?
Samantha: I didn't know that so many movements existed, and that I could use my voice out there in the community. I wish I would have learned about that a little more in school.
Ashton: I wish I would have learned that systemic racism... it just doesn't go away. Not just systemically— racism in general just doesn't go away. It's an ongoing fact that, unfortunately, I have to deal with until I die. I first realized it when I transferred from my predominantly Black school. I had never really faced a racist encounter before. When I changed schools I was surprised, because it's a whole different environment. I just started to hear more slang and racial slurs.
When you were going through that, did you feel supported at school, or like you had people that you could talk to about it?
Ashton: No. I went to my guidance counselors—and I do appreciate them helping me with hard stuff—but I never saw an African-American guidance counselor. Some people may think it's not important, but a person with the same skin color or background as you can have the same understanding as you, because they go through it as well. They have experience because they're older, so they'll know how to deal with your situation and can help talk you through it. My regular guidance counselors just wouldn't understand. It’s not their fault, but they just don’t understand what it’s like.
What has your school done to create spaces or groups for you to share your opinion and experiences regarding topics related to race?
Ashton: I am the treasurer of a club that involves different students and staff of different ethnicities and races, and we just talk about what's happening, current events, and so on. You can really give your own opinionated feeling without having to be in a judgmental environment. That's one of the clubs at school that I feel like I'm most proud of being in.
Samantha: I do think that my school holds that as a priority for us. They like for the students to feel heard and to feel included, and the school does a good job. We have recently been having more and more deep discussions about race in class which is giving students a chance to share their thoughts.
Shyon: We have clubs, but not for anything like that. If we wanted to talk about that stuff together it would have to be on our own. It wouldn't be provided by the school.
Have the inequities illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic influenced how your schools think about and teach about racism and inequity?
Ashton: My principal has had an eye-opener moment. I feel like he's gotten more involved, especially with what has happened during COVID, and with George Floyd, and recently Daniel Prude. When he's active, that helps the school be active.
Shyon: I think it has changed it, but I think it's changed it in a bad way. I think it's changed to the point where they're talking about certain things less and less, where in this moment in time we should be talking about it a lot more due to the current events.
What do you think your teachers, administrators, and other school staff should know about racism in America? What would you tell them about your personal experience and how it's affected you as a student?
Shyon: If a white teacher is teaching a majority white class with one or two Black students, automatically what ends up happening is that, from my experience, that white teacher looks straight at the Black child when the situations are being brought up. I think teachers need to not do that.
Ashton: One thing is just recognizing holidays. Even if it's something that's not as nationally recognized, like June 19th. Or Martin Luther King Day—things like that are very important to me, and I don't think most teachers did that. There are only one or two African-American teachers at my school, and I told one of them, “Happy Martin Luther King Day.” He said it back to me, and I told him, “You’re one of the only teachers that recognizes what day it is.” Most people would think of it just as an off day for school, but I don't see it as that. I think it’s more of a historical moment and a day of remembrance and celebration. The small things matter to me.
Samantha: I do think that schools should give certain knowledge of why immigrants come to this country, how difficult it is, how much of a sacrifice that people go through, and how much trauma happens. With that knowledge, I think there’s a chance people won’t racially profile others for their ethnicity. In schools, race should be talked about. All different kinds of races, all different kinds of racism, all different kinds of groups, all different kinds of movements—and how youth can be a part of this. We should be a part of this. This is our world, too, and our voices matter.