Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Teaching about victimization requires context

Tonight, as my seven year old did homework, a commercial came on for the new Jackie Robinson movie, “42”.  Her question to my wife got me thinking:  “Who is Jackie Robinson?”  She has heard of Martin Luther King, many Catholic saints, and the Obamas.  She understands that these are important names and important people, can tell you their roles, and a little from their back story.  I realized, in her question, that she wanted to know his story.  

Here is the clincher:  As we deconstruct racism, the pushback of those with power (what is sometimes referred to a perception of reverse racism/sexism, etc), and expand the lesson out from there, we can turn this into a study of dominant group and how history education is subverted by accident.  Stick with me here:

First of all, with young children, recitation and memorization are a standard and acceptable part of education.  Nuance is not something that young children are capable of at an Elementary level.  To understand that Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player to play professionally in the national leagues is a response that my seven year old can completely memorize.  But, does it help her understand Why they made it a movie?  Is it clear to her the context of the role Jackie Robinson played?  Absolutely not.  

If I raise my children in the dominant (white) culture of the United States with no background of our racial history, without a context for what we are today, then so seeds of our own destruction.  If my children are taught to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., without understand the world he fought so hard to change, then we are left with something simple:  his skin color.  To understand this fully, if I am seven, have no history background, and see a movie preview, and the answer is that this was a black man who played baseball, it shapes me.  If Obama is celebrated as the first black president, and I don’t understand the Civil Rights Movement because I am only a child, then I left with the surface.  We celebrate his election because he is black.  

To build on that, as I grow with this limited understanding, without a proper understanding of the history to fully flesh out our understanding, we are left with a power struggle.  I am a young white child.  Here is a man celebrated for being black.  What?  Don’t worry, when you get older, we’ll fill in the rest of the context.  By the time you are in your junior year, we’ll explain that Jackie Robinson was treated poorly because of his skin color.  But that is ten years down the road.  

Now, if we expand this same concept beyond race, and we look at any group that we hold out as a symbol of victimization who rose above, we run the risk of creating a pushback in education.  We must be careful that we don’t create a sense of victimhood or separateness for groups that are not dominant.  When we teach Holocaust Education, we must not take the victims out of the context.  When we teach, at as early an age as we can, we must be sure to be clear not to separate ourselves from the victims.  We are both human first.  We must give the full context, not just the simple answer.  Genocide happens when a dominant group is able to convince their children that another group is a victim and is a threat to their hegemony.  But, it is never that clear.  Instead, we put it in ways that are more invasive.  “They make poor choices for themselves, and don’t take personal responsibility.”  “They are getting handouts/taking opportunities from us/degrading our culture.”  “If we allow them to continue, they will bring this country/culture/party/etc to its knees.  We must stop them.”  

When we teach historical topics to our youth, we must be sure to keep them in the context of the event.  We must not stop at the easy answer.  We must give a complete response that leads to more difficult questions.  We may not have the answers, and it may not be a comfortable question, but when we are asked “Who is Jackie Robinson”, or “Who is Anne Frank”, we can’t stop with he was a black baseball player, or she was Jew fleeing Hitler.  We must do justice to those who gave their lives, willingly or unwillingly, to change the world. 

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