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Teaching Race in Schools in the 21st Century

In the essay below, Douglas Edelstein, a Social Sciences instructor at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington, describes the challenges faced by instructors of all backgrounds in sensitively teaching issues of race in public and private schools.  

Students who encounter racism in texts can experience racial trauma, even if the larger overall message or theme of the text is antiracist. Good teaching of racially charged texts can minimize trauma for students and make accessible the broader antiracist themes of the text, as well as any literary or other qualities of value.

A Native American student sat in her tenth grade classroom at our school, reading the classic novel of modern dystopia, Brave New World .   In it, Aldous Huxley introduces a place called the “savage land,” where modernity has never taken hold. Here live in relative squalor Native people and rebels or cast-outs from the mainstream society. By the end of the book, Huxley ultimately makes clear that this “savage land” is really the only “civilized” place in society, where values are morally correct, perspectives proper, human life is understood and lived in its most humane and compassionate meanings, and people are wiser and more human than their modernized counterparts. But well before the reader gets there -- before the irony of the term “savage” is fully revealed -- the Native student, dutifully reading along, has encountered a number of contemptuous references to the “savages” who inhabit this “savage land.” These people have been described by characters in the novel as backward, unclean, uncivilized, simple, primitive, violent, ungoverned – in short, every stereotype ever thrown at Native Americans. The Native student feels betrayed by the teacher, angry, belittled, disenfranchised, bashed, dehumanized, unseen, insulted, unjustly singled out, nearly everything a student would legitimately feel if they had been intentionally and overtly insulted because of their race. 

The student, feeling racially assaulted, tunes out, turns off,

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