This Black History Month, a decision made by a school in North Ogden, Utah drew significant press attention and condemnation from citizens across the nation. The school had introduced additional programming to support Black History Month, but after receiving pressure from some parents, gave them the option to opt their children out of the curriculum. Though the policy has since been retracted, its initiation is troubling for many reasons. Primary among the reasons is the notion that the history of an entire racial demographic is optional, implying its inferiority to a significant portion of the population. According to the Utah State Board of Education, more than 70% of the school’s population is white, with Black students comprising a mere three out of 322 students. Moreover, 94.2% of North Ogden’s population is white, making exposure to the history and achievements of people from different cultures even more imperative. With such little representation in the student body and broader environment, Black History Month may serve as some students’ only opportunity to explore their history in a communal forum. Black history is American History, and any educational experience is incomplete without it. By minimizing this history to an elective lesson, it conveys to the students that their culture and elements of their identity are unimportant and promotes ignorance.
Schools are supposed to be nurturing environments in which students feel safe to explore unknown topics and concepts, learn from their mistakes, and strengthen their characters and love for intellectual inquiry. However, for many students of color, this archetype is inconsistently applied, which I know all too well. When I was in second or third grade, my elementary school art teacher began lining her students up at the end of each class according to how well behaved, creative, and attentive we were. What began as an activity designed to reward the “best” students soon morphed into a grotesquely racist and discriminatory practice. During one lineup, I remember her cold, sharp fingers digging into my shoulders, and dragging me to the back of the line, along with the handful of other Black children in the class. Being six or seven years old at the time, I don’t remember how frequently this occurred, but I do remember sadly looking toward the front of the line, where my white and Asian friends were celebrated for their “artistic creativity” and “good behavior.” This is just one of my many encounters with racism in academic settings: from being cast as an animal in the school’s 4th-12th grade play to hearing my white teacher mock Harriet Tubman’s appearance and assert that makeup hadn’t yet been invented during her time because if it had, she would have used it.
Incidents like these can drastically impact one’s perceptions of self-worth, internalized abilities, and ideas of community and broader society. It wasn’t until recently that I processed how traumatizing it was for an authority figure to infer that because of their skin color, certain children are better artists and more creative than others, or for my history teacher to critique the appearance of a figure who fought to free Black people from bondage.
Racism in academia is not a new trend, nor will it be easily eradicated, but through collective activism and communal pressure, it can be ameliorated. In the midst of America’s racial uprisings last summer, I joined dozens of other high schoolers across the nation in our quest to make schools more hospitable for all students. In June, I established my school’s “Black at” Instagram account to raise awareness of the racism and discrimination that Black students experience on and off of our campus. To do so, I created a Google Form in which submitters shared personal anecdotes, and then transcribed them into a graphic platform to post on the account. After the page began gaining traction, I hosted evening meetings with account followers, students, and alumni to brainstorm solutions to issues that submitters highlighted.
It soon became evident that many of the submitted anecdotes were not isolated incidents, but were part of a larger thread of racism and discrimination, so I decided to further my action. Through the Instagram story functions, I collected suggestions from followers for ways to improve the community, and from this, I crafted specific and targeted steps that my school could take to address these issues. This work culminated with the presentation of a List of Demands to school administrators, department heads, and community members, including demands to add more cultural history courses to the curriculum, hire a counselor to address the mental health needs of students of color, and require faculty members to undergo implicit bias training.
While my high school’s response was overwhelmingly positive, I recognize that not all students have the same experience. If the Utah school’s situation tells us anything, it’s that while progress is possible, it comes as a result of constant advocacy from community members, and people in power who are willing to listen. I won’t stop fighting until Juneteenth gains the national notoriety that July 4th does, until Toni Morrison literary legacy is as revered as Shakespeare’s, or until figures like Sojourner Truth are as nominally recognizable as Susan B. Anthony.