Opinion
Social Studies Opinion

How Can White Teachers Teach Black History? Six Things You Need to Know

Black historical consciousness requires more than just a pedagogical shift
By Daniel P. Tulino, Greg Simmons & Brianne R. Pitts — February 16, 2021 5 min read
Opinion 021021 23Tulino Black History Education 1249854966
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Black History Month 2021 might be one of the most consequential of its celebrations in its nearly century-long history. After an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a summer full of racial violence and protest, and a year marked by anti-Black racism, we have no excuse not to teach Black history.

White teachers must teach Black history. Not because we do it particularly well, but because nationally, we make up roughly 80 percent of the public K-12 workforce and we cannot rely on our colleagues of color to do this work for us.

Teaching Black history is not merely a consideration of pedagogy. To engage in liberatory and humanizing Black history instruction, we must consider our own epistemological (knowledge), ontological (beliefs), and methodological (practical) understandings. In our experience, effectively teaching Black history requires white teachers like us to decenter our whiteness, address our fears, and develop a community of collaborators who will do this work alongside us.

As LaGarrett J. King recently wrote in Education Week, we must teach through Black history, not only about it. The goal is to understand the world through the experiences of Black folks, not to simply teach about topics, individuals, or movements associated with the Black experience.

While it is essential for teachers to tap into other educators’ experiences and learn from each other’s mistakes, a Black historical consciousness is more than a critical pedagogy; it includes a range of pedagogies including multiculturalism, ethnic studies, and cultural relevance and responsiveness. We can use this Black historical consciousness to analyze and refine our teaching of Black history, not just in February but across the whole school year.

For white teachers to effectively engage students in learning Black history, we must question everything about the way we teach and learn in schools. Positivism—a dominant view in Western thought that confines what is “knowable” to what can be proven through the scientific method—is not the only framework with which we can make sense of history. Teachers should think critically about teaching materials and textbooks that both privilege Eurocentric content knowledge and Western ways of knowing more broadly.

As a trio of white teachers who have taught kindergartners and graduate students, we have wrestled with how to embody these objectives. We’ve learned from leaders in Black intellectual thought and developed a short list of recommendations and warnings for other white teachers—and all teachers socialized in a system that privileges white-centric ways of knowing. We recognize that this list is not definitive and we know that we are still learning.

In 2018, the then-8-year-old Chicago elementary student King Johnson addressed a journal assignment to his teacher after a particularly troubling Columbus Day lesson, asking, “My question for the day is how can white people teach Black history?” It’s a good question and one we hope to answer in part here:

1. Be self-reflective. Identify who you are and where you are, with attention to the privileges and blind spots. Consider your knowledge within the current and past social and political contexts. The work of self-reflection should not be a one-off, but rather, a daily process.

2. Learn both the content and context. There is a wealth of resources available for teachers, including online, in text, film, podcasts, and even children’s book adaptations. Use online databases and Black history materials to better leverage a professional learning community. Further engage your students in learning Black history, inviting their knowledge, experiences, and lives into the conversation. That doesn’t mean relying on any of your students to teach you but instead developing instruction that includes their experiences and interests. Be open to learning and accept the multiple ways that students engage with history at home and in the community. Knowing the context is as important as knowing the content.

3. Include and center Black perspectives. Be critical of the materials you are using. Are they offering a comprehensive representation of the Black figures you’ve presented, or are you reinforcing Eurocentric narratives? Avoid superficial representations of heroes and heroines. Teach through Black joy, brilliance, resistance, and agency.

See Also

Image of Carter G. Woodson
AP Photo and Getty

4. Decenter not only Eurocentric ideals but also Western ways of knowing. Critically reassessing Eurocentric narratives of Black history will be uncomfortable. Accept that you will make mistakes. Learn to apologize and grow from them. Even the most self-proclaimed racially or socially conscious white teacher or “woke” ally will mess up.

5. Be persistent and continue to try. Listen openly and take notes when others (especially your students or families) offer you suggestions and critique. Reflect and evolve. Find your allies to share your experiences, create collaborations and community, and sustain your soul.

6. Hold the tension between yourself and “the work.” Your allegiance is to your students. Teaching this subject as a white person is filled with a variety of tensions that are vital that you grapple with. This work is more than just teaching students—it’s about your growth, too. Interrupt your colleagues’ representations of Black history that do not humanize and seek to liberate. Shout down the terrible, dehumanizing, and hateful representations of Black history and Black History Month. It will be uncomfortable, but you can do it. Whatever you experience while learning about the difficult histories of Black Americans (or recognizing your own blind spots) is slight in comparison to the harm Black Americans have faced throughout U.S. history.

Teaching Black history through liberatory and humanizing means is a long-term, difficult goal, but with time and commitment, white teachers can and must achieve it. To paraphrase famed educator Carter G. Woodson, our focus should not be on Black history but rather Black people in history. Only then can we teach what Woodson describes as a “history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”

Related Tags:

Events

Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Roundtable Webinar: Why We Created a Portrait of a Graduate
Hear from three K-12 leaders for insights into their school’s Portrait of a Graduate and learn how to create your own.
Content provided by Otus

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies What the Research Says Oral History Offers a Model for How Schools Can Introduce Students to Complex Topics
Community history projects like a curriculum in Memphis, Tenn. can help students grapple with issues like school segregation, experts say.
4 min read
A group photo picturing 12 of the Memphis 13.
A group photo of 12 of the Memphis 13 students.
Courtesy of the Memphis 13 Foundation
Social Studies How These Teachers Build Curriculum 'Beyond Black History'
A pilot to infuse Black history and culture in social studies is gaining ground in New York.
4 min read
Photograph of Dawn Brooks-DeCosta at Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in the Bronx.
Dawn Brooks Decosta, pictured on Oct. 2, 2020, is the deputy superintendent of the Harlem Community School District 5 in New York. Its 23 schools piloted units of a curriculum developed in collaboration between local educators and the Black Education Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College.
Kirsten Luce for Education Week
Social Studies Q&A Here's How AP African American Studies Helps Teachers 'Get Students to Think'
Ahenewa El-Amin in Kentucky is teaching the second year pilot of the College Board's new course set to officially launch this fall.
4 min read
Ahenewa El-Amin leads a conversation with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Ahenewa El-Amin leads a conversation with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Social Studies What Students Have to Say About AP African American Studies
Students at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., share their takeaways from the pilot course that officially launches this fall.
5 min read
Nia Henderson Louis asks a question during AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Nia Henderson-Louis asks a question during AP African American Studies at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week