In defense of an uncomfortable education.

There were two occasions during my public-school career when I was asked to sit in the hallway as punishment. First, when I asked “why” in an algebra class and secondly when I objected to my history teacher describing American slavery as an institution where slaves actually benefited from the benevolence of slave owners. The apologetic my instructor was touting was a common refrain in rural white communities that romanticized the slave experience on palatial plantations where all the needs of the enslaved were provided for by their masters. My objection to this lie was a simple one, “But they were still slaves, right?” At which point my teacher labeled me obnoxious and invited me to leave the class room. Reflecting upon my public education experiences, it is clear, that for very different reasons algebra made me uncomfortable as did my history teacher’s attempt to whitewash the American story. 

On Friday, May 7, 2021, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1775 which prohibits any instruction in the class room that involves among other concepts the use of Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory is a perspective employed by educators and scholars to better understand culture and society. It is not a worldview or theology. It is a tool to better understand the continuing implications of history, similar to the way quadratic equations are applied in higher forms of math to better understand numbers.

This action of limiting the use of these theories and other perspectives severely truncates the ability of Oklahoma educators to fully engage the truth of American history. Further, it is a disservice to students across the State, precisely because, one of the most powerful experiences of any classroom are those that are the most uncomfortable. For example, a specific provision of HB 1775 forbids that individuals receiving education in Oklahoma should be made to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” 

But few lessons of history result in the warm fuzzies. Learning that the white citizens of Tulsa, motivated by envy and greed, violently attacked the Black businesses and families of the Greenwood District in the Tulsa Race Massacre is uncomfortable to learn about, but it is a necessary discomfort. These are lessons that all of us in the white community must learn, to ensure that it never happens again. Wisdom reminds us that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and further “What is never acknowledged is never changed.” Quality education is a cornerstone of a progressive society that is rooted in understanding history, resulting in correcting the inequalities that remain embedded in its institutions and systems. 

On September 11, 2001, I was returning to class at Arkansas Northeastern College. I remember distinctly walking down the hall of that community college and being told that I should find a television set to see what was unfolding in New York City. All these years later, I still feel the emotions associated with witnessing those dark moments, as do all of us that were present in the world on that infamous day. These are uncomfortable feelings that I never want to stop feeling. I want the events of 9/11 taught in our classrooms and I want students in generations to come, who are far removed from those events, to continue to be made to feel uncomfortable about the horrible events of that day. It is important that the feel uncomfortable about these events, as well as contemplate the resulting implications of these events.

As Americans it is interesting what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. Specifically, how we as white Americans often become angry and defensive when we are reminded of our national shame of slavery, segregation, and murder of Black people. Atrocities that, with only a few exceptions, were generally endorsed by every denominational stream of Christianity. And while the events of September 11, 2001, where three thousand of our fellow citizens lost their lives at the hands of Islamic terrorist was a national tragedy that should be memorialized, we should also appropriately, and with greater frequency lament the thousands of Black people who lost their lives, freedoms, and fortunes to the evils of white supremacy. 

As James H. Cone points out in The Cross and the Lynching Tree “Between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men & women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.” And of course, lynching and other racially motivated acts of terror did not end in 1940, they continue along with everyday systemic inequalities and injustices perpetuated through our institutions and culture. 

Imagine if someone suggested that 9/11 was long ago, and that we should let “the past stay in the past” and we should “move on” and because it made students feel “uncomfortable” that we should ignore teaching these difficult lessons. The responding outrage would be appropriately vociferous. But every single day the same kind of dismissive remarks are leveled at those who share the historical facts of what happened to Black people at the hands of white people in our country. 

I’m also quite confident that many of the supporters of the actions of Governor Stitt and the Republican authors of HB 1775 that prohibit students being made to feel uncomfortable about certain aspects of our collective histories would also collectively chafe over the same students receiving “participation trophies” as to not make anyone feel uncomfortable for losing. These lawmakers understand the strategic importance of discomfort in teaching certain life lessons but deny the utility of leveraging the same kind of discomfort to educate future generations in avoiding the atrocities of past generations. 

Certain aspects of math and history still make me uncomfortable, but maturity has taught me that this discomfort is often the pathway to some of the most beneficial lessons I could ever learn. As a society, the information we choose to share, and the information we choose to repress, and how that information results in uncomfortable feelings for others, and most importantly ourselves, reveals what we value, prioritize, and ultimately what we will perpetuate or eradicate. 

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