Why History Classes Need to Start Teaching About People of Color

We all remember our high school world history class. It was filled with stories of explorers “discovering” new worlds, of intellectuals and politicians relentlessly debating their beliefs, and of hundreds of thousands dying in various genocides and wars. Fancy terms were crammed into our heads as we learned about endless world conflicts and how they have shaped our culture today. Assuming you went to a public school or one that roughly followed the same guidelines, most of us probably learned nearly the same things. Each state has learning requirement for high school classes, and history is no exception. Most of these statewide standards mimic other states very closely. But there is one major thing our high schools missed: the history of people that aren’t white.

Yes, I know. That doesn’t sound right. How can schools simply forget about the stories behind such a large part of the world? Well, let’s look at an example. The California state standard for history and social science classes mentions a specific country or continent by name 182 times.  Out of every one of those times, Africa, or a country in it, was mentioned a grand total of eight times. Eight. That’s right: the second largest continent in both land mass and population is a grand total of 4% of the subject matter in world history classrooms. And Asia, which is currently 62% of the world’s population, is 13% of what teenager learn (24 mentions in total). North and South America combined had 24 mentions, around 14% (the US was mentioned 14 times), and Oceania had zero. Europe, on the other hand, had a whopping 124 mentions, or 68% of the total subject matter. Russia (including the USSR) tied the US for most mentions at 14, the UK and France tied for second with 13, and Germany had 12.

Obviously, the history of our world is not actually centered around white countries. So many places around the globe are filled with rich, vibrant culture that is backed with a remarkable story. But right now, white people are all we ever hear about and all we ever talk about. History classes have been stuck on white history since the beginning of time, and the ignorance that comes with it is the foundation of so many problems we face in our country today.

The misconceptions that start in high school classrooms is now affecting our media without many of us even realizing. Dunkirk, a summer 2017 movie directed by Christopher Nolan, tells the story of the evacuation of Allied Forces out of a beach in Nazi-occupied Dunkirk, France. The film, which has been praised for its picturesque cinematography, portrays this critical moment in World War II as a sea of white skinned, dark haired young men. But the movie forgot about one major detail: there were Indian troops there, too. Four companies of the Royal Indian Service Corps were at the battle of Dunkirk, equalling over 1000 men. In fact, 1 in 4 people on British merchant ships was from Southeast Asia and East Africa by 1938. But somehow we have managed to completely erase the lives these men sacrificed in favor of the classic “white male hero” story that we all know so well.

How did we let such major pieces of history fall through the cracks?

The fact is most white people have only learned about white people. And if people only learn about others like themselves, naturally it will lead them to believe that they are better than everyone else. The most important reason to teach history is to teach our youth to never repeat it. How can we do that if we ignore most of world history? We need to start teaching our future world leaders about the real history. About the real world. About all the cultures America has appropriated, made into jokes or torn down and shredded. We need to learn about the people who sacrificed their lives for us, who we have killed and still pushed to the side. Then, and only then, can we start fixing what our country has become.

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