Learning “History”

This piece is going to be a little more intense and a little less polished than I usually like to make my posts, but I think this is something that it’s important to talk about. It’s also going to be talking a lot about my personal experience in specifically history classes, and the way white privilege influences discussions of history.

Now, before you click away, I know that hearing a white person talk about white privilege is probably the last thing most people want to do, and if I mess something up, feel free to let me know and I will make appropriate corrections. But the way we learn and talk about history influences our writing and our reading in ways that we may not be aware of, so it’s something that it’s crucial to discuss.

This particular discussion is spawned by the way my history teacher in 10th grade taught about European colonisation of the Americas. He quite frequently implied that the Spanish in particular somehow helped the people that they enslaved and slaughtered. While I know that history would not be the same if not for the genocide of native people, that doesn’t justify the whole “genocide of native people” part of that sentence. I know, I know, what a hot take, Alindra. “Genocide is bad and so is colonialism!” Yes. It is. With that as a given, let’s talk about how we discuss this fact and the way it ripples through all of history and into the present day.

My history teacher really liked to talk about how the native people would often turn on one another and convert to Catholicism in the favour of the Spanish invaders. Everything about his discussion, from the specific terms he used to the broad strokes of racism and manipulation of native peoples that he somehow forgot to mention, had problematic aspects. It’s important to mention here that my history teacher was white. His family was from Germany, and probably 90% of his students specifically and 75% of the all students at my school were similarly privileged. As such, his exposure to the perspective of native people on the atrocities suffered under European hands was limited at best. When I would protest to his use of the word “Indian” to describe Native American people and groups or his insistence that the Spanish did indeed help indigenous Americans by slaughtering and enslaving them, he would argue that I had no reason to be angry at such things, given that they were in the past and had no impact on today. Obviously, that’s absurd. The continued impact of racism generally and anti-indigenous sentiments specifically are seen all too clearly in the Dakota Access Pipeline and continued discrimination and appropriation in popular culture. My teacher’s insistence that I ought to have no negative opinion on this topic forced me to reference the fact that my great-grandmother (a relative certainly distant enough to not affect my own privilege) was Huron in order for him to take my criticisms with even a modicum of understanding. You should not need a familial or ancestral connection to a marginalised group in order to have sympathy for said marginalised group, or to condemn the enslavement and murder of members of that group.

What was perhaps the most disturbing part of this entire experience was not the bigotry demonstrated by my white, older, male, Christian teacher, but the acceptance of such bigotry shown by my young and relatively liberal classmates. No one protested my teacher’s use of the word “Indian” or glossing over of the slaughter of native people except for me. The influence that this bigot had over my friends and peers was horrifying. None of them protested his speech or his lies. I couldn’t believe it. For an hour and a half every day, I would sit there and listen to my teacher in a public, non-religious school denounce native people, Muslims, and anyone who was not white or Christian while praising even the most vile and brutal practices of the Church in Europe and the rest of the world. He would argue that “the realities of the time” justified murder and slavery. It was disgusting. It was horrible. And it was accepted, readily and willingly, by my white, upper-class, Christian classmates. And so privilege and the horror that came with it are perpetuated.

This kind of teaching has absolutely massive impacts on those who learn from it. This kind of teaching is why even liberal white people felt comfortable ignoring and justifying Trump’s racism and bigotry. This kind of teaching is why the Dakota Access Pipeline is being pushed through. This kind of teaching is why people feel comfortable writing gross caricatures of native people and cultures in their writings, a la Carve the Mark. This kind of teaching is dangerous and horrible and awful.

This kind of teaching hurts.

I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this post is. Maybe just to complain, maybe to highlight a problem that people should try to avoid, maybe just to vent about my kind of terrible history teacher. But here we are. Again, I apologise for the nonsensical, rambling, unpolished nature of this post, but it was something I needed to say. Just remember, through bigotry and hatred and denial of suffering, whatever happens, just keep writing.

Alindra is an author, dance teacher, and choreographer. If you want to keep up with whatever the hell it is she calls her life, follow her on social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, etc) @alindrawrites or support her Patreon at patreon.com/alindrawrites

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