“Out to DeBunk the Bunk”: Antiracist Teaching in the 1940s and Today
by Zoë Burkholder - July 17, 2007
Inspired by horrific racial doctrines of Nazi Germany, American teachers during the Second World War designed some of the most daring and creative antiracist lessons ever seen in American schools. This essay analyzes critical “intercultural” lesson plans from the 1940s to see what they have to offer antiracist educators today. By teaching explicit lessons on the “scientific” definition of human race that demonstrated the biological equality of all people, these lessons highlighted the socially constructed nature of racism.
Just before Christmas break in 1943, in the middle of the most deadly war in human history, eighteen elementary students from P.S. 6 in Manhattan assumed their places on stage for the musical Meet Your Relatives. The purpose of this play, written by teacher Alice Nirenberg, was to popularize the anthropological definition of human race and its message of racial equality. As the curtain opened, twelve eminent scientists dressed in cap and gown stood in two rows on either side of an illustrated chart mounted in the center of the stage. Six children, wearing folk costumes from around the world, stood in front of the scientists and recited their opening lines:
First Child: You have heard many ideas since you were born on the question of Race, Religion, and Nationality. We all know Hitlers pet ideas on the superior, super-duper Aryan race. I dont have to tell you what he thinks of you or meor DO I?
Second: Dont Smile. He isnt the only one with pet ideas and pet hates. Why even here in our own democratic America, there are some people who are all mixed up on the subject of Race, Religion, and Nationality.
Third: Did you know that there are some people in our own country who think there is something very specially superior about belonging to the White Race? They actually think that the yellow, the black, and the red races are inferiorDO YOU?
The answer was an emphatic no, and the entire cast called out, Well, we feel that all these ideas and hates are the bunkand this morning we are out to DeBunk the Bunk
Fifth: We are going to clear up the whole mess once and for all
All: And we are going to clear it up scientifically!1
Under the direction of Ms. Nirenberg the students did just that, reciting for the audience the anthropological definition of human race as delineated in the recent publication Races of Mankind (1943) by Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish. This small, illustrated pamphlet challenged Nazi racial propaganda by asserting the relative equality of what scientists in the 1940s understood as the three races of mankind: Mongoloid, Negroid, and Caucasian. Presented as the scientific contribution to the race front, Races of Mankind promised to lay out the facts that have been learned and verified concerning human biological differences.2
Figure : The bright ones as well as the strong ones come in all colors. from Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, In Henry's Backyard (1948).
Long forgotten by todays educators, American teachers during World War II waged an unparalleled war on racism in the classroom. Inspired to defeat the terrifying specter of Nazi racism, American teachers, administrators, and college professors in the 1940s developed anti-prejudice intercultural education to defuse the palpable racism they located in their classrooms and communities.
What is most fascinating about intercultural education during World War II was the central role that anthropology played in challenging the myth of racism. Facing an onslaught of racialist propaganda from Nazi Germany, American educators pushed scientific lessons on the meaning of human race in the classroom. Unlike the cautious skepticism we tend to show toward scientific studies today, Americans in the 1940s accepted scientific doctrines as impartial, objective knowledge. Teachers seized upon the scientific message of racial equality as an effective way to fight racism in the classroom. If students could simply learn what scientists knew about racial equality, the argument went, they would cease to be racist.
Figure : Students Studying the Poster Series "Races of Mankind" (1948).
Anthropologists jumped at the chance to bring their scientific knowledge to bear on a major social dilemma by publishing inexpensive pamphlets, illustrated childrens books, and animated films that clarified scientific truths on racial differences. They asserted the biological equality of individuals from any race, insisting instead that culture was a far more useful concept for understanding and explaining human diversity.
It was the scientific quality of Races of Mankind that made it so amenable to teachers like Alice Nirenberg. Pressured by politicians to teach tolerance for racial minorities during the war, teachers like Nirenberg were looking for a strategic way to teach racial equality in what could be, despite administrative support, a volatile and unstable context. As teachers initiated antiracist education, for instance, students often retorted with the reasons they disliked Negroes, Japs, Italians, or Jews, among other racial minorities in the classroom. It was not uncommon for a teacher to deliver a lecture on racial tolerance, only to have a student jump out of his seat and shout, as one New Jersey student did: The only solution is to get a tommy-gun and kill them off. The rest is nonsense. There is no room for idealism in this war.3
Figure : There Is No Jewish Race from Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, The Races of Mankind (1943).
Yet the more Americans demonstrated their overt and highly visible racism during World War II, the more reformers dedicated themselves to improving antiracist education. With science as his shield, the educator must bridge our great divides, proclaimed African American philosopher Alain Locke to teachers in 1940.4 Locke, like other intellectuals, believed that science with its neutral and authoritative armor would literally shield teachers from criticism as they waged an educational war on racism. Following the lead of the twentieth centurys most prominent anthropologist, Franz Boas, these activist scholars directed the brunt of their ammunition against what Ruth Benedict called the race myth.5 In other words, reformers believed that by teaching Americans a particular scientific definition of human race, people would come to understand that race, as an idea, was more a historical and social construction, or myth, than a meaningful biological category for explaining human diversity.
Surveying the unfolding global catastrophe before them, American teachers grabbed hold of this new anthropological antiracist pedagogy. As a high school teacher in New York City proposed: Now that the daily headlines have invaded the American classroom with reports of national rivalry and race hatred, we should not barricade ourselves behind routine dictionary work but launch a counterattack for the coming victory of democracy.6 Teachers centered anthropological knowledge about race and culture as a powerful weapon in this counterattack. Mayme Sloat, a science teacher in St. Louis reiterated, Science disproves racial superiority and shows that biological differences are slight as compared with cultural differences.7 Foreshadowing what we would today call multiculturalism, teachers in the 1940s instituted some of the most critical antiracist education on record in American schools. By teaching the scientific definition of race, which clearly demonstrated the biological equality of all humans, teachers were compelled to discuss the social and political implications of racism.
"The Peoples of the Earth Are One Family." Races of Mankind (1943).
The antiracist, intercultural education of the 1940s did not survive the Cold War era with its calculated suppression of social justice and its intense scrutiny of public school teachers. Yet the impetus, ideas, and experiences of teaching young students to understand the biological equality of human race and the significance of culture in explaining human diversity persisted, to emerge forcefully as multicultural education in the 1990s. Today, multicultural education stands at a crossroads in American schooling. While multicultural education is institutionalized in some respects, for example it is a regular component of teacher education, many academics (and teachers) are skeptical of the potential of multiculturalism to modify deeply ingrained racial prejudice. A historical perspective on antiracist education reveals the potential power of scientific knowledge to serve as a powerful weapon against racism. How many lessons on multiculturalism include a scientific analysis of the meaning of human race? Consider the potential of inviting students to enter the raging debates on the meaning of human race. For example, while the American Anthropological Associations (AAA) official statement on race emphatically denies the existence of biological races, medical researchers have been exploring the possibilities of tailoring medication to a patients race or ethnicity.8 How can we explain this disparity, and what are the consequences of these issues for larger questions of social justice in a democracy?
Today, teachers face the daunting task of reviving antiracist education for the twenty-first century. Like Alice Nirenberg, the teacher quoted at the beginning of this essay, teachers must seize hold of scientific knowledge on race and culture and make it their own. It is teachers, after all, who possess the specialized knowledge and training to translate complicated materials on race for young students. Ms. Nirenberg, for example, set anthropological facts on human race to the most popular song of 1943, a western swing song called Pistol Packin Mama. On a cold morning in December, her students lined up on stage and sang out:
Any one can notice
The color of a race
Its easily detected
By looking at a face.
No matter if you happen to
Be white or brown or yellow,
Chemically your skins the same
As any other fellow
Lay that Pistol down, Babe
Lay that pistol down
Pistol packin mama
Lay that pistol down.
Whether or not this song conveyed the depth of anthropological knowledge on racial equality, the important thing is that it represented an ingenious approach to teaching racial equality in the classroom. As Ms. Nirenberg discovered, it is impossible to recognize the biological equality of human beings without considering the social inequality of so-called racial minorities in America. It is the process of inquiry and discovery that we need to revitalize if we are ever going to encourage a new generation of Americans to DeBunk the Bunk.
1. Alice B. Nirenberg, Meet Your Relatives, Common Ground 2, no. 4 (1944): 17-23. The quotes are from page 17.
2. Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, The Races of Mankind. Public Affairs Pamphlet No. 85 (New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1943): 5.
3. Charles I. Glicksberg, Education for Hate, English Journal 34, no. 1 (1945): 19-26. The quote is from page 21.
4. Alain Locke, With Science as His Shield: The Educator Must Bridge Our Great Divides, Frontiers of Democracy 6, no. 53 (1940): 208-210.
5. Ruth Benedict, Ammunition to Slay the Race Myth, American Unity 1, no. 2 (1942): 18-23.
6. Joseph Bellafiore, Intercultural Understanding Through World Study, English Journal 30, no. 8 (1941): 640-644. The quote is from page 640.
7. Mayme Louise Sloat, Science Teaching Can Develop Intercultural Understanding, American Unity 3, no. 9 (1945): 15-19. The quote is from page 16.
8. This position is asserted by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), see the AAA Statement on Race adopted by the Executive Board on May 17, 1998 at http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm. Also see www.understandingrace.org. For a range of perspectives on whether or not race has useful medical implications, see the collection of papers at http://raceandgenomics.ssrc.org published by the Social Science Research Council.