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Silencing Racism: Remembering and Forgetting Race and Racism in 11th Grade U.S. History Classes

by John S. Wills - 2019

Background: The continuing significance of race in U.S. society and culture begs the question of what role history and social studies education can and should play in preparing students to critically and constructively address race and racism in contemporary U.S. society and culture. However, research on history and social studies curriculum and practice continues to demonstrate significant problems in meaningfully including and representing race, racism, and racial violence in U.S. history, underscoring the need for additional research to improve how we address race and racism in history and social studies education.

Purpose: I examined how teachers’ understandings of race and racism, which informed their use of curricular materials, and the content, focus, and framing of race and racism in the formal curriculum shaped the inclusion and representation of race and racism in the enacted U.S. history curriculum in their classes.

Research Design: Qualitative methods were used to study U.S. history instruction in three teachers’ classes at a suburban high school. This included daily observations in each teacher’s class over a 7-month period, observation of weekly teacher planning meetings, individual interviews with teachers and group interviews with students, and collection of all curricular materials, and samples of student work.

Findings: Race and racism were addressed in lessons on U.S. imperialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s in a U.S. foreign policy unit and in a civil rights unit that focused on the civil rights movement. In both units race remained an elusive concept, for example referencing skin color but also culture and nationality, and racism was represented as shared beliefs in the superiority of whites over nonwhites. However, during the civil rights unit, the representation of racism as an individual psychological phenomenon of prejudice and stereotyping came to be privileged over other representations and, coupled with ambiguous understandings of race, this enabled the decoupling of race from representations of racism. Additionally, race was eventually forgotten in accounts of civil rights movement events as teachers’ use of the formal curriculum deflected attention away from discussions of race and racism.

Conclusions: More robust understandings of race as a process of racialization and representations of racism as structural and systemic would assist teachers in presenting a continuous history of racism in the United States that would better outfit students to constructively engage racism in the present.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 4, 2019, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22598, Date Accessed: 5/6/2021 6:58:22 PM

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About the Author
  • John Wills
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    JOHN S. WILLS is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. His research interests include history-social studies education, schooling and collective memory, and the cultural politics of school knowledge. A recent publication is Wills, J. S. (2011). Misremembering as mediated action: Schematic narrative templates and elementary students’ narration of the past. Theory & Research in Social Education, 39(1), 115–144.
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