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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.

From the election of Barack Obama in 2004 to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the subsequent deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and many other black men and women at the hands of police, to the rising visibility of white nationalists and the alt-right during the Trump campaign for president and continuing through the first year of his administration, the continuing significance of race in the United States is inescapable. Within this context, it is more important than ever to understand how students are educated about race and racism in history and social studies education, especially when empirical research on race in history and social studies has been limited (Levstik & Tyson, 2008) amid continuing calls to address race in history and social studies education (Chandler, 2015; Ladson-Billings, 2003). The purpose of this paper is to analyze how the enacted curriculum in three high school U.S. history classes addressed race and racism in U.S. history and the consequences of this in outfitting students to critically and constructively address race and racism in contemporary U.S. society and culture. In my analysis I demonstrate how teachers’ understandings of race and racism, which shaped their use of curricular materials, and the content, focus, and framing of race and racism in the formal curriculum together supported the explicit discussion of race and racism in these history classes while simultaneously enabling the eventual decoupling of race from racism and the eventual forgetting of racism in U.S. history.

This paper draws on data from a 7-month qualitative case study of the enacted curriculum in three 11th grade U.S. history classes at one suburban high school in Southern California to analyze how race and racism were remembered and forgotten in U.S. history. After reviewing relevant research, discussing the theoretical orientation informing my study, and presenting the study’s methods, data, and data analysis, I begin by analyzing how race and racism were represented in two units. The first unit, U.S. Foreign Policy. 1850–1950, included discussions of U.S. imperialism in which racism was represented as ideas and beliefs regarding the racial superiority of whites over nonwhite peoples, with racism referencing race as culture, nationality, skin color, ethnicity, way of life, and religion. In the second unit, on civil rights, racism was represented as stereotyping, prejudice, and hate, and again sometimes clearly referenced race but at other times referenced culture, ethnicity, society, or other things. However, partly because racism was reduced to an individual, psychological phenomenon (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Bryan, 2012; Gordon, 2015; Hill, 2008; Shoshana, 2017) and applied to many groups, and because race was represented in an ambiguous and elusive manner, teachers simultaneously attended to race and racism while also deflecting and silencing race and racism within individual lessons and across the civil rights unit. As a consequence, race eventually became decoupled from representations of racism, and racism was ultimately forgotten in accounts of the civil rights movement as teachers, following the formal curriculum, shifted attention away from racism in remembering civil rights events. I conclude the paper by arguing that it is essential to provide students with a history of race and racism in the United States that communicates how the concept of race represents and structures U.S. society (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Hill, 2008; Lipsitz, 1998; McCarthy, 1993; Omi & Winant, 1994) and how race is part of a continuous process of racialization that connects diverse groups throughout U.S. history (Feagin, 2013; Molina, 2014; Omi & Winant, 1994).


Calls for the importance of addressing race in history-social studies education (Chandler, 2015; Ladson-Billings, 2003) underscore the continuing problem of making race and racism visible in history and social studies curricula and classrooms, as race and racism are often invisible or silenced in historical narratives. Vasquez Heilig, Brown, and Brown (2012) analyzed the Texas social studies standards and argued that they provided the “illusion of inclusion” when it came to addressing race and racism, simultaneously recognizing and marginalizing the significance of race in narratives of U.S. history. Loewen found that textbooks failed to analyze racism as a factor in U.S. history and even avoided using terms such as racism or racial prejudice (1995, p. 144). Historical narratives often fall short in representing the interactions between whites and other racial and ethnic groups in U.S. history (Chandler & Branscombe, 2015; Wills, 1996, 2001), preventing opportunities for understanding the significance of race in U.S. history. A traditional master narrative of U.S. history focused on ”freedom, progress, and celebration of national development” (Barton & Levstik, 2004; VanSledright, 2008, p. 115) enables the remembering of a history devoid of diversity and one that diminishes the significance of race in U.S. history (Chandler, 2009). When the curriculum is attentive to race, it is often included through heroic or celebratory narratives that result in simplistic and uncontroversial accounts of important individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (Alridge, 2006) and this can, for example, deflect attention away from acknowledging systemic racism and racial violence during the civil rights movement (Wills, 2005). When racial violence towards African Americans is represented, it is portrayed as the acts of “bad” individuals and therefore the curriculum ignores the institutional and structural factors informing these actions (Brown & Brown, 2010).

In addition to problems in curriculum, teachers are not often prepared to talk about race and racism or feel comfortable doing so. Howard (2004) found that students believed that most of their teachers were “indifferent to race and race-related issues” (p. 497), and he noted the need to provide teachers with a theoretical framework to assist them in addressing race in U.S. history. The lack of preparation of teachers to deal with race and racism in their teaching is underscored by Gay’s (2003) analysis of education textbooks for social studies teachers, which failed to adequately define race and racism and understated and avoided racism, aspects of what she identified as a common pattern of deracialization in the textbooks. Chandler and Branscombe (2015) noted that teachers might be fearful to teach about race. Using critical race theory (CRT), they analyzed the practice of three teachers who did talk about race-related topics; however, their comments on race occurred outside the bounds of the formal curriculum and their mentioning of race remained tangential to the curriculum and so did little to challenge the racial status quo. Epstein’s (2009) study of six elementary and secondary teachers found that while teachers did address episodes of racism in U.S. history, extended talk about racism rarely occurred, teachers often silenced or ignored black students’ questions and comments about racism, and overall, teachers represented racism as exceptional and limited in U.S. history. Finally, Bolgatz (2005) studied two teachers who team-taught a high school U.S. history and language arts class and found that while institutional racism was sometimes addressed when discussing racism, racism was primarily represented as something that happened in the past and involved acts of hatred and extreme forms of discrimination, reducing racism to personal prejudice.


Research on history education has underscored the agency of teachers and students in producing historical knowledge in classrooms and in representing and interpreting the past (Barton & Levstik, 1996, 1998, 2004; Epstein, 1998, 2000, 2009; Schweber, 2004, 2006; Schweber & Irwin, 2003; Seixas, 1993; VanSledright, 2008; Wills, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2005, 2011; Wineburg, 2001; Wineburg, Mosborg, Porat, & Duncan, 2007). My theoretical orientation and method of analysis is informed by the work of Wertsch (1991, 1998, 2002) in viewing knowledge production in classrooms as a form of mediated action, in which teachers and students draw on a variety of curricular and popular materials (i.e., mediational means) which enable and constrain representational practices in classrooms. Remembering for Wertsch (2002) is seen as something people do rather than something people possess, and remembering the past is fundamentally about knowledge of texts. In classrooms, teachers and students draw on written, visual, audio, and audiovisual texts as tools for producing narrative accounts of specific historical actors and events, and these texts provide resources that enable some representations of the past while constraining others. This perspective underscores that classroom discourse about past events is not “free-floating” but anchored in texts, since history instruction in U.S. classrooms is typically textually based (VanSledright, 2008). Remembering and representing the past is always textually mediated, either through use of texts present in the classroom or reference to texts outside the classroom that provide resources for representing the past. Thus, interrupting, challenging, or disrupting privileged representations of race and racism perpetuated through history and social studies education necessitates understanding the textual foundation of this production, including the power of intertextuality evident in most classrooms; repetition of privileged representations across multiple texts gives cultural power and authority to some narrative accounts and representations of the past while silencing and marginalizing others.

Additionally, I view school knowledge as ideological knowledge and the product of a cultural politics (Apple, 1993, 2004), struggles over the inclusion and representation of the experiences of women and diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and other groups in school curricula that determine whose knowledge will be recognized as socially legitimate and incorporated into privileged narratives of history. These struggles involve relations of power that play out outside schools, evident in the battles over school curriculum that have characterized culture wars in the United States (Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn, 2000; Zimmerman, 2002). But struggles over inclusion and representation also occur inside classrooms as some representations of the past are remembered and privileged as alternatives are deflected, silenced, and forgotten (Wills, 1994, 2005). As Trouillot notes, any “historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences” (1995, p. 27) and any effort to narrate the past necessarily involves remembering and forgetting, a social and cultural process of occlusion (Wineburg, 2001) that perpetuates specific cultural silences. In terms of representing race and racism in U.S. history, I sought to document and explain how some representations of race and racism were given voice in the curriculum as others were deflected, silenced, and forgotten.

Finally, my perspective on race and racism is informed by work in critical multiculturalism, antiracist education, whiteness studies, and critical race theory (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 2004; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; McCarthy, 1993; Sleeter & Delgado Bernal, 2004) that views race as a historically contingent and contextual social construction, racism as normal in U.S. society and of continuing significance in structuring access and opportunity in the United States, and the power and privilege afforded to whiteness based on a history of public policies that have empowered whites at the expense of nonwhites (Lipsitz, 1998; Rothstein, 2017). These understandings of race and racism run counter to popular conceptions, especially among whites, that reduce racism to the prejudiced attitudes and beliefs of individuals, representing racism as a psychological rather than systemic and structural phenomenon (Bonilla-Silva, 2010).

As I will elaborate on at more length in discussing the findings of my analysis below, conceptualizing race as a process of racialization of different groups throughout U.S. history (Feagin, 2013; Molina, 2014; Omi & Winant, 1994) and recognizing race and racism as symbolic and structural (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Hill, 2008; Lipsitz, 1998; McCarthy, 1993; Omi & Winant, 1994) were helpful in understanding how teachers and students were making sense of race and racism in U.S. history and in thinking about ways to reform history curricula to better outfit students for critically engaging race and racism in contemporary U.S. society and culture. Whether viewed as racial scripts (Molina, 2014), white racial frames (Feagin, 2013), or racial formation (Omi & Winant, 1994), seeing race as a process whereby people of color were situated within racial categories and thereby constituted as inferior Others was at times consistent with representations evident in these classes, but these were later supplanted by representations of race as cultural difference or the denial of race due to our underlying common humanity. However, while racism was at times recognized as symbolic and representational, for example, as racial stereotypes and prejudices of people in specific time periods, these representations were never seen as informing, and being informed by, a racialized social structure. How racial categories structure society, embedding racial ideologies in laws and policies and institutional practices (Hill, 2008; Lipsitz, 1998; Molina, 2014) to constitute a racialized social system (Bonilla-Silva, 2010) remained unspoken and invisible in these classes as teachers, the enacted curriculum, and students ultimately privileged representations of racism as an individual, psychological phenomenon (Gordon, 2015).


Data are from a 7-month qualitative case study of instruction in U.S. history in three 11th grade classes at one suburban high school in Southern California. Palm High School (all proper names are pseudonyms) served approximately 3,000 students and was located in a middle to upper-middle class community. The student population had a plurality of white students (approximately 44%), but there were also large numbers of Latino students (34%) and smaller numbers of African American (6%) and Asian students (10%, including a significant number of Filipino students). The majority of teachers were white, as was the principal. There were a number of reasons I selected Palm High School as the site for my research. In line with my previous research (Wills, 1994, 1996, 2001), I was interested in the inclusion, exclusion, and representation of diverse peoples in the production of narrative accounts of U.S. history and how this might inform suburban students’ discourse on contemporary race and ethnic relations. Mr. Garcia, Mrs. Johnson, and Mrs. Curtis, the teachers who participated in my study, wanted to connect the history their students were learning to contemporary issues and events, an effort consistent with my interest in how school history outfits students with cultural tools and resources for engaging contemporary social and cultural debates and controversies. Additionally, these teachers had rejected a strictly chronological approach to U.S. history and instead organized the curriculum into thematic units, offering the possibility of observing the creation of a narrative of U.S. history that avoided the pitfalls and constraints of master narratives that confine and contain diverse peoples to specific periods and events in U.S. history (Wills, 1994, 1996) while perpetuating simplistic narratives that celebrate the unproblematic progress and expansion of freedom and opportunity to all citizens of the United States (Barton & Levstik, 2004; VanSledright, 2008). Finally, when I initially met with the teachers, they mentioned that one of the units they taught was on civil rights, a unit they felt had been very successful the previous year, and this suggested at least one place in the curriculum where teachers might explicitly address race and racism in U.S. history. For these reasons, these teachers’ classes seemed to provide an ideal research site for studying the inclusion, exclusion, and representation of diverse peoples in U.S. history and – the specific focus of this paper – representations of race and racism in U.S. history.


At the time of my study Mr. Garcia had been teaching for close to a decade, first at the elementary level and then for the past few years at the secondary level. With a master’s degree in educational technology he had taught for a time in the district’s online virtual school for middle and high school students, after teaching fifth grade for five years, before coming to Palm High School. Mr. Garcia was laid back, thoughtful, and well-liked by students and his coaching background was evident in his relationship with students, which was warm and caring and focused on helping these young adults make good choices in school and in their lives.

Mrs. Johnson had been teaching for 15 years at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She had multiple subject and single subject teaching credentials and a master’s degree in administration from another state. Mrs. Johnson believed in the importance of imparting content knowledge to her students, but she also wanted students to enjoy learning history and feel comfortable in sharing their ideas and thoughts about what they were learning. Mrs. Johnson was businesslike in her teaching – “one of my strong suits is discipline and class control” – but she had a very positive relationship with her students and there was a good bit of fun and joking in her class, often instigated by Mrs. Johnson.

Mrs. Curtis had also been teaching for 15 years, mostly at the high school level except for a few years in middle school, and had been at Palm High School for the past 8 years. She had a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, many hours of professional development, and regularly participated in an online community of social studies teachers. While she was knowledgeable of U.S. history, she didn’t want to “just teach the content”; she wanted to prepare her students to be good citizens and lifelong learners. Mrs. Curtis was enthusiastic and enjoyed hearing and challenging students’ positions and opinions and was constantly thinking about how she could make her curriculum engaging for students.


Beginning in November 2014 and continuing through early June 2015, I conducted daily observations in one period of U.S. history taught by Mr. Garcia, one period taught by Mrs. Johnson, and one period taught by Mrs. Curtis. There were a total of in 67 observations in Mr. Garcia’s class (which were also videotaped), 65 observations in Mrs. Johnson’s class, and 67 observations in Mrs. Curtis’ class. During this period the teachers taught four units: The Great Depression; U.S. Foreign Policy, 1850–1950; The Cold War; and Civil Rights. While I attended to teacher pedagogy, the climate of each classroom, including the relations between teachers and students and students and students, and variations in the attention and engagement of students over the course of the four units (student interest peaked during the civil rights movement, something confirmed by all three teachers), the primary focus of my observations was on capturing classroom talk to understand how historical actors, periods, and events were being represented and interpreted by teachers and students, including what was deemed significant about the past. My observations focused on writing down teacher talk when they lectured and dialogue between teachers and students during whole-class discussions and activities as fully and accurately as possible so that I could later use my fieldnotes to produce descriptively and interpretively valid accounts (Maxwell, 1992) of representational practices in the three classes. During the U.S. foreign policy and civil rights units, the focus of this paper, this meant capturing key words and phrases teachers and students used to understand how they together represented race and racism during these periods in U.S. history.

Since all three teachers privileged collaborative group work and activities over lecture, often having students interpret primary source documents or read secondary sources in their table groups, most classroom talk occurred during relatively brief periods when teachers would recap the previous day’s lesson or introduce a new topic at the beginning of class or during whole-class discussion informed by the work students had completed in their table groups in the final 5 to 10 minutes of class. Additionally, all three teachers used a range of visual, audio, and audiovisual materials, including videos and documentary films streamed from YouTube, text and images projected on their smart boards, and text and images in PowerPoint presentations, in teaching their students about U.S. history. I was careful to note the source of these materials (links were often provided on the teachers’ class websites) and where excerpts from documentaries began and ended in my fieldnotes so I could access and analyze the content of these materials during data analysis. I also noted the specific text, image, or PowerPoint slide projected on the smart board as teachers lectured or teachers and students engaged in discussion so that when I used my fieldnotes to reconstruct the enacted curriculum, I was able to connect teacher and student talk about the past to specific texts and images. This was facilitated by the fact that teachers posted all documents, PowerPoint presentations, and other texts on their class websites.

In addition to daily observations in these three classes, I attended and audiotaped the teachers’ weekly planning meetings through the planning of the final civil rights unit. All teachers at Palm High School were organized into professional learning communities, and these three teachers were part of a team of five teachers who met each week to jointly plan curriculum, instruction, and assessments for 11th grade U.S. history. Attending these meetings provided valuable insight into teachers’ curricular and instructional decision-making. I also interviewed each teacher twice (all interviews were audiotaped), each interview lasting approximately 1 hour. In the first interview, I asked about their educational and professional backgrounds and experiences, their general goals and objectives in U.S. history, and specific goals and objectives for each unit. These interviews were open-ended and exploratory but did include some discussion of specific issues and concerns that teachers had articulated in planning meetings or in brief conversations with me before or after class: for example, difficulties teachers had had connecting the Great Depression to the Great Recession in other than superficial ways and disagreements that were emerging over their thematic approach to history versus a more traditional, chronological approach.

The second interview was conducted at the very end of the school year and was focused exclusively on the civil rights unit that teachers were completing or had just completed at the time of their interview. The interview guide included open-ended questions that I asked all three teachers: their goals and objectives for the civil rights unit; their use of a quote from Margaret Mead to frame the civil rights unit; their use of the Choices in Little Rock (2008) unit materials from Facing History and Ourselves; and their perspective on explicitly addressing race and racism in the civil rights unit since all three teachers did this. However, because I had observed the civil rights unit in each of their classes, I also asked distinct and at times pointed questions that were tailored specifically for each teacher. For example, Mrs. Curtis taught a lesson on the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in which she spoke about economic inequality and racism, so I asked her to tell me more about this to make sure I captured her understanding of the relationship between these two things. Mr. Garcia taught the same lesson on the unrest in Baltimore (this PowerPoint lecture was created by Mrs. Curtis), but instead of talking about economic inequality as Mrs. Curtis did, he focused on the “riots” and making good choices as individuals (a consistent refrain in his practice) so I asked him to tell me more about his focus in this lesson. Mrs. Johnson did not teach this lesson, but she did have a brief conversation about the unrest in Baltimore at the beginning of one class. I asked her why she decided not to spend more time on this since many students were following these events, and student interest was the reason Mrs. Curtis had decided to spend one period addressing the events in Baltimore. Thus, while I did ask some common, open-ended questions in the second interview with all three teachers, my main purpose was to make sure I understood how and why each teacher had addressed race and racism in the civil rights unit in the specific ways that they did in their individual classes.

Although the primary focus of my research was on the enacted curriculum, how teachers and students together constructed accounts of the past utilizing a variety of cultural texts, I did want to get some understanding of how students might be making sense of what they were learning given the active role of students in interpreting and accepting or rejecting what they learn in history classrooms (Epstein, 1998, 2000, 2009). To do this I conducted four 1-hour long interviews with 11 students at the end of the school year; two groups included a pair of students, one group consisted of three students, and one group of four students. The purpose of this interview was to enable students to talk about what they were learning in the four units I’d observed, including providing an opportunity for students to talk about racism if they so desired, something students did do in response to my initial questions and further probing. (See Appendix A for a complete list of interview questions).

Finally, I collected copies of all curricular materials, such as handouts, primary source document packets, assignments, PowerPoint presentations, links to videos, and examples of student work such as WWII posters, political cartoons representing U.S. imperialism, and students’ final essays for the civil rights unit.


For this paper, data from the U.S. foreign policy and civil rights units were analyzed to address how race and racism were represented in the formal and enacted curriculum. I choose to focus only on these two units because these were the units in which race and racism were explicitly addressed by teachers and represented in curricular materials. Given the invisibility of race and silences regarding racism in classrooms and curriculum, it seemed important to focus on what teachers do say when they are willing to explicitly talk about race and racism and what representations of race and racism are present and privileged in the curricular materials they use. This is not to say that the absence of explicit talk and representation of race and racism in the other two units does not communicate implicit lessons about the significance of race in U.S. history. For example, students spent a good bit of time learning about the many New Deal programs during the Great Depression unit, but the enacted curriculum did not address how the Federal Housing Act, the Wagner Act, or the Social Security Act denied protections and benefits to people of color (Lipsitz, 1998; Rothstein, 2017). Such silences may well represent a hidden curriculum (Apple, 2004) of race and racism and have been noted in content analyses of textbooks (c.f. Loewen, 1995), but that analysis is beyond the scope of this paper.

Initial data analysis began during fieldwork as I worked on my fieldnotes after each observation, read and reread them, developed analytical questions for subsequent observations and for teacher and student interviews, and created condensed summative accounts of each observation, which included the topic of the day, any activities conducted, and all curricular and other materials used. I arranged these into a grid showing what each teacher taught each day of each unit side-by-side with the other teachers, adding to the grid as I completed each observation. This was quite valuable in providing an overview of each unit as well as displaying commonalities and differences in what each teacher was addressing in each unit and the specific materials they were using in their teaching on a day-by-day basis. Since these teachers planned together and were attempting to teach the same curriculum to their students, this provided a useful guide for seeing the extent to which this was being realized in practice and at times how teachers used the same materials, but taught them in different ways.

I used an inductive reasoning approach to guide my data analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Miles & Huberman, 1994), beginning by coding my fieldnotes from the three teachers’ classes, using broad categories such as race, racism, beliefs, prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, and violence to verify where race and racism were explicitly addressed in the enacted curriculum. After initial coding, I was able to further sort and organize my data into more precise codes to capture the different ways teachers and students represented race and racism; for example, codes that I used to capture representations of racism were racial superiority, racial prejudice, racial stereotypes, racial hatred, racial discrimination, racial segregation, and racial violence (see Appendix B for an example of each coding category from my fieldnotes and see Appendix C for an example of my coding of a discussion of race in Mrs. Curtis’s class). Through coding my fieldnotes I was able to map the multiple ways teachers and students talked about race and racism (for example, the emphasis on and importance of the concept of racial superiority when representing racism, especially during U.S. imperialism). I then applied these same codes to the variety of textual and audiovisual materials used in lessons to see how talk of race and racism might be informed by these materials used in specific lessons (for example, how Mr. Garcia’s talk of racial superiority during U.S. imperialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s was mirrored in the HipHughes video he streamed for his students). Given my theoretical framework of mediated action, it was important to understand how teachers utilized curricular materials and the affordances and constraints of these materials; this allowed me to determine the range of representations and conceptions of race and racism available in each lesson as compared to the representations that were privileged in the enacted curriculum.

Following this, I used the analytic techniques of pattern matching and explanation building (Yin, 2003), looking at lessons across the three classes to note regularities and differences in the three teachers’ representations of race and racism and their use of curricular materials to understand and account for the representational practices in these three classes. This revealed varying representations of race and racism even when teachers were using the same curricular materials, and I turned to my interviews of the teachers and my field notes from the teachers’ planning meetings to understand their decision-making to help me explain these variations. Perhaps most significantly, this phase of analysis confirmed the decrease of explicit talk of racism as the civil rights unit progressed in all three classes and how this was enabled by the Choices in Little Rock (2008) unit, a Margaret Mead quote that was used to frame the civil rights unit, as well as each teacher’s conceptions of race and racism and goals and objectives in teaching the civil rights unit to their students. For example, while I coded incidents involving the Little Rock Nine at Central High School recounted in Choices in Little Rock (2008) and images of African American children being attacked with fire hoses in the documentary film A Time for Justice as representing racial violence, this was not reflected in teacher and student talk in the three classrooms as they used these materials. As I explain in my analysis below, the questions and activities recommended in curricular materials and utilized by teachers deflected attention away from incidents of racial violence or asked students to analyze these incidents in ways that rendered the significance of race invisible.

In the final phase of analysis, I applied theory and research on race and racism to generate new insights as I revisited and conceptualized my findings, for example, recognizing representations of racism during the civil rights movement as reflecting an individualized, psychological conceptualization of racism that had been identified in previous research (e.g., Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Bryan, 2012; Gordon, 2015; Hill, 2008; Shoshana, 2017).


Research is not a disinterested, value-free enterprise (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994) and so acknowledging one’s subjectivity and active presence as a researcher is necessary in accounting for how one’s values, commitments, and perspectives affect the research process. I am a white male researcher who has conducted research in elementary and secondary classrooms concerned with the inclusion, exclusion, and representation of diverse groups in history and social studies education and how school knowledge about the past can inform students’ understandings of race and ethnic relations in the present. I have brought these interests to courses I teach to undergraduate and graduate students, including students preparing to be secondary history and social studies teachers, in the hopes that this will empower them to reform education in ways that challenge hegemonic narratives of history that silence and marginalize people of color.

Peshkin recommends managing researcher subjectivity through a “formal, systematic monitoring of self” (1988, p. 20), and one way I did this was through self-reflective memos in which I recorded my feelings and experiences during fieldwork and reflected on my relationships with teachers and students and how they might be influencing my observations and the contents of my fieldnotes. Because race and racism are controversial topics I was concerned that teachers might not be open to talking frankly about these topics with me, but my background and consistent presence in these classes seemed to work to my advantage. Being in each class on a daily basis provided regular opportunities for casual conversations with teachers in which they learned more about me as I learned more about them. My whiteness was also likely an asset as teachers could assume common experiences and perhaps a similar perspective on race and racism and so my presence in their classes was not threatening, and my background in education (and sharing that my wife had been a teacher for many years) provided common ground on which to build rapport with the teachers.

I was uncertain that I would be able to develop rapport with students, partly because there was little time to talk with students before or after class, though Mr. Garcia’s class being first period was an exception to this since students would often gather in his room to hang out as I was setting up my camcorder and chatting with Mr. Garcia. But I was also concerned that my whiteness and possibly my age would be a barrier to building rapport with the Latino, black, and Asian students in these classes. However, students had positive relationships with all three teachers, and since the majority of teachers at the school were white, they seemed to position me as just another white male adult at Palm High School. By the time I interviewed students at the end of the year I’d already spoken casually with many of them, and they seemed comfortable and open in these interviews – in fact, comfortable enough to talk frankly about racism and to criticize aspects of the history they had been taught. For example, two Latina students in Mrs. Johnson’s class noted the lack of diverse groups represented in the history they had learned.


The unit U.S. Foreign Policy, 1850–1950 was one of two units where race and racism were remembered and represented in the enacted curriculum. The essential question for the unit was “How did American foreign policy evolve during this period?” and the unit was focused on changes in U.S. foreign policy – including isolationism, interventionism, expansionism, and imperialism – and how four factors – economic, military, nationalism, and humanitarian—influenced these changes and U.S. actions in specific events. The early part of the unit dealt with the Spanish-American War and U.S. actions in Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii, and this was where representing U.S. imperialism included explicit discussions of racism. Since these teachers had chosen not to use their textbook, The Americans (2012) – arguing that textbook accounts only provided one perspective on the past and they wanted to give their students a more complex understanding of history – they drew on a variety of materials, including a PowerPoint presentation informed by James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise (2009) and History Alive materials published by the Teacher’s Curriculum Institute; lessons and activities from Reading Like a Historian and Digital History; and videos on U.S. imperialism during this period by HipHughes History and Crash Course U.S. History streamed from YouTube.

Racism was also remembered and represented in the civil rights unit, which began by discussing the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and Jim Crow laws and segregation to set the historical context for examining specific events during the civil rights movement, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The unit was framed by a quote from Margaret Mead, which provided an overarching purpose that informed the specific work of remembering the civil rights movement and a final assessment that directed how students were to approach the history they were learning: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This quote was used in a Facing History and Ourselves workshop on using the Choices in Little Rock (2008) unit attended by these teachers prior to teaching the civil rights unit. The final assessment for the unit was an essay in which students were to “support, refute, or modify this statement based on specific evidence from the history of the civil rights movement,” arguing how change is made using a few events of their choice from the civil rights movement as evidence to support their argument. To prepare for this essay students wrote a journal entry after learning about each civil rights movement event, for example the Children’s March in Birmingham and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and so discussions of civil rights events often ended by “returning to the quote” as a lens for interpreting and representing the event.

A main curricular piece of the civil rights unit was Choices in Little Rock (2008), a unit published by Facing History and Ourselves, on the struggle to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. As the introduction to the unit notes, Choices in Little Rock “explores civic choices” (p. iv) to help students understand the importance of the decisions of individuals in shaping a democratic society, using the struggle to desegregate Central High School as an example. The unit begins by introducing key concepts such as race, racism, and prejudice, and presents the history of segregation following the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, including statistics on discrimination in employment, education, housing, and medical care to provide historical context for the events in Little Rock. After this, a variety of primary source documents and first-person accounts are included to assist students in analyzing the perspectives, experiences, attitudes, choices, and actions of various individuals in this important historical event, with class lessons taking a “close-up” look into specific incidents and encounters in and around Central High School during desegregation efforts. Finally, teachers also utilized primary source documents such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail or a packet of documents from Reading Like a Historian to help students understand why the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful, and excerpts from documentary films such as A Time for Justice, Eyes on the Prize, and Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot, to teach students about sit-ins at lunch counters, the Freedom Riders, the Children’s March in Birmingham, and other important events. They also utilized PowerPoint presentations of their own making that combined text and images drawn from the internet to provide key definitions and contextual information to support students’ study of the civil rights movement.


Representations of racism were consistent across the three classes, and there was a good deal of commonality in terms of the texts that informed teachers’ and students’ remembering of racism during U.S. imperialism. Racism was represented as ideas and beliefs about the racial superiority of whites (Americans and Europeans) and, because of their superiority, an obligation or burden to bring civilization and Christianity to nonwhite indigenous populations, people whose inferiority was communicated by representing them as savages, children, monkeys, and generally less than fully human. Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Garcia represented this as a “mindset” held by Americans and Europeans and Mrs. Curtis used a PowerPoint presentation to represent these as mainstream ideas among Americans during this time period, informing notions of manifest destiny, the thinking of presidents, and science. Representations of race included many things – skin color, culture, nation, ethnicity, a way of life, religion – and so the referent for racism varied throughout these lessons and was never explicitly defined in the enacted curriculum.

Mrs. Johnson began her discussion of U.S. imperialism by showing students a Crash Course U.S. History video on U.S. imperialism (American Imperialism Crash Course History #28), which addressed the main events they would be covering and noted the significance of race in some of these events, e.g., noting that many of the atrocities the U.S. committed in the Philippine War were racially motivated and the objection to imperialism on racial grounds. After the video Mrs. Johnson repeated that we “didn’t want to blend in with other cultures and races” because the U.S. thought it was “wrong and inconsistent with our values to try to expand and diversify with other racial groups. We needed to stay isolated and not diversify with other countries.” What Mrs. Johnson was talking about at this point was a bit elusive – is this about race, or culture, or nation? – and echoes the changing conceptions of race taught in U.S. schools in the first half of the 20th century (Burkholder, 2011). But while the representation of race might have been unclear, the idea of racial superiority informing racism during imperialism was clearly communicated by Mrs. Johnson: we “didn’t really want the mixing of races because we assumed that we are superior to other nations and we had a moral obligation to civilize and Christianize other nations that we see as beneath us.”

This “mindset” of “U.S. racial superiority,” that we were “above and superior to other races,” was made abundantly clear in a lesson on the U.S. war in the Philippines. This lesson utilized a PowerPoint presentation with quotes from the time – “no cruelty is too severe for these brainless monkeys” and “they are, as a rule, an illiterate, semi-savage people” – including a reference from President Taft about “our little brown brothers” that Mrs. Johnson cited as evidence of “that racial superiority we’ve been talking about with imperialism.” She used a slide titled “The White Man’s Burden” with an image of Uncle Sam carrying a basket filled with five dark-skinned savage natives, one marked Cuba, on his back up a rocky hill towards civilization to connect notions of racial superiority to “our duty to civilize and Christianize and uplift them, our moral duty to civilize them.” Additional slides supported representations of Filipinos as “savages,” “children,” and “being more like monkeys than human beings” (1904 World’s Fair), while other slides entitled “Racial Superiority” and “Turn of the Century Beliefs” noted the prevalence of these beliefs (e.g., that the “white race had founded all civilizations” and that the “mixing of races” would lead to the destruction of civilization) among Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Finally, Mrs. Johnson and her students analyzed pro- and anti-imperialist political cartoons taken from the magazines Judge and Puck (pro) and Life and World (anti), utilizing a lesson from Reading Like a Historian (also done in Mr. Garcia’s class), which provided additional representations of white, Western racial superiority and the savage, uncivilized nature of nonwhite indigenous populations, which she noted reflected the context of the time: “racism and cultural issues happening in America.”

The analysis of these political cartoons in Mr. Garcia’s class supported similar representations of racism and race, and he made clear that this “mindset of some Americans at the time” represented racism. For example, one political cartoon published in Puck in 1899 titled “School Begins” showed Uncle Sam teaching a class in civilization with his attention focused on four dark-skinned students in the front row labeled Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Behind these students are other students, representing U.S. states and territories, sitting quietly and reading. In addition to these students there is an African American boy behind Uncle Sam washing the windows, a Native American boy sitting by the door who appears to be reading except that he is holding his book upside down, and what looks to be a Chinese student standing outside the door holding a book. Discussion noted the need to civilize these “other cultures” and Mr. Garcia added how the cartoon represented the continuing problem of racism in the United States:

Racism. Slavery was abolished in the sixties so this is eighteen ninety-nine but we’ve still got major issues in race relations between whites and blacks. And so what this is saying is that we see African Americans still lower than even these people [i.e., Filipinos, Hawaiians, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans]

Like Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Garcia emphasized that the white man’s burden was about civilizing people who were not white, but this also included bringing civilization to “other cultures” who were not civilized and this was “tied to skin color” but also included “way of life and religion.” Analyzing a political cartoon from Judge, “The Filipino’s First Bath,” a student noted the waters of civilization were being used to wash “the filth of their culture” off a Filipino, which Mr. Garcia repeated before concluding, “if somebody had this mindset today we would quickly say you are judgmental you are a racist you are all these things, but the mindset here is we think we are doing a good thing.” Mr. Garcia wrapped up his discussion of imperialism by streaming a HipHughes video on U.S. imperialism, which represented the white man’s burden as representing “racist cravings” and a “horribly racist cartoon” from the Spanish-American War representing the need to civilize the Cuban people. As in Mrs. Johnson’s class the representation of racism was clear – racial superiority, civilized and uncivilized peoples – but race was represented as many things and never explicitly clarified conceptually.

Finally, Mrs. Curtis used the same PowerPoint presentation as Mrs. Johnson, though Mrs. Curtis had a more expansive discussion linking ideas about racial superiority to other periods and events in history. As in the other two classes, Mrs. Curtis represented the belief in racial superiority as being “mainstream” during this time period, but she connected these “strongly racist” ideas to beliefs against the mixing of races – though she said “ethnic groups” – in the 1960s South, the use of phrenology to prove that “whites were more intelligent than other races,” and the idea of a white “master race” during European colonization in Africa and Hitler in Germany. There was a good bit of talk about the white man’s burden and the need to civilize and Christianize indigenous populations, but unlike the other two teachers, Mrs. Curtis linked these ideas to manifest destiny in the United States – people already here were “dark, wild savages who needed culture and civilization that was the belief” – and then, like the other two teachers, noted the application of this moral obligation to “take them, educate them, uplift, civilize, and Christianize” indigenous peoples. As in the other two classes, representations of racism as racial superiority were clear, while race was referenced in remembering U.S. imperialism but its meaning (e.g., is it the same as ethnicity?) was never clarified conceptually.


As with U.S. imperialism, all three teachers provided clear and consistent representations of racism during the civil rights movement, privileging representations that portrayed racism as an individual, psychological phenomenon involving stereotypes, prejudiced ideas and beliefs, and even hate towards groups of people who were different from oneself. During the civil rights movement African Americans were the primary victims of racism, but racism can be directed at many different groups. This representation of racism does not necessitate clarity when it comes to representing race, and so while all three teachers explicitly addressed the meaning of race using an activity from Choices, they continued to represent race in inclusive ways that ultimately contributed to the decoupling of race from racism in remembering the civil rights movement. The lesson, “Race and Identity” (2008, pp. 15–20), asks students to consider how race shapes “the way we see ourselves and others” and the extent to which “our ideas about race influence the choices we make” (p. 15). The lesson provides background information which includes a 1997 statement from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) that argues that understandings of race were invented during the 18th century to make sense of the different populations in colonial America at the time, that justifications for slavery consisted of “racist thinking” that divided and ranked Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans and informed the idea of “inferior races.” The remainder of this introduction talks about racism as “prejudgments,” “racial myths,” “folk beliefs,” and “stereotypes.”

The lesson itself includes two activities for students. The first, “The Meaning of Race,” provides four definitions of race that students are to use to create a race web listing words, phrases, and ideas they associate with race. The first definition states that there is “no genetic or biological basis for race,” since “genetic variation between people within the same ‘racial’ group can be greater than the variation between people of two different groups” and because of this groups are distinguished by “differences of culture or society” and these are “not rooted in biology” (Choices, p. 18). The second definition comes from the 1997 AAA statement and declares that “race has no scientific meaning,” notes the “countless errors” in research based on racial categories, and concludes: “race is a social invention” (p. 18). Definition three is taken from Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: “a division of mankind possessing traits that are transmissible by descent and sufficient to characterize it as a distinct human type” (p. 19). Finally, the fourth definition is from the poet Lori Tsang, which states that “race is the myth upon which the reality of racism is based” (p. 19). The second activity, “Those Who Don’t,” asks students to answer four questions, all focused on getting students to think about stereotypes, after reading a short excerpt from House on Mango Street.

Mrs. Johnson represented racism as stereotyping, something learned in families and communities about unfamiliar people. Addressing race and racism in an introductory lesson on the civil rights movement, she connected race, stereotyping, and racism when referring to a photo of a KKK march, which included children: “Yes children are brought in we talked about stereotyping something learned racism is something learned. You see other people around you not like you, this race you think you don’t like this race or group of people.” Discussing segregation she noted that this could lead to racism because when people are “segregated with their own color” it can lead to seeing “your race as the superior race” and other races as “beneath your race.” She made a similar point when discussing stereotypes during the “Those Who Don’t” activity, stating that stereotypes about one group might be a result of there only being one race in a community and so you would not be educated about other groups. While racism seemed to be represented as stereotyping other races based on ignorance and a lack of interaction between races, the link between race and stereotypes – and therefore race and racism – was more tenuous in other comments.

Discussing stereotypes in the “Those Who Don’t” activity, she cited Little Italy as an example of a community with “one race” (but also referred to as a culture) which led one student to conclude that people make stereotypes because they don’t know about other cultures. Discussing the consequences of dividing people by race (Choices, pp. 23–29) she referenced the class – what if I “separated all Hispanics and whites and blacks and Asians here what would happen?” – to make the point that segregation would prevent you from interacting with “somebody else’s society, culture, customs, information you could pick up from someone who was a different color from you.” Finally, referring to a previous discussion of identity and race, she noted that “lots of people stereotype and don’t even realize it the way you look or color or dress or tall or skinny and you categorize without even thinking about it.” While race was referenced in these representations of racism, the concept of race was broad and ambiguous, referring to color but also culture, customs, and society. And in her final comment above, stereotyping – which is racism or strongly connected to racism – is expanded to include potentially anything about the way someone looks or dresses.

Mrs. Johnson completed the “Meaning of Race” activity with her students, but this did little to clarify race as a concept. Noting the problem of “stereotyping of a race,” she and her students identified and discussed the key ideas in each definition of race. With the first definition, Mrs. Johnson concluded that “race is really a difference of culture and society” and later noted that as cultures and societies change, so do views of race. The second definition noted that race, a social invention, provided “prejudgments” about human differences – “judging without knowing,” provided one student – which Mrs. Johnson used to define prejudgments as stereotyping and declare: “so race and stereotyping play hand in hand together.” Summing up the activity after reading and underlining the fourth definition, she noted that three of the definitions were talking about race as “something learned, cultural, socially through society, something we learn.” In effect, Mrs. Johnson used this activity to connect race and stereotyping – ideas about race that reflect racism – rather than interrogate the ontological status of race as a “social invention,” and the Choices activity really does not provide resources for doing this. Deconstructing race by challenging its biological basis does not help teachers and students reconstruct race as a phenomenon with social force and cultural power, something I will return to at the end of this paper. Thus, her broad representation of racism enabled her to reference race as well as culture and other things when portraying racism in U.S. history, i.e., stereotyping and prejudiced ideas and beliefs directed towards African Americans and other groups.

In Mr. Garcia’s and Mrs. Curtis’ classes, the “Meaning of Race” activity followed presentation and discussion of “The Ladder of Prejudice” and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s interactive Hate Map as part of an introduction to the civil rights unit. The “Ladder of Prejudice” slide, an adaptation of Gordon Allport’s five-point scale for describing “the range of activities that may issue from prejudiced attitudes and beliefs” (1986, pp. 14–15), begins with speech (“antilocution” in Allport’s scale) and then advances to avoidance, discrimination, physical attack, and finally extermination. The Hate Map tallies the total number of hate groups in the United States, identifies the location of each group on a map of the U.S., and allows users to click on the icon for each group to see the name of the group, the city it is located in, and the ideology of the group (e.g., neo-Nazi, racist skinhead, anti-Muslim, black separatist), including links that provide additional background on the group and their ideology.

Mr. Garcia’s discussion of the Ladder of Prejudice emphasized prejudice as a key concept – “you have prejudice so you treat someone differently for whatever reason” – and, since the final rung on the ladder is extermination, he connected it to Hitler as well as ethnic cleansing by ISIS and in Iran “because of their ethnicity.” With the Hate Map he defined a hate group as a group that “has an ideology that discriminates” and stated that there are white and black hate groups. This discussion served as preface to the “Meaning of Race” activity, where Mr. Garcia used the three definitions challenging race as a biological reality to recast race as culture. Although he began by noting that a “lot of prejudices and issues in the past have stemmed from race or the color of somebody’s skin,” he used the first definition – “differences of culture and society distinguish one group from another” – to discuss the different cultures of his family (Mexico) and his wife’s family (Norway and Ireland) to conclude that “our differences are rooted in culture and what we created [i.e., race] not what is biological difference.” Mar. Garcia and his students also discussed race being a social invention and a myth, never straying far from the definitions provided by Choices, and he concluded by returning to race as culture, noting how we would identify a local tribe of South Americans in the Amazon of all being from the same culture. Similar to Mrs. Johnson’s class, there were multiple representations of race present in the enacted curriculum in Mr. Garcia’s class, but race as culture was privileged over these alternative representations.

Before introducing the Ladder of Prejudice and Hate Map, Mrs. Curtis had her students respond to a question from Choices – “How does race shape the way we see ourselves and others?” (p. 15) – and they noted that we “assume things about certain races,” and “we judge people by their appearance” based on “preconceived ideas,” “stereotypes,” and “biases,” including having “doubts about other peoples’ abilities because of race” and that “certain races think they’re better than others.” Mrs. Curtis introduced the Ladder of Prejudice to summarize and synthesize the students’ comments, connecting “racism, negative stereotypes and perceptions” informing “hate speech about certain groups of people”; comments noted that you hear this during the civil rights movement when “certain words lump groups of people together.” Like Mr. Garcia, she connected the Ladder of Prejudice to the Holocaust, noting that it started with people who “don’t like Jewish people and blamed them for a number of things in history” and eventually led to discrimination, physical attacks such as Kristallnacht, and finally mass killings.

Discussion of the Hate Map also noted the different kinds of hate groups (neo-Nazi, antigay, anti-immigrant, Holocaust denial groups), including black and white hate groups, though she emphasized racial hatred by referencing the KKK, slavery, and the Confederate flag – someone who had the flag on campus the previous day and the controversy in South Carolina for flying the flag over the state capitol building: “their response is that it is not a hate symbol but a heritage symbol so it’s okay for them to have as a symbol of the heritage of the South while we know full well why the flag is about racism and slavery.” However, Mrs. Curtis also represented hate as inclusive and not always about race by noting that hate groups “have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people for certain characteristics.”

Turning to the “Meaning of Race” materials from Choices, Mrs. Curtis read the background information, noted above, that referenced the “racist thinking” of the 18th and 19th centuries that was used to rank Europeans in relation to various nonwhite peoples. Mrs. Curtis was the only one out of the three teachers to connect this back to U.S. imperialism – “think back to our study of imperialism even Taft and Roosevelt used race as a rationale to take over Filipinos and the Hawaiian Islands” – connecting racism to U.S. imperialism, slavery, the Civil War, and at least some current hate groups. Then she read the first definition – and only the first definition – focusing on the first part disputing meaningful genetic variations between supposed racial groups to effectively deny the reality of race: “when you talk about race there is only one human race . . . in the civil rights movement tried to paint groups as inferior that is not the case . . . it’s ironic people criticize so much try to find distinctions but we’re all human beings.” Informed by the Ladder of Prejudice and the Hate Map, racism is represented as prejudice and hate that, based on the lie of race, can be applied to and experienced by anyone since we are all human beings, reflecting both a liberal multiculturalism (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 2004) that privileges “our common humanity” over race and a framework of racial individualism (Gordon, 2015) that renders invisible a racialized social system (Bonilla-Silva, 2010) by reducing racism to individual, psychological pathology.

All three teachers did address race and racism; this was part of the formal and enacted curriculum and went well beyond occasional mentioning (Chandler & Branscombe, 2015). While the concept of race and its relationship to racism was at times ambiguous, this lack of conceptual clarification did not prevent teachers from continuing to remember and represent racism, as they understood it, during the civil rights movement. But it did leave the connection of race to racism tenuous, and ultimately other aspects of the enacted curriculum resulted in the decoupling of race from representations of racism, which was particularly evident in the teachers’ use of the Choices materials.


One of the goals all three teachers had for their students was to help them to make up their own minds and make good choices in their lives, and this fit very well with the orientation of Choices in Little Rock (2008) – individuals and their perspectives, experiences, choices and actions in history – and helped explain the teachers’ desire to use these materials as part of the civil rights unit. However, teacher practice only amplified this focus and orientation in remembering civil rights events and therefore aided and enabled representations of events that deflected attention from race and racism – thereby removing race from these incidents and events – and instead universalized experiences of prejudice, hate, and discrimination as human experiences.

For example, Mrs. Johnson’s use of the lesson “The First Day of School” (Choices, pp. 59–65) universalized the experiences of the Little Rock Nine as human experiences, forgetting the significance of race in what happened to Elizabeth Eckford when she arrived alone at Central High School on September 4th and was surrounded by an angry mob. Evoking aspects of Elizabeth Eckford’s narrative account of her expectations and preparations for the first day of school at Central High School (“I am Elizabeth Eckford,” Choices, pp. 63–65), Mrs. Johnson asked her students to think back to their freshman year and their expectations and fears on their first day at Palm High, including preparations they made such as setting their alarms and packing their backpacks, and asked: “anything that happened that day that surprised you or you didn’t expect to happen?” Students shared with their tablemates and then with the class, noting their fear of getting lost, going to the wrong class, not knowing anyone, and the like. This focus may normalize the experiences of the Little Rock Nine for students, perhaps enabling them to imagine Elizabeth Eckford and other members of the Little Rock Nine as young adults and students “just like themselves,” a point Mrs. Johnson made when she reminded students that what they had just read background information on the Little Rock Nine who had articulated some of the same fears. But this also removed race from the representation of this event, forgetting that the actions of Elizabeth Eckford and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were challenging a social order structured on racial domination and the prospect that they might be victims of racial violence at Central High.

Choices enables these universalizing, de-racing practices by acknowledging the significance of race, but then deflecting attention away from these aspects of incidents and events in and around Central High School, often by posing questions for students to discuss and write about that are not about analyzing and interrogating the importance of race in this event. “The First Day of School” does remind students (perhaps too subtly) of the significance of race in this event, for example, mentioning that African Americans wanted to speed up desegregation while “white Americans” wanted to stop it, and noting that African American students would be joining a school of 2,000 white students (Choices, p. 57). At the end of this lesson, students are asked to analyze the iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford walking away from the mob with Hazel Bryan behind her yelling at her, something all three teachers did with their students. However, the questions have nothing to do with race but instead ask students to address what they see, where people are standing, what sounds they might hear and, imagining they were reporters, who they would want to interview and questions they might want to ask (Choices, p. 65).

Mrs. Johnson only spent a few minutes discussing this, with students deciding they would interview “the angry lady” to ask her what she was yelling and why she was angry or Grace Lorch to ask her why she wasn’t angry and why she decided to help Elizabeth Eckford. Mr. Garcia spent significantly more time analyzing and discussing this photograph after streaming a short clip from Eyes on the Prize so students could see and hear the angry mob surrounding Elizabeth Eckford. Analyzing the photograph, students immediately focused on the “very angry lady,” who Mr. Garcia identified as Hazel Bryan, and he noted that this was “a textbook example of anger and racism.” But instead of expanding on this, Mr. Garcia focused students’ attention on the other members of the crowd, with students noting one man smiling in the back, another who looked “chill,” and that there were many people who didn’t seem upset at all. Mr. Garcia asked students to consider that at crime scenes or other incidents you may have some people who are really angry, but most are just bystanders. This is a path for discussion suggested by Choices (p. 59) in analyzing this photo, encouraging teachers to point out that not everyone was harassing Eckford as some in the crowd were bystanders. This is followed by a quote from Marcia Webb, a white student in the crowd who later regretted her choice to stand by and do nothing (Choices, p. 59). Mr. Garcia used this to make a point to his students about the choices they make:

Are you the one causing change or causing harm? Or are you just the bystander who notices something’s wrong with this picture, I’m just gonna let it play out though I don’t really feel like I should step in? Or are you going to be like Grace Lorch who says, ‘something’s wrong here, it’s getting out of hand. I need to make sure this young lady gets to the bus.’ So that bystander mentality guys . . . . this comes down to a bunch of individuals making choices.

Finally, Mrs. Curtis also focused on bystanders in analyzing the photo. After reading the quote from Marcia Webb in Choices, she connected this to a previous discussion on bullying, leading to comments on peer pressure, how actions of your classmates can affect you, and how things might have turned out differently for Eckford if people like Marcia Webb had stepped in and done something. This conversation was not completely silent on race and racism, as students noted that due to segregation a white person standing up for a black person might pose a threat to his or her family and the difficulty of looking at blacks as equals because “racism was normal” then because of how people were raised (a reference to a previous lesson). However, Mrs. Curtis, while not ignoring students’ comments, encouraged students to think about the possibilities if people didn’t focus on peoples’ skin color but just looked at them “as kids as teenagers just like I am.” Citing an example of a recently integrated prom in Georgia, she made the point that change “starts with younger people” who are often more open-minded than their parents or grandparents. Mrs. Curtis focused on moving beyond race and racism, echoing her point in the “Meaning of Race” activity that we are all human beings.

Similarly, some of the first-person accounts in Choices make it very clear that this is about race, but what students are asked to analyze and think about very often obscured that fact. For example, “They Spat in My Face” (Choices, pp. 92–93), Dr. Benjamin Fine’s recollection of Eckford’s experiences on September 4th, makes very clear that this was about race and racism as he remembers what the crowd was shouting: “They’re here! The niggers are coming!” and “Get a rope and drag her over to this tree” and “Another nigger-lover. Get out of here!” And yet the questions in this activity address his decision to try to help Eckford, the role of a reporter in reporting events, and the potential danger if a journalist becomes part of the story. These questions are deflections that silence consideration of racial violence and enable forgetting Eckford’s experience as fundamentally a raced experience.

Mr. Garcia followed this line of questioning when teaching this lesson. Abbey was the first to speak, reading a part in Fine’s account that she really liked: “I don’t know what made me put my arm around her, lifting her chin, saying, ‘Don’t let them see you cry.’ Maybe she reminded me of my fifteen-year-old daughter, Jill” (Choices, p. 92). Abbey went on to argue that thinking of his own daughter gave Fine the moral responsibility to help Elizabeth Eckford and that “not allowing others to be hurt and help no matter what” was the right thing to do even though Fine got in trouble for his actions. Mr. Garcia responded, “shows this not a race thing but a human thing,” before he gave a brief synopsis of the film A Time to Kill. In particular, he recounted the scene in which the white defense attorney, defending an African American man who killed two white supremacists who kidnapped, raped, and beat his 10 year-old daughter, has the all-white jury close their eyes as he describes the rape of a girl in detail, based on his knowledge of the daughter’s rape. After this he concludes by asking the jury to imagine that the girl is white, and subsequently the defendant is found innocent by the jury. Mr. Garcia’s example underscored the significance of race, but he then moved “beyond race” when he used this example to conclude that regardless of race we’re talking about a human being (i.e., Elizabeth Eckford) and “no human being should be treated like this” – simultaneously underscoring the significance of race and denying the significance of race in a single lesson (Vasquez Heilig et al., 2012). At this point the discussion might have pursued issues of race and racism, but instead, following Choices, the remainder of the discussion considered the question of whether or not Fine had “crossed the line” as a reporter.

“Can One Student Make a Difference” (Choices, pp. 113–116), like “They Spat in My Face,” contains language that clearly signals the significance of race and the presence of racism in the experiences of members of the Little Rock Nine at Central High School. This includes Terrance Roberts’ recollections of his algebra class and how Robin Woods’ kindness violated the social code demanding no contact between blacks and whites, “especially black males and white females,” and how students who helped members of the Little Rock Nine were “labeled ‘nigger lovers’ and shunned by those who wanted to preserve the old social order” (p. 114). An excerpt from Melba Pattillo Beals’ Warriors Don’t Cry recounts her being saved from attack by a group of white male students by a friend of the group, Link, and includes a shout “It’s nigger Melba” from one of the boys and another, “Nigger, nigger on the wall, who’s the deadest of them all” (pp. 115–116). Finally, Jane Emory, a white student who was coeditor of the school newspaper, recalled the obscene phone calls her family received – “Are you a nigger lover . . . You want your daughter to marry a nigger?” – for agreeing to walk with Ernest Green at graduation (p. 116).

Mrs. Curtis had students read and discuss the various incidents members of the Little Rock Nine experienced at Central High School in their table groups, focusing specifically on individual students who helped on of the Nine and what happened to them as a result. During discussion the focus moved from specific individuals and incidents, for example, “Robin was labeled a nigger lover” for agreeing to walk with Terrance Roberts, Ken Reinhardt “was pushed over” for talking to Elizabeth Eckford in speech class,” to a more general discussion of how your actions can make a difference in other peoples’ lives by making them feel welcome and like human beings, with Mrs. Curtis emphasizing how small acts can make a huge impact. At first she linked this to historical examples, citing the dehumanization of people in slavery and the Holocaust who were seen as inferior, but then connected to her own students’ lives as they discussed how they could make a difference in their school by tutoring someone, being active in clubs, saying hello to a new student, or being a peer buddy. On the one hand this is a sensible approach to making history relevant to students by humanizing historical actors and connecting history to their everyday lives, and in fact this discussion built on Elizabeth Eckford’s comment of how significant it was that Ann Williams and Ken Reinhardt “treated me like a human being” (Choices, p. 113). But it comes at the expense of examining, for example, racial ideology grounded in a social structure organized around racial domination that informed and constrained the actions of white students at Central High School, whether they were attackers, helpers, or bystanders.

The discussion in Mr. Garcia’s class similarly humanized and de-raced these incidents. Beginning with Elizabeth Eckford’s account of the two white students who spoke to her in speech class, Mr. Garcia noted that in 1957 at Central High School talking to a black person was a “huge deal a social taboo, something you didn’t do,” invoking the significance of race. However, discussion of the actions taken by white students to help the Little Rock Nine and the consequences of these actions were not focused on race and racism. For example, discussion of Link helping Melba escape being attacked by a group of white male students doesn’t represent this as racial violence, but instead focuses on the status, popularity, and appearance of Link (sleek, muscular), how he may have been putting his social status and reputation on the line by protecting Beals, and whether or not he was a hero. While Mr. Garcia and his students did attend to the use of the word “nigger” in Beals’ account of this incident, their brief discussion was not focused on understanding the racial order and racialized power the use of this word represented, but instead simply noting how it was commonly used in this time period even if some of them were shocked by reading it, and noting that its use today among rappers was “like a cultural thing.”

Students also noticed that these helpful white students were harassed, shunned, and avoided, but these observations, while correct, failed to capture the centrality of race evident in the first-person accounts of Roberts, Beals, and Emory that referenced shouts of “nigger lovers” and threats of racial violence. Discussion of Robin Woods’ kindness to Terrance Roberts represented this as a violation of social codes that prevented black and white students, especially males and females, from talking to one another, but this restriction on social interaction failed to reference the racial order informing these restrictions, a connection made in Roberts’ account when he noted helpful whites were “labeled ‘nigger lovers’ and shunned by those who wanted to preserve the old social order” (Choices, p. 114). This is exactly the connection between “essentialist representations of race and social structures of domination” that defines a racial project (Omi & Winant, 1994, p. 72), but these representations of race and racism were consistently deflected, silenced, and forgotten in the enacted curriculum. Discussions of events and incidents during the Little Rock Nine remembered and then forgot race and racism, often by translating the experiences of the Little Rock Nine into universal experiences of students in schools or our common humanity, thereby removing race from these events and effectively de-racing racism.


Finally, the focus on individuals and social change continued through the remainder of the civil rights unit, introducing students to many historical actors, ordinary people who contributed to the struggle for civil rights. The use of documentaries enabled students to see and hear the violence and brutality experienced by civil rights protestors as they conducted sit-ins at lunch counters, rode interstate buses, and marched to secure voting rights. On the one hand, the enacted curriculum went well beyond attending to a few iconic individuals (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X), providing students with accounts of the civil rights movement that represented the movement as a movement involving a multitude of concerned citizens from diverse backgrounds. And students did seem to be moved by the documentary films, noting in interviews that they had never been aware of the degree of hatred and violence they had witnessed in these films. On the other hand, the attention given to individual actors often came at the expense of representing and analyzing the racial order civil rights protestors were trying to overturn, focusing on choices and decisions meant to bring about change – for example, why Rosa Parks and not Claudette Colvin or why movement leaders advocated nonviolence instead of violence – instead of taking a closer look at laws, institutional practices, and structural arrangements that were the target of those actions. And while racial violence was portrayed, it was represented as the actions of individual racists while ignoring the institutional and structural interests behind these actions (Brown & Brown, 2010). This deflected attention from whites’ investment in a racialized social order and represented racism as a mentality or the ideas and beliefs of individuals, consistent with representations of racism during U.S. imperialism and earlier in the civil rights unit

Similarly, the Margaret Mead quote framed the unit and structured the final assessment in ways that enabled the forgetting of the significance of race and racism in remembering the civil rights movement. One can see value in engaging students by focusing on ordinary people making change and positioning them, as young adults and citizens, as change agents. A good bit of talk in these classrooms explicitly encouraged students to think of themselves this way, and the choices and actions of individuals during efforts to desegregate Central High School were used as examples that underscored the importance of making good choices and decisions themselves. However, the Margaret Mead quote and the final essay assignment diverted attention from interrogating racial violence and a social structure built for racial domination through recurring conversations about the role of a single individual, or small or large groups of individuals, in bringing about social change. Lessons repeatedly ended by “returning to the quote” and using the specific civil rights movement event they had just learned about to revisit the quote. For example, after portraying the Children’s March through class discussion and viewing the documentary Mighty Times: The Children’s March, class ended with Mrs. Johnson and her students considering how to use this event to support, refute, or modify the quote – Was it a small group? A large group? Or support the quote but modify because it began with a small group but grew into a large group?

Remembering always entails forgetting, and the way the civil rights movement was remembered and represented ended up deflecting, silencing, and ultimately forgetting – as occlusion and not amnesia (Wills, 2005; Wineburg, 2001), a matter of privileging some representations while marginalizing others – race and racism in the civil rights movement, evident in the students final civil rights essays. Of the 65 essays I analyzed, only a few mentioned anything explicitly connected to race or racism, for example, mentioning racial discrimination towards blacks in talking about the Montgomery Bus Boycott or segregation in Birmingham, Alabama; one essay that noted that the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Little Rock Nine were really about racism and not segregation, i.e., “blacks wanted to prove that they were equal to the white man,” reflecting the representation of racism as ideas and beliefs about racial superiority and not the organization of a social order based on race. This inattention to race and racism was not surprising since the assignment was not about racism during the civil rights era, but individuals making social change.

What the essays did indicate was quite a bit of knowledge of specific civil rights events based on the Choices materials and the documentary films. For example, students’ essays included quite detailed accounts of specific incidents at Central High School, such as when Link came to the aid of Melba Pattillo Beals as she was about to be attacked by a group of white male students. A large number of students included an account of the Children’s March in their essays, clearly recounting specific scenes they had witnessed in Mighty Times: The Children’s March. And this knowledge was used as evidence to support arguments about individuals making social change. The Freedom Riders was evidence that a small group of individuals could make change, as was the Little Rock Nine, while the Children’s March and the March from Selma to Montgomery supported the argument that it took a large group of individuals to bring about social change. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was more complicated, since it began with one woman taking action, Rosa Parks, but eventually succeeded because it involved a large group of individuals. And students took care in defining what constituted a small group, a large group, or a huge number of individuals as they used specific civil rights movement events to argue about citizens uniting to bring about social change.

While the civil rights unit began focused explicitly on race and represented racism during this time period, the eventual forgetting of the significance of race by the end of the civil rights unit underscored that the unit was not really about race or racism, but civil rights, as teachers briefly included and discussed movements for Mexican American, Native American, and women’s rights at the end of the unit. This might be less disconcerting if race and racism were continuously and meaningfully included throughout U.S. history, but even in these classrooms they were included only during lessons on U.S. imperialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the civil rights movement.


As we have seen, these teachers were both remembering and forgetting race and racism, giving voice while also silencing, attending to while also deflecting, acknowledging and portraying racism while privileging representations of racism, coupled with ambiguous and elusive conceptualizations of race, that ultimately removed race from racism and forgot racism during the civil rights movement. This was enabled by the use of the Margaret Mead quote to frame the focus and purpose of the civil rights unit, as well as the Choices materials which similarly remembered while also deflecting and forgetting race and racism. As teachers and students were forgetting the significance of race in remembering the events and incidents at Central High School, Choices was doing the same thing. While the first two parts of this unit contain many references to race, racism, and racists, portraying legal cases like Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow laws and segregation as being about race, this language and attention completely disappears once the materials turn to the events in Little Rock, Arkansas. While it is true, as I have presented above, that first-person accounts from the Little Rock Nine invoke race through the use of the word nigger and representations of racial violence, none of the questions or activities explicitly represent or refer to this as being about race or representing racism.

We can see how teachers’ understandings of race and racism informed their use of curricular materials in representing race and racism and how the content and focus of the formal curriculum shaped the politics of representing race and racism in these classes. For example, because teachers used the Choices unit with a good degree of fidelity and teachers viewed the civil rights movement as being about more than race and racism, the forgetting of racism evident in these materials was largely mirrored in the enacted curriculum. Viewing the production of historical knowledge in classrooms as a mediated activity, it was the “irreducible tension” (Wertsch, 2002, p. 11) between teachers as active agents and the cultural tools and texts they utilized in lessons and activities that enabled the privileging of some representations of race and racism over others and the eventual forgetting of racism in accounts of the civil rights movement. This is also consistent with Apple’s (1993) view of the cultural politics of school knowledge in classrooms, where what is “in” the formal curriculum does not determine what counts as school knowledge due to the agency of teachers and students in interpreting and producing knowledge in classrooms.

This forgetting might be less alarming if these teachers addressed race and racism continuously throughout U.S. history, but like master narratives that mention and confine diverse peoples to specific historical periods and events, these teachers only remembered racism in lessons on U.S. imperialism during the late 1800s and the civil rights unit. The civil rights movement seems an “obvious” place to include race and racism in meaningful ways, but unless this is a core focus, it can invite the kinds of deflections and silences evident in these classes when the purpose and focus – in this case civil rights – de-centers race. The need to represent a continuous history of racism in the United States would seem to be a productive first step in remedying this forgetting, but without a more robust concept of race to tether race to racism, one can imagine more teachers willing to represent racism in U.S. history, but still achieving the same outcome in which race becomes decoupled from racism and racism becomes displaced by other foci and concerns.

One problem evident in these classes was that while teachers and students were not at all hesitant to identify and name racism – “that’s racist” from students when seeing the pro-imperialism cartoons, “that’s really racist” from students when viewing signs segregating drinking fountains and waiting rooms and barring “dogs, negroes, and Mexicans” – the referent for racism, as we’ve seen, was not at all clear. In interviews, students’ comments reflected the same loose and expansive representations of racism evident in the enacted curriculum, both connecting race to racism and decoupling race from racism. For example, one student declared that “some people in every race will be racist,” while another argued there was reverse racism today, noting that “now it’s like opposite races hating [i.e., blacks] and opposite races trying to find peace [i.e., whites].” However, another student defined racism as “any feeling of ill will toward a specific group of people,” while another declared there was always going to be racism until “we’re all the same color we all have the same eye color and same hair, there’s gonna be racism.” One student talked about the need to focus on other races during the civil rights movement, “like Hispanics,” with another student making a similar comment about wanting to talk about “other cultures” than African Americans.

While students have been outfitted with representations of historical events for thinking and talking about racism, without a robust concept of race these resources prove problematic when trying to link together diverse groups that have experienced racism throughout U.S. history in a common narrative, because it enables the decoupling of race from racism. Since any group (cultural, social, ethnic, religious, or simply “human beings”) can be the victims of stereotypes, prejudiced ideas, beliefs, and hatred, racism is reduced to an individual, psychological pathology that enables a colorblind ideology for thinking about race and racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Bryan, 2012; Gordon, 2015; Hill, 2008). This denies the foundational significance of race in the United States (Ladson-Billings, 2004; Ladson-Billings &Tate, 1995) and how the concept of race was used to build and structure a social order that empowered and disempowered along racial lines (Lipsitz, 1998), a connection between race and structural inequality that was rendered invisible to students.

To some degree the Choices materials attempt to address this problem by challenging the biological reality of race, but in practice this effort failed to clarify the social and cultural power of race and contributed to the decoupling of race from racism. The power of race is not simply that it was “misunderstood” as a biological reality, but that differences constructed between whites and nonwhites in intelligence, civilization, and humanity were essentialized. As Willinsky (1998) has argued, imperialism’s educational project represented racial differences as fixed, unchanging, and immutable, whether these differences were scientifically established as biological or grounded in geography as culture. Disputing race as a biological reality does not clarify the social and cultural facticity of race, the reality of race as representation and structure (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Lipsitz, 1998; McCarthy, 1993; Omi & Winant, 1994), enabling teachers and students to displace race by translating it into an amorphous culture that acts as a catch-all for many things (culture, society, ethnicity, community, religion) or deny race entirely because now we are all just “human beings,” as in liberal versions of multiculturalism (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 2004). In either case, race, as an ideological construct reflecting material interests in a racial order, is no longer the foundation of racism. Meaningfully including race in U.S. history means providing students with an understanding of how race was used to represent and structure U.S. society (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Hill, 2008; Lipsitz, 1998; McCarthy, 1993; Omi & Winant, 1994) and how race was part of a continuous process of racialization of different groups throughout U.S. history (Feagin, 2013; Molina, 2014; Omi & Winant, 1994).

In these three classes, privileged representations of racism were ones that primarily attended to ideas about race (a racist mindset during imperialism, stereotypes and prejudiced beliefs in the civil rights era) because historical investigation was focused on individual actors. That is, the enacted curriculum reflected a psychological orientation towards remembering racism that assumed that “individuals are the most important causal actor and unit of analysis” (Gordon, 2015, p. 8). Reconceptualizing race necessitates a shift in focus in remembering the past, one less psychological and more anthropological and sociological to support representations of racism as a cultural system (Hill, 2008) and a racialized social system that institutionalizes relations between races that differentially structure access to economic, political, and social resources and opportunities (Bonilla-Silva, 1996).

For example, racist mindsets during U.S. imperialism and racist stereotypes and prejudices during the civil rights era could be represented as white racial frames (Feagin, 2013), which should be accessible and understandable to teachers and students, but also extend their understanding beyond individual psychology to how these frames informed racial practices that created and maintained racial inequality. As Hill (2008) notes, the culture of white racism is shaped by racist ideas, stereotypes, and interpretations, but their significance is more than merely symbolic because they “organize racist practices in White-dominated institutions such as schools and health-care facilities” (p. 4). As Lipsitz (1998) has argued, social policies in the United States and practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants in housing have structured society in ways that “gives value to whiteness and offers rewards for racism” (p. viii). This is especially useful in reorienting the enacted curriculum, because it reveals not only the structural aspects of racism but also the significance of race in building a racialized social system that has accumulated advantages for whites over time, challenging mistaken beliefs that this kind of inequality ended after the civil rights movement with the end of de jure segregation.

Finally, a reorientation towards conceptualizing race is also in order to enable teachers and students to represent the experiences of many nonwhite groups as racism without decoupling race from racism. This problem of inclusiveness, if you will, was made apparent by an exchange in Mrs. Johnson’s class during a discussion of Japanese internment during World War II, part of the foreign policy unit, the only time race and racism were mentioned in these three classes outside U.S. imperialism and the civil rights movement. Using a lesson on Japanese internment from Reading Like a Historian, Mrs. Johnson had her students hypothesize why Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II, reconsidering and possibly revising their hypothesis after reading a new relevant primary source: a film on Japanese internment produced by the U.S. government at the time; an excerpt from the Munson Report; and an excerpt from an article in the black periodical, The Crisis. After reading excerpts from the Munson Report (which argued the Japanese on the West Coast were not a threat) and The Crisis (which argued that color was the reason the Japanese were interned while “white” Germans and Italians were not), Mrs. Johnson asked why Japanese were placed in internment camps. Jim, a white student, responded, “Because they’re not white. It says right here [referring to The Crisis excerpt].” Mrs. Johnson replied, “Okay so racist? Prejudice?” to which Jim responded, “But Japanese is not a race so it’s not racist.” Mrs. Johnson noted that, “Okay some of you might have added they’re not spies but there are racial undertones or prejudice towards the Japanese” before moving on by asking about the trustworthiness of the documents they were reading, following the lesson plan instructions. Before this exchange I’d overheard Jim talking in his table group where he noted, “Japanese it’s not racist because they’re not a race but an ethnicity so it doesn’t make sense because they’re not a race.”

Jim’s comment underscores the significance of providing a robust concept of race as a foundation for addressing racism in U.S. history, as the failure to do this renders race an elusive and ambiguous concept that either confines racism to African Americans or becomes de-raced as universal prejudice and discrimination as it is applied to the experiences of many groups. This was the conundrum in which Jim found himself, and it is one that needs to be addressed if teachers and students are going to be able to remember a past that represents the centrality of race and racism in U.S. history.

Race as a process of racialization is a key part of the work I have been discussing, part of a process of representing and therefore imbuing different groups with racialized meanings that constitute them as races, that I would argue offers a way forward for teachers and students. For Omi and Winant (1994), this is part of a process of racial formation through racial projects that “link essentialist representations of race and social structures of domination” (p. 72) while recognizing that what counts as race and racism is historically contested and contingent based on representational practices and social structures (p. 71). Feagin (2013) has also shown how the white racial frame is “adaptive and multidimensional” as it was adjusted and extended beyond African Americans and Native Americans to other nonwhite groups such as Mexicans and Chinese (p. 76) and its application to Native Americans shifted in different times and contexts. Similarly, Molina (2014) has argued that the experiences of people of color are linked through racial scripts which provide common themes for racializing different groups – a contested, active, and relational process situated within an existing racial landscape. Her analysis of the racialization of Mexican Americans demonstrates the connections between racial projects, as racial scripts are adopted and adapted to changing times and contexts. Importantly, Molina emphasizes the persistence and availability of racial scripts through time as cultural representations that are also embedded in laws, social policies, and institutional structures and practices.

Representing race as a process of racialization could provide a foundation for remembering a continuous history illuminating the significance of race and racism in the past and present of the United States and the racialization of many groups in U.S. history, and help move beyond – or at least supplement – representations of racism that individualize and psychologize racism while forgetting racial ideology and representational practices linked to social structures of racial domination. Without such a reorientation and reconceptualization, representing racism in U.S. history, while appearing to be a progressive step forward, may only contribute to the perpetuation of colorblind ideology and the continuation of racial inequality.


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Interview Questions for Student Interviews

1. Tell me about the civil rights unit. What do you think is significant or important to remember?

a) Are you surprised by what you’re learning about this time in U.S. history?

b) At one point in all three classes a student asked if white people were involved in the civil rights movement – is that important to know?

c) Was the civil rights movement successful?

2. Tell me about the Cold War unit. What do you think is significant or important to remember?

3. Tell me about the foreign policy unit. What do you think is significant or important to remember?

4. Tell me about the Great Depression unit. What do you think is significant or important to remember?

5. Do you see any connections across the units in terms of themes, issues, or concerns?

6. Are there things you’ve learned about that you believe are relevant to today?

7. Is there anything you would have wanted to learn more about in the time periods you’ve covered?

Note. Because student interest in the past seemed to increase as the curriculum moved towards the present, and students were quite engaged during the civil rights unit, I decided to ask about that unit first and then move backwards through the units. The additional subquestions on the civil rights unit were in response to what I had observed in the three classes and an interest in knowing if students believed the civil rights movement had been successful, since this question never explicitly came up in any of the three classes.


Coding Categories and Examples

Racial Superiority

Mrs. Johnson asks Dana what she and Casey were talking about at their table. Dana responds that they were talking about how one race would think it was superior to the other. Mrs. Johnson expands on this idea by noting that this is where we start having racism or feel racism because only with your race remember we talked about people being segregated with their own color, kids didn’t play together and so you start to see your own race as the superior race as better, or other races as beneath your race so racism starts to happen because of segregation. [Fieldnotes, Mrs. Johnson’s class]

Racial Prejudice

Mr. Garcia begins today’s lesson by reminding students that yesterday they looked at the experiences of two young people of different races growing up under segregation by doing a shadow reading with Lisa Delpit and Daniel Dyer sitting back to back [Choices, pp. 26–29]. He asks what their thoughts are about this and Raquel responds it was cool, just the whole sitting back to back had a bigger effect. Mr. Garcia notes that he did the same thing when he went to a conference and it had the same effect [Facing History and Ourselves professional development workshop he attended with the other teachers on the Choice in Little Rock unit]. Susan says you could see the different perspectives they had growing up and Mr. Garcia agrees, saying you were able to see things from their lens, not right or wrong in that respect but from their perspective how they saw the world. Hannah says it gave her the chills. Mr. Garcia notes that this gives them insight into their worlds and helps them understand because so much of what we do is prejudge and while there are some rights and wrongs what’s important is that this can help them understand what it was like for a young white and a young African American person growing up and what their experiences were like. [Fieldnotes, Mr. Garcia’s class]

Racial Stereotypes

Mrs. Johnson tells students to look at this quote, “a body of prejudgments that distorts our ideas about human differences and group behavior.” [reading from Choices in Little Rock, page 16] She asks students what are prejudgments are and Catherine answers judging without knowing and Mrs. Johnson declares this is stereotyping and so race and stereotyping play hand in hand together. [Fieldnotes, Mrs. Johnson’s class]

Racial Hatred

People in first and second periods mentioned they saw somebody on campus with a Confederate flag yesterday. We have associated that with hatred and with slavery. Several years ago South Carolina was still flying the Confederate flag over their capital and their response is that it is not a hate symbol but a heritage symbol so it’s okay for them to have as a symbol of the heritage of the South while we know full well why the flag is about racism and slavery. [Fieldnotes, Mrs. Curtis’s class]

Racial Discrimination

So in 1964 the Civil Rights Act is passed. It banned discrimination based on race, national origin, color, sex, and religion. A nationwide act you may not discriminate on these things not a local thing or a court case, but a federal law passed that brought us one step closer to equality [Fieldnotes, Mr. Garcia’s class]

Racial Segregation

Danielle notes that it’s so bad that even in the dark they don’t want to be around them because they’re segregated in theaters, referring to a photo of a theater for blacks in a packet of materials on segregation from Choice in Little Rock that students have just finished reading and discussing in their table groups. Mrs. Curtis asks her students what kinds of things were segregated in the South in the years prior to the civil rights movement. Students call out bathrooms, showers, drinking fountains, and movie theaters and Tanya notes that communities were segregated and Mrs. Curtis restates this as “neighborhoods.” Another female student asks if they had public showers and Mrs. Curtis responds that they had public showers at swimming pools and schools. [Fieldnotes, Mrs. Curtis’s class]

Racial Violence

But now you are being attacked just because of you being African American and the color of your skin. So think about what it takes to be committed to nonviolence. Guy at the counter throwing milk at him it’s one thing to watch but to actually put yourself in that situation what would that be like where does that come from? [Fieldnotes, Mr. Garcia’s class]


Sample Coding

Note. Codes are as follows: Racial Stereotypes = RS; Racial Prejudice = RP; Racial Superiority = RSP; Racial Discrimination = RD; Racial Segregation = RSG

Mrs. Curtis asks students if they are ready to discuss as a whole class the three questions they’ve been discussing in their table groups and without waiting for an answer she suggests they talk about the first question, “how does race shape the way we see ourselves and others?” [Choices in Little Rock, page 15] Madison notes we assume things about certain races RS and Mrs. Curtis asks what else. Steve says we’re biased RP and Tony says we judge people by appearance RP. Jenny says we have preconceived ideas of who they are as a person RS and Mrs. Curtis responds yes, because of race. Patti adds that we focus more on stereotypes and not who they are as person RS. Lisa says we have doubts about their abilities because of race RS. Mrs. Curtis asks if anybody talked about how we identify ourselves. Someone calls out better than others RSP and Mrs. Curtis responds yes, sometimes we think we’re better than others RSP, before moving on to the second question, “to what extent do our ideas about race influence the choices we make?” [Choices in Little Rock, page 15] Rachel recounts an articled she read one time about a black man in Australia who applied for a job as a barista and he wasn’t hired because he was black and the owner thought white customers would be scared off and it would hurt his business RD. Immediately after Rachel’s comment Kyle says it can influence where you want to live RSG and Mrs. Curtis agrees that ideas about race can influence where people want to live RSG and that they can talk more about this in a minute. Then she poses the last question, “what are the consequences of dividing people by race?” [Choices in Little Rock, page 23] Steve notes that you become really culturally biased towards certain groups RP so there’s no meeting of people of each race and you get communities that only want to associate with people like them RSG. Beth says there’s less diversity within families and Jessie declares that certain races think they’re better than others RSP.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 4, 2019, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22598, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 6:58:08 AM

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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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