We spend more than a decade in school but there are so many critical things we don’t learn. It’s time to change that, and bring in the voices that our predecessors ignored.
I just finished watching the Netflix Documentary “Disclosure”, about the history of transgender representation in media (primarily Television and Film), and they talked about how there were scant few examples of gender non conforming or explicitly trans characters for them to see as kids. Certainly few positive examples.
I was 10 years old when the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective came out in 1994. That may have been my first explicit exposure to the concept of transgender people (and what a horrible portrayal).
Much like I knew on some level from at least that point forward that trans people existed, no one ever taught me anything more about them. No one explained to me why a person would even be unhappy with their gender and want to transition. Anytime it was brought up at all, it was almost always painted as a fetish or deviant behaviour.
I don’t recall any other instances of exposure that stuck with me from TV or movies, certainly not anything really positive. The Disclosure documentary really dives into this.
There is another Netflix Documentary (“13th”) about the 13th Amendment to the constitution for the abolishing of slavery in the US. The film looks at how slavery didn’t truly go away, it just changed form and became more covert and invisible.
I continue to learn things about Black, Indigenous, and Queer history that I didn’t know before (such as Juneteenth, the “Starlight Tours”, and the Compton Cafeteria Riots), and it has really hit me just how much was never taught to me (and many of us) while growing up.
These are histories that I was not taught at school, not by my family, largely not by any of the media I casually consumed — books or comics, movies or TV, games, or music.
I’ve identified serious gaps in my knowledge of the history of cultures and experiences other than my own:
The history of people who are all of these things combined (aka “intersectionality”).
I’ve also learned new things about some of the communities I belong to (such as Queer, Trans, and Neurodivergent). As I said, it has become painfully obvious to me now just how many things were never taught to me while growing up, and the problem that has created.
As I’ve begun to try to catch up and fill in the gaps I’ve quickly become overwhelmed because there is just SO MUCH. So much history of culture completely ignored, glossed over, rendered a mere footnote.
My knowledge of history is ‘an inch wide and a mile deep’ (to invert a borrowed phrase). The goal is to make it a mile wide and at least a few inches deep all along that mile.
So the million dollar question — why weren’t we taught these histories in school? Spoiler alert— because colonialism!
Let me preface the rest of this article with one particular memory from grade school:
I went to a Catholic school up until grade 7. One day in grade 6, a police officer visited our class and talked to us about hard drugs. He brought a big metal case, inside which were glass containers that had samples of actual hard drugs in them. It was put on display similar to how insects are put on display in museums.
He also had pictures of what these drugs do to people. The damage they do to bodies, and stories of the damage they do to lives. I don’t remember the presentation being like a Reefer Madness type fear mongering thing, but this was over 2 decades ago so my memory isn’t the most reliable.
I remember at the end of his presentation, he said ‘if even just one of you is compelled by this to never touch these drugs in your life, then I’ll consider today a success’. That stuck with me.
This memory coming up now in the context of what is happening in the world got me thinking. Allow me to echo a suggestion that i’ve heard elsewhere and strongly agree with:
Every school should have students receive regular visits from and presentations by community leaders from different marginalized communities (and NOT by police).
Instead of that police officer coming to my class, there should have been Indigenous Leaders, Black Community Leaders, Queer and Trans Community Leaders, Disabled Community Leaders, Neurodiverse Community Leaders, and more coming to visit my class and every class. In fact, have an assembly in the gym or auditorium, let the entire student body see, hear, ask questions, and learn from these people.
Kids should be learning about this history directly from the people it relates to and affects. It needs to be made real and tangible, not just some disconnected factoid in a textbook, quickly glossed over on the way to yet more colonialism-centric views and opinions.
This fits in with another very relevant and timely statement.
As I’ve seen it put: “Racism won’t be solved until white people learn to see it as a white person problem, rather than a Black person issue”. In other words, until a lot more white people realize that we are the problem, racism won’t end.
And more broadly — people of any and all privileges need to learn and understand how even passive behaviour on their part can still make life harder for others (being neutral in the presence of oppression never helps the person being oppressed). They have to understand and acknowledge this, and commit to change. Both internal (their personal behaviour) and external change (the structural systems of society).
It’s one thing to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) in our lives, it’s entirely another to turn to our fellow white friends, family, co-workers, etc, and challenge them.
This can be incredibly uncomfortable (I speak from experience), but it shouldn’t be. That’s part of the problem. We should be more uncomfortable NOT challenging racism (and all forms of bigotry) from our loved ones than we are from challenging it.
As Angela Davis said: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be ANTI-racist”.
I can recall one other instance of a guest speaker from an outcast community coming to speak to a class I was in. One day in a social studies class in high school we had an HIV positive man come in to talk about what it was like living with HIV, and myths around the disease. That was definitely enlightening and helpful, and that sort of thing needs to be less rare.
There is a very justified push right now to get police out of schools, as they disproportionately affect students of colour. I think a push needs to be made to get Indigenous, Black, Queer, Trans, and Disabled figures into schools to normalize and humanize these identities and histories. Kids don’t know what they can’t see, and it would be so validating and in some cases life saving for kids to get that exposure.
Parents also have to take more initiative to fill in their own knowledge gaps and teach about these histories at home, reinforce their value. If that means parents seeking out community leaders to introduce their kids too, so be it. For those of us who aren’t parents, but support this idea — I suggest contacting your local schools and school board, get petitions going, put the pressure on to help make it happen.
Give kids the start they need so they don’t have to play major catch up (like I did) when they get into their 20s, 30s, or later.
So start them off young. Teach them the real history of The Americas and the world. Teach them the history that we’re ashamed of, and we’ll probably have lots more people coming up who are willing and eager to start making real amends.