“Whitewashing” literacy: what can we as teachers do to repair social injustices?

Banksy stencil

In Teaching for Joy and Justice, one of the heavier sections of Christensen’s content is about the colonization of language and language genocide through white culture. She believes that language is key to understanding how some cultures have survived while others dominate, and how that affects students in our classrooms today.

Cultures that seek to dominate other cultures typically succeed by physically demolishing populations, taint religious/spiritual beliefs, intimidate others through threats, and/or force “weaker” populations to acclimate with customs and traditions. Usually these events are extremely violent and disturbing, altering the course of history forever. For example, when the Spanish came to the Americas to search for gold, they instead colonized whole nations of people and took over the land. Cultures merged throughout this time, but the magnitude of the Spaniards’ actions is atrocious.

If you haven’t watched any documentaries or read books by Jared Diamond, I implore you to learn more about his theories of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Rather than providing the usual information that I learned about growing up in public education (Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492…), he throws all preconceived notions and proposes that the so-called Conquerors were simply lucky bullies, unknowingly aided by disease warfare. It completely blew my mind when I started college thinking that alternative histories exist, and in fact, are more factual that any textbook could ever hope to provide.

Where am I going with this rant? By learning about social justice-infused teaching practices, we are able to literally alter the future by providing students with powerful tools: asking questions and never settling for “answers.” While Language Arts, Social Studies, and other liberal arts subject areas lend themselves to learning about history, in reality all content areas can benefit from questioning history and wondering why things are the way they are. In my field, art is an excellent source of questioning how the world works and why some things are absolutely wrong. And most importantly, art can help students work on righting these wrongs.

The “whitewashing” of education stems back over a century, since education practices have primarily remained the same throughout this past century (sad, isn’t it?). If you haven’t listened to Sir Ken Robinson discuss education, then definitely take ten minutes and watch this TED talk. He can sum it up a lot better than I can, and it can help you teaching practice by realizing how desperately education needs to shift in this country.

Christensen writes about the Carlisle Indian School as a bridge for her students to learn about the treatment of Native Americans for over six centuries. Innocent children were taken away from their families and forced to integrate into “proper” schooling that removed all Native attire, language, and beliefs, and was theoretically meant to “whiten” these students. While many students went through the painful program, some never saw their families again, some were beaten to death (graveyards exist underneath buildings all over the country from different boarding schools), and most lost their primary culture.

Carlisle Indian School: before and after photos of students

It is vital for every teacher to bring in social justice through literacy methods in every content area in order to empower students and create a better future for our society. We live in a world with constant connectivity yet education content repeats painful subjects as “facts.” Literacy is a true key to healing social injustices, paving a way for a brighter world where peace is possible.


Christenson, L. (2009). Teaching for Joy and Justice. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.