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Teaching about Racism in America Is Not ‘Divisive’, Banning the Discussion Is

White people cry out, “Teaching Black history is divisive! BIPoC-focused education is anti-white!” as educational programs and state governments across the country work to limit, and even ban, Critical Race Theory.

Since the word ‘divisive’ is so incredibly popular right now, let’s focus on what it means: Tending to cause disagreement or hostility between people. Reading this definition raises a few key questions: One, what is more hostile than America’s treatment of people labeled as nonwhite? Two, what could possibly cause more disagreement than lying? And three, what is more divisive than excluding the stories of major groups of people living in this country? This last question is perhaps the most interesting when considering white people’s reaction to incorporating a curriculum that accurately reflects our past and present as a nation.

A brief lesson in the etymology of the word ‘divisive’, teaches us that it originated from the verb ‘to divide’, or the act of separating something into parts — the process of being separated.

I am going to ask you to read that last line again.

The only way to actually, literally divide anything is to exclude. Therefore, by not telling the complex and complete stories of everyone in this country, we, as white people, are actively dividing. We are embodying divisiveness.

Stepping away from the technical definition for a moment, we can also acknowledge that ‘divisive’ has become the buzzword for every person who does not want to engage in a conversation about past and current events in which they look bad. It’s a way to automatically dismiss an argument and thus, avoid being held accountable. What’s more, ‘divisiveness’ is deemed by white people as outright anti-American! If something is divisive, then it is not in union with others, and what is more ‘American’ than togetherness?

Speaking of togetherness, let’s explore the opposite of division. ‘Inclusion’: the action or state of including or being included within a group.

I’m going to kindly ask you to read that one again as well.

Exclusion of anyone or anything, by definition, creates division. True inclusion erases division.

I am a white woman from one of the whitest states in the country. Twenty-three years ago, I majored in Ethnic Studies at a very white university in that same very white state. I then dedicated my entire professional life to teaching. Throughout my studies and my career, I have reflected upon these questions: What possible benefit did it bring to my life to not fully understand the true story of my state, my country, my world? Who has benefited from the partial truths I learned? Who continues to benefit from half stories, from lies? By actively (and legally) working to exclude the whole truth in our schools, we do ourselves, and our country, a disservice.

The history of the concept of race provides imperative insight to the argument for including the whole truth. White people invented race precisely to divide, and, quite conveniently, to put themselves on top. Prior to the 1500s, “race”, as we know it, did not exist. As Europeans “discovered” the New World, they brought their terms of “white” and “slave” (among others) with them. During the 17th and 18th centuries as European philosophers began to categorize the world in new ways, the erroneous beliefs that white people were inherently smarter and better were concretized and perpetuated as scientific fact. These “scientific” and widespread discussions about race were necessary to Europeans in order to justify the brutal enslavement and colonization of peoples around the globe.

Some might argue that if race was invented precisely to divide, then continuing to talk about it would only continue to create more division. But the opposite of dividing is not ignoring; it is honestly and truthfully including.

In recent weeks, we have seen various school systems and state and local governments actively work to limit Critical Race Theory because of its “divisive” and “anti-white” nature. But by that argument, if learning about the history of other cultures and races is anti-white, then automatically, by default, the materials they’re currently using are anti-anyone-who-is-not-white. And again, we observe the very definition of exclusion, and thus division.

Denial of our history will get us nowhere, except to an increasingly divided place, because we are continuing to exclude the truth. Hiding from reality doesn’t make it any less real. Ignoring the truth doesn’t make it any less true. What leaves a giant chasm between white people and the rest of the country is the desire to avoid acknowledging our complete and true history as a nation. By “trying to prevent divisiveness” we, as white people, personify division, and willingly epitomize the antithesis of the union we pretend to so desperately seek.

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Lindsay Messoline

Teacher with 20-year career of working with learners from marginalized and minoritized communities.