History of Racism & Bias

Pedagogies of history in western society place Eurocentrism over a more factual and
holistic version of history, due to narrative biases that prefer a white lens to history
● For nations with communities of colour this instils a bias towards western framing, as
they are taught history from “the winners” perspective
● That history goes on to inform all of society and the people within that society
● To tackle racism both implicit and explicit action is needed to frame history more factually
and from multiple narratives

As a high school student I could not be bothered to care for academia. At 15 academics
was just a fact of life, something that must be done. Much less something to actually
enjoy. History as a discipline changed all that. To this day I am an avid history nut. The
processes of change played over decades and centuries are as thrilling as any fiction
book by anyone. While high school may have peaked my interest it was only when I
went beyond school and began learning about history on my own did I realize the
magnificence of world history as a culmination of stories and a larger single story in
itself. In comparison to my school education, self learning made me realize how
Eurocentric western was. From kindergarten straight through my masters, social
science to physical sciences, the historical education I received was based almost
solely on the European narrative.

Obsessed not just with Europe, but her descendants’
formal education through omission and white washing actively produces biases towards
a white supremacy ideology. Such ideology creates the bedrock for racism in western
society, both explicit in systems of structural racism and implicit as unconscious bias.
The structure of education through history is important as history then informs
everything in our lives.

As author James Baldwin put it:

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it
does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of
history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it
in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be
otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and
our aspirations.”

The value of history moves beyond the professors and historians lounging around the
halls of Columbia or Oxford, and actually envelops us all. Much like Baldwin says it
creates a frame of reference that goes on to determine everything else we do. These
frames guide how we structure our society. For example, take July 4th, the date in the
US is American Independence Day. All Americans know this day and celebrate it as the
day America was founded and freed from mother Britain. As a symbol of American
identity it is synonymous, yet if we look at it only property owning white men could vote.
For years property less men, black people and women were subject to essentially the
same type of ‘democracy’ they had before 1776.

If the voting rights of independent America were instituted today, most of America could
not vote, yet they all celebrate July 4th as their Independence Day. While a small
example it goes to show how history narratives control all of us. Also how narratives are
biased towards certain groups. Should the narrative have been more black they might
have chosen Juneteenth, the day black people officially were actually citizens, or even
August 26, the day of the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote. We
embrace July 4th because history is written by the winners, and the winners have been
from Europe and male.

Formal education is the prime way societies distil narratives into people. Along with
family, community and media these institutions provide a history that establishes a
certain class over others. From ages as early as three students spend the dominant
amount of their life at school being educated history from a western perspective. Such
bias in the pedagogy uses omission, white washing and misrepresentation to propel
Europeans and their descendants as the masters of history. By ingratiating ourselves in
such an institution we become internalized in the white supremacy mode of history. For
many the idea they are white supremacists is alarming. Many believe in their racial
tolerance, acting even as allies to the cause of racial justice. As well intentioned as we
all may be there is strong evidence of implicit bias in western society, which researchers
say affects 90 to 95% of people. These biases are built in childhood as our brains are

The science of the subject is vast as neuroscientists have often considered implicit bias
as an outcome of how humans form information. Our brains cluster groups of people
based on certain traits to stop overload of information. The same study finds that
negative stereotypes are more prevalent as the brain responds stronger to negative
depictions of groups. As egocentric beings children look to equate goodness to their in
group and attribute badness as otherness. Media depictions of black criminality on news
and programming can strongly enforce negative stereotypes. It is essentially the same
way we can consider many things a chair even as they come in different colours, styles
and sizes. Young children, especially poorer ones are dependent on education as a
means of creating meaningful connections. Other forms of socialization are more
troublesome. Parents can teach morals and values most do not have the breadth of
knowledge to decolonize the maths over dinner. Even more, lower income parents tend
to work longer, therefore less time to teach their children.

The positive feedback loop is exponential in scope. As teachers with racist biases teach
students such a bias, and those students go on to become teachers, they do the same.
Just as every judge, police officer, politician and principal have also gone to school
before, they are also filled with biases formed from formal education (tongue twister).
This is the only way I can conceive how a friend I would consider well educated and
informed could be surprised to learn Africa is not a country”. What value can you have
of a people if you don’t even know where they come from? Whether we talk about
America, Australia, New Zealand or Canada, these former settler colonies especially
owe much of their history to non-European groups. The Atlantic slave trade for example
changed the demographics of America so drastically conceiving of the US without Africa
is impossible. Without black people and the African culture that survived nothing we
conceive of as America could exist. Not Jazz, not the White House and not democracy.
Yet that is not being reflected in education. Only eight to nine percent of class time is
devoted to black history according to one study. This is not enough. When you consider
that much of that history and others focus on relations to Europeans and their
descendants, the history of black and indigenous actors devoid of white actors is poor.
Both in formal education institutions and the media landscape. Think of all those movies
with shoehorned white actors. Most egregious is Green Book, who preferred to cast a
story of Dr. Don Shirely the legendary pianist, but from the point of view of his white
driver. This in short is all western stories, fiction and nonfiction.

For white students this presents a social group that means little to the progress of
history. Given designation as a vehicle for European narrative, a footnote addendum to
the story of the white man. For students of colour it dismisses the self as a character
shaping the world. As a creator of identity what identity can black and indigenous
people have if they are not told of their history? Combine that with a media already
ingratiating stereotypes and children from the get go are filled with a bias against non
white Americans. For children of colour interaction with family and our communities play
countervailing forces. For whatever lack of education on my own people, the community
fills in certain gaps. This is not enough. The resilience of these communities are the only
forces continuing black and indigenous identity as independent. The burden on these
communities is immense, especially as they tend to be of lower socioeconomic status.
At home in Toronto most of the black people I knew were new immigrants, much like my
mother they were in low wage jobs. New immigrants are especially vulnerable to
working low wage jobs, but also they work harder than settled citizens. Apart from Uncle
Phil on TV I did not know any black lawyers, doctors or scientists. The role of
representation for children is strong. More than just having a black teacher
representation is about being able to see yourself in the world you inhabit, a rarity in
education. For racialized youth the problems misrepresentation creates is crippling.
Fields with strong black representation attract black students. In a study of black female
students, most preferred hypothetical schools with black staff members in their field of
choice. This goes far to explain the low prevalence of black women in STEM given the
larger interest. The white students themselves inhabit this bias and practice it
constantly. Even in liberal cities workplace hiring’s and criminal justice show bleeding
bias against black and brown people.

On a macroscale what can this say about education and racism? As schools ignore the
impact of people of colour in the history of arts, culture, science and politics students
become conditioned to believe those roles are not for people of colour. Dispossession of
whole societies lead to ridiculous notions, such as aliens built the Mayan pyramids
(because obviously those peoples couldn’t have done it).
Working for an education non profit I saw how representation can affect outcomes
directly. As one girl began to talk to me about the law profession I asked her “So will
you be a lawyer?”, she replied “No, I am going to be a paralegal, I have a cousin who
does it”. For black boys it was even worse, many I worked with wanted to be rappers or
athletes, the only things they knew black men did. Even when black students make it to
university programs many choose arts related subjects over more lucrative STEM
subjects. These figures follow the dominant representation of black people as
entertainment figures, social activists and blue collared over academics, sciences and
other fields.

Misrepresentation is just the most obvious tool of supremacy. The tools of subjugation
are varied, but the major theme is they are false. What is needed for society to move
beyond the biases we internalize is exposure. It has long been known that greater
exposure to people of diverse backgrounds reduces bias. Why? Because the views we
hold about peoples are false. Especially for more rural and poorer children not
socialized outside their communities, it becomes important to expose them to people
from other races, ideas and cultures either through in person contact or secondary
sources. Even the knowledge of Neil DeGrasse Tyson as a POC scientist does more for
racial equity than the last Goldman Sachs diversity training. For children of colour it
provides a role model in which to provide a stronger sense of identity. For white
students it helps decrease the stereotypes they soak around them.

School as an institution breeds us into a mode of thinking, we cannot take that responsibility lightly.
An authentic history of a world will further national and individual identities, reduce bias
and embrace inclusivity. The future would then prove, actively anti racist as they come
to question stereotypes from a prevailing Eurocentric orthodoxy. This would look
different in different disciplines. For the physical sciences it would mean embracing
‘fractal design’ as a mathematical method, a formation Greater Benin in modern Nigeria,
or promote Aboriginals as manufacturers of Canadian history. Later armed with an anti
racist historical narrative these now adults would go on to replicate an accurate and
holistic history into society. This is not a way to defeat racism, but the only way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s