The impact of curriculum underrepresentation in our schools
By Tyler Terrell
Editors’ Note: This piece was written as part of a partnership between the Kentucky Student Voice Team and Young Authors Greenhouse. Through our Education Justice Writing workshops, young people from across Kentucky participated in a series of interactive lessons to support them to tell their stories of education inequities. They learned how to write commentaries and make an impact with words, and we are excited to share their extraordinary pieces on The Student Voice Forum.
As a Black and Korean-American boy in America, I feel very unrepresented in my education, one centered on the ideology that the perspective of the straight white male is the only one worth listening to.
It isn’t only my opinion, my other classmates feel this way too. One described her experience as a Black girl as uncomfortable and confusing. “Why do we only learn about the tragedy of discriminated people?” she asked. Think about a small child confused, scared, and upset at their history. The lack of representation in education of minorities or other discriminated and oppressed groups affects me and my peers’ relationships and opinions.
Thinking back to elementary school, I remember hating learning about Black history. Most of the history gave me nightmares. Why would someone enslave people who look like me? Why would all people around the world hurt people who look like me?
The thoughts didn’t slow down when I learned that Black people are still being discriminated against. It didn’t help when I learned that I had to be cautious when around white people. The history I was shown in school only showed me that I should be cautious. I would only hang out with kids who looked like me: kids who understood what it was like to be cautious, and kids who understood what it was like to feel uncomfortable and scared about what was being taught in schools. It made me separate myself from my white peers or peers of any ethnicity. It made me only feel safe with people with more melanated skin.
“The lack of representation in education of minorities or other discriminated and oppressed groups affects me and my peers’ relationships and opinions.”
The lack of role models contributed to the idea of separating myself from my white peers. The lack of role models made me think that my history was unnecessary. None of this really changed until middle school when I learned different types of Black history.
In 6th grade, my class participated in National History Day, which is a project where a student does personal research on a topic they are interested in based on the theme of that year. The theme was “Breaking Barriers” and I chose the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic movement before the Great Depression. It was where Black artists used their artistic skills to uplift and empower other people of color. This research helped me realize that Black history wasn’t just tragedy, it was also groundbreaking. It helped me realize that even though black people were discriminated against, we could do so much more. But I didn’t learn this from school, I learned this from myself. Why doesn’t the school teach me about this history? Why weren’t they teaching us about Black people thriving?
Although my Black/African-American history was misrepresented, my Asian/Asian-American history was rarely shown at all. There were never really any Asian children in my class. The lack of representation of my history had me subconsciously disregard my Asian side. I have never bothered to learn the Korean language because it felt uninteresting to me. I have never learned to cook Korean food because I put aside my cultural background constantly. It wasn’t until the pandemic when I took interest in my Korean side. The Stop Asian Hate movement helped me realize that my Black side wasn’t the only side of me that had a complex history.
“This research helped me realize that Black history wasn’t just tragedy, it was also groundbreaking.”
I didn’t know that a major number of Korean Americans first immigrated to Hawaii. I didn’t know that they moved because of the offer to work as sugar planters there. I didn’t even know that America and South Korea are allies. But like my Black history, I learned this by myself.
This history I have learned shows that when Asians work together they can build their own image or profile anywhere. I found this impressive and empowering. It made me question why I wasn’t taught this history. The school curriculum’s failure to teach these parts of history made me think that my history was irrelevant. It made me think that my history was less than that of others’. It made me think that white history was the superior one.
So it made me think: Why hasn’t my school taught me about this side of history? Is my history less important than white history? Is my history invalid to my peers? Why can’t I be empowered or intrigued as my other classmates? When I asked my peers about this, I heard echoes of a similar thing: My friends who are minorities said versions of “they teach things from the white male’s perspective.” My white peers, meanwhile, had responses that included “I feel represented.”
This biased representation of minorities is completely unfair. The fact that people of color, or other underrepresented groups, are not feeling the same positive energy my white peers do needs to be changed. We should all be given the opportunity to feed off of empowerment and our personal history.
“Why hasn’t my school taught me about this side of history? Is my history less important than white history? Is my history invalid to my peers?”
I’ve heard people say, “Why isn’t there a white history month?” And I do understand why some people might think that their particular history, white history, is being invalidated. You think of white history everyday. Whether it be the tiny holidays dedicated to white men who enslaved, oppressed and discriminated against many different groups, or the stealing from and manipulation of discriminated people’s ideas, passing them off as their own. America puts their heart and soul into white history, the highs and lows of the more represented. You ask the question of why white history doesn’t get a month dedicated to it, but you fail to realize that every day is dedicated to white people. Our money, national parks, and our schools are too often dedicated to or named after people who say they bring up this country when they actually bring down the people in it. Why is that?
Why do we only learn about the tragedy of discriminated people? We have to think about change. Although change in the curriculum may be difficult, more diversity that reflects lived experience is the bare minimum to ensure happiness and a bright future for students. Without this, young kids will grow to think that they are invalid. This could make the young men and women in our country disregard their history.
We teach that “All men are created equal”, but we don’t show it in our classrooms. What will the future of America look like if we don’t truly follow those words?
Tyler Terrell is a part of the Kentucky Student Voice Team’s 2021 Education Justice Writing Cohort. He is also an 8th grade student at Leestown Middle School in Lexington.