White supremacy in school, in our world

I’ve been thinking about the concept of white supremacy a lot in recent weeks given the heightened awareness of racial injustice in the world, and I realized that without even realizing it or not, every single one of us plays a role in white supremacy whether we realize it or not. Many white people hear the words “white supremacy” and think that the term does not apply to them, that they do not modify their behavior based on the color of a person’s skin. But that could not be further from the truth. We’ve been born into a world that lives by the concept of white supremacy. If we were to be void of white supremacy, we’d also be void of socialization, which would be impossible. We live in nations taken over by white people from indigenous peoples. White people have colonized lands from the African to Asian continents. In schools, literature and history is taught with a focus on the white world – European and American history. World War II history lessons in U.S. high school courses barely touch upon how this great world war also had atrocious events such as the rape of Nanking — merely because it took place in China, and who cares about China? In English literature courses, we are focused on Shakespeare, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, J.D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy — just the great works of white men. In Advanced Placement art history, I distinctly remember asking my instructor why we were skipping over about half of our fat art history book that covered Asia and Africa. My instructor responded that those parts of the world were not covered in the AP exam, so we wouldn’t have time to cover those. But of course, if I was interested, I should go ahead and read those sections on my own for self study.

Message to take away from this: the European and western world matter. The African and Asian world do not.

And that’s pounded into our head time and time again. And whether we realize it or not, we internalize all that messaging and think it’s just normal.

That’s why when I traveled to Cambodia with friends in 2012 and wondered out loud what delicious dishes there were to eat in this country I’d never before visited, one of my friends’ husbands memorably responded back, “Yvonne, I don’t think you should spend too much time researching food here. There’s a reason that Cambodian food hasn’t made it big in the U.S…. it probably isn’t that good.” I angrily shot back that this idea was ridiculous and snobbish. What I failed to verbalize at the time, which I know now, is that his statement was soaked in white supremacy and racism. His statement indirectly said, “If white people have not embraced this people’s food, then there’s no way it could be good… because the white man knows best for all.” It was a justification of white colonization, that white people have to save people, approve of the foods and cultural practices of people of color.

I finally finished reading yet another Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie book today called Half of a Yellow Sun. So far this year, especially given quarantine, I’ve read a lot — 19 books to date, and this is definitely one of the biggest highlights (among ALL of the other Chimamanda books – I’m truly in love with this woman). The book chronicles the lives of three different individuals during the course of the Nigerian-Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War, which took place from 1967-1970. The book grapples with many themes, such as moral responsibility, white colonialism, ethnic allegiances (Igbo, Yoruba, Muslim), and class and race. Given that Biafra is not on the map today, we know without even reading this book that Biafra fell and Nigeria (the original government) won the war in the end. What we get from this book is exactly how ugly war can be, how racism and classism seep their way into everything, especially when it comes to life and death. Over three million people died during this war, whether it was due to casualties, famine, or pure war fighting. Do those lives not matter because they are Black? Is that why I was never taught this in school? As the book says, “It was like somebody sprinkling pepper on his wound: Thousands of Biafrans were dead, and this man wanted to know if there was anything new about one dead white man. Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal to one dead white person.” 

While contemplating this book after finishing it, it made me angry to think that I never learned about this war in school. I never learned African art in art history. We barely touched African geography. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that Africa the continent was downscaled significantly by a bunch of racist white map creators; in fact, Africa is bigger than China, India, the contiguous United States, and most of Europe, combined! The African continent takes up about one-fifth of the world’s landmass. The only African history I ever learned was a tiny bit about Egypt and Cleopatra. What is wrong with our society, with our world, that we wouldn’t teach about such huge populations and pieces of land in the world and favor only certain parts lived in by white people? Is this just going to continue, and for how long?

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