In an effort to help students “understand the psychological impact of slavery on Africans brought over to this country”, Eighth grade history teachers at Whitney High School in Cerritos, California decided to put their students through a little “simulation”.
You can see where this is going.
Ahead of the “unique classroom activity”, history teacher Kevin Harp, sent an email alerting parents that their children would be pretending to be slaves, while teachers “acted as slave ship captains”. The email goes on to say that students will be lined up, have their wrists tied, be told to lay on the ground, and played a clip from Roots.
“The idea is for them to be uncomfortable, to feel mistreated, like a piece of property.”
Harp asks that parents who are uncomfortable with the concept reply to the email so they can have any questions answered and be reassured. The email ends with a plea to parents to “NOT TELL YOUR CHILD ABOUT THIS”, as the activity would be most powerful if the students are surprised.
Shardé Carrington, an African-American woman, with one of the few African-American students at Whitney High School, took exception to the “surprise activity” in an email response to the teacher. In a public Facebook post, Carrington shares the original email she received as well as her response, highlighting her issues with the exercise.
“You cannot sum up the experience of slavery with duct tape and a movie clip.”
In her response, Carrington challenges the educator’s promise that students will not be “phyiscally or emotionally harmed”, pointing out that they cannot predict how each student will react to such a graphic exercise. She goes on to highlight an issue the teachers seemed to ignore, the separate impact such an activity would have on black students: “they in particular are vulnerable to deep emotional reactions to reenacting the trauma and cruelty inflicted upon their ancestors”.
In a comment to Citizen Ed, Shardé Carrington shared: “because my son is Black, I was concerned that participating in said exercise would cause him traumatic feelings.” Noting that he is the only Black student in his history class.
Less than two percent of the over 1,000, students at Whitney High School are Black, with a majority of Asian students.
Ms. Carrington’s response was passed along to the principal and head of the social studies department, but the response she received left her less than reassured.
In department chair Derek Jean’s responding email, he tells Ms. Carrington that he personally brought the activity to the high school over 10 years ago, and that it has received “almost universal appreciation”. He goes on to tell Carrington that he agrees that being Black is America is difficult “for reasons it shouldn’t be” but he “respectfully submit(s) that this assignment is designed to immerse a student population that is not majority black, into the harrowing world that your ancestors suffered through.”
If she just read the essays that students write after the activity, she would understand it’s value, the department chair tells Ms. Carrington. In her facebook post, Carrington says the department chair “mansplains” and ignores her critical points, while basically saying the show must go on. She asks for her followers opinion on the matter, noting that everyone she has consulted with shares her point of view that the concept is demeaning, insensitive and all-around wrong.
What do you think?
(NOTE: At the time of this posting, representatives at Whitney High School have not yet responded to a request for comments on the situation)