Commercially produced history books in the US have long been known to be racially biased. Throughout their existence, they have been the battle ground of ideologues from various worldviews. Many contained terribly racist representations of oppressed minorities and degrading depictions of working class people and immigrants. To this day, those representations persist, sometimes in subtle forms and other times more overtly.
Activist/scholars have long pointed out the damage that racist representations can do to readers. indigenous scholar Linda Tuhiwei Smith, for example, notes four things that make many books “dangerous” to indigenous readers: “(1) they do not reinforce our values, actions, customs, culture and identity; (2) when they tell us only about others they are saying that we do not exist; (3) they may be writing about us but are writing things which are untrue; and (4) they are writing about us but saying negative and insensitive things which tell us that we are not good.” As far back as the 1930s, textbook critics like Carter G. Woodson have been advocating for self-reeducation to reduce the effects of stereotypes on the minds of, in his case, Black readers. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2018 report makes it clear that American history books depict “hard histories” like slavery and genocide poorly and that many teachers are uncomfortable doing a better job of it.
Scholars like sociologist Jordanna Matlon note that college can often be a good time to relearn. She writes, “Those professors among us who teach from the perspective of the oppressed are often tasked with unteaching what our students learned prior to entering our classrooms. As we know, the education system is a crucial site of social (re)production, fully complicit in the art of domination. ...It is only when we un-teach the lies of the past that claims to a shared heritage will mean something other than the art of domination.”
Commercially produced textbooks have long been criticized for their advancement of Eurocentric and American exceptionalist narratives, according to one researcher at the Sankofa Love Project reeducation resource. Since the very first US history textbook in the 18th century, they have most often been patriotic to the point of excluding narratives and dynamics that would call patently exceptionalist, Eurocentric, and uncritically patriotic narratives into question. Not surprisingly, oppressed minority groups like Indigenous and Black populations, were often ignored or represented as savages and brutes. During the time period following the Civil War, textbook renderings of history became particularly divided. Former Confederates wrote history one way, and Union sympathizers wrote it the absolute opposite way. This, according to textbook historian Joseph Moreau, caused textbook companies to print different versions of history books for Northern districts and Southern districts and/or to write what he called “consensus narratives”: historical text that was devoid of detail in order to offend no one.
Despite the intent of these questionable practices, textbooks did manage to offend. Minority special interest groups often lobby for better representation, and White supremacists push back in favor of the pre-multicultural era Eurocentric narratives. According to textbook analyst James Loewen, neither white students nor minority students benefit from biases that exalt Eurocentric patriarchal norms while obscuring their effects on minorities.
Charles Mills, in his famous book The Racial Contract, wrote that “standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by Whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination.” True as this is, it is far from the full reason for the problems inherent in commercially produced textbooks. According to the Sankofa Love Project, textbook biases are based on a complicated admixture of textbook adoption processes, influence of the free market, biases of the writers, biases of the editors, pressure group influence, and other factors.
Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The New Press, 2008.
Matlon, Jordanna. “The Art of Domination: On Decolonizing the Curriculum.” Opinion. The Eagle, 5 May 2017, https://www.theeagleonline.com/article/2017/05/professor-argues-american-university-must-decolonize-curriculum
Mills, Charles. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press, 1999.
Moreau, James. School Book Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present. University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Trembath, Sarah. Sankofa Love Project, www.sankofalove.org/index.html.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwei. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Second Edition, Zed Books, 1999.