Institutionalized Racism, School Textbooks and the Black Female Psyche:
How Print Culture in American School Systems Create and Sustain Internalized Racism within the Black Female Consciousness
America is a society heavily based on print culture. Newspapers, magazines, books, print advertisements, posters, and journals, proliferate the lives of Americans. Essentially, most of anything we need to know is contained within print culture. Scholars of American society earn their titles as 'scholarly leaders' because they saturate their adult lives in print culture. They engage in intense reading and writing activities within the halls and libraries of prestigious universities. At the end of their university degree program, they are granted a piece of paper. This essential paper displays printed text of their individual academic and intellectual distinction. They 'are' what this piece of paper- this print culture- says they are.
Print culture tells us who we are. As individuals, we are given driver's licenses, social security cards, birth certificates, green cards, diplomas, criminal records, school records, etc. Whether we like it or not, print culture creates categories that we all must fit in. A birth certificate categorizes and labels us by race, nationality and sex. Criminal records label us as 'criminals' for life, regardless if the crime committed occurred thirty years ago. School records archive printed symbols that indicate each individual as 'poor student', 'average student' or 'good student'. This intellectual indicator brands our intellectual potential throughout our academic lives. Essentially, escaping the effects of print culture in America is like trying to run away from one's shadow: it is part of us.
Learning to read and write grossly restructures the human consciousness. "More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness."3 For most Americans, initial acquisition of literacy skills comes from the 'pre-K through 12th grade' school system. At the tender age of five, most American children enter the halls of a social institution founded upon 'reading, writing and arithmetic.' For approximately twelve years, children undergo tremendous socialization process. From elementary school through high school, a child reads at least 32,000 textbook pages.4 It is through school textbooks that they are formally introduced to a Euro-Anglo centric view of English & Literature, History, Science, Mathematics, Economics, Political Sciences, Geography, Civics and Health Education.
Furthermore, textbooks in American school systems depict a majority of males as the 'heroes' of Science, History, Government and Geography. Textbook culture is dominated by the notion that being Euro-Anglo and male is 'superior' and 'normal.'
Print culture labels and categorizes who we are as individuals. Furthermore, reading and writing restructures consciousness. Young children assimilate the content and values of reading materials with little conscious thought. Values and attitudes concerning the race, ethnicity, gender, social class, age or physical appearance of people may be altered by the presence of subtle distortions as well as gross stereotypes in children's textbooks.7 Therefore, if school curriculum is largely based on Euro-Anglo-centric textbooks, the consciousness of the black female student is adversely effected. She is influenced to perceive herself as 'inferior' to the mind and body of the Euro-Anglo and white person.
An analysis of American school textbook curriculum and theories from prominent black feminists reveal how American school print culture has created and continues to sustain internalized racism within the psyche of black female students in America.
Internalized Racism, Black Female Psyche and Textbooks
bell hooks, a prominent scholar in race theory, conveys a disturbing and harsh example of self-hate and internalized racism that exists in so many black females. Even though her experience is personal, it depicts a reality that so many dark-skinned females must endure:
There are many factors that contribute to the psychological development of the human psyche. One of the most important factors in this developmental process is the American school system. Driven by a curriculum of published texts and images, the American school system is crucial in understanding the perpetuation of internalized racism, internalized oppression and low self-esteem within the black female consciousness. Internalized racism occurs when an oppress group of people internalize the racists ideologies of the dominate ruling class. In the case of America, white-supremacist ideology governs the lives of all who live in this country. bell hooks asserts that
Discussing institutionalized racism, in reference to American school system, is a complicated and controversial subject. However, as bell hooks states, internalized racism continues to enslave the minds of many black individuals. Self-esteem is crucial in how one is able to perceive themselves as viable and valuable beings in any society.
Even though legalized segregation ended in the 1960s, the dominance of the white heteropatriarchal status quo continues to proliferate throughout the American school system. Black female students learn that only white men were the fore-fathers in birthing the nation of America. The history textbooks they read, falsely construct great American icons as flawless, fair, distinguished and credible white men that can 'do no wrong.' Left out of these textbooks are the racist, heterosexist, sexist and elitist ideologies and practices that these 'distinguished men' subscribed to:
Furthermore, history textbooks establish and depict blacks as oppressed(by whites) and men. "Moreover, scholars treat the slavery experience as a Black male phenomenon, regarding Black women as biological functionaries whose destinies are rendered ephemeral- to lay their eggs and die."12 Blacks are mostly depicted in a social context that posits them in an 'inferior' social status within white dominant class. Textbooks commonly write about Blacks and people of African descent in relation to being oppressed by whites. It is rare that a student will read about black historical figures that existed before and after colonialism. Blacks only enter historical discourse in textbooks, once they have been colonized by Euro-Anglo imperialists. Such written history constructs the notion that blacks have always been socially inferior to whites.
History textbooks also teach students that mostly Euro-Anglo men invented or discovered the most important theories, machines, devices, medicine, etc. Students are rarely taught the magnificent contributions of Ancient African Civilizations. Students read about the tremendous accomplishments that were made by white men who existed in Ancient Greece, during the Industrial Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, and the early part of the twentieth century. It is questionable how many black female students read history textbooks that show evidence of African and African-American achievements within all academic disciplines, such as:
Unfortunately, the black body is not constructed as a sentient and valuable individual with the same intellectual potential as Albert Einstein, Mozart, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison and Aristotle. Instead, the black body is merely written about within a slave/master social context. Black females essentially learn that those important in history, are white and men. However, this is only scratching the surface. School textbooks also depict a recurring theme of feminine beauty as a Euro-Anglo female. From nursery school through high school, the dominate textual illustration of feminine beauty has been constructed as a white female with fair skin, light eyes and long straight or fine textured hair.
Textbooks and the Feminine Beauty Standard
Even though the black American female is no longer a slave, she still remains mentally enslaved to white supremacist ideologies. School textbooks help to create and perpetuate these ideologies. Out of these biased ideologies, a dichotomy is born in which females are either 'white' or 'the other':
Unfortunately, American culture tends to attribute physical beauty as the most valuable asset a woman has to offer. America is a heteropatriarchal society in which all women are expected to adhere to white-supremacist ideas of gender roles, or suffer the consequences. Print culture has been an invaluable source in promoting racist and sexist ideals of 'feminine beauty.' It is in print culture that Euro-Anglo and white supremacist ideology dominate and control how the textual and visual images of 'the other' is represented:
Representations of beauty, through Euro-Anglo centric dichotomy of 'white vs. the other', are detrimental to the psyche of the non-white American female. In terms of school textbooks and literature, these images can be seen on the covers of widely read school texts such as:
The books above are considered American classics. Regardless of how well-written these books are, the covers of these popularly read books convey a disturbing message: all women are white, wear dresses and have fair complexions.
However, the argument is not whether white women are the epitome of 'angelic beauties.' What must be scrutinized is 1) how a marginalized group is psychologically affected by the standards imposed on them by the dominant ruling group; and 2) how and why the black female body/mind is erased from English literature and class discussion. Toni Morrison theorizes that "the erasure takes place on several levels: African-American literature is ignored or undervalued; Euro-American writers either fail to write black people into stories or when they do, use our presence to define whiteness." 23 Two school English literature books that portray black characters in relation to their 'inferior nature to whites,' are The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn.
The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, published in the early eighteenth century, was written at a time when slavery and colonization of non-whites was the social norm. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was written in the 1880s. Even though black slavery had been dissolved at the time Twain's book was published, segregation and racist attitudes towards blacks were commonplace. Mark Twain supposedly wrote Huckleberry Finn to illustrate America's social problems with the newly freed black race. Twain wanted to help create a moral conscience within the psyche of white supremacist thinkers. However good-hearted Twain's intentions were, and no matter how well written this books is, he still presents to the reader a stereotypical view of a black person in nineteenth century America. Jim, the black character in Twain's classic, is presented as a male character and socially inferior to the white Huckleberry Finn. Daniel Defoe's The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, also conveys racist views of dark-skinned people. In his book the
Once again, black characters in English literature school books are depicted as 'inferior' and male. Missing from these popularly read classics is the fact that black people are male and female; existed BEFORE whites discovered them; existed as sentient beings BEFORE whites socially constructed them in relation to defining 'whiteness.' The black experience is conceived within the minds of two white males authors that have constructed the black experience as solely male and in a constant state of 'servitude for whites.'
The few books read in school, that solely address racism and the black experience, still construct the main character as a black man and in an inferior social position within a white dominated society. To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are three examples.
On a positive note, it is optimistic to see that some students are reading about slavery and racism in America. Unfortunately, two of these texts show slavery as a black male experience. In the third text, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee tells the story of a black man accused of raping a white girl and is defended by a white male lawyer. When these three novels are analyzed, along with Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Shakespeare, Snow White, and Sense and Sensibility, we find that authors who have significant places in literature are white men and white women. With the exception of Frederick Douglass, students must read about the black experience, written through the eyes of white authors. However, the argument shouldn't be whether or not white authors should be allowed to write about the 'black experience.' It is important that students read diverse perspectives that address race in America, including that of white authors. Unfortunately, the way the curriculum is designed, a huge percentage of English literature school books are written solely by whites.
In addition to this. the presence of the black female is largely ignored. Left in place of this gap is the notion that all women are white and all blacks are men. This lack of positive representation of this black female presence contributes to how the black female student physically and intellectually views herself.
The lack of affirming images and representations of black females in English literature school books needs to be addressed by education policy makers in America. Currently, most American black females engage in beauty practices in which they try to successfully emulate the white female aesthetic. Black women buy products to straighten their hair and to lighten their skin. Aside from, the advertisements that usually portray women with light skin and straightened hair, movies that depict a beautiful woman as light-skinned and having straight long hair, and television shows that depict black women with straightened hair-dos, the impact of early childhood 'American classic' schoolbooks should be critically analyzed. These 'American classic' story books help to perpetuate the notion that 'black isn't beautiful.'
Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, are classic American books that children read in their early elementary school years. The push for multi-cultural children's storybooks, in American school system, has been fairly successful. Many young children are now reading about Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, same-sex parents and children with physical disabilities. However, what makes these class storybooks different from the multi-cultural books is that 1) the classics solidify the importance of female beauty and 2) these classics have been made into easily accessible movies and toys.
When a female child reads the classics, such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel, she learns how important beauty is in relation to finding her 'prince' and being happy. These classic children's story books tell the story of a white beauty with very fair skin, blue eyes, small lips, thin nose, and long 'beautiful' - often blonde- hair. It is because of these 'feminine' attributes that these female characters are rescued by a handsome white prince. In opposition to this, the children's book, Nappy Hair, by Carolivia Herron, promotes a positive image of black hair. In her book, 'kinky' and 'nappy' hair is beautiful as well.29 However, what makes Herron's book different from the classic Euro-Anglo fairy tales is that the classics have been turned into movies and toy store merchandise. These classic texts are solidified in the minds of young children, because a large majority of them watch the Disney movie versions of these books. Little girls enter toy stores and see that these classic textual beauties have been turned into Disney dolls and Barbie dolls. This plethora of visual and physical representations of classic Euro-Anglo beauty gives the classic children's story book precedence over the multi-cultural story books. If Disney and so many other movie production companies have made many movies, DVD's and home videos based on these classic stories, the story book representations of the 'classic beauty' must be the 'norm.'
In terms of English & Literature school books, those books that have been made into major motion pictures are books written by white authors and portray women as fair skinned white beauties. Emma, The Portrait of a Lady, Sense and Sensibility, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet were all made into major motion pictures in the 1990s. Often, teachers have students read the books for class and show these hollywood versions of the classic texts. Once again, the mere fact that hollywood spent millions of dollars in producing these visual representations of 'feminine beauty', show students that these classic white authors are much more significant than non-white authors and non-white experiences. In terms of the black female student, she learns to emulate the characteristics of 'white' beauty standards, as portrayed by the classic children's story books and English literature books she reads in school. Movies, television and magazine are also factors in this. However, students spend a minimum of six hours per day, in school. They also spend time reading homework assignments, outside of school. The impact of these school texts, coupled with America's obsession with Euro-Anglo beauty standards, should not be ignored when looking at the formation of the black female psyche.
The influence of textbooks and school books, whether consciously or subconsciously internalized by black female students, plays a significant role in the development of black female student's self-esteem and intellectual potential. If there are no or very few positive representations of black females in school books it is no wonder so many black females harbor internalized racism about their physical beauty and intellectual potential. They have no or very minimal positive literary mentors. Unfortunately, this 'gap' exist in the Science disciplines as well.
Science in America is taught from a Euro-Anglo centric perspective. With the exception of Washington Carver, Madame Curie, and a other very few non-white and female scientists, students learn that all scientists, past and present, are white men. Such a curriculum is racist and sexist.
Such a curriculum can only prove devastating to the minds of black female students. In a country where print culture dominates all aspect of academia, black female students need to read about and conduct experiments from the perspective of all ethnicities, especially African American women scientists:
Furthermore, students learn that science is objective and unbiased. However, students of color rarely learn that a huge percentage of scientific research they're taught "were conducted from a racist perspective and [scientists'] findings were further used to support racism with a 'scientific' legitimacy. In learning science that they then pass on to pupils, teachers absorb the racist values inherent in the discipline." 32 Unfortunately, students are taught that the foundation of all science is objective and unbiased. However, if students are being taught that science is objective and unbiased, school curriculum could essentially stop using learning materials based only white male scientists and use other materials such as AFRICAN AND AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN IN SCIENCE Three Centuries of Contributions, with Hands-On Experiments and Activities for 37 Weeks which still allow students to conduct scientific experiments with 'objectivity,' regardless of the fact that black females created these experiments. The book cover alone is enough to inspire black female students and help them gain positive images about black women in academia, past and present.
With this text, black women are given a positive space in the field of science. In addition, all students will learn that black females have the same intellectual potential as Bohr, Einstein and Galileo. Unfortunately, most students learn the bulk of 'Black History' during America's Black History month. Instead of integrating multi-cultural knowledge in everyday learning materials for the entire school year, students are left to believe that black icons are only worth learning about one month out of the school year. Students read, learn and write about Euro-Anglo centric based knowledge, everyday. Once again, the text that is used and emphasized the most will take precedence over the small amount of time that is dedicated to multi-cultural school texts. For black female students who go to college, this discourages many of them from pursuing careers in science. For example, in 2002, the Harvard University Summer School course, "Introduction to the Elements of Computer Science Using Java," there were 2 black female students in a class of approximately 70 students. For the 2002 fall term, Harvard University Extension School course, "Introduction to Educational Technologies," a computer applications course, there were only one black female student in a class of approximately 20 students. 34
The curriculum for children in American school system has evolved much within the last hundred years. Educational policy now calls for multi-cultural approaches to teaching children about all fields of knowledge. However, this is only a 'bandage' to a huge problem that needs more than multi-cultural school books in the classroom. American school system is Euro-Anglo centric. Students still learn about non-whites largely through the perspective of white scholars. In terms of black figures in school texts, students only learn about blacks as a 'oppressed' people. They also learn about blacks in relation to 'whiteness.' Literature written about blacks or by blacks is usually about the black male experience and how the experience relates to a white-supremacist society. Blacks enter historical and English literature discourse as 'the Other.' Rarely do students read about blacks before colonialism. The black experience is constructed through the lens of Euro-Anglo colonial perspective. This gives a false notion that blacks have always been 'socially inferior' to whites.
Reading and writing is a consciousness altering process. The individual psyche can benefit from literacy. However, certain types of literacy skills development practices can also subject the psyche to feelings of intellectual inadequacy, self-hate and internalized racism. In the case of American school text books, learning materials and literature grossly effect the psyche of all students. While white students have a plethora of textual access to positive representations of Euro-Anglo historical figures, scientists, musicians, and authors and black male students have a few representations of the 'Black male experience,' black female students have access to virtually no representations of the 'Black female experience.' As a culture built on print media, Americans learn that published materials are powerful forces in conveying the ideas of the status-quo. In this case, the status-quo for over five hundred years has been constructed by white men with heteropatriarchal ideologies, agendas and values. These values have infiltrated every aspect of America, including the education system. It is this biased system that is detrimental to the psyche of black female students in America. Until there is a drastic attempt to dissolve a primarily Euro-Anglo centric social system, black female students will have to endure reading and viewing psychologically damaging classroom literature and images; literature and images that exclude black females, construct the black experience as 'male', and promote 'white feminist' as the epitome of universal beauty.