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Why Representation Matters in Curriculum

#BLMAMPS #PromotePositiveNarratives #ReImagineUs

University of Wisconsin, Madison's Cooperative Children's Book Center study image by Tina Kügler.

It All Started with a Backpack

It was the Saturday shortly after Valentine’s Day and my girlfriend and I were enjoying our time in Chicago. We decided to visit the Disney Store as we strolled Michigan Avenue. Upon entering, immediately to the right, was a display of various items ranging from clothing to toys and school accessories of various Marvel characters.

There was one item in particular that stood out from the arrayal and instantly captured my attention - a Black Panther backpack.  Unable to contain my excitement, I let out a yell before reaching for it, proceeded to grasp it tightly and then examined every feature with awe. I drew the bag close to my chest and held it the way a child does their favorite blanket. I looked over towards where my girlfriend stood - amused and wishing she had caught the moment on camera. Other customers in the store, however, looked at me with disbelief. Was there something they missed?

I saw an interview of Chadwick Boseman that same week. He discussed the importance the film had for two little boys he was in communication with throughout the filming process, and teared up. A couple of tears streamed down my eyes as well, for which I could not fully comprehend why.

The Black Panther backpack the author is referencing in the article.Embracing that backpack made me realize exactly why. The superheroes I admired and held in great esteem growing up - the Power Rangers, Wolverine and Batman -  were fictional characters that, to put simply, did not look like or represent me racially/ethnically[i]. I never really had a Latino or Chicano superhero to call my own aside from Bane, who turns out was a villain in Batman: The Animated Series.

Reflecting on Boseman’s interview and that moment in the Disney Store brought me a sense of joy. Joy in knowing that when the day comes that I am a father, my son and daughter will have an opportunity that I did not necessarily have growing up – to be able to embrace superheroes in a way that I never really did because, let’s be honest, a Tommy Oliver, Logan, and Bruce Wayne  just don't have the same effect. I also thought of a laundry list of things pertaining to education.

That Laundry List I’m Talking About

What is this laundry list he's talking about?  You might wonder. Understanding it may require some sociological imagination, and so, I will need you to follow the picture I paint.

I really took for granted the importance of my racial/ethnic identity during my early adolescence. I recall when my older brother came home from community college and proudly proclaimed that we were Chicano. Something about his utterance disgusted me and I think my response was something along the lines of, “We are not that.” Now, as I write this, I am ashamed of my thirteen year old self, but I am very thankful for my brother’s willingness to turn this into a teachable moment.

Taken aback, he proceeded to engage me in a crucial discussion about Christopher Columbus. My naivety led me to rebut and defend the man that “discovered America” because of his courage, and other “explorers” like him, whom engaged in the “Age of Exploration.”

You following me? If you aren’t, than no need to read further. It is safe to assume you will be further triggered, more lost, and somehow manage to turn this into a “reverse racism” conversation because it is just too much for your fragility to handle. Anyways, I digress.

The learning that took place in that moment totally shook the educational foundations I had stood on. I had gone a good eight years in my educational career believing a lie that I wholly did not want to stomach. This was further compounded by an experience I had a few years prior on a university campus.

I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days with my aunt when she attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). As we toured the campus, I immediately noticed that there were not many people that looked like me, or us, for that matter. My ten year old brain processed this as not being smart enough to be here, an ideation that manifested into, “I wish I was white.” Crazy right?

Shortly thereafter, I was assigned a school project where we had to envision our lives twenty years into the future. I envisioned myself as a succesful individual, but not as David Emmanuelle Castillo, but rather an individal with a French sounding name. When my teacher and peers implored about this I responded that I needed a name that sounded succesful because...somehow, Spanish surname did not entail that.

There are times I wonder if things were meant to be that way, especially when I think about Proper Dos’ track titled “First Day of School,” in which he says, “Just my luck, a history book / Opened up I seen some pictures of some crooks / Some fools that killed Indians by the millions / But what if I was killing by the millions would I be a hero? / Chale! They’d throw my Brown [self] in Chino.” Just recently, that belief was confirmed by J. Cole in “Brackets” from the KOD album: “And the curriculum be tricking them, them dollars I spend / Got us learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin / One thing about the men that’s controlling the pen / That write history, they always seem to white-out they sins.”

A common thread in both of their bars is curriculum. Domino Renee Perez and Kristian Wilson addresses the importance of having diversity in children’s books, and I could not agree more because this starts as early as childhood.

If you still aren’t following and made it this far, I really recommend you look at Kenneth B. Clark’s doll study. If you still are not getting it after that, I recommend you look at the infographics[ii] by Tina Kügler (at the beggining of this article....if you hung up on the year, yea, you reaching!) and David Huyck, or research conducted by the Cooperative Children's Book Center out of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

I in no way want to downplay the role that internalized racial oppression, especially as it relates to my own existence and dealing with anti-Blackness and colorism, which I consistently work to unearth. However, there were forces that led me to believe that I as a Brown individual did not have greatness within me.  And yeah, I get the whole, “we have a choice,” argument that convolutes the critical discussion of what I am speaking too, but we must understand how those choices may be jaded by the unceasing, racist/colorist messaging of the world around us in our day-to-day lives. I also want to reiterate; I was ten and thirteen years old so please do not sleep on that.

I did not come to such naïve conclusions all on my own at such a young age. There are forces at play, such as the media and educational institutions, which rarely portray people of color positively, that have a role in that. The curriculum I encountered as an urban, public school student never portrayed Chicanos in a dignified, humanistic manner, and even when they made those feeble attempts - typically relegated to one-paragraph whitewashed blurbs - they fell incredibly short of doing my people and our history justice. Now, my experience and narrative aside, what does the research tell us?

Yeah, Research!!!

Curriculum that promotes a positive racial/ethnic identity is imperative. Promoting a positive racial/ethnic identity is a factor for resilience for students of color. Current literature (Neblett, Rivas-Drake, and Umaña-Taylor, 2012[ii]; Sellers et al., 2006[iv]) suggest that when students of color internalize a sense of pride about their racial/ethnic identity, they are:

  • Going to feel more connected to school;
  • More likely to experience positive mental health;
  • More likely to have positive relationships in life; and
  • More likely to succeed academically.

This may also help our students of color overcome:

  • The social phenomenon of camouflaging (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986[v]; Horvat, E. M., & Lewis, K. S., 2003[vi]; Ogbu, 1986[vii], 1988[viii], 1990[ix], 1992[x]), which they engage in because of perceptions that being an academic or being smart is something only reserved for white people, and
  • Stereotype threat (Chavous et al., 2003[xi]; Steele, 1997[xii]), especially as it pertains to their performance in areas where negative stereotypes of one’s racial/ethnic group are persistent.

It is exactly this understanding along with keeping student voice at the forefront of BLMA’s work, which shapes the Manhood Development, credit course curriculum.

[i] For this article, the terms cultural, culture, culturally, ethnic, ethnic, ethnically, racial, and racially will be used interchangeably.

[ii] Infographic for David Huyck.

[iii] Neblett, E. W., Rivas-Drake, D., & Umaña-Taylor, A. J. (2012). The Promise of Racial and Ethnic Protective Factors in Promoting Ethnic Minority Youth Development. Child Development Perspectives 6(3), 295-303. Doi: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2012.00239.x

[iv] Sellers, R. M., Copeland-Linder, N., Martin, P. P., & L’ Heureux Lewis, R. (2006). Racial identity matters: The relationship between racial discrimination and psychological functioning in Black adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 16(2), 187-216.

[v] Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J. (1986). Black students’ school success: Coping with burden of acting White. Urban Review, 18, 176-206.

[vi] Horvat, E. M., & Lewis, K. S. (2003). Reassessing the “Burden of ‘Acting White’”. The Importance of Peer Groups in Managing Academic Success. Sociology of Education, 76(4), 265-280.

[vii] Ogbu, J. (1986). Class stratification, racial stratification, and schooling. In L. Weis (Ed., Class, race and gender in American education (pp. 163-182). New York: State University of New York Press.

[viii] Ogbu, J. (1988). Class stratification, racial stratification and schooling. In L. Weis (Ed., Class, race and gender in American education (pp. 163-182). New York: State University of New York Press.

[ix] Ogbu, J. (1990). Minority status and literacy in comparison perspective. Daedalus 119:141-68.

[x] Ogbu, J. (1992). Understanding cultural diversity and learning. Educational Researcher 21: 5-14.

[xi] Chavous, T. M., Bernat, D. H., Schmeelk-Cone, K., Caldwell, C. H., Kohn-Wood, L., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2003). Racial identity and Academic Attainment among African American Adolescents. Child Development, 74(4), 1076-1090. Doi: 10.1111.1467-8624.00593.

[xii] Steele, C. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.


David Emmanuelle CastilloAbout the Writer: David Emmanuelle Castillo currently serves as the Planning Assistant for the Department of Black & Latino Male Achievement and oversees the Positive Narrative Change communications and marketing campaign. His vision is for the publications to educate, inform, and transform the mindset of individuals around rather difficult topics, especially those considered taboo. He also hopes teachers use the publications to engage students in academic discourse as well as offer a counter-narrative that dignifies, and humanizes Black and Brown males and communities.

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