What Is Your American Flag?

When Frederick Douglass was asked to speak at an 1852 event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, his hosts probably didn’t expect the speech he gave them, which included this famous gem:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Douglass’ speech that day was a biting attack on the hypocrisy of a nation—and the systems within it—that professed the inherent equality among people (well, men) while holding millions of them in bondage.

Today, African Americans might ask a similar question: “What, to the African American, is your American flag?” This question occurred to me a couple of months ago when two drastically different images of the American flag appeared: on the shield of Marvel Comics’ Samuel Wilson, a new African-American character who now dons the stars and stripes as Captain America; and in the painting New Age of Slavery, an image of the flag that calls out systemic racialized violence against African Americans. Each of these powerful, cultural images speaks volumes about the state of race relations in this country—and the healing it so sorely needs.

The new Captain America reflects an exciting time in the world of comic books, a time in which characters are becoming increasingly diverse. With a female Thor, Muslim Ms. Marvel and other changes, Marvel Comics is making a point to feature characters that represent the broad range of its readers’ identities.

As Captain America, Samuel Wilson can lead children’s imaginations in numerous directions. Not only can an African American become president of the United States; he or she can fight for the common good as the consummate American superhero, clad head to toe in red, white and blue.

Patrick Campbell’s painting New Age of Slavery presents a completely different perspective on the American flag and what it represents. Going viral the first week of December 2014, the painting depicts hanging bodies in the red stripes of the flag. In the field of blue, some of the stars are cracked, and some are figures of men engaged in violent acts like shooting and striking. Still others are victims of those acts.

Campbell was inspired by story after story of African Americans dying pointless deaths at the hands of authority figures, but Eric Garner’s death was a tipping point. “It seems that African-Americans have been targeted in our own state and in our own country. I cannot stress that enough. IT IS OUR OWN COUNTRY,” he told The Grio.

Many have criticized the painting as disrespectful, to which Campbell agrees, adding that “it’s grounded on hard truths.” The violence illustrated in his flag is typical in many American communities—even the children in these communities know as much. It’s their reality.

These two manifestations of the flag reveal two facets of the U.S. conversation surrounding race: aspiration and reality. It is true we have a black president—but it is also true that African-American students are more likely to be suspended than their white peers for the same violations and that African-American teens are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white peers. These types of lopsided statistics are not true only for African Americans but also for Latinos, American Indians, LGBT individuals and people with disabilities.

Think your students don’t know these facts? They do. Think they’re not talking about them? They are—and you should too. Talking about the systemic oppression that students of color experience isn’t racist. On the contrary, such conversation opens the door to a different future, a different country that shuns the hypocrisy Douglass spoke about 150 years ago.

If more people can accept and respect an African American proudly wrapped in the American flag, then maybe fewer of our students will identify with stripes that represent loss of life and oppression.

Bell is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

What’s Your Favorite 'Perspectives' Reading?

Last week, Teaching Tolerance highlighted the process that guided the selection of the nearly 300 readings, images and video and audio clips in Perspectives for a Diverse America, our K-12 literacy-based curriculum. Our staff handpicked each and every title in the Central Text Anthology to equip anti-bias educators with a free, high-quality curriculum; a few have become staff favorites. Read about the readings that are especially near and dear to TT staff and see if your favorite is listed among them.

 “An Open Letter to Ann Coulter” by John Franklin Stephens 

Grade level: Sixth grade
Text type: Informational
Lens: Ability
Themes: Individual and society, membership and solidarity
Anti-bias domains: Identity, Justice

After Ann Coulter called President Obama a “retard” in a tweet about the 2012 presidential debates, athlete John Franklin Stephens offered a rebuttal on the Special Olympics blog. Stephens, a man with Down syndrome, tackles Coulter’s insinuation that Obama should feel belittled by the word, by being associated with people with disabilities. Instead, Stephens believes that the association should be a “badge of honor” because people with disabilities overcome a great deal.

Writing with humor and grace, Stephens reminds us that our language matters. It can be hurtful or it can show great compassion. Choosing the latter, Stephens invites Coulter to visit the Special Olympics and extends his friendship to her. “An Open Letter to Ann Coulter” is a wonderful demonstration of loving ourselves and appreciating others. 

Margaret Sasser, fellow

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes

Grade level: Seventh grade
Text type: Literature
Lenses: Class, race and ethnicity
Themes: Individual and society, power and privilege, struggle and progress
Anti-bias domains: Justice, Action

In this poem, Langston Hughes asks what happens to a dream deferred and discusses some of the outcomes. Published during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, this poem is truly one of our American gems. Notably, a line in “Harlem” became the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

The message “Harlem” conveys remains important as dreams and opportunities continue to be pushed out of reach, and only so many avenues offer recourse. It’s one of my favorite Perspectives texts because students will identity with the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” as they reflect on their own experiences and aspirations.

June Christian, teaching and learning specialist

“I Am Tired of Learning New Languages” from I Learn America

Grade level: 6-12
Text type: Multimedia
Lens: Immigration
Theme: Struggle and progress
Anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity

“I Am Tired of Learning New Languages,” a segment from the documentary I Learn America, centers on a teenager named Sing who has lived in enough countries to learn six different languages. In this video, we watch Sing publicly read from his personal essay about struggling to learn each new language.

This is one of my favorite texts because it highlights an important difficultly faced by English language leaners, something native English speakers take for granted: the ability to communicate with English words. We get insight into Sing’s perseverance, as well as the pride he feels—and the affirmation he receives—after sharing his story in English. 

Monita Bell, writer/associate editor

“A Girl and a Word” by Laura Linn 

Grade level: Fourth grade
Text type: Informational
Lens: Ability
Themes: Individual and society, power and privilege
Anti-bias domains: Justice, Action

Originally written for the Spring 2011 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine, “A Girl and a Word” is about a young girl named Rosa Marcellino with Down syndrome who is tired of being referred to as “mentally retarded” by her school. Rosa and her family decide to work together to ban schools from using the phrase on official records. Starting with lawmakers in Maryland, they were able to get “Rosa’s Law” signed by President Obama, which keeps “mentally retarded” off official documents.

“A Girl and a Word” is one of my favorite Perspectives texts because the action was sparked by an individual child’s feelings of not being treated with respect and dignity. The text illustrates that individuals can do something and make a difference.

Sara Wicht, senior manager of teaching and learning

Sikh Eyechart for America” by Vishavjit Singh

Grade level: K-12
Text type: Visual
Lens: Religion
Themes: Individual and society, struggle and progress
Anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice

“Sikh Eyechart for America” stylistically resembles an optometrist’s eye chart and begins with this bold statement: “I am not what you think.” Written and published in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, cartoonist Vishavjit Singh reflects on how there is more to him than meets the eye. As a bearded and turbaned Sikh American, Singh captures the wave of hate and prejudice directed at Muslim Americans, Arabs and other minorities such as himself—who is neither Muslim nor Arab—following 9/11.

I just love “Sikh Eyechart for America.” It’s a smart and simultaneously intimate portrayal of how currents of intolerance and prejudice in U.S. society resurfaced in full force in the wake of a national tragedy and relegated members our society to the margins. Be sure to check out this interview with Singh in the latest issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine.

Maya Lindberg, writer/associate editor

What is your favorite Perspectives text? Let us know which one and why in the comments section below.

What We’re Reading This Week: February 20

Center for Geographic Analysis: Maps of Africa from Harvard’s AfricaMap Project illustrate the diversity of the African continent.

Disability Scoop: A new bill introduced to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday seeks to make sure parents of students with disabilities have all the information necessary to decide whether to have their child tested using alternative standards.

Education Week: The staff of a high school newspaper voted to stop printing the name of their school's mascot—"the Redskins." One of the editors describes the backlash from the administration and her fellow students.

Hechinger Report: Design Tech High School in Millbrae, California, is an innovative charter school that blends technology with first-person instruction and allows students to make choices about academic pacing.

LGBTQ Nation: In many states, it is still legal for state-licensed mental health providers to engage in conversion therapy aimed at making gay and lesbian individuals “straight.” Proposed legislation in Iowa would ban conversion therapy for youth in that state and sanction providers who employ it.

PBS News Hour: Many of the types of events we think of as black history are still happening today. José Vilson describes how to leverage history to help students recognize their roles in shaping the future.

Reuters: According to a CNN report, the U.S. Justice Department is preparing a lawsuit against the Ferguson police department for discriminatory practices against people of color.

SCBWI: The Blog: Blogger Lee Wind provides synopses for—and links to—each of young adult author Malinda Lo’s four essays on the diversity-related biases reflected in YA book reviews.

University of Wisconsin-Madison News: The Cooperative Children's Book Center is a go-to source for data on diverse, multicultural children's and young adult literature. Their most recent data are good news for those who want children's literature to be more reflective of the population.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

Privilege Paralysis on a College Campus

Editor's note: This piece was originally published in the Whitman College Pioneer on February 12, 2015.

While some new parents may be told that their child is at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes or obesity, their white babies don’t come with a document warning the parents of the potential for privilege paralysis. I began to understand this condition last year.

In April 2014, I attended a workshop on social entrepreneurship, in which a group of students tackled issues of aid and development work. The workshop facilitator was an upper-class white man in his 50s who, through his entrepreneurial work, helped women in the global south achieve financial independence. Our group found itself questioning his legitimacy as an agent of positive change; we thought it presumptuous of him to act as a “white knight” jetting down south to slay the dragon of poverty and “allow” these women to actualize their true potential. The facilitator acknowledged the imperial undertones of his position but cautioned us against letting privilege paralyze us.

“Privilege paralysis” describes the reticence of white people to engage in dialogue or activism surrounding contentious issues which may not affect them directly. This is a condition I have noticed here on campus and in my own mind. The culture at Whitman lacks a feeling of responsibility for activism. This isn’t exclusive to race issues, either. The environment, sexual violence, racial discrimination—these are all upsetting topics which incite frustration among Whitman students, so why don’t we do more? It’s not only a culture of apathy; it’s because a lot of us are scared we’re going to do it wrong.

Whitman Teaches the Movement offers one way to begin combating this trend. I taught a curriculum on farmworker rights activist Cesar Chavez to a group of first-years at College Place High School. We discussed a film entitled Viva La Causa, about the gross inequality farm workers faced in the '60s. The students all too easily drew parallels between events in the film and racist experiences in their own lives.

While it would be convenient to say the students were shocked and inspired by the lesson, I can speak more to my experience than theirs. I spent an hour with this group of 14-year-olds, but I’ve spent 20 years in my own head. While sitting in the classroom, I had an important realization about my own reason for participating in WTTM: the incredible power of youth. I signed up to train a new generation of activists, but while standing in front of 20 awkward, pubescent faces, I realized that I am an integral part of the current generation.

I can’t say the students’ minds were blown. It would be insincere and presumptuous to rave about the 65 minutes I spent in the classroom as a groundbreaking experience for those rowdy high schoolers; but what I can say is that I planted a seed in their minds and poured a little water on my own.

It took me until my third year at Whitman to begin “teaching the movement” because I assumed for two years that it wasn’t my place. As a white, middle-class student at a prestigious college, I found myself uncomfortable with my privilege. I felt it wasn’t O.K. for me to teach civil rights to younger students because I’m part of a class of people who have committed monumental crimes of oppression. Teaching the movement gave me an opportunity to address my personal privilege paralysis and embrace my potential as an agent of change.

I am not an expert on race, and discussing it still makes me uncomfortable because I know the social structure which grants me privilege takes it from the hands of others. But I understand the importance of talking about race. The opportunity to reverse my privilege paralysis came in the form of a series of pestering listserv emails from WTTM.

I don’t want to admonish those who dedicate their time at Whitman to issues of social injustice by claiming they aren’t doing enough. I’m arguing that those who experience discrimination directly, those involved in BSU, FUBU, FGWC and Latin@ Student Coalition, shouldn’t be the ones bearing all the burden of activism on Whitman’s campus.

Wills is a politics major at Whitman College.

Blogging Your Way to “Identity”

Every year, I look forward to teaching Frankenstein to my high school students in February, as the Creature’s (Frankenstein’s monster’s) search for a sense of self poses relevant questions on identity. The Creature contemplates how he has become a monster, which prompts intense discussion among students on what shapes a person’s identity.

This past year, I used a Google blog to facilitate the discussion over several class periods and with each of my classes. Technologically, the process was relatively easy since my school has a “bring your own device” (BYOD) program. I also have a small bank of computers in my classroom for students, just in case spares are needed. Earlier in the school year, students had created Google logins during a research project. So, there were very few technical glitches throughout the process.

I began the online discussion by including a list of community norms or discussion guidelines, including (1) speak from the “I” perspective, (2) read and think before you type and (3) lean into discomfort. These were adapted from community norms identified by the National Association of Independent Schools’ Student Diversity Leadership Conference.

I then shared this quotation from the Creature with students: “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” Spring-boarding off of this statement, I asked students via the blog, “What does it mean to be an ‘outsider’ at school?” I encouraged students to step away from Frankenstein and bring themselves, their school and their own sense of self into focus when reflecting and sharing their thoughts.

Each class had its own post, and many students contributed to the online discussion:

[B]eing an outsider could also mean that you feel like you have to change yourself just to fit in with a group.

Outsiders here are people who “don’t fit in” with the established groups.

Some … outsiders feel like they are trapped in a mold that they feel is not right and feel like they are alone in their struggle.

Throughout the discussion, I engaged as well. One student wrote, “[T]he ‘outsiders’ allow themselves to be who they want to be, and I’m positive that is not always easy.” In response, I asked, “Are the ‘insiders’ not truly themselves since they fit in?” My question helped spur more discussion by introducing a different point of view.

About halfway through the class, I started a new thread with the following prompt: “Step away from the text again, and consider those aspects of identity most critical to yourself. What are the things that are most important to who you are and how you identify yourself?”

The second thread sprawled out in a hundred different directions at once. Students wrote:

[I]f other people continue to tell you things that you do not believe, then, if it is constant enough, you will actually start to believe them yourself.

People have many more layers than the single skin deep layer we interact with.

Identity is being shaped from the outside and constructed inside … I think that my gender and race have the most outward effect on others and create preconceived stereotypes or opinions.

My final comment introduced the concept of the iceberg. This image symbolizes much of what the students were discussing; so much of an individual’s identity—such as perspectives, life experiences, value systems, talents—often remain under the surface, invisible to others.

Many students replied that internal factors, like their values or beliefs, were most important to their identities. Yet, at the same time, they acknowledged the sway that perceived appearances have on shaping someone’s identity.

The discussion didn’t end here. The blog allowed a number of usually silent students to find their voices in class, and it also helped to reinforce the class culture of respect for all.

For a few students, this was an important activity, as they returned later to share with me what was underneath the surface of their image, and they felt they had a place to discuss their “real” identity.

Elliott teaches high school English and creative writing at an independent, college preparatory school. 

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