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Stepankowsky column: Frankenstein and teaching race

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Andre Stepankowsky

ANDRE STEPANKOWSKY

Two months ago, the Seattle School District found a high school principal engaged in “retaliatory action” when he transferred a student to another class after he objected to an assignment.

A Ballard High School English teacher asked students to write about how the monster in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” represented oppressed people and how “oppression, neglected potential, and trauma affect a person’s identity.”

To student Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce, the essay was about “why oppressed people do bad things,” he told the Seattle Times. “It perpetuates that people of color do bad things.”

During class discussion, the teacher compared black and brown communities to Frankenstein’s murderous monster. The comparison is racist and depicts marginalized groups as “subhuman,” Souza-Ponce said.

Well, sorry, this is a distortion of the novel, and it is a small example of the battle we are finding ourselves in about how to teach kids about racism.

Extremists on both sides are guilty of distortions, and they are thwarting good discussion of one of the most fraught issues of the American experience.

For starters, to put the Ballard story to rest, Mary Shelley was an early English feminist and champion of the oppressed. In her famous novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s creation becomes a monster only after he is abandoned by his creator and rejected by society for his appearance and macabre pedigree.

“I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” the monster says. The comparison to oppressed people is thus the opposite of racist and is thus a perfect metaphor and explanation for rebellion among oppressed people — as it was invoked to explain the 1831 American slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

Americans have long argued about how to teach the history of slavery and black oppression. Today’s debate, of course, focuses largely on Critical Race Theory, a concept developed 50 years ago that contends black inequality is caused by racist legal systems and public policies, not just individual bias. The New York Times “1619 project” — which focuses on the central role of racism in American history — also has been a target of conservative ire.

Conservatives say CRT and the 1619 project seek to shame white America, teach children the nation was immorally built on slavery, and divide society based on skin color. They reject the idea that racism remains embedded in our institutions. They contend students operate under the understanding that “right” and “wrong” answers are a product of white supremacy.

Educators say this is a warped and grossly unfair characterization of CRT, which is a college-level subject. I myself doubt children are being taught to hate America or that kids are told giving correct answers is racist.

And I’d ask CRT critics this: How else might they explain longstanding black inequity if not through institutional racism such as voter suppression, red lining and school segregation? (Decades ago, eugenics studies — unsuccessfully — tried to prove blacks were disadvantaged because they are inherently inferior.)

Nevertheless, several states have taken steps to ban CRT, prohibiting things such as promoting one race over another, or “indoctrinating” or engaging in political, ideological, or religious advocacy in class.

In June, a broad coalition of civil rights advocates, historians and education organizations said efforts to restrict CRT are an attempt to “whitewash” history and infringe on the right of educators to teach and of students to learn.

“The purpose of education is to serve the common good by promoting open inquiry and advancing human knowledge,” according to a joint statement from the Association of American Colleges & Universities, the American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association and PEN America. “Politicians in a democratic society should not manipulate public school curricula to advance partisan or ideological aims.”

However, progressive rhetoric is guilty of its own distortions.

First, it leads you to believe racist bogeymen lurk around every corner. Mere allegations of racist behavior now get a presumption of truth, especially in social media, and woe to the professor or administrator who is the target, like that Ballard English teacher.

Two, the rhetoric describes an America still rife with institutional racism and fails to adequately acknowledge that America has purged the most notorious discriminatory laws and practices — even if the cases of George Floyd, the ostracizing of Colin Kaepernick, and efforts to curb voting rights show we still have a long way to go.

Honestly trying to sort all the shrill and competing claims is a frustrating task. But we must. America cannot come to peace with its past and establish justice for all through political correctness, rhetorical exaggeration and ill-advised legislation. This issue is much too important to be baked in the heat of electoral politics.

For the nation’s own good, we need more lessons about the history of black Americans and the causes of their long struggle, not fewer.

Students must be inspired by the heroism of Jackie Robinson and Harriet Tubman. They need to learn of the intellectual contributions of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

They need to know about the 1921 Tulsa massacre in a black neighborhood, of the Ku Klux Klan and “Jim Crow” laws that deprived blacks of voting power. But they should also learn about changes in law and public assistance programs adopted to remedy this inhumanity. They should learn of blacks’ modern success stories and reminded that many continue to struggle, and why.

Students should learn that America’s founders were visionaries who had many good and honest motives — and that some were slave owners and why as a group they punted the issue of slavery into the future.

None of this is “woke,” socialist, liberal, conservative or right wing. It is a need for decency and understanding of where we’ve been so we can intelligently guide our future. We need not shame today’s Americans. We are not culpable for the sins of the past, but as Americans we are obligated to remedy the inequalities of the present.

Our nation’s history is glorious and dark. But to ignore or distort the stain of racism, especially in the interest of political convenience or advantage, is monstrous — like Dr. Frankenstein’s scorned creation.

Andre Stepankowsky retired in August 2020 after a 41-year career as a reporter and city editor at The Daily News. He has won or shared in many prestigious journalism awards, including the staff’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.

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