Curriculum History

Decolonizing Classroom Discussions of Colonialism

As I have for the past two summers, I am eagerly anticipating History Fest 2018 (third annual, always epic). This year I’m presenting on how classroom discussions of Imperialism can either reinscribe or interrupt racist narratives.  I reflected on this topic in a series of blog posts, and the ideas have percolated through the World History collaborative team at my school.  As a result of these discussions we have modified how we teach the “New” Imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries.  I will be going through the why and the how of this for World and US History at History Fest 2018.

Although my World History team has been working on this for two years,  I’m finding new meanings in light of the College Board’s sudden and capricious decision to limit the scope of the AP World History exam.  I remain completely opposed to the substance and timing of the changes, but the push back against these has generated a lot of useful discussion. One of the main currents of the #SaveAPWorld movement has been that cutting out history before 1450 (and now 1200) makes the course more Eurocentric at a time when we need history education to be more global. While I agree that a World History course must include content from before 1450 (and now 1200), I also question the assumption that modern history is inherently Eurocentric.

Bram’s response gets to the heart of the matter, and is very relevant to discussing colonialism in the classroom. Despite being a major topic in World History that is inherently global, teachers too often present history of the “New” Imperialism from a nearly exclusively European perspective. In World History, facile explanations and simulations of imperialism, particularly the “scramble for Africa,” too easily slip into the modern version of the “European tunnel of time”1 in which industrialization inevitably led to imperialism which is one of the MAIN causes of World War One. Of course, these three developments are related, but they were also all global and not predetermined.

Simplistic framing of imperialism elides the horrors of colonialism and erases the agency of colonized peoples, who responded to imperialism in a variety of ways. History is complicated. Students claiming the entire classroom as a simulation of imperialism or coloring in maps with a key tied to the colonial power simultaneously over and under state the impacts of colonialism. For instance they understate enormous suffering of Belgian exploitation in the Congo, which killed 5-10 million people. That’s at least 100 times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam, a historical topic that I’ve never seen reduced to a laughter-inducing classroom simulation. On the other hand, students should also know that colonized areas were never fully controlled by imperialists. In fact, the brutality of colonial regimes probably stems in part from their inability to maintain steady control of economic and political affairs. The Amritsar massacre is an obvious example for World History; and, American atrocities in their war in the Philippines are a prominent instance of this in US History.

In both World and US History narrating the “New” Imperialism from the perspective of imperialists oversimplifies and reinscribes the horrifying racism of that era into the present. The racism of this era is so odious that showing it in class is problematic. We must bear in mind that images as incendiary as the photographs of brutalized colonial subjects and offensive depictions of colonial subjects in political cartoons of the time must be handled with care, as historian Michelle Moyd recently noted:

History teachers need to remember that students will not be equally impacted by such images. Some, especially students of color, will feel pain; while others, especially those with racist views, will feel emboldened. Most teachers probably want students to share their revulsion, but not all will. I began interrogating my own practice with regard to such images a few years ago when a black student reported hurtful comments directed at him during my class referring to an image of imperialism in Africa. Since that time I have made a point of using fewer such images and surrounding those that I do use with context and condemnation.

Contextualizing racist discourse from the age of the “New” Imperialism should include treating racism as an aspect,  both a cause and an effect, of colonialism.  Racist rationalizations developed as justifications for imperialism. By describing 19th Century racism, such as the “White Man’s Burden, as cause of colonialism, history teachers are reenacting the justification of imperialism. Kipling’s attitudes were shaped by his experiences as a Briton in India. Historian David Kramer traces the process of imperialism as a contributor to American racialization of Filipinos during the US war against Filipino independence, 1899-1902. In chapter 2, “From Hide to Heart”, of Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines, Kramer

 …emphasizes the contingency and indeterminacy of the process by which the United States’ racial-imperial ideologies took shape. Rather than featuring the “projection” or “export” of preexisting formations, the war prompted and was in turn fundamentally structured by, a process of racialization in which race-making and war-making were intimately connected. (89)

History teachers should avoid presenting racist ideologies as static and ahistoric. Student should and can understand racial ideas and ideologies as social constructions.  As just one example, American depictions of Filipinos as savage did not always exist, they have a history which we can explore. Kids will sometimes remark that racism or other types of prejudice have always and will always exist. History teachers need to help them see that the former is not true and the latter need not be.  This is more important than ever when the President of the United States derides former colonial areas, including the home countries of some of my wonderful students, as “shitholes” and praises a  dictator who brutalizes Filipino people.

Photograph of woman in Yorubua dress
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti talked back to colonialism. Family picture on her 70th birthday in 1970. Image from UNESCO via Wikipedia.

We need to decolonize our discussions of colonialism, as a means of interrupting racist narratives. In my presentation I will discuss how my World History team is taking steps to do this:

  • Flip the script: prompt students to consider the options that colonized people considered in the face of colonialism.
  • Be real about impacts: expose students to at least one example of horrific suffering precipitated by colonialism.
  • Remember the resistance: devote class time to resistance, teachers can even do this with an activity in which students walk around the room.

I am looking forward to sharing these strategies tomorrow at History Fest.


Resource page for the presentation, including the slides.

1James Blaut, quoted in “Introduction” (p. 2) of Dunn, Ross E., Laura J. Mitchell, and Kerry Ward. The new world history: a field guide for teachers and researchers. Oakland, CA, University of California Press, 2016.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

4 replies on “Decolonizing Classroom Discussions of Colonialism”

[…] The four summer institutes for AP European History that I attended all rank among the best professional development that I have had in three decades as social studies teacher. The teachers and professors at these institutes demonstrated the complexities and contingencies of European History. Teaching AP Euro taught me a lot about historical thinking, including how high school students can analyze race, class, and gender. The study of any topic can be decolonized, even, or perhaps especially, colonialism itself. […]

I think that what you are doing with colonialism and imperialism addresses truths that cannot be avoided and should be taught. These are necessary truths. The idea of “flipping the script” should eventually become the mainstream script, an anti-racist perspective that centralizes the experience of the colonized as probably the most important component of colonialism. Thank you. I am just searching around for material for a unit in post colonial literature and I appreciate your work and sharing. I plan on using your Colonized Women Speak Back exercise. Much appreciated.

Let me know what you think!

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