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Column: It's time to talk about how we're learning colonial history

February 24, 2021
<p>The history section of Curious Book Shop on Grand River in East Lansing on Feb. 18, 2021. </p>

The history section of Curious Book Shop on Grand River in East Lansing on Feb. 18, 2021.

It’s time we start having a conversation about the way we learn colonial history. 

There’s more to the story than the fact the “European heroes” were able to navigate. There’s more to it than trade and land expansion. There are so many things that get glossed over, dismissed and left out of our history education. 

Students shouldn’t only be coming away thinking about how impressive it is that people were sailing out of Europe. Glorifying exploration while completely ignoring what happened to the indigenous peoples the expeditions came into contact with is erasure.

I've seen so many people focus on the dangers of sea voyages back then, and carry on about how impressive they were. No amount of courage or achievement should overshadow the fact that the land Europe colonized belonged to other peoples first. Let’s stop encouraging sympathizing with colonizers.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t talk about expansion and its influence on world history. It’s had lasting impacts on the world and it’s important to explain that, but we should also be talking about the indigenous people of the land that was colonized. So much of what we learn is about the colonizers, and the people who were exploited and forced to live under occupation are consistently an afterthought.

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Since I can remember, I’ve sat through history and social studies classes that spoon-fed my classmates and I the biographies of explorers and the western European colonial powers and made their voyages sound like an achievement that should be celebrated while the gruesome reality of what the European explorers meant for indigenous peoples was conveniently left out of the conversation or swept under the rug with some poor justification.

There is no justification for enslaving people. There is no justification for killing indigenous people. There is no justification. So why are we taught to shrug it off?

Aside from the glorification of colonizing land occupied by other people, we need to talk about the way we are taught about exonyms. The racist exonyms that were used by colonizers need to be taught in context and the reasoning behind why they’re not used anymore needs to be emphasized. We shouldn’t be learning about slurs used in readings from the period without being told they are slurs. 

The whitewashed version of colonial history has become so ingrained in our education system that we no longer question what might be left unsaid. We take what we hear at face value and assume Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492 is all there is to be taught.

There is nothing that will repair the intergenerational trauma. There is nothing that will make up for genocide. There is nothing that will make up for land and cultural dispossession.

But we can make sure that we’re recognizing that it happened rather than letting it be forgotten. For some, it’s easy enough not to think about it. For a lot of marginalized groups, this is not something that’s just taught in a class. This is a reality that is still impacting them, their families and communities. To fully understand why the effects of colonialism are still being felt today we need to know the whole story.

They don’t get to shrug it off, and neither should we.

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