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Tainted Histories How the misportrayal of people of color in history textbooks hurts the school environment

The first time I learned about Hinduism, I was a mere six-year-old — an overly jubilant girl with a pressing desire for change and excitement. I remember my father seating me on his lap one summer day, his right arm holding a large book entitled “Hindu Tales for Children.” I remember the two of us slowly flipping through the pages of the book, with my father reading the text as I looked at the illustrations.

I remember feeling a little bored, a bit restless and uninterested as I listened to my father recite story after story of the ancient gods and villains, the good and the evil, and then suddenly pausing for the slightest of moments when I came across an illustration of a beautiful, regal woman named Goddess Durga. A Hindu deity whose presence is believed to touch every crevice of the universe, Durga is revered for both her femininity and her power.

an idol-form of goddess durga

To this day, I am not entirely sure what it is about her that captivated my heart, but somehow the goddess’ tales left a mark on me. In fact, I remember staying up late that night, conjuring images of goddess Durga charging into battle. I began to draw inspiration from her virtuous nature — how she, a woman, held her ground in the face of every obstacle and spoke her mind without fear or hesitation. Every time the boys at recess refused to pass the soccer ball to me, every time a hairy spider climbed the walls of my room, every time I bruised my arm after falling off a tree, I channelled Durga’s strength, determined not to cry, not to give up, not to complain, but rather to fight.

I loved her, I wanted to be like her, and somewhere along the lines, I submitted myself to her. I became a Hindu. And for years, I remained one. I visited the local temple, I offered prayers to the deities and I sang hymns in Old Sanskrit.

This all changed, however, when my sixth-grade history teacher announced that my classmates and I would soon be learning about Hinduism and ancient India. Upon hearing this news, I remember sixth-grade-me feeling elated, eager to share my knowledge about yoga and dharma, the story of the Mahabharata and how Goddess Durga saved the world from evil with my non-Hindu peers.

What I didn’t know, however, was that instead of focusing on the main tenets of Hinduism, the textbook would focus on Brahmanism and Aryan Invasion Theory, two topics that have been repeatedly debunked by historians and theologists around the world. I didn't know that the curriculum would focus solely on the caste system, failing to mention that its original purpose was not to pit people against each other, but instead to establish order. I didn’t know that the textbook would link sati, the practice whereby widowed women commit suicide as a result of their husband’s death, with Hinduism, even though there is no such relationship between the two. I didn’t know this.

MY history textbook destroyed my HINDU beliefs.

What was supposed to be a month of intercultural understanding thus became a month of horror. Instead of raising my hand in class and actively participating in discussions, I slumped down in my seat, silent as a mouse, wishing that I were invisible from 1:30 to 2:15 p.m. each day.

I noticed that my Hindu classmates did the same. Sure, among ourselves, we held conversations about the curriculum and how it differed from our beliefs, but none of us ever voiced our opinions. We accepted our teachings as truth, because who would dare to reject the knowledge contained in the pages of the textbook? Isn’t the school textbook meant to be the single, defining authority of fact and evidence — always true, never biased, never wrong?

Nearly five years later, it is perhaps my inability to speak up that I regret the most, because little by little, the Hindu in sixth-grade-me diminished. Because of my textbook, I came to view Hinduism as a dirty, primitive and misogynistic religion, one that I would have no part of. Goddess Durga, who had once been a constant reminder in my life, became a mere story character to me. I felt alienated and ashamed and un-American — simply a brown girl grasping onto her obsolete, brown thoughts.

What’s perhaps more unfortunate is that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. In Texas, my Mexican-American peers learned from textbooks that called them “lazy.” In Washington, my Native American peers learned from books that refused to acknowledge the acts of genocide committed against their people. And throughout the country, my Muslim peers learned from textbooks that portrayed the Middle East as a region in a constant state of turbulence, a region that stood in contrast to the very ethos of America.

And it hurt. As proud Americans, this misportrayal of our roots hurt us. It tainted our history, but more importantly, it hurt all children who grew up believing in lies and never gained access to the truth and sheer complexity of human knowledge. It enabled a cycle of ignorance, which, in turn, fostered intolerance and misunderstanding in the classroom and beyond.

I HAVE NOW EMBRACED HINDUISM.

No student should feel ashamed because of his or her identity; everyone is entitled to their religious and cultural beliefs. I am a strong advocate for this idea, and as such, if given the opportunity to change one aspect of the education system, I would begin by revising our textbooks.

Our textbooks, which are often direct reflections of our misconceptions, are the main source of information for most school-aged children. By changing these books, then, we not only challenge our own hidden prejudices, but ensure that our students, both minorities and non-minorities alike, grow up aware and informed, equipped with the tools they need to combat misinformation in their lives.

After all, isn’t this the true purpose of education? To give rise to a generation of educated individuals who conduct themselves according to the universal principles of kindness, acceptance and compassion?

History is important. We learn about ourselves through the past. But when history is presented to us as a warped version of neatly orchestrated lies, it poisons us. I, having lost my admiration for Hinduism and goddess Durga because of a textbook, am a prime example of this.

While it is true that I eventually did find my way back to Hinduism (a poster of goddess Durga now hangs on my closet door), isn’t it a little sad that it took me four years to do so — four years to forget the tainted history presented to me in my textbook, four years to embrace my roots, four years to finally unpack the truth?

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Created with images by Pexels - "ancient angkor antique archeology architecture asia asian" • Pexels - "bible book knowledge"

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