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Decentering Whiteness in My Classroom

By David Mercaldo


Angela Davis said, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” As an educator and scholar of history living in the United States of America, I know that I am living in a racist society, but I should have known this earlier in life. I was taught from an early age to be kind to others and to be non-racist. I was not initially taught the wise words by Angela Davis and I wouldn’t learn them until I was a young adult.

As an elementary student in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I wasn’t aware of how racist the society I was living in was. I was taught that Dr. King and Rosa Parks were heroes, but I learned of few other heroes of Civil Rights, and nothing about Africa’s history of libraries, kingdoms, and mathematicians. I was taught that the civil rights struggle was a terrible and unfortunate plight of the past that had been solved with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


I was taught that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. My teachers revered Columbus as a hero for discovering America. My social studies textbooks explained the heroics of America’s white founding fathers in their texts and images. I learned how the Europeans of the Renaissance mastered art, mathematics, and music as if it was for the first time in history. I learned of few accomplishments of anyone other than white Christian males. I attended a Catholic Middle school and only saw pale depictions of Jesus Christ as the superior role model we should all look up to. The Black people I saw in popular music and playing professional sports on television seemed to be doing very well for themselves and loving their lives. The few Black children in my classes seemed, from my vantage point, to have the same opportunities I had, and no one mentioned anything otherwise.


Every teacher I had, up to this point, had been a white woman, and I never once considered the education profession as an option for myself. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I took a global studies class with a teacher who would include other viewpoints of history besides the euro-centric ones in popular textbooks. We celebrated diversity in our class and also in history, and this quickly became my favorite class. At this time, I was also discovering some of the great 90s hip-hop artists that were not the commercial artists I listened to in middle school. I was developing an awareness of the fact that racism was continuing in the United States in the forms of police brutality and other institutions.


I would take AP US History my Junior year of high school, and I had the awareness to speak up and pause the class from the reading when the teacher just glossed over the part about Black people only being recognized as being three fifths of a whole person. No other students in the AP US History class had my back to debate this teacher’s approach to teaching history, and challenging the textbook writer. I remember that interaction now because it left me feeling scared and unsatisfied that I had no power to speak for what is right.


In the next 15 years, I would find my anti-racist voice and I am no longer intimidated to speak truth in acadmemic settings. While studying for my masters degree, I read books like Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Lowen and A People’s History by Howard Zinn. I watched the Black Power Mixtape on Netflix and was enamored by the way Malcom X, Angela Davis, Stockley Carmichael, and others spoke out for what is right. I studied more of the alternative version of history through the lens of the oppressed. I moved to Brooklyn, New York City and made friends from all over the African Diaspora. I had opportunities to travel and learn cultures and be loved like family by people who looked much different than me. I have had many friends confide in me many instances of racism they have experienced in their lifetimes. I am no longer naive about how racist America’s society in 2021 is. America’s society has been racist since its inception as well as every part of its schooling practices. Still though, I have blindspots and endless work to do from my miseducation growing up in this society. Unlearning phrases like “white lies” and “dark magic” is so important for me to avoid miseducating my own students that subtle white supremacy is acceptable.

As an educator working to be anti-racist in my classroom practices, I see it as essential that I “DeCenter Whiteness.” This means evaluating every educational resource and practice for how it portrays white people and people of color, before I present it to students. If the text or image displays white people as superior, then I can either not use the material at all, or be sure to explain its context and let the class know it is wrong and inaccurate. After one adopts this practice, it does not take long for one to start noticing that white supremacy is embedded in the majority of U.S. Social Studies textbooks and resources.


The mercator map projection is the map most widely displayed in U.S. schools and textbooks. No map is exact and must distort somewhere. The reason this map is used is because it is accurate for navigational purposes, but it widely distorts the countries near the Earth's poles to look a lot bigger. As a result, Europe appears much bigger than it should and Africa much smaller. Since I am decentering whiteness in my classroom, if I want to post the mercator map, I should have another map next to it that shows more accurate sizes and does not place Europe as the center of the world. The Gall-Peters map projection is one of many alternatives that can be displayed. While not good for navigating, The Gall-Peters map displays the continents in their accurate surface area.


Images in textbooks are another critical way for educators to “Decenter Whiteness.” Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) is one of the most famous works of art ever made, is the most published painting in U.S. textbooks, and it is full of historical inaccuracies! I would at times teach a lesson asking students to see how many inaccuracies they can identify in the Washington Delaware painting because, even if I omit it, the students will encounter this painting. A picture says a thousand words and images affect the children who see them. Students should not see African slaves smiling in photos or other wildly inaccurate depictions that make white men look superior.


The idea that social studies teachers need to cover so much content also centers whiteness. Allowing for an inquiry-based curriculum, where students can study topics of their interest in-depth, better allows for students to learn their history, rather than a Euro-centric American history.


A final thought on how to help U.S. schools “Decenter Whiteness” would be to encourage and support people of color to take jobs as effective teachers. “The elementary and secondary educator workforce is 82 percent white in public schools” (p. 3.). “The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) predicts that white students will represent 46 percent of public school students in 2024, a drop from 51 percent of the student population in 2012” (p. 5). This data shows that there are disproportionate representations of white teachers who are teaching students who do not look like them. As a white teacher, I try to give my students lots of opportunities to lead and not be a “sage on the stage” talking at them. I invite guests from the community that look like my students to the classroom to lead initiatives and mini-lessons too. I support and encourage friends of color interested in teaching to join this awesome field. The racial makeup of a school’s staff should be similar to the makeup of its students so that the students can see representation and also want to see themselves as educators one day!


If you are an educator of color who would like support, or a white educator, like myself, who wants to continue to improve and take Angela Davis’s advice to take anti-racist action then reach out to me! It would be my honor to support you as others have supported me. Let’s be better for the next generation!

Email: davidrmercaldo@gmail.com

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U.S. Department of Education. (2016). THE STATE OF RACIAL DIVERSITY IN THE EDUCATOR WORKFORCE (pp. 3-6). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/highered/racial-diversity/state-racial-diversity-workforce.pdf


David Mercaldo, born in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, can be described as a passionate, committed, tech-savvy, and well-traveled educator in Brooklyn, New York who is most ardent about closing the opportunity gap for underserved students. He has been working in education for over 13 years in diverse settings. He spent two years as an instructional coach working to support teachers in using effective inquiry-based learning strategies. He was featured in the October 2017 issue of IB World Magazine in an article titled 5 Biggest Threats to Education in which he explained how inquiry-based learning can empower students and foster enthusiasm for learning despite inequalities. In 2018, Mr. Mercaldo's work as an instructional coach came to fruition as he led the initiative for a Title 1 Charter School in Brownsville, Brooklyn to earn its International Baccalaureate authorization. In 2020, Mr. Mercaldo took on a new title as 6th grade English Teacher at New Heights Middle School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.