When 10 Black shoppers were killed at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket, allegedly by a white 18-year-old with a history of racist writings, history teacher Mary McIntosh didn’t know how to talk about it with her high schoolers in Memphis, Tenn.
Tennessee is one of 19 states with laws or rules designed to regulate how racism and issues of race are discussed in the classroom. The Buffalo shooting was a stark example of a national news event that McIntosh says she struggled to address with students, even while teaching to a predominantly Black and brown student body.
While she usually teaches civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy, she shelved it this past school year because she was afraid the parts about the historical legacy of racism in the criminal justice system would run afoul of the “prohibited concepts” outlined in the law. And while in the past she’s used the site Facing History and Ourselves, which offers historian-approved curriculum resources, this year she hesitated to draw from some of its lessons tying contemporary issues to the past.
“The Tennessee law does indeed have a big impact on how I can plan to teach with honesty and integrity,” she says.
The law, passed in May 2021, says it permits “impartial” discussions of the “controversial aspects of history” and “the historical oppression of a particular group of people.” But, teachers may not teach “resentment” of “a class of people” or that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or…