If you’re not doing history to make change, what the f— are you doing it for?

By Samantha Cutrara

How to you teach racism in your Canadian history classroom?

Do you teach racism in your Canadian history classroom?

Do you mention racist actions or events and then move on to the next part of the chronology?

Do you acknowledge that there were ethnically and culturally diverse peoples in the Canadian past but fail to introduce any of these people or communities in your lessons in any substantial way? Maybe there is no time, maybe it doesn’t fit the narrative, or maybe you just don’t know these histories enough to teach them.

Black Histories Matter

Or maybe there were no Black students

Or Asian students

Or Indigenous students

and you didn’t think histories related to Black/Asian/Indigenous people needed to be addressed.

Do you say things like “Black History Month is every month!” but really only teach histories related to Black experiences in February? Or do you say, “Black History Month is every month!” but don’t seem to feature these histories in February or any other month either (the “All Lives Matter” of history teaching).

Do you really “only” teach Canadian history, and so you don’t have the time or space to teach “alternative” Other histories? “These histories are important!” you might say. “But I gotta get through the survey/curriculum! There is only so much time.”

Do you think this work is important but don’t think it is your job to get into it? The students can take a Black Studies course or a Women’s Studies course if they are really interested, or there’s that resource in the library they can use, or you heard a rumour that a Black history course will be taught this summer by that graduate student who you haven’t met but whose name looks ethnic and you’re sure they’ll do a good job? (They might not get a good job though, as seen from the findings of the CAUT in 2018. It is important that the history community in Canada shows greater support to Black students and scholars to bridge this gap in employment and earnings.)

Can you identify the racism in other places and spaces (because you are an ally!) but the context is so different in your own places and spaces that you just don’t think the general critiques apply.

Do you teach about racism in your Canadian history classroom?

If you don’t, are you scared to?

Really. This isn’t sarcasm.

Are you scared of what you don’t know? Are you scared of not knowing where to start? Are you scared of doing it wrong? Are you scared of what your students or colleagues might say?

Are you scared to call out racism in your teaching, in your histories, in your curriculum, in your institution because maybe it doesn’t affect you or maybe you don’t think it is a problem or maybe you realize you are part of the problem or maybe you don’t know if that student/colleague had the whole story or maybe because you feel that experience (historical or contemporary) should be validated by a person of colour?

Are you scared because you don’t know what you don’t know?

Are you scared to think about what it might mean to substantially integrate the histories of structural racism and the experiences of diverse peoples into your teaching, because if you did, everything in your course would have to be rethought: the chronology, the themes, the reading list, the evidence, the slide deck, the textbook, the assignments.

Yes. You’re right. They would have to be rethought.

And do you feel that?

That is the ground shifting beneath you.

That discomfort is bearing witness to the deconstruction of systems that were never fully whole to begin with (that’s a little Derrida reference).

I want to validate that fear. I want to validate all those fears. They are real. Fear is scary.

Now move on.

Move. On.

Don’t stay in that fear. Staying in that fear is a bait and switch for real action.

Let me ask: Why do you “do” history? Why do you research it? Why do you teach it? Why do you present it to the public? Why do you write about it?

I go to multiple conferences. Mainly education but also history. I sit in rooms full of white people like me. We share our work. We ask questions. We may follow up and exchange cards.

I have an interest in Black histories and the experiences of Black students learning Canadian history, so often I go to sessions related to these topics. I have yet to be at a session where I am not challenged in my thinking and where I do not leave excited to make change. There is an energy and enthusiasm in many of these sessions that is not just about sharing the results of a last project, but also about illuminating aspects of a past that will shift and change the way we move forward in the future.

After talking with American preservationist Joe McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, for a project I am doing, all I could think of is: if you’re not doing history to make change what the f— are you doing it for?

Do you know what history’s superpower is? History shows that things don’t happen in a vacuum. It shows how lived experiences interact with, shape, and are shaped by structures. It provides evidence for and narration about people’s lives different from our own. It highlights how things were bad, things are bad, and this didn’t come out of nowhere. It shows that people survive in spite of trauma, and that people remain alive by remembering legacy.

You know what historians and history educators’ superpowers are? They read. They research. They learn about the past.

Use those superpowers in moments like these when you feel the need to make change but you don’t know where to start. Read, research, learn about the past.

Know that doing this will change what you know.

Be ok with that.

Be welcome for that.

Strive for that.

Don’t be afraid of that. That is the goal.

I am not going to end this post by listing resources for anti-racist allies or resources to learn about Black history or other histories that centre experiences of marginalized peoples and histories of structural racism. This stuff is not that hard to find. Google it. For decades, scholars and historians have done amazing work in developing and making available resources and histories like these. You just need to read them, engage with them, make change with them.

Last week on an unrelated project, I was interested in the history of Newfoundland and specifically whether there were histories of Black people in Newfoundland. So, I Googled it: “Black history Newfoundland.” In less than a second, I got 27,800,000 results.

Five minutes after that, I learned about the connection between Newfoundland’s cod fisheries and slavery in the West Indies, and now I will never not teach Newfoundland or slavery in the West Indies without mentioning those connections. I will never not mention the racism of not knowing this to begin with. I will use this connection to talk the history of slavery in Canada and the transnational and transatlantic linkages of European imperialism and colonialism.

What if, you may ask, students ask me questions about this history, and I don’t know the answers?

Well… I can tell the truth: “I just learned this! Let’s, as a class, see if we can find more about these histories, and how it shapes/shaped this period in history.”

What if they don’t want to do this work?

I will do it myself and come to class the next day saying, “here is what I found….”

I have used this strategy of broadening the class’s knowledge by being honest with what I don’t know in many sites of learning: university, college, high school, elementary school classrooms. Consistently, I have found that acknowledging what you don’t know, and that you don’t know, and then following up with promised research creates greater conditions of trust and meaningful learning for students, because all I am doing is using some of my superpowers to shape what is possible in the classroom. I’m reading, I’m researching, I’m learning about the past, and I am modelling this for my students.

My superpower as a history educator isn’t to know everything. My superpower is to demonstrate to students that things don’t happen in a vacuum; that lived experiences interact with, shape, and are shaped by structures; that things were bad, that things are bad, and that this didn’t come out of nowhere.

My superpower is to read, research, and learn enough to consistently demonstrate that people survive in spite of trauma and that people remain alive by remembering legacy.

My superpower is to “do” history to make change. Otherwise, what the f— am I doing it for?

This is how I’ve learned to use my superpower – How will you use yours?

Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist based in Toronto and is currently working in the Office of the Vice Provost Academic at York University as a Curriclum Specialist. Find more information about her consulting and academic work on her website: SamanthaCutrara.com.


The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

3 thoughts on “If you’re not doing history to make change, what the f— are you doing it for?

  1. Patricia kmiec

    Thank you for this important perspective. It is scary to be anointed the “expert” in the room and also try to bring in examples and details we’ve just recently learned ourselves. But that’s as much a part of teaching as it is learning. We owe it to our students, and future students to not hold ourselves back.

  2. Candice

    Thank you for this! As a Black woman it’s encouraging to know that there are allies in education who recognize how important it is to teach this in school and NOT just to the Black students!

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