Can structural racism be taught without division?

Last week’s brouhaha over the cancellation of Valentine’s Day celebrations at the Bruce Vento Elementary School in St. Paul was another reminder that one of the biggest challenges educators face is how to teach about structural racism, a topic that tends to send people scurrying for their corner.

It’s hardly the first, nor the latest, of course.

In Virginia, a school showed its students a four-minute video called “Structural Discrimination: The Unequal Opportunity Race” last week during a schoolwide assembly, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

The backlash forced the school to ban the film, saying it was “racially divisive.”

“A lot of people thought it was offensive to white people and made them feel bad about being privileged,” Kenny Manning, a student at Glen Allen High, told WRIC news. “Others thought that it was good to get the information out there. There is oppression going on in the world, and that needs to be looked at with a magnifying glass, I guess.”

The Monitor asks a good question today: Is it possible to teach about structural racism and not be racially divisive?

The short answer? “No.”

Here’s the long answer:

“I don’t think there is any way you approach race in America without contention,” Randal Jelks, an American and African American Studies professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, told The Christian Science Monitor at the time.

“People try to avoid contention. But slavery was contentious and brutal. Native removal was contentious and brutal. So there’s no way you can avoid conflict in this issue.”

The man who presented the video says he worked for months with the school to prepare for the lesson.

“I feel extremely grateful to the principal and her staff for being courageous enough to provide a comprehensive educational experience on race in America,” Ravi K. Perry, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and President of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, told the Washington Post. “That is something that you should be applauded for doing and not something that millions of people across the country should find distasteful.”

He said he got the idea for the presentation after a parody song with racial epithets was played last fall at a football game .

“Because the information that many students nationwide are learning about race in America is limited or wrong, it’s important to provide them with historical context,” Perry said.