Opinion | Forward Thinking: Please teach my white child about race

Legislation and panic surrounding teaching race and history are circulating throughout the state and country. What’s the harm in teaching children tough, necessary lessons?

By Eliza Cussen

Headshot illustrated by Jake Phelps, Green Bay City Pages photo illustration

When my nephew was four, he asked me what my job was.

At the time, I was running Wisconsin’s abortion rights group. I spent my days working to undermine former Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on reproductive healthcare. I kneeled down to his level, mainly to buy myself some time, and said, “Well, I help ladies go to the doctor when mean people tell them they can’t.”

He looked thoughtful for a moment before taking my face in his hands and saying forcefully “Can you make noodles for dinner?”

As an aunt and now parent, I understand that kids are people. They live in the world just like we do—the only difference is that they rely on us to help it make sense.

My child is white American on her dad’s side and white Australian on mine. She is the beneficiary of two genocides. Her ancestors were there when enslaved Africans were imported into Massachusetts and they were there when Australia’s Aboriginal people were classified as fauna.

In her deep-rooted and knotty family tree, there are abolitionists and enslavers and witches and renegades and, somewhere, the guy who invented Morse code. All of that history sits in her two-year-old frame as it stands on Menominee soil. How do I begin to explain this?

When I was in fifth grade, a woman came to speak to my class. She was a survivor of the Stolen Generations, where Aboriginal children were kidnapped by the state and placed with white institutions and white families.

Similar to the numerous Indigenous residential schools found throughout the United States, Canada and Wisconsin (of which there are 11 in the state), this chapter in Australia’s history lasted from the 1900s into the 1970s, it was one of the world’s largest attempts at the destruction of a race.

My classroom speaker described fuzzy memories of her parents and her experience of growing up in a white family without even knowing which nation she hailed from or where her country was. She told us how, in adulthood, she had clawed her way back to her culture in an act of ultimate rebellion. Clearly, she left an impression.

While my education was far from perfect, I grew up with an understanding that Australia was complex, dark and in need of fixing. As the nation inched towards truth and reconciliation, I had instilled a deep and unflinching empathy in myself. The concepts of imperialism and colonization might have been too much for me at a young age, but I understood the wrongness of a child being snatched from her family. I understood that a brown child being snatched was as wrong as me being snatched.

I pieced together that, although my school sat on the traditional lands of the Darug people, there were only a few Aboriginal kids in my school. I realized that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had been stolen, displaced and possibly killed. I understood that history hadn’t stopped. I didn’t feel ashamed. I was just angry at not being told sooner.

Twenty years later on the other side of the world, what will my child be taught? Will the grownups around her in Green Bay respect her enough to tell her where she is in time, space and history?

No matter what the topic, I believe there’s an age-appropriate way to talk about it with children. Yes, it’s hard, but that’s why schools employ trained professionals who have studied just that. By letting teachers do their job of helping kids process the world around them, we give kids the power to shape that world for the better.

To many adults, children are threatening. Children ask questions. They challenge you. They ask why until you run out of “because-s”.

State Rep. Elijah Behnke (R-Oconto) issued a “Curriculum Transparency Bill” this past July. In a statement, Behnke said, “our classrooms have become the frontlines of a culture war.”

At this moment, he wasn’t expressing outrage at children being drafted into this metaphorical battle—he was simply admitting that he’s scared of losing to them.

Changing how history is taught won’t make the world any less complex. It won’t extinguish curiosity or quiet a child’s insistence that the world should be fair. All it will do is make future generations less equipped to make it that way.


Eliza Cussen is a writer, campaign consultant and entrepreneur based in Green Bay Wisconsin. She serves as Communications Director for Kristina Shelton for Assembly. Originally from Sydney, Australia, she moved to Wisconsin in 2014.

The views and opinions expressed by weekly columnists, illustrators and community members submitting letters to the editor are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Green Bay City Pages, its advertising partners or its parent company Multimedia Channels. Editorials are clearly labeled and represent the views of the Editor who wrote the column. To submit feedback, a letter to the editor, pitch an idea for a recurring column or voice a concern, email Green Bay City Page Editor John McCracken at [email protected]

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