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SNC professor looks for women and women of color in textbooks

By Lee Reinsch

DE PERE – Educators are accustomed to responding to all sorts of questions.

But during her years teaching world history and social studies in the public school system, Dr. Erica Southworth found a common student question particularly hard to answer: Where are all the women – especially women of color?

On the face of it, the answer was easy: Not in textbooks.

It led Southworth, associate professor of education at St. Norbert College, out of school teaching and into graduate school to research how race and gender are handled in textbooks.

She’s been analyzing content of nationally available secondary-school world history and social studies textbooks since about 2014, looking at how women and people of color are portrayed.

What she found would make Gloria Steinem and Sojourner Truth pull out their own hair in despair.

“Looking at textbooks published in the 1970s going forward, there’s been very little change as far as being inclusive in gender and racially balanced material,” Southworth said.

Inclusivity is important because it can affect how students view themselves and their potential, she said.

“Students can’t be invested in their own learning if they can’t see themselves represented in the text,” Southworth said.

Vashti Harrison, author of “Little Leaders, Bold Women in Black History,” wrote, “This kind of representation, in the books they’ve been assigned to read in school or the ones that they curl up with at night, offers children a reminder that they matter, and that there’s a place for them in this world. It shows them that they too can be the heroes, go on adventures and save the world.”

Updated but not upgraded

Southworth’s research and meta research show from one edition to the next of the same textbook, cosmetic changes may be made, but the old information may not be significantly revised to include the accomplishments of women and persons of color.

New covers and photos, and a few sidebars and info boxes might mention them, and headliner events, such as the women’s movement or civil rights, may be added, she said.

“We see women of color and men of color being marginalized in columns (alongside the main text),” Southworth said. But the main fare stays the same: “It’s still male and largely white.”

For the most part, the few females who make it into these textbooks are portrayed as passive bystanders and helpmates.

It might just seem like random facts in a book, but Southworth said it can have real-world implications.

Such images reinforce “both the traditional notion of a powerful male hierarchy and the incorrect assumption that women were ‘observers’ of history rather than historical change agents themselves,” Southworth writes in a chapter of a new textbook for education students called, “Marking the Invisible: Articulating Whiteness in Social Studies Education,” published by Information Age Publishing.

Her chapter deals with religious figures in textbook imagery.

Color blind, or just blind?

Religious figures who arguably were of North African and Southwest Asian (also called Middle Eastern) heritage are still depicted in images as white an overwhelming majority of the time, Southworth said.

She analyzed nine nationally available world-history textbooks for secondary-school students, looking for depictions of 11 religious figures from three of the largest world religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam).

She found depicted as white:

• 91 percent of images of the Virgin Mary;

• 84 percent of the images of Jesus;

• 100 percent of the images of Moses;

• 80 percent of the images of Muhammad; and

• 50 percent of the images of Paul the Apostle.

“It’s called whitewashing social studies or whitewashing history, and that can be very detrimental to students and to all of us,” Southworth said.

The other figures on her list – Abraham, Mary Magdalene, Sarah, Hagar, Khadija, A’isha and Fatima – were not depicted in imagery at all.

Southworth said she hopes her work can draw attention to the problem so future teachers are aware of the issue and can take steps to mitigate it.

“My goal upon getting my PhD and getting a job as an assistant professor was to do research and create curriculum materials resources that are gender and racially balanced resources for teachers,” she said. “I’m looking at trying to make the world in a teaching environment a better place.”

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