Token for Granted

As I watched Selma in the theater, I realized that every February we can anticipate the narratives of the same few people shared over and over again in movie theaters, on television, and in classrooms.

It is such an honor to share this is a guest post from Colorado educator William Anderson. He and his work inspire me!

Recently, my mother and I went on a “mother and son” date to catch up on how 2015 was going.

These outings normally consist of us having dinner and watching a movie. My mother is usually prepared with a set of poignant questions, for which I never have satisfactory answers:

  • “How’s work going?”
  • “When will you ever get married? You know your brother already has a baby, and they’re working on another one.”
  • “Are you even thinking about children?”

I do my best to avoid answering those questions, sticking to, “Work is great; I just love it.”

That evening, after the inquisition, we decided to see the movie Selma. The film depicts the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the work he did in Selma, Alabama to help bring about the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The theater we chose that day is located in a fairly new and affluent Denver suburb that boasts homes ranging from the “low $500,000s” and up. This particular theater pulls out all the stops— including a full lunch and dinner menu, with service that brings your order right to your seat while you watch the movie.

As my mother and I walked into the crowded theater to find our assigned seats, I wasn’t surprised to see we were the only Black people in the entire theater. I sat down and began to ruminate on the irony and implications of the situation:

  • I am the only Black man in an all-white theater;
  • I am the only Black man in an all-white theater watching a movie about another Black man who dedicated his life to working for equality for all people;
  • This man’s important work laid the foundation for my right to attend a movie in these circumstances;
  • Sitting in my ultra-comfy leather recliner and waiting for the movie to start, I felt hypersensitive to the fact that I was the only Black man watching the only movie starring a Black man in the entire complex.

The lights dimmed. As the previews flickered across the screen, my sense of isolation grew. During the movie, I watched:

  • The brutality that my people went through just to be able to vote;
  • Policemen beat old women and children with clubs;
  • Scene after scene of young Black men gunned down, beat down, and tear-gassed as they marched peacefully.

As a historian, the scenes were not new to me. The struggles of Black people to gain their freedom within this country have been one of the main focuses of my research.

But now I was in a theater full of people who might not have received the same lessons in the history of Blacks and voting rights that I did as a young Black man. For some of these movie-goers, Selma was possibly their first experience witnessing the brutal circumstances both Black and White people endured in order for Black citizens to finally gain the right to vote.

This excellent movie also made me reflect on the time of year it was: February, Black History Month. It’s the time when Americans say:

  • “Hey, maybe Blacks did play a role in contributing to the history of this country;”
  • “Let’s take the shortest month of the year to share the story of the same four to five Black people;”
  • “Let’s share the same story every February, because some people decided that we could ‘value’ some Black contributions.”

The tokenism that represents Black History Month trivializes the vision of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who founded the original Black History week. Dr. Woodson created this week, this special time, with the idea that:

If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.

But now, every February, we can safely anticipate the narratives of the same few people shared over and over again in movie theaters, on television, and in classrooms.

And that last sphere is where I see the greatest danger.

Parading a few “key figures” within curriculums all over the country each February only further illustrates how far we have NOT come.

And this is from a profession that touts equity as a core value.

Until the histories of all peoples are organically, authentically, and intentionally woven throughout all subject matter and curricula, we as educators and as a people cannot truly claim equity as a “core value.”

Black history, along with the history of all marginalized people:

  • Must not be sensationalized for a moment and then put back in a closet;
  • Cannot serve as a justification for checking off a box that certifies that we are “tolerantof others;
  • Cannot be token;
  • Should not be an isolated moment in time.

Instead, these histories should be:

  • A celebration of the countless contributors of color to the history of this country;
  • Integrated throughout all subject matter and curricula year round, rather than simply relegated to social studies or history;
  • Taught authentically by all teachers so that the contributions of all scientists, mathematicians, authors and poets, inventors, musicians, and more share equitable space in instruction.
  • We must also include the stories of historical figures who sacrificed so much to move ALL people towards a more “equitable union.”

As educators, our goal must be to advance diversity, equity, and fairness in curriculum and instruction that embraces all students all year long.

Let’s move away from “tokenism” and towards true integration EVERY month—one month at a time.

William Anderson is a 7th year teacher working at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver, Colorado. He teaches high school social studies and serves as the department chair. William’s lifelong dream was to be a teacher, and he couldn’t be happier doing exactly that.  He is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.

This blog appears as part of the work of CTQ-CO’s culturally responsive team. Learn more about their projects here.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Transforming Curriculum

    Until the histories of all peoples are organically, authentically, and intentionally woven throughout all subject matter and curricula, we as educators and as a people cannot truly claim equity as a ‘core value.'”

    Thank you Will, for writing this post, and prompting us all to think about what we teach, why we teach, and how we teach. When students and teachers have choice and agency over curriculum decisions I believe we will see the authentic and intentional weaving in of all stories and perspectives, vs. the “featured race/gender/group of the month,” paradigm.

    Our call to action as educators? Question curriculum and push back against narrow views of histories and token biographical profiles of the same names and faces. Go beyond what we’re supposed to teach. Author and implement meaningful lessons and experiences for our students — all of our students — so they see their own stories in our classrooms. And yes, we must do this every year and all year long. 

  • JenniferHenderson


    This is awesome, Will, and deserves to be shared with ALL educators, no matter the cultural make up of their classrooms.  We often forget how perceptive students really are, and how quickly they can see through things that are not authentic.  Parading out our posters of African American scientists every February does not send the message of equality many believe it sends.  Our kids deserve the best and that means authentic, culturally relevant instruction every day.  

  • jozettemartinez

    The Shortest Month of the Year…

    I love when I read something so profound, so deep, so laden with the true  authentic voice of the author, that it paralelles a face to face conversation. I also love reading something that moves me to the point where my skin gets goosebumps, and the tears burn behind my lashes.

    You did this, William. I’m a better activist after reading this.

    Knowing you, I was a fan. Now, reading this, I consider you family, for you brought up similar feelings that I get. No one tells me to feel these things, but I notice them, at the movies, at school, in meetings. Your work is a perfect balance of eloquence and IDGAF-I-need-to-say-this-ness.

    Keep writing. You got the chops! <3

  • Cheryl Redfield

    Let’s Be Honest

    Thank you for raising awareness about a conversation we still need to have in this country.

    We often hear dialogue about equal access to content; but it seems disingenuous when students of color may not even see the contributions of their heritage fully and accurately repressented in that same content area. 



  • williamanderson

    A breath of fresh air

    I greatly appreciate your the support in this effort to better reach and teach our students. It is so nice to hear that educators see value in daring to be different and pushing the envelope of instruction when it come to teaching about people of color, especially to students of color. The more we as a collective learn about one another’s histories in an authentic way, the better we will ALL function as a collective. 



  • akrafel

    I am moved

    by your post. What came to mind first was the outrage I feel on behalf of the black men gunned down so easily by white cops recently.  It made me think about how to change the way we teach the Wild West, or the pioneer topics so commonly taught in the middle elementary grades. Where are the people of color in those narratives?  I will bring that question back to the staff I work with. Thank you for jolting me out of my comfort zone. We all have so much work to do.  We have to do more than just take the 8th graders to see Selma.  I live in a 98% white area and think my students deserve to hear the truth about how the Native Americans were treated and still are treated right here and now.  The names of places here such as Battle Creek and Massacre Flats have brutal stories attached.  How can those stories be told to kids in schools who tromp across those sacred groundson their hikes? You created those thoughts and questions in my mind. Thank you.

  • Adam_Heenan



    Tonights topic on #educolor is on the value of "grit" and "rigor" in schools where the student body is composed of "majority minority."  How might the ideas of tokenism contribute to this discussioon?

    I am envisioning the role of the educator posing the idea, "See if you just work hard enough you can enact change like ____."

    Thoughts?  Tweet up 7:30pmEST