Office of Inclusive Excellence

The Colorline: The Stalling of King’s Dream

February 22, 2022

By Lesley Stampleman

In the first grade, to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., I colored in the same picture of Martin Luther King’s face along with the rest of the six-year-olds. To help some of us understand which crayons to use, my clever teacher picked up the white crayon and asked, “Would I use this one to color in my picture?” My classmates and I, an equal mix of Black and white students, shook our heads in unison. I filled in the rest of my printed page, carefully avoiding white and beige.  As I moved to a different elementary school in a different state, a similar routine ensued, but without the questions.  We colored in a picture. Our teacher hung our pictures on the wall. We learned that this man said and did some important things before we were born. He was a brave person who fought to liberate his people, but by that point, we had learned about lots of brave individuals, primarily men, who fought to liberate their people. How were we supposed to distinguish one from another? 

How Dr. King’s legacy is taught in schools is just one example of how the dominant US culture  shapes education policy. In this case, a culture that explicitly or implicitly says, “I will let you teach my children about racism, but not to the point of  discomfort or confusion.” This paradigm plays out in countless school board meetings, staff and faculty meetings, local campaigns, and state legislatures. As a young student, all I could articulate was a sense that something was missing from the instruction. As an educator, I have had to face the fact that my own education did not include enough content about Black history, culture, and identity. I was not often asked to consider how race impacts the way people move through the world on a daily basis.  My experience, especially my early education, was shaped by a subset of policy makers who keep students just safely behind the line where comfortable conversations end and uncomfortable conversations begin. It was shaped by society’s inability to talk about race rather than to explore the possibilities that come from sitting with uncertainty.