Calif. High School Sparks Criticism for Using Slave-Ship Role-Play to Teach Students History

An undated illustration depicting the cargo hold of a slave ship (AP Images)
An undated illustration depicting the cargo hold of a slave ship (AP Images)

A California high school’s “unique learning experience” designed to teach its students about slavery is drawing national attention after a concerned mother spoke out about it last week.


Shardé Carrington spoke to HuffPost last week about an email she received from Whitney High School administrators regarding an upcoming eighth-grade history lesson. In the email, sent under the subject line “unique learning experience,” parents were told that their students would be involved in a classroom exercise in which they would role-play as slaves and their teachers as slave-ship captains. The goal? To expose students to the horrors of slavery.

From HuffPost:

“Specifically, when class starts,” the email reads, “we will sternly tell them to line up outside the classroom, use masking tape to ‘tie’ their wrists together, make them lay on the ground inside the room (which will be dark) shoulder to shoulder with each other (boys and girls are in separate rows), and then while they lay there, have them watch a clip from ‘Roots.’”

The email also indicated that students would not be told about the lesson to maintain the element of surprise.

Carrington, who is black, told the online outlet that she felt Whitney’s teachers were being “irresponsible at best, manipulative and dangerous at worst,” and sent an email to the school voicing her concerns. She also pulled her eighth-grade son from the lesson.


Calling the exercise “demeaning and grossly insensitive,” Carrington asked administrators: “Would you simulate rape in order to encourage sensitivity toward survivors? Will children pretend to be in Japanese internment camps as well?”

The chair of Whitney’s social studies department, Derek Jeans, responded to Carrington’s letter and defended the lesson. She shared the letter to her Facebook page last Monday:

I, as department chair of our social studies department, brought this exercise to Whitney about 10 years ago, and have had almost universal appreciation for it in the way that we do not minimize the experience of slavery, but rather attempt in a very small manor [sic], to bring a more personal understanding of such a tragic and terrible event that occurred in our history.


But it’s worth asking whom this “more personal understanding” is for. It’s worth noting that Whitney High School, which is located in Cerritos, has a predominantly Asian and white student body. According to HuffPost, a grand total of 19 students out of 1,011 are black.

Jeans also noted that the exercise was “from a nationally recognized supplier of curriculum designed to bring experiences into the classroom versus just discussions.” The teacher added that the school did not add it to their course of study “lightly.”


Other schools have stirred controversy for handling slavery in insensitive ways. Earlier this year, an elementary school in New Jersey was blasted for holding a mock slave auction and hanging “slave posters” in the hallways.

While immersive experiences are certainly valuable in the classroom, not every topic or historical event is suitable for such lessons. Teaching Tolerance, an offshoot of the Southern Poverty Law Center that provides educational resources to instructors to promote inclusion, explicitly warns educators NOT to use role-playing when teaching students about slavery.


In a 2014 article, Teaching Tolerance issued the following guidelines:


  • Use role-plays. They can induce trauma and minimization, and are almost certain to provoke parental concerns.
  • Focus only on brutality. Horrific things happened to enslaved people, but there are also stories of hope, survival and resistance.
  • Separate children by race.
  • Treat kids as modern-day proxies for enslaved people or owners of enslaved people.
  • Make race-based assumptions about a child’s relationship to slavery.

Instead, educators are advised to use primary sources and oral histories, assign readings that depict enslaved people as whole individuals, organize field trips to historic sites that “reflect the lives of black people beyond slavery” and underscore the contributions America’s enslaved made to many facets of American society.


After 10 years, it’s a good time for Whitney to heed this advice.

Read more at HuffPost.

Staff writer, The Root.



You know what’s interesting? I hear about these kind of “insensitive missteps” whenever slavery is involved, but not when the holocaust is the subject matter. I can’t count how many teachers have had mock slave auctions, talked about how much individual Black students might fetch when being sold, etc. I don’t recall ever hearing about teachers being eager to shovel students into boxcars or do a mock extermination in a fake oven. Sure, maybe some teacher has done that...but I don’t recall it ever happening.

Interesting. Hm. Wonder why that is.