Yesterday in my South African history class we discussed how the Cold War affected US policy toward the decolonizing world after WWII. In short, I said that our concern to win allies and open markets often prompted our government to support oppressive regimes, as long as they were anti-communist. Take the South African government, which the US lent money and protected in various ways for much longer than we now like to admit. Several of my white students looked pretty dejected at hearing this information. Near the end of class one said, “It just seems that white people have done so many bad things in the world.” I didn’t have a good response, and I’m wondering this morning what my response should be.

I recall the book I read earlier this year, Learning to Be White, which talks about the problem of “white shame.” According to the author, white shame only perpetuates racism, so I don’t want to make my students feel ashamed of being white. Shame doesn’t do anybody any good anyway. On the other hand, I do want them to know the truth of our history (as well as the fact that racism isn’t just history). In terms of global politics, for example, I believe it’s important for Americans to understand why so many people around the world resent US power. A little understanding of Cold War history could probably do more to disarm terrorism than an armored division. (Don’t get me started on the history of US involvement in Iran.)

But while I tend to emphasize the big forces of history, I also want my students to appreciate the difference that has often been made by ordinary people working together. Whether it was the slaves who ran away, making slavery less profitable, or the conductors on the underground railroad who helped them, the marchers in Montgomery or the freedom riders from the north who joined them, or the South Africans who sang in the streets, inspiring US students to pressure their universities to divest, good people—white and black—have often stood in solidarity, sometimes at great risk to themselves. And their actions have often changed the course of history, though not always as quickly as they had hoped.

The importance of grassroots activism is part of what I think I failed to convey yesterday. When I explained that the desire to win allies in Africa was part of what motivated civil rights reform in the US federal government, the same student said, “Doesn’t that take a lot away from the civil rights movement?” I thought it was a perceptive comment, and a concern I worried about last year when my class discussed this. But in the end I have to say no. The civil rights movement was well organized and well timed and without their loud calls for justice, the federal government would not have been worried about its international image. As Frederick Douglass famously wrote, “Power concedes nothing without struggle. It never has, and it never will.”

The struggle I feel as a teacher, and as a parent, is to talk about the uglier aspects of history without depressing people into disempowerment. After all, whatever our race or nationality, we’re only responsible for what we can do—which is probably more than we think.