Units February 21, 2022

Understanding and Interrogating Dominant Culture

Lesson Summary: Students examine how the history of the sugar industry led to benefits for western nations and people at the expense and exploitation of Black people and other persons of color. They evaluate the extent to which this exploitation continues today, and also explore how culture, values, and beliefs have been used by western nations and peoples to oppress and maintain superiority throughout history. Students choose from three performance tasks to reflect their learning. Downloads: Unit resources Links: 1619 podcast and transcripts

This unit was created by World History educators from Friendship Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C., as part of the 2021 cohort of The 1619 Project Education Network. It is designed for facilitation across approximately eight weeks, or 30 to 35 class periods.

Objectives & Outcomes

  • Students investigate and explain the historical factors that benefitted western nations and people at the expense and exploitation of Black people and other persons of color.
  • Students assess the extent to which this exploitation continues today.
  • Students analyze how western culture, values, and beliefs have been used to oppress and maintain superiority.
  • Students recognize and challenge varying forms of white supremacy and Western cultural domination.
  • Students correlate historic and contemporary applications of capitalism with oppression.

Compelling Questions

How did the sugar industry oppress indigenous persons from Africa and the Americas and their descendants?

How has the model for the cultivation of sugar impacted the Western Hemisphere today?

How are Western culture, values, and beliefs enforced around the world, and is that enforcement a form of oppression?

Unit Overview

Reflecting the principles of The 1619 Project, this unit plan aims to examine critically a widely accepted narrative that dominates our national and global subconscious and is reflected in much of society’s thoughts, discourse, and actions. According to this narrative, the culture and institutions of today’s Western Hemisphere* are inherently superior to those of the rest of the world. In many ways, this view may seem uncontroversial. Most adults and children can easily speak to some of the anecdotal indicators that measure a country’s wealth and strength and they will accurately provide many examples that indicate western dominance – U.S. military presence around the world, its perceived economic strength and influence, and the ubiquity of western culture and language. However, many people are not aware of the historic and contemporary factors and events that shaped these outcomes. Therefore, the goals of this unit are for students to…

  • Examine the historical factors that benefitted western nations and people at the expense and exploitation of Black people and other persons of color (compelling question one) 
  • Assess the extent that this exploitation continues today (compelling question two)
  • Analyze how western culture, values, and beliefs are used to oppress and maintain superiority (compelling question three).

There are many topics and potential lessons that align to these goals, but this unit centers the historic and contemporary link between sugar production, sugar consumption, and oppression throughout students’ exploration of the first two compelling questions as a case study to narrow the size and scope of this unit into manageable and timely lessons. Compelling question one is explored through analyzing the history and rise of the global sugar business, the impact of the sugar business, and the benefactors and victims of the sugar industry. 

Compelling question two takes a contemporary look at how models explored in the history of the sugar industry are applied in the world today, and the continued effects of the industry. However, compelling question three extends this study of oppression into another that may seem less obvious to students initially, but that they may ultimately find to still be pernicious.  After students examine the primarily economic means by which western nations and corporations established economic dominance, they will conclude the unit by examining cultural means of domination as part of their exploration of compelling question three. 

Performace Task

Note: The summative performance task options described below should be implemented at the conclusion of the unit, following student completion of the formative assessments for all three compelling questions. However, the teacher should actually introduce the performance task, along with the essential question, at the beginning of the unit. This will help frame for students what they are working towards with the completion of every individual lesson and compelling question. The teacher may also periodically build in time and opportunities for students to record their evolving thoughts and evidence on the essential question for the unit. This will not only support them in their completion of the performance task at the end of the unit, but it will also help smooth the transition from the final compelling question and formative assessment to the performance task.

The writers of this unit created three different options for the performance task that all share common goals.

Goal: The goals of this performance task are for students to:

  1. Recognize and challenge varying forms of white supremacy and Western cultural domination.
  2. Describe the historic and current links that exist between capitalism and oppression.

Performance Task Option 1
Role: Students will assume the role of a grassroots organization that seeks to educate Black individuals and families throughout the Americas and create action on issues of financial and cultural dominance perpetuated in the Western Hemisphere.

Audience: The target audience represents Black families in America.

Situation: In an attempt to dismantle systems that uphold oppression, students will work in groups to simulate a grassroots organization that has determined that the best course of action is to create a protest that informs Black communities on the ways that resources like sugar have benefitted some while oppressing others both in the past and in present-day. Students then develop a call to action that encourages a boycott of specific sugar brands and provides healthy alternative sweeteners.

Product/Performance: The final product will be the creation of an action plan that describes what is required to plan and simulate a protest around their school campus.  Students will work in groups of five and will be assigned one of the following roles: 

  • Speaker: The face and spokesperson of the grassroots organization.      
  • Artist: Responsible for creating art (posters, poems, songs, commercials)
  • Historian: In charge of taking pictures or recording video(iPad) 
  • Statistician: Responsible for collecting data
  • Social Media/Organizer: Responsible for branding, advertising, and promoting the protest.

The action plan for this protest  will include:

  • Stated goals and objectives
  • Means to accomplish goals and objectives
  • Required resources and personnel
  • Advanced planning for the action
  • Agenda for the protest with minute-by-minute planning
  • Descriptions or samples of materials that will be utilized

Performance Task Option 2
Role: Students will assume the roles of producers, directors, writers, and historians to research and plan a documentary that highlights the challenges faced by marginalized communities as they try to preserve their culture throughout history. Students will show how cultures have been marginalized, and how marginalized cultures have been adapted and sold to mainstream audiences without benefiting the people who created the cultures.

Audience: PBS, National Geographic, The History Channel, Discovery, BET, and other public entities who represent marginalized communities and produce documentary films.

Situation: While students are learning that people have a history of exchanging cultural practices, they will work to exhibit how certain cultural practices that originate from certain communities are being exploited by others. Students will show how western cultures have been influenced by outside entities, and how western culture capitalizes off of the monetization of the cultural practices from other cultures. Students will also show how the communities whose cultures have been appropriated have been oppressed for expressing that culture throughout history. The exhibition of this practice is done in hopes to bring awareness to not only the students themselves, but to the mainstream audiences that digest and invest in the appropriation of marginalized cultures.

Product/Performance: Students will create a documentary that highlights the origin of appropriated and oppressed cultures, beginning with cultural practices adopted and restricted by Western Europeans in Mid Century Europe/America (ex: Covering of black women’s hair during Chattel Slavery- the increased popularity of cornrows in high fashion), and they will show how this practice of appropriating cultures has progressed to modern-day appropriation by contemporary artists and other public figures and institutions.

Performance Task Option 3
Role: Students will assume the role of social activists who seek to educate Black individuals and families throughout the Americas and create actions on the issues of financial and cultural dominance perpetuated in the Western Hemisphere.


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