American conservatives have something new for you to be very afraid about. It’s called critical race theory, and right wingers are terrified that teachers like me will be using it in our classrooms. They aren’t really clear on what critical race theory actually is, but just like they were sure the Muppets were canceled (they weren’t), and Mr. Potato Head banned gender (he didn’t), they are sure that critical race theory is coming to get you!
What is critical race theory? It’s a little complicated, but in practical terms it means understanding that racism is systemic—that it is baked into our institutions, rather than just living in the hearts of individual racist people. Fighting racism requires more than just abolishing slavery, ending Jim Crow, and eradicating the Ku Klux Klan. It involves recognizing the unconscious biases that permeate our society.
In my experience, this is the type of thing that comes up in class sometimes, based on what you’re discussing that day. Whether you teach History/Social Studies, English (like me), or any other subject, you need to be prepared for that discussion.
However, in communities all over America, parents are up in arms. A recent Twitter thread from user @IAmAmnaNawaz shows how heated things got at a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia:
To be clear, Loudoun County’s superintendent says they do not teach anything called “critical race theory.” There isn’t a course by that name in the curriculum, nor do they use any texts that purport to teach the theory. The district is simply recognizing the role racism plays in society—and, for some parents, that looks like a “political agenda.”
Conservatives decry “cancel culture,” portraying themselves as free speech warriors who just want an open and honest discussion. But where’s the free speech, where is the discussion, in a situation like this, where they simply shout down anyone who disagrees with them? They are clearly not here to have a discussion. Rather, they are showing up to overwhelm and intimidate the school board, to bully them into ousting the members they do not like.
This is where a lot of the conflict comes from. The idea is that if you take a serious, hard-eyed look at the legacy of racism in the United States, you will end up “hating” the country. Thus (these folks believe) we must ignore or downplay the role of racism in society.
Of course, that is nonsense. We can appreciate the United States’ ideals of freedom and equality, and recommit ourselves to achieving these ideals, while frankly acknowledging that we continue to fall short. How can we make progress if we refuse to acknowledge the severity of the problem?
And here we see what really drives so much of this resistance: white people, afraid of being called racist. Afraid of their children being called racist. Afraid that—if we acknowledge racism at all—they, their children, their community, their traditions, their country, will be implicated in the racism.
That’s not really what critical race theory is saying. The point is not that you—you there, you personally—are a raging bigot. If you’re a person with good intentions, with no ill will toward anyone, that’s a good start. But it doesn’t mean you’re done. You still have work to do. We all have a responsibility to notice the racial inequalities all around us, and do what we can to help.
As educators, we tell kids that they have the power and the responsibility to make positive social change. That’s not telling them they’re inherently racist. It is empowering them to be anti-racist.
This is a typical move people make when they don’t want to have a serious talk about race: they claim they “don’t see color.” The idea is that if they simply disregard people’s race, then they can’t be discriminatory, racism solved!
That’s exactly why the concept of systemic racism is so important. This country is remarkably diverse, and yet our communities are still largely separated by race. That means, even 65 years after Brown Vs. Board of Education, our schools are separated by race too. A person’s race still largely determines their inherited wealth, educational opportunities, lifetime income, their likelihood of having an adverse encounter with police, and so on. These are realities, they exist whether you see them or not. Being “color-blind” simply means you are blind to the problem.
No one should feel “bullied and retaliated against,” but the thing is that systemic racism is real. It isn’t a far-left view; it’s a real thing that is all around us. Conservative teachers have every right to be themselves in the classroom, but if they’re teaching that racism was defeated in 1968 and everything now is hunky-dory, these are simply not the facts.
When I teach “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, we get into complex discussions about how racism is intertwined with cultural messages about beauty. We talk about the Clark “doll tests,” which showed American children—including Black children—preferring to play with white dolls because they found the white dolls more attractive.
How can we discuss this, how can we understand this, without acknowledging the systemic nature of racism? The children who preferred the white doll were not conscious bigots. But they had unconscious racial biases because of course they did—because racism insidiously sneaks into everywhere, without our consciously or deliberately inviting it in.
When I teach “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, we see the role of white colonizers in nineteenth century Nigeria. We look at the poem “White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling, and see how that colonial attitude—the assumption of whites’ racial and cultural superiority—influences the plot in “Things Fall Apart.”
Is it conceivable that we could read this without inevitably, automatically having to discuss the enduring legacy of imperialism? I don’t have to be the one to bring it up. The students themselves can clearly see how today’s culture is shaped by white supremacist attitudes. The way Black bodies are objectified, Black culture appropriated while Black artists are marginalized, the way Black people are criminalized—these things are visible to students, as visible as the neighborhoods they live in or the school where I teach.
I happened to be teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” last spring, when demonstrators were filling the streets in cities across America to protest the killing of George Floyd. The students could clearly see the parallels between Mr. Floyd and the character of Tom Robinson. I wasn’t going to try and tell them that systemic racism ended with Jim Crow. They wouldn’t have believed me if I had tried.
It was also worth observing how the (white) author, Harper Lee, put the Finch family at the center of her narrative, casting Tom Robinson’s (white) lawyer as the hero. What would “To Kill a Mockingbird” look like if a Black author, drawing from her own lived experiences, had written it from the Robinson family’s perspective? To bring up these issues is not imposing a far-left view or being unnecessarily political. It is analyzing a literary text and considering all the relevant questions.
The idea that we could teach our classes while ignoring these issues is patently ridiculous. It would mean separating the world we study from the world in which we live. If education is to be authentic, if it is to be relatable, if it is to mean anything to the students at all, it must acknowledge the world, and that includes acknowledging our country’s legacy of racism.
So conservative pressure groups can keep ranting about it, just like they can keep ranting about Mr. Potato Head. But we are in the middle of a historic reckoning on race, and there is no keeping it out of the classroom.