Busting Anti-Racist Education Myths
Recently we have seen on repeat in the media and in communities across the country a swell of concern over the concept of critical race theory (CRT). The divisive rhetoric surrounding this topic has led to heated debate, often based on myths and misinformation. First, it’s important to understand what CRT is, and isn’t, which is nicely outlined by the editors of Middle School Journal in their piece, “Is it really about Critical Race Theory?” I recommend you review that piece first. And now, let’s put a few community concerns about anti-racist education to rest.
Busting Myth #1: No, it doesn’t teach children or adults to hate America or be less patriotic.
In fact, it does quite the opposite by pointing to the mechanisms we’ve built into our growing democracy to ensure we are respectful of all people in pursuit of the ultimate objective of achieving equity. Anti-racist education asks us to end the promotion of a simplistic American history devoid of diverse perspectives and, instead, to teach history in its full reality, complex and as imperfect as it has been, legitimatizing and including the experience of all its peoples. Its proponents ask us to step up to the promise of our founding documents, making good on each one. It’s a lens to see our journey as a nation so far and observe when we have not operated up to our ideals. As James Baldwin declared, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Let’s not insult our students along the way. Middle and high school students can perceive the greatness in democratic ideals, their originators, and the heroic efforts to achieve them while also noting these leaders’ limitations as compassionate, equitable humans. Yes, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and many others demonstrated courage, vision, and strength worthy of great respect, but they were also flawed men who enslaved people. Many indigenous nations do not hold Abraham Lincoln in high esteem for specific policies he promoted that led to the loss of land, freedoms, and lives. Students can see the good that Lincoln accomplished for some along with the harm his administration caused to others.
Something else to consider, too, is that schools have been teaching secondary students about the murder, rape, and forcible relocation of indigenous and Latinx people (justified through a sense of manifest destiny) for decades. We teach about the enslavement of Africans and the Jim Crow Laws enacted to legalize their marginalization for over 100 years. We teach about anti-Semitism and the forced imprisonment of Asian families during World War II. It isn’t CRT. It is just accurate history.
Is this indoctrination or teaching students to hate our country? No. Will such discussions result in the next generation questioning elements in their communities that perpetuate bias, racism, sexism, and classism and other issues in our laws, education, health care, voting, hiring practices, and school financing and resources that are inequitable, and later take steps to dismantle these elements? If we’re lucky.
Consider exposing yourself to communities and cultures very different from your own. Read newspapers from countries other than our own. Hear, see, and feel those non-American or minority American perspectives. When we take the time to do this, we see through a mighty – and transformative – lens. Empathy and humility rise, ego fades, culturally respectful conversations ensue. Yes, America is an amazing and advanced country, and oh, we are so proud of those things. But, wow, it is also flawed in other ways, for we can be cocooned and unseeing.
Busting Myth #2: No, it doesn’t teach that one race is inherently superior to another.
This is against the rules of all public schools in America. It is deeply unprofessional and unethical and is grounds for dismissal. It is antithetical to the intent and spirit of existing anti-discrimination laws. If a teacher is promoting such, there are procedures and protections to correct the situation without any additional legislative action needed.
Busting Myth #3: No, it does not declare that all White children are racist or that White people living today are responsible for the atrocities of slavery or Jim Crow laws, nor does it teach that White people should be ashamed of their race.
Instead, it’s asking all of us, White people included, to recognize the advantages Whites have had through our country’s development, that those advantages are embedded in many of our laws, economics, bank lending, labor practices, housing, health care, politics, and education policies today, and that to create a more equitable society there are specific things we can do here and now to dismantle these inequities. It calls us to acknowledge that these actions are far more robust than just celebrating Black History Month or adding a few books to the classroom library.
It should be noted, non-White children make up the majority of school-aged children in the United States. Many are born into bi-racial and multi-racial families. When we are working to removing racism, bias, and discrimination from our communities, we’re talking now about our true nation, its majority people, not a sub-group here and there. It’s time to become aware of those practices and policies that will limit our students’ futures.
Busting Myth #4: No, teaching diversity, micro-aggressions, ethnic studies, Japanese internment camps, red-lining, enslavement, the Trail of Tears, justice, voting rights, or asking students to read a book from a list of books, two selections of which include are The Hate You Give (Angie Thomas) and or Refugee (Allan Gratz) is not indoctrination or overtly teaching CRT.
Some critics of CRT have ascribed the following labels to the practice, even though CRT is not overtly taught in most k-12 schools: Marxism, communism, Maoist, child abuse, Black Pantherism, state-sponsored racism, teaching students to murder police officers, Bidenism, anti-Trumpism, anti-Republicanism, anti-Americanism, anti-conservativism, and racism against Whites. These labels feel more like knee-jerk reaction, scare tactics of other eras, than they do thoughtful analysis. Yes, many elements that fit within the definition of CRT are taught in middle and high schools, but they exist on their own, outside of CRT, as well. So, no, teaching these elements as a part of American history and the modern world is not teaching Critical Race Theory. it’s teaching accurate history, culture, civics, and the challenges faced by many in our society.
The Unnecessary Fallout from CRT Misinformation
The implications of not busting these myths are real and imminent. Already, eleven states have passed bills banning CRT. Many of these proposed statutes are so overly broad in their wording as to be susceptible to varied, extreme, and unconstitutional interpretations. Educators are right to perceive these bills’ chilling effects on the teaching of anything that questions a romanticized notion of the United States, its laws, leaders, and race relations.
Based on my extensive review of the literature since September 2020 and the discussions I’ve had with dozens of superintendents, curriculum supervisors, teachers, and principals, educators see the bills as calling for the removal or severely diminished status of the following elements from curricula and class discussion:
race, racism, institutional racism, anti-racism, bigotry, marginalization, anti-semitism, bias (implicit or explicit, conscious or subconscious), micro-aggressions, “resentment of a creed,” intersectionality, privilege, white supremacy, colonization, colonies, diversity, ethnic studies, Frederick Douglass’1852 speech “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the works of James Baldwin, enslaved people, red-lining, fair housing practices, high incarceration rates of people of color, police violence, equity/inequity, differentiation, identity, ally-ship, unfair school funding, disproportionate disciplining of students of color, inclusion, disrupt, disruptor, segregation/desegregation, protests/marches, Black Lives Matter, March for our Lives, LGBTQ rights, transgenderism, homophobia, “good trouble,” civil rights leaders, voting rights/suppression, justice (social, economic, legislative), nativism, the questioning of American exceptionalism, Islam, censorship, Japanese internment camps in WWII, January 6th incursion on Capitol Hill, immigration laws, reparations, racial/sexual stereo-typing, Trail of Tears, forcible relocation of tribal nations, settlers and others stealing of land, Colin Kaepernick and the taking of a knee at sporting events, seeing and embracing individual student cultures and personal identities in our lessons, the hypocrisy of our founding fathers enslaving people but declaring freedom for all in our early documents, and any novels, poetry, newspaper stories, plays, websites, or media that portrays any of these elements in their full reality.
Just as concerning and rather insulting to our profession, many of the proposed bills prevent any professional development for teachers or their leaders that include these topics as the focus or a subset of a larger training. For example:
- “The Texas Law…makes it illegal for teachers to, ‘To be required to engage in training, orientation…that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or blame based on the basis of race or sex.’” (Pendharkar, 2021)
- “Iowa’s law…says “the superintendent of each school district shall ensure that any curriculum or mandatory staff or student training provided by an employee of the school district or by a contractor hired by the school district does not teach, advocate, encourage, promote or act upon specific stereotyping and scapegoating toward others on the basis of demographic group membership or identity.” (Pendharkar, 2021)
- “Pennsylvania HB 1532 In June, Rep. Russ Diamond (R) introduced a bill that would limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism and ban schools from hosting speakers or assigning books that advocate, “racist or sexist concepts.” (“Map…,” Education Week, June 29, 2021)
- “Tennesse aims to levy fines starting at $1 million and rising to $5 million on school district each time one of their teacher is found to have, “knowingly violated” state restrictions on classroom discussions about systemic racism, white privilege, and sexism, according to guidance proposed by the state department of education late last week.” (Pendharker, Education Week, August 18, 2021)
In their article, Anti-Critical Theory Laws Are Un-American, Kemel Foster, David French, Jason Stanley and Thomas Chatterton Williams offer a wise caution to critics here: “[T]he Tennessee statute prohibits a public school from including in a course of instruction any ‘concept’ that promotes ‘division between, or resentment of’ a ‘creed.’ Would a teacher be violating the law if they express the opinion that the creeds of Stalinism or Nazism were evil?” Ibram X. Kendi finds the ideas that classroom explorations of racism are divisive to be ironic. “If we’re not teaching students that the reason why racial inequity exists is because of racism, then what are they going to conclude as to why racial inequity exists? They’re going to conclude that it must be because those Black people must have less because they are less,” Kendi says. “That’s the only other conclusion. Not teaching our kids about racism is actually divisive.”
CRT and the First Amendment Rights of Teachers
For those educators considering their protections and rights under the First Amendment, Mark Walsh notes in a piece for Education Week that, “While k12 teachers retain some protections for their comments on issues of public concern, they don’t have much in the way of academic freedom to veer from the curriculum or infuse their own experiences and views into the classroom.”
Walsh reminds us that teachers have lost court cases and been suspended or fired over free expression, citing such instances as a middle school teacher who expressed opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq to her students and when another middle school teacher was teaching students not to say the n- word, but was suspended for, “using verbally abusive language in front of students, even though the teacher was trying to explain why the word was offensive.”
The key here is that public school teachers are state employees, and that comes with restrictions. We are not private citizens while on the job. We can speak outside our job duties, of course, but not while teaching minors who are compelled to be in school by law. To help, consider reading my April, 2019 article on school law.
Suppose one of our colleagues perpetuates a disparaging stereotype about a minority group in our school, and another colleague explains how offensive that stereotype is and asks that he stop making such comments. The first colleague, a White male, responds, “I didn’t mean it as racist thing; you just took it that way.” Here, he didn’t intend to do harm to others, but he did nonetheless. Does he feel remorseful and want to make amends, or does he deflect and perhaps blame the one (and/or group) who is harmed for bringing it upon themselves? He is ignorant, insensitive, and/or feeling threatened by the correction, yes, and none of these makes for a conscientious educator.
So, are we accusing him of racism? Yes, but we’re trying to call him into the conversation, not convict him.
By referencing him as a white male, did we demonstrate some kind of racism against White people and sexism against males? No.
If we said nothing, would we be complicit in letting racism continue unchallenged? Yes.
Have we just made him uncomfortable? Yes. If he’s a conscientious person, he’s going to take the feedback to heart and feel bad for the harm he’s caused, and that stings. Really, I’ve been there and felt the wound.
Is it okay, though, to raise the concern, painful though it may be, for the greater, long-run good that comes of it? Yes.
Then the offending colleague continues, “You always talk about micro-aggressions and racism in school, stores, banks, voting, and housing, but that stuff just doesn’t happen around here. You’re over-reacting, and it’s making something bigger than it really is.”
Here we see that our colleague is operating within his own narrow narrative, and it’s from this perspective that he declares without a moment’s forethought that his view is the preferred, normal one, while what others experience or perceive is dismissed as abnormal or unwarranted. Unaware, he has diminished others, and if he is in a position of administrative, legislative, or economic power, his actions and policies based on such views can be discriminating.
This colleague may be locked in his own ego, likely surrounding himself with only those friends, politics, and media presences that confirm his perspectives about the world. He is allowed to express such beliefs and behaviors openly, though, because his gender and skin color generally put him in positions of societal power. Uncomfortable confrontations to his view of the world are rarely made, and on the occasions that they are, his position is such that he can dismiss them readily without economic, legal, or social harm to himself or family.
The thing is, when we educate ourselves, we see the aggressions, micro and macro, the bias, and the system racism clearly. We can’t do that from a distance or through the lens of politically expedient pundits. Is our sense of humanity affronted enough, then, to clear the threshold from indifference to participation, and to summon the stamina it takes to listen, learn, and respond constructively to inequities?
And it makes me wonder about such things as the law, education, and voting. For example, yes, we can pass laws and school policies that in their actual text and intent do not seem racist, but when looking at their functional effects or impact, we see dire consequences for different racial groups. These effects are not due to these individuals’ character, intellect, or choice, but due instead to the circumstances of their lives and livelihoods shaped by decades of racism and discrimination. If these negative effects are so readily seen, can we admit such and remove the law to eliminate unfair treatment and increased equitable freedom and access?
To participate in effective discussions about these things, it bears reading the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. They were meant to extend civil and legal protections to formerly enslaved people, and they were the foundations of important legislation in the century and a half that followed. We stand proudly by our Constitution and country, so let’s get to the task of revising that which does not support our ideals. As Gloria Ladson-Billings mentioned in an interview for The 74,
“[The] teacher’s role is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge and the dispositions to change the inequity. The idea is not to get more people at the top of an unfair pyramid; the idea is to say the pyramid is the wrong structure. How can we really create a circle, if you will, that includes everybody?”
Teaching an accurate history of our country doesn’t diminish any modern individual, including those of the skin color and positioning in society that led to such practices. In fact, such clarity and commitment to learning about our past improves everyone’s capacity to interact with one other compassionately, to remedy injustices, and to fix that which keeps us from achieving the greatness promised in our formative years as a nation.
There are many parents who are legitimately upset about how their children’s teachers may be promoting extreme or opposing political views in the classroom, or that are shaming white students for being white or doing nothing about racism. These situations should be investigated and resolved immediately, as these are not the intent of the topics we’ve identified here that just happen to be a part of CRT higher education studies as well. The moment for proactive awareness is now, and that comes with informed discussion, not superficial or inaccurate misconceptions. Remember, our children, our students, are depending on us to be informed and compassionate citizens. Every day we model civic discourse and participatory democracy for them and one another.
Maya Angelou calls us to, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Educators have long proven they have what it takes to do better, but some of us wonder if we fear the knowing for what it compels in action. In that dawning awareness, of course, we find the moral vigilance for our better selves, our hearts beating faster as we hear James Baldwin’s insight, “The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” In this, we progress, painful truths are tempered by hope. What a fortunate time to be educators, especially when working with students aspiring to connect and contribute! And, wow, what a sobering responsibility to give them the tools and accurate history to get it right.
Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers), was just released in 2018 and his other new book, Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, 2nd edition (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was just released in 2019. He can be reached at email@example.com, @rickwormeli2, and at www.rickwormeli.com.