Education has suddenly become a tense battlefield in our discussions about history and racism – literal laws are being passed around the country about what teachers can and cannot teach students. This summer, partisan politicians have made an enemy of “Critical Race Theory.” This baffled me at first because I had earlier in the year read a book, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, and even though I consider myself fairly well-read on antiracism in America, it went way over my head. I grasp some of the big concepts like intersectionality, but some others, like the critique of the very idea of “rights” just felt way above my pay grade.
Let’s be clear: Critical Race Theory is far too complex to make an appearance in any public grade schools.
But still, how educators can talk to their students about race is being legislated in a truly Orwellian fashion: these partisan lawmakers assert that their goal is to combat racism, while at the same time removing the free speech of teachers to combat racism. So, as educators are gearing up to head back into the classroom, I wanted to provide a resource explaining red flags that you might come across in “approved materials” for teaching about race.
White supremacy has an especially insidious quality of adapting to the moment, and for this reason, I will use personification as I describe white supremacy. This is because I doubt that particular people are making these decisions, but nevertheless the effect is the perpetuation of white supremacy: in a way, it seems to act through us, but with a mind of its own.
For the sake of this post, I am going to be responding to the “Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism” which you can find here: https://www.fairforall.org/. At its face, it seems great – I even love that they have so many people of color involved! However, when I looked closely, I saw so many problematic aspects to this curriculum, which I expect we will see across many other such resources. To be clear, there is both good and bad in this curriculum, as you will see in the screenshots I’ve included throughout, which is why this post is important:
Things that sound progressive and anti-racist might be white supremacy in disguise, so anti-racist educators need to be careful.
Here are some things to pay attention to.
Values of Objectivity and Individualism
The ideas of objectivity and individualism are distinctly white values. That’s not to say that they have no merit or importance – they absolutely do – but it is a serious problem to center white values in a space where we’re trying to address and combat white supremacy. Let’s unpack why these are counterproductive to conversations about race.
Objectivity exists in math alone. 2+2 always equals 4. You’d have to be an Orwellian villain to say otherwise.
But there is no objective history, sociology, literature, music, or anything else. Everything else has perspective and dimension as insubtractible parts of your study. Hell, even math has different valid ways to arrive at an answer.
Imagine a teacher asserting that slavery was horrific, but “objectively” it made America into one of the greatest countries of all time. Is that objective? Would an enslaved person agree that was “objective”?
Teachers should absolutely have conversations with their students about facts versus opinions, and especially about how our ideas of facts have changed over time. “The earth is round” was once controversial.
Be careful when you see the idea of objectivity centered – it is very often a strategy to assert that the narrative put forth by the rich, powerful, dominant, and privileged group should not be challenged. Dogma: it’s “objective,” after all.
Individualism is the idea that we can combat racism by proving that each person is unique, and therefore that stereotypes are bad. Robin Diangelo has a fantastic article about half a dozen or more ways why the ideology of individualism is an issue, but from my standpoint as a teacher, I think the long and short of it is that individualism doesn’t do the job, for two main reasons.
- Individualism Ignores Group Realities
While individualism does some work in helping combat stereotypes, it does so at the cost of acknowledging the ways in which we are actually shaped by our group identities and experiences. Both are true: we exist as individuals, and we exist in groups such as families, schools, communities, and, yes, races. Engaging one and ignoring the other provides an incomplete picture for our students.
It’s really an illusion. We are all shaped by the environment in which we grow up and in which we exist. We all shape our behavior to fit in, to get good grades, to make ends meet, and more, and the truth is that this requires people of color to jump through far more hoops than it does white people. This means everything from spending time and money on an “acceptable professional” hairstyle, to being called a different name to avoid having it often mispronounced, to navigating credit and loans differently because not only do Black families have statistically less generational wealth, but they’re also less likely to receive calls back for job interviews and more and more and more. We can teach our students, through individualism, that Davonte is an individual who loves basketball and Food Network. But we also need to teach them that as a Black male, Davonte has worries that his white peers do not, including but not limited to being arbitrarily murdered by police. Davote’s obsession with Guy Fieri is important, but it does not exist in isolation from his fear of being reduced to his skin color at any given moment. A police officer pulling Davonte over isn’t going to chat with him about his hobbies before deciding if the wallet he is reaching for is a gun or not.
On the flip side, individualism also inadvertently teaches white students that they have no role or responsibility in addressing these inequities – after all, Davonte is just a person, not part of a group, the same way I am a person, and not part of a group. Let’s take natural hair for example: I, as a white woman, can wash my hair and go to work, without all too much worry about what my hair will look like. Pretty much any day, my hair grows out of my head in a way acceptable for the workplace. That is not necessarily the case for my Black colleagues. If I have no awareness of group identity or the way that mine benefits me, why would I feel any obligation to talk to my supervisors about the importance of changing our employee handbook’s language about dreadlocks being unprofessional?
We should teach our students to notice the ways that individuals are unique, but also the ways groups interact, and teach them to use their voices to insist on equality, equity, and fairness for everyone.
- Individualism Allows for Individual Bias
Even more insidiously, individualism provides an escape hatch for implicit bias. If you can teach or convince someone that a person exists outside of history and culture, then harmful stereotypes are obscured, and our well-meaning students can fall right into them. It would be easy to say, “I don’t dislike this music because it’s black, I dislike it because I don’t like the cursing / sexualization / materialism / etc.” Individualism means that you can decide you don’t like black music, black fashion, black individuals, without seeing the connection between these dislikes. Anyone can find a dozen reasons to not like another individual, without ever having to confront their implicit or confirmation biases.
For example, if you were in a group project with a black student who didn’t pull their weight, individualism makes it easy to say “she in particular was a lazy student” without unpacking the way in which our history and culture has fed us a steady diet of the stereotype of black people as lazy. She might have been lazy; or, you might be drawing on a centuries-old stereotype – how can you know which is which? Or, did your stereotype subtly communicate to her that her contributions weren’t valued as much as other group members? (See above: why “objectivity” is toxic. There is no objective answer to this question, and teaching kids that there is or that there should be is a problem.)
We need our students to understand the cultural and historical relevance behind our stereotypes so that they can identify and reject them; pretending they don’t exist doesn’t empower our students to do better. Individualism as a cultural value has merit, but in the sphere of teaching anti-racism, it’s not the tool in our toolbox we need to address the real problems.
Beware of any curriculum that seems to hang its hat on individualism.
A key tenet of the backlash to Critical Race Theory is that it causes kids to feel bad or guilty as they’re forced to identify with the “villains” of the story they’re being told about race. I remember being a kid, learning about slavery, and feeling deeply guilty, even though I knew I had never committed an act of violence against a black person, and frankly, I didn’t and still don’t know that my ancestors did or didn’t hold slaves or buy body parts as souveniers at lynchings attended by tens or hundreds or thousands of people. (Because that was a thing white people did. A lot.) White guilt is real.
But let’s do a little bit of perspective-taking: how have Black children felt in classrooms discussing race, forced to identify with the victims of the story they’re being told? Probably not great.
This history is uncomfortable. For all of us. As teachers, we need to leverage that discomfort to raise up the next generation to do better than the previous ones. If confronted with the truth, kids will feel bad. They should feel bad, because what happened was bad.
On a curriculum level, this fixation on protecting student’s feelings is white supremacy’s way to absolve students with the social capital to make change from feeling any responsibility to do so, thus teaching the next generation to uphold the status quo. Any curriculum or resource that prioritizes comfort over truth is suspect, so be careful.
First of all, this could provide a wonderful opportunity to teach students about processing negative emotions! Kids need to learn how to deal with their anger, guilt, or shame, and teaching them skills like mindfulness or perspective-taking will help them manage their emotions in other areas of their life. This is actually an ideal situation for teaching kids that they are not their feelings – they can feel guilty without being guilty, and that’s such an important distinction.
Teachers, if you’re worried that your students will feel angst while learning about race, give them actionable steps! Show them how to write to their congressperson, assign them to ask if the adults in their households are registered to vote or know their polling place, help them check out books to read about civil rights, have them make adorable and impactful videos about anti-racism and push them out on social media.
Make them part of the solution.
Much more effective than pretending this wasn’t a situation to feel bad about.
Over-Focus on Dr. King
Another important red flag stood out to me in the FAIR curriculum when the only person of color I saw was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And to be sure, Dr. King was important, but his legacy is one that is most comfortable for white people because when you cherry pick his platform, it can be whitewashed down to “let’s not see color, and be nice to each other.” That is so distilled and distorted as to be almost useless, so complexity and scope will be key. Let’s not forget that Dr. King also taught about reparations and radical redistribution of wealth, which are awfully unpopular ideas in some circles!
FAIR also suggests talking about multiple movements for social justice and civil rights, although so many people frown on violent movements like John Brown and Malcolm X – even though it frankly isn’t radical to, as they did, look at literal centuries of dehumanization, brutality, and exploitation and go, “Yeah, the main goal now is to have our kids play on the same soccer team.” Focusing only on Dr. King’s non-violent movement erases the logic that violence is sometimes a logical response to violence.
It is also important to understand why you’re raising up Dr. King’s movement and message. His movement wasn’t necessarily better or worse than others, including the Black Panther Party, but his strategy worked because of a confluence of other factors around him, including that his fortitude in the face of brutality could be televised to the nation and indeed the whole world, in a way that no slave plantation whipping or public lynching ever could be. Then we have the fact that it was during the cold war, and how his movement caused the USSR to call us hypocrites for all our ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”
If we understand that Dr. King’s movement was effective because of a confluence of other factors, factors which might not be in play in the same way anymore, then we have to acknowledge nonviolence isn’t objectively the best or only way (because remember objectivity isn’t real. It is “objectively” easier for white supremacy, but that’s about it). As a teacher, then, it’s important for us to draw parallels here to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to look at the ways in which the peaceful protests and violent riots participate in the tense arguments between the camps of Dr. King and Malcolm X, because there is no “right way” to react to being an oppressed or victimized people. This rhetoric of “violence is never the answer” 1) ignores the fact that violence against property (such as looting a Target) is not violence against people, and 2) translates easily to, “Sure, protest if you have to, I guess that’s your right under the first amendment, but make it easy for me to ignore you until you give up,” which is precisely what white supremacy wants.
After all, why is non-violence effective against oppression? At its core, it should cause enough public outcry to pressure the powerful to change: how are my students going to help create that pressure, so that violence isn’t necessary? Is it appropriate for us to encourage or even assign them to do so?
Supporting our students in being part of the solution will go a long way.
“Both Sides”: Successes and Failures
Another red flag is this idea of “both sides” and America’s “successes and failures.” While this is not “objectively” a problem, let’s consider the fact that literally no one is unaware of white success, progress, or importance. Every television show, movie, podcast, book, whatever medium is highlighting the importance or success of white people. If you’re teaching a class on race or racism or anti-racism, then “white people are good sometimes” is not some crazy concept of which your students are unaware. They know. They will continue to know every time they open a textbook or turn on the evening news. So, if you’re teaching about race, the goodness of whiteness is irrelevant.
Your students know.
Most super heroes will be white. Most congress people will be white. Most teachers, administrators, counselors will be white. Most news anchors will be white. No one, regardless of their race, will struggle to connect whiteness to power, success, insight, intelligence, or anything else. White leaders and influencers will be part of their development, and therefore, you, as an anti-racist educator, need to actively avoid “both sides.” Your students will get one side: it’s your job to show them the other.
Make sure that Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Fred Hamptom, Stacey Abrams (who is my hero because not only is she an amazing community organizer and politician, she’s also a romance novelist!) and more are a part of your student’s vocabulary. You don’t need to add white voices for the sake of balance – it’s okay. Your students will know them.
Don’t feel obligated to give space to “both sides.” Your students know the “other side.” Teach them the one they won’t find without you. “Both sides” is just another attempt by white supremacy to center itself.
In summary, here are some of the things you should look out for when searching for resources to help teach the next generation of anti-racists:
- Anti-racism is really about history and experience, both of which are entirely subjective. Avoid resources that try to be “objective.”
- Avoid individualism – it’s not bad or wrong, but it isn’t the tool we need.
- Individualism ignores group experience, which does matter.
- Individualism obscures implicit or confirmation biases.
- Your students might feel bad when they learn about racism. Teach them to process negative emotions safely, and give them actionable steps to making the problem better.
- While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was important, teaching students only about his non-violent civil disobedience strategy ignores a lot of important history. Make sure to include Dr. King’s other teachings, like reparations, and other movements, like the Black Panther Party.
- Avoid trying to temper your teaching with “both sides.” Your students have lots of access to the contributions of white people from their other classes or the media – teaching them about anti-racism should mean exposing the atrocities perpetrated by white people, history, and culture, and uplifting the excellence of Black people. Doing so is not biased, instead, it creates a balance against the constant narrative of white goodness and importance.
Education is a powerful platform for anti-racism, which is precisely why white supremacy is taking aim at it. As educators, we know the power that lies in the future of our students. Every day, I am floored by the hope for a better future that my students inspire in me. They are fair, caring, resilient, and curious young people, and it is a privilege to prepare them for the world ahead. I sincerely hope that these insights will help well-intentioned and over-legislated teachers choose the best materials to help them become the generation that finally topples white supremacy.