Thoughts on Critical Race Theory

I am not African-American/Black. I am not white. I am Indian-American, the daughter of Indian immigrants, so I feel this gives me a unique perspective on race in America. People like me owe a great debt to the civil rights movement, as it led to greater diversity in American society, and laws being created to treat people equally. My generation is the first generation to be equal by law in terms of race and gender. I am also an educator with a strong commitment to inclusivity, have taught in diverse settings and have deep roots in international education. I have tried, especially with international students, to show black people in a positive light, as endless stereotypes abound overseas, and have included texts by black authors such as James Baldwin. My MFA analytical thesis was on a novel each by Toni Morrison and Jane Austen. I have been mentored by black people at each stage of my education, in my different fields. I myself suffered discrimination by a white-majority, country town population.

So why do I have certain questions and concerns about teaching students Critical Race Theory? 

One of my concerns is that, pedagogically, race theory needs to be taught in an appropriate manner for each age. Teaching a kindergartener that they are privileged and discriminating simply because they are white (or any non-black race) could only lead to misunderstanding and self-hatred at a fragile age. What would be more useful would be to teach younger children the importance of loving one another and playing with one another regardless of one’s appearance. Naturally, young children are going to have questions as to why black people are being killed by policeman, or why some people hate black people for no reason. These should not be overlooked, and honest answers should be given about how America has a history of treating black people badly. The personalization should be left out of it for children.  A friend of mine who is a second-grade teacher in the South had her students write a letter to a well-known civil rights activist. Constructive activities and appealing to (most) children’s natural sense of injustice is key here. Nipping racist attitudes in the bud is best done sooner than later, because sometimes there is no turning back once these things are ingrained. Get kids to be actively anti-racist from the time they are little.

Questions are going to come up that can come across as racist, such as the physical appearance of others, questions of what is beautiful or ugly, skin color etc. Colorism is a sad fact in MANY communities, such as Indian, Filipino, Latino, black, etc. A sense of moral correctness is, I think, a better approach at a younger age than political correctness. This is not to say that children should not be instructed not to use certain words. Ultimately, the socioeconomic and demographic factors of the classroom will have to determine how race is taught. Telling Appalachian kids or Colombian refugees in Miami they have white privilege is not going to be the best approach. We must be honest with children, because they have the best BS detectors and are naturally empathetic.

As children get older, in later elementary and junior high school, naturally, there is more discussion and understanding of history, discussing certain milestones and civil rights, and talking about the institution of slavery becomes critical. As kids get older, they increasingly parrot what their parents say without thinking–if a child has a racist father, then it is important for the child to understand what the origins of racism are. Through the early teen and later teen years, then students are developmentally and intellectually capable of understanding a lot more about history, culture, class, and race. Through these tween and early teen years is when students need to understand about structural racism and what it means. Students may protest that they or their families individually are not racist at all and not discriminatory. While this is true, they need to understand history as well as what happens even today. This is a good place to introduce statistics. 

By the end of high school and into college is where discussions of privilege are very key. College admissions is fraught with inequality (our whole education system, frankly, but it is exacerbated in post-secondary education). I think we need to couch discussions of privilege not simply in terms of whiteness, but in terms of economics, which indeed intersects with race and privilege (with whites and Asians, most often.) People’s racial attitudes are becoming more solidified during this period; it often takes a huge shift in geography when a student goes to college to truly understand what race means. Seeing that everyone north of Columbia University was brown and a minority made a deep impression on me during my first graduate program and made me reevaluate my opinions on K-12 curriculum.

It is also important to provide social support for children who hold different opinions than their parents or community. The students may be supporting critical race theory, but the adults they know may not. Children need allies in teachers. They need safe spaces and safe people to talk to when they are being discriminated against, and when they are seeing people being bullied.

Throughout all of this, there is one key element that must not by any means be ignored: what black people themselves think. Often, well-meaning white liberals want to hit people over the head with a particular set of beliefs, ignoring what people feel and think. Showing all points of view on critical race theory is key, that there may be some black people who support or disagree with it, or certain elements of it. Also key is not allowing any sort of “my way or the highway” approach to teaching critical race theory, as this is what happens all too often. This is what creates a political correctness backlash. A student may disagree with one aspect of critical race theory, while supporting other aspects. All too often, multiculturalism and political correctness has been applied with a single brush, with educators who lack a complexity of thought repeating simplistic notions of what they have heard like a slogan.My long-held belief has been that we need more than one paradigm when talking about race or gender in this country. That may be what alienates a lot of otherwise well-meaning people who are appalled by any sort of discrimination and systemic or institutionalized injustice. There is always the danger that the lone black kid in a class, say, bears all the responsibility for speaking up for their entire community. This happens to anyone from a minority group.  Also, I have long asserted that white people are not all the same and that the white experience is not monolithic.  In one classroom experience, a very shy, awkward daughter of Russian immigrants (who possibly had a personality disorder) confessed to me that she felt that she was wrong by being straight and white. When I expressed this to the director of my institution, she said we needed to talk to this student about white privilege. I felt this was absolutely wrong. 

My (admittedly controversial) position is that if we take away the political correctness and cultural politics charge away from educating students, we could make much more progress than we have. I don’t want to be naïve and dismissive of the importance of these issues in education. We need to show young people that these are important issues, get them engaged in a fight for justice, and make them understand that discrimination has been entrenched in our social structures for centuries. Educators and school boards need to understand the complexity of race and culture as well. It is a shame that they are often being targeted by angry, narrow-minded parents, often afraid for their lives, by the right wing or conservatives who are afraid to discuss the ugly underbelly of America. Education has the obligation to get children and young people to learn and question their world around them. In the still-relevant, immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”

MLK Day: A Belated Tribute to My Black Mentors

Greetings to my readers and Happy Belated New Year! My hiatus has a simple explanation: I was finishing all of my final work in order to graduate with my MFA on January 12. It’s been a challenging yet rewarding past two years in the Warren Wilson program, but I am grateful and have no regrets.

In a world where black people still face so much discrimination, where there is senseless shooting and violence against them, I would like to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by paying tribute to the black mentors I have had at almost every stage of my education. And even where black people are not facing violence, there is still subtle racism. I’m proud to say that I have had black mentors who dispel bad stereotypes and images.

In my undergraduate years, my departmental advisor in anthropology was Professor James Gibbs. I remember profoundly one of the most important pieces of advice he gave me was, “You must learn to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.” As an impatient 20 year old, it was a hard lesson to learn! His wife, Professor Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, herself an accomplished academic at Berkeley, was a guest lecturer in one of my classes. During my master’s degree program in higher education, I did not happen to have any black professors or advisors. However, what was significant and inspiring was the number of black students in my program who were in academia and doing graduate work in the field. During formal studies of music in musicology, I was very fortunate to have an advocate in a difficult time, Professor Naomi André, who had not only an impeccable pedigree and abilities, but also a tremendously classy and warm personality. I have been fortunate to study opera singing with Professor George Shirley, a legendary tenor, with whom I feel have only scratched the surface of all he knows as an artist. Rightly so, he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2014 by President Obama.

More recently, in the Warren Wilson program, I had the young and brilliant Danielle Evans for an advisor my first semester, who is a first-rate intellectual and fellow Columbia lion! I was also fortunate to have a book discussion seminar just recently with T. Geronimo Johnson, who awed us all with his ability to be both didactic as well as inclusive with students’ feedback. I sincerely hope he writes a craft book for fiction writers. Also important to my writing training is auto-didact and encyclopedic-knowledged writer Keith Hood, a pillar of our local writing community.

I count myself fortunate in that I have had these great role models who are first and foremost artists and academics and teachers, beyond the label of “black.” I am fortunate that I have had so many great black role models, and only wish others could as well. That might help with alleviating some of the racism that still sadly pervades our society. Here is my gratitude to these women and men of letters, who just happen to be black.

He Had a Dream… For You

Monday January 21 marked a historic event, the annual commemoration and 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the inauguration for the 2nd term of our 1st Black president, Barack Obama, who (as you might expect) gave a wonderful speech with his usual eloquence. Also impressive were the crowds who turned out to see him. People of all backgrounds, races, nationalities. It’s one of the strengths of our country, the tremendous diversity we have. Obama’s speech reflected this, citing various civil rights milestones and promises to ensure that the fundamental freedoms by our Founding Fathers continue to be granted to everyone. These are indeed themes that Dr. King addressed in his famous speech 5 decades ago.

But what of the people who now take freedom for granted? What of those people who have no idea, no clue about the efforts of the valiant civil rights activists who brought about these tremendous changes in American society? In particular, the immigrants who have come here and prospered, the ones who really know very little about Dr. King and his brothers and sisters, without whom they would not be in this country?

Let us first speak in defense of the newly immigrated. Survival is the number 1 priority. Finding a job, finding housing, learning the language (in some cases), feeding one’s family, taking care of the children, adapting to a new culture—-the list goes on. The reasons for which people have immigrated to the US are as diverse and varied as the citizens of this country. In some cases, it is politics. In others, economics. Perhaps some people are joining their families, whereas others are leaving their families behind. Even after decades, sometimes immigrants have not adapted well, and still struggle with life in the United States, missing their homelands and all they have left behind. Sometimes this process continues for more than one generation, as the children inherit the difficulties of their parents.

These are all extremely valid and important issues in the life of an immigrant, things that cannot be denied. But are these things mutually exclusive from maintaining a grateful attitude and having a healthy curiosity about the history that enabled so many people to immigrate to the United States? What I attack is apathy: apathy that is born of ignorance, blind prejudice against particular racial groups (read: Black/African-American), insularity, sticking only to one’s kind, and a sense of entitlement. You think the civil rights movement was simply something that happened 50 years ago? Something to give you a day off from school or work, and something for the kids to learn about at school? Think again.

Especially if you are a non-white, prosperous immigrant, living in your wealthy suburb or ethnic enclave—-Fremont, California, perhaps, or Houston, Texas, or Flushing, New York—-riding to the shopping mall or your ethnic grocery in your large SUV or luxury vehicle, going to your house of worship, spending hours at your office earning a six-figure salary, gathering with your friends and watching the latest video clips from your home country, YOU HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE GRATEFUL TO THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Do you know anything about the Selma to Montgomery marches that now enable you to have the right to vote (if you actually vote at all)? Are you aware that Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by the great Mohandas K. Gandhi when he led African-Americans in acts of civil disobedience? Do you know that “colored” people had to drink from separate water fountains, as you sit sipping your latte at your Starbucks surrounded by people of all nationalities? As you fight to get your child into a great public school or university so you don’t have to pay exorbitant private fees, are you aware that the Little Rock Nine had to be escorted by the National Guard to enter their school that was newly desegregated? How about those white Freedom Riders who risked their lives for people of a different color, because they felt the call of justice so strongly? As you debate about whether or not to return to your home country because it is prospering too, and you can have daily maid service, do you know that there were strict immigration quotas in the 1960s to avoid “too many of your kind”? And as you angrily scold your son wearing baggy pants with the crotch hanging down to his knees in “ghetto style,” do you stop for a moment to think how much your existence is owed to the Civil Rights Movement, to all the African-Americans who fought, sacrificed, endured hardship, and even lost their lives so that yours could be comfortable?

We might still be light years off with accomplishing all the goals that the Civil Rights Movement set out to accomplish. We might still be dealing with discrimination, prejudice, harassment, and a whole host of racially based evils. But it is of utmost importance to live mindfully as immigrants, to take just a moment out of the day to practice gratitude for those who have paved your way. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream—-and you are living it.

(And yes, those baggy pants with the crotch down to the knees are most unbecoming. Even Dr. King would have said so.)