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.”