When white parents say things like, “I don’t want my daughter to grow up feeling guilty for being white,” it offers a prime example of the blinding effects of white privilege. Instead of engaging in intercultural opportunities that could alleviate such intolerant and misguided attitudes, they choose to shelter their children from vital conversations.
Protecting someone against the facts of history is not protecting them; it is doing harm.
While most of the nation’s educators are embracing culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy- and seeing excellent results- we are also living in an era in which a book like Hidden Figures can be labeled as “divisive content” and put under review by the local school board.
In a panel discussion entitled “Educators Ungagged: Teaching Truth in the Era of Racial Backlash,” Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor and leading scholar of critical race theory, called this moment in our nation “a calculated backlash against the moment of racial reckoning that brought millions of us out on the streets.” Many of our fellow Americans claim that public schools are becoming liberal bastions where their children are force-fed critical race theory. Outwardly, they reason that a critical perspective on history denigrates American values and threatens their freedom, but inwardly they are quivering with fear.
The scapegoating of critical race theory in K-12 curricula is the new guise of the same old effort to protect “traditional American” modes of education. Although the layperson cannot usually pinpoint critical race theory, a recent national survey says that 58 percent had an unfavorable opinion of it (See Politico article below). Professor Crenshaw unveils this phenomenon for what it is: “Nothing but an effort to stop this reckoning in its tracks while deploying colorblindness to mandate an official condition of amnesia about our past.” Having lived in Tucson, Arizona, during a time when controversy over the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District blew up in the national press, this overreaction seems unsurprising. By 2008, Arizona lawmakers set their sights on banning TUSD’s Mexican American Studies program altogether with a bill prohibiting classes from teaching beliefs that “denigrate American values.”
Russell Pearce, a Republican who sponsored the first attempt to outlaw TUSD’s Mexican American Studies classes, stated at a hearing, “Organizations that spew anti-American or race-based rhetoric have no place. We ought to be celebrating unity as Americans and not allowing, with taxpayer dollars, these organizations.” Arizona’s K-12 students eventually won the battle. Even though the former governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, signed the bill into law in 2010, a federal court later ruled that the ban violated students’ constitutional rights, and the MAS program has grown more prominent than ever. Unfortunately, similar consortiums have been busy hatching new plans across the country.
For instance, Oklahoma’s HB1775, Oklahoma’s classroom censorship bill, was recently signed into law and severely restricted learning about race and gender. As a result, librarians are hesitant to purchase new books out of fear of being accused of violating the new law. Lilly Amechi, a representative of Oklahoma University’s Black Emergency Response Team (BERT), declared that the law “is a direct attack on the education experience of the Black community specifically, and marginalized communities at large on campus” and that the law “erases the legacy of discrimination.”
The type of rhetoric that indulges people in the old-timey myth that being colorblind is the pathway forward is not only ludicrous, but it is also leading us away from achieving an equitable society. “Non-compliant educators are the prime targets in this war, and the casualties are piling up,” warned Professor Crenshaw.
Case in point? My story.
My colleagues and I at Grand Canyon University’s Dance Department, who had long records of supporting students seeking a culturally responsive learning environment, were similarly accused of sowing political division when we presented stage works at the Rooted Winter Dance Concert in December 2020. We took on cogent social topics including police brutality and women’s rights. Accusations against us led the University president and his henchmen to retaliate, terminating our contracts mid-year.
We failed to keep up the apolitical guise favored by our private Christian university’s administration. Ultimately, they indicted us for exposing students to antiracist concepts, and although we didn’t have the same protections as employees of public institutions, we were impacted by the same forces that bring many conservative parents to storm their local school board meetings and accuse the board members of tyranny.
Toward the end of the AAFP’s “Educators Ungagged” panel session, Stacey Davis Gates, the Chicago Teacher’s Union Vice President said: “We have to call a thing a thing. We get to say white supremacy. In fact, you better say it because they’re saying critical race theory, but that’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying that white supremacy must remain intact in this country.”
“This work is never going to give us the love, respect, and deference we deserve, and it is also the right thing to do. We are the protectors of the public good. We have to call a thing a thing, and then we have to have a good counterbalance. The Extreme-Right has taken Critical Race Theory and bastardized it because they don’t see a counterbalance that will fight tooth and nail against them. We have to erect the counterbalance that goes against all those who keep white supremacy in control.”
As I write this, I am marking one year since I received the call from my dean describing the rage of Mr. Mueller when he received the letters. Today, I am ungagged and ready to continue the good fight.
To read more of my story, please read my blog post, When the Culture Wars Come For Your Job, Part 1.
Joseph Flaherty. Long Division: 65 Years After Segregation, Phoenix Schools Are Separate and Unequal. April 8, 2018. New Times Phoenix.
“Educators Ungagged: Teaching Truth in the Era of Racial Backlash” with introduction by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw from The African American Policy Forum’s Under the Blacklight series, also available on the Intersectionality Matters podcast
Story from Arizona’s 2010 ban on the MAS program from Politico: “What Arizona’s 2010 Ban on Ethnic Studies Could Mean for the Fight Over Critical Race Theory”
2008 bill in Arizona legislature: https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/48leg/2R/adopted/H.1108-SE-APPROP.pdf
“Activist Groups File Lawsuit Against HB 1775” (Oklahoma): https://www.ocpathink.org/post/activist-groups-file-lawsuit-against-hb-1775
‘It’s really hard’: GCU dance students reckon with firings, shuffling in department by Brieanna Frank: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2021/01/13/its-really-hard-gcu-dance-students-reckon-firings-shuffling-department/6595518002/