No, your first grader isn't learning critical race theory.
By: Natalie McCabe Zwerger
I am a lawyer and can actually vividly recall encountering critical race theory for the first time. It was in law school though and not my K-12 schooling. If we were to believe everything written about critical race theory now, one would assume I was talking about race, privilege, and power as a first grader.
Critical race theory is one of a set of decades-old legal theories designed to “explain racial disparities” in the words of Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education professor. Originating with Professor Derrick Bell, it focused on dispelling the persistent myth that institutional disparities by race were biological. It sought to examine how institutions and the policies and structures within them caused these disparate outcomes by race. Professor Kimberle Crenshaw added the layer of intersectionality and specifically thinking about discrimination in the workplace to note that women, for example, are discriminated against, but Black women are discriminated against at a more disproportionate rate because of their gender AND their race.
The analysis of persistent disparities requires understanding history and how it got us to the point where we are now. For example, a 2017 study found that Black & Latinx two-parent families had half of the accumulated wealth of white single parent families. A critical race analysis would demand navigating the history of enslavement in this country, generational wealth and property accumulation, the G.I. bill, and redlining as systemic and structural influences on the financial advantage that results in stats like the one in that study.
A first grader would not be conducting this level of analysis.
What is happening now is the conflation of critical race theory with any type of equity or justice-related effort in schools. Critical race theory is not the same thing as Culturally responsive education. It is not Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work.
There are also cries of indoctrination which one can imagine happen when privileged folx go into a panic about changes to the way we think about race and racism and systems that might result in some of their advantages being taken away. The reality, in fact, is that they fail to realize they have been indoctrinated by the same oppressive system of white supremacy that indoctrinated their ancestors. Yet, the panic-driven fear then results in privileged folx demanding we not even speak of things that might threaten their positions as beneficiaries of societal protection and advantages. Which manifests as cries to not talk about race in schools.
The thing is, educators talk about race in the classroom all the time, even when they are silent on it. Race and racism are in the curriculum and on our agendas everyday. With a deeper understanding of how race impacts the way we as educators teach, engage, and relate to young people, particularly across lines of difference, however, we are pushing back against the system that advantages white folx and disadvantages Black, Indigenous, and People of Color solely because of their race.
When we employ Culturally Responsive practices in the classroom and beyond, children will not be taught to view everything through the lens of race, but they will be asked to examine how identities like race, ethnicity, language, ability, gender, sexuality, religion, immigration status, and socioeconomics influence lived experiences. They will come to ask whose voices and lived experiences are being left out of information they are exploring. And teachers will be asked to support children's full and whole identities through these lenses. Culturally responsive teachers examine racial disparities in outcomes and seek answers for how they can better serve youth and connect with families, not look for deficits in the children themselves. And these are the goals of equity and justice in education.
These moves prompt discomfort, challenge lifetimes of internalized bias, and will not satisfy educators or families hoping to “stick to the curriculum” and “avoid provocative topics.” If we are leaning into spaces that activate youth to envision a world more equitable and just than the one we live in today, we can’t let the panic cloud our efforts. Tempting as it may be to give up, those are the moments when strength persists to center youth and focus on the most marginalized to measure impact.
RE-Center unequivocally stands with educators, administrators, schools, and districts who are pushing beyond the panic, maintaining the focus on youth, and centering equity and justice in all of their efforts this year and every year.
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