5 questions about teaching critical race theory as bans spread

When no one is talking to kids about race, they draw their own conclusions based on what they see, professor says
By: | June 10, 2021
"The voices and experiences of people of color are amplified when using CRT," professor Cossy Hough says."The voices and experiences of people of color are amplified when using CRT," professor Cossy Hough says.

The everyday experience of racism by people of color in the U.S. anchors critical race theory, the social justice philosophy facing bans in a growing number of states.

CRT encourages the critical examination of systemic racism in a society where the dominant culture is based mostly on white norms, says Cossy Hough, a clinical associate professor and assistant dean for undergraduate programs at the University of Texas at Austin’s school of social work.

“The voices and experiences of people of color are amplified when using CRT,” Hough says. “CRT is part of a group of critical theories that asks us to critically think about and unpack the values and practices around us that oppress non-dominant cultures and serve to keep dominant cultures in power.”

The focus on systemic racism and the responsibility of white society appears to be driving the opposition to CRT among lawmakers targeting the theory in several states.

More from DA: At least 5 more states push critical race theory bans

These bans advocate “colorblind education” that aims to reach equity by treating all students equally regardless of their race or ethnicity, says Esther J. Calzada, a professor of child and family behavioral health and associate dean for equity and inclusion at the university’s school of social work.

Esther Calzada

Esther Calzada

“In applying a colorblind approach, we fail to acknowledge and address the ways in which students of color experience racial discrimination,” Calzada says. “At the same time, it reinforces the false notion among white students—who do not experience racial discrimination themselves—that racism is an issue of the past.”

Calzada and Hough answer the following questions to guide K-12 educators in teaching CRT and other issues of anti-racism.

1. What guidance would you give K-12 educators who want to teach critical race theory and anti-racism effectively and equitably?

Calzada: Kids are naturally curious and so they are constantly observing the world around them. When no one is talking to them about race, they draw their own conclusions based on what they see.

Cossy Hough

Cossy Hough

For example, if they see that everyone who holds authority is white, they are likely to believe that power belongs to people who are white. This starts much earlier than many adults realize; children become aware of and curious about social categories like race and gender way before they enter kindergarten.

Educators should ask themselves what is (i.e., isn’t) being taught from the perspective of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, what conclusions their students are likely to be drawing from these explicit and implicit teachings (or lack of) and then work backward to identify how to help children gain a broader perspective of racial issues.

2. How do educators have to adjust their curriculum to embed critical race theory and anti-racism?

Hough: We, as a nation, have a history of not talking in-depth about how we formed as a nation predominately based on the norms of white men. Calling the treatment of First Nation People what it was, a genocide, and studying that and critically thinking about the treatment of First Nation People and of slaves is vital in acknowledgment of our past.

Countries that acknowledge their past violent oppression of non-dominant groups are better able to move forward towards change. Including open discussion about events and times in history such as black lynchings, redlining and others and linking those to the systems we have in place today should be part of education.

The Civil Rights Act did not end systemic and pervasive racism in the U.S. We need to voice that and listen to voices and teach voices other than the predominately white voices and stories we’ve been using in traditional education.

Calzada: Many kids sense that adults feel uncomfortable talking about race, and they quickly learn to keep their questions about race to themselves. We need to break this silence and teach children how to be comfortable with and develop appropriate language for talking about race and racism.

3. How does teaching critical race theory benefit and empower students of color?

Hough: Hearing that CRT acknowledges that racism is a pervasive, everyday experience for people of color can feel like an important acknowledgment. Amplifying the voices and experiences of students of color can also be empowering.

I also think it’s important to acknowledge that racial trauma can and does come up for people of color when discussing these issues. So it’s important to set guidelines for discussions with classes. Teachers should also be aware of the basics around racial trauma and how trauma can impact classroom content discussions as well as educational experiences in general for students of color.

4. How does it benefit white students, and how would you advise educators to make the case for critical race theory with white parents who may push back?

Hough: I think the thing that gets uncomfortable for white students and parents sometimes is the acceptance that white culture is still dominant in the U.S. and that people in white bodies continue to benefit from that. This isn’t to say that people who are white don’t struggle with problems or barriers, it’s just that their racial identity isn’t going to be a cause of barriers for them the way it is for people of color.

CRT isn’t about saying that some people are racist just because of their race. It’s more about the systemic racism present in our current systems such as education, criminal justice, housing, etc., and how these systems evolved from systems that were established in the history of this country.

There seems to be so much misunderstanding about CRT and what it is and isn’t. Defining what CRT really is and that white children aren’t going to be called out in classes as racists as individuals, as some legislators have indicated, is important.

5. How do these bans harm students of color and their white classmates?

Hough: Attempts to silence classroom conversations only serve to highlight the fear around thinking critically about race in the U.S. and the strong attachment some white people have to the U.S. continuing to be a country based on white norms. Silencing anti-racist and CRT-related conversations perpetuates systemic racism.

People are needed to dismantle these problematic systems and its work that mostly white people need to do. We built these systems (I am white) and we need to do the work to assure equity.

Ultimately, it does seem like there is interest among many of us in ending systems of racial oppression in the U.S., with the exception of people grounded in white supremacy. With that mostly common goal of ending systemic racism, let’s talk about it, and acknowledge the past and the current—especially when it’s uncomfortable—and get this work done.