Active disruption: Why critical race theory benefits all students

K-12 educators can validate the lives and contributions of marginalized and disadvantaged communities
By: | June 1, 2021
Critical race theory helps all students see themselves as creators of knowledge, as well as, consumers of education, says humanities professor Vida A. Robertson.Critical race theory helps all students see themselves as creators of knowledge, as well as, consumers of education, says humanities professor Vida A. Robertson.
Vida Robertson

Vida A. Robertson

Showing students where and when American society has failed to live up to the standard of  “all men are created equal” is a key driver of critical race theory, says one higher ed expert.

The concept, which now being banned in a growing number of schools, can help students understand of the roles race snd racism have played in the context of various academic subjects, says Vida A. Robertson, director of the Center for Critical Race Studies and an associate professor of English and humanities at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“Educators should allow appropriately aged students insight into the systematic use of race as a means of organizing the power, resources, and opportunities of our society,” Robertson says.

“The goal of CRT is to equip students with the ability to change the systems, structures and institutions that maintain racial inequities,” Robertson says.

But lawmakers in many states have banned—or are moving to prohibit—the teaching of critical race theory schools at the same time as many educators seek to incorporate anti-racism into instruction in the wake of the social justice protests of the summer of 2020.

Opponents have argued that critical race theory, also known as CRT, unfairly targets white students in its focus on systemic racism today and throughout U.S. history.

Here, Roberston provides administrators and teacher some guidance in teaching critical race theory and anti-racism:

1. How do scholars define critical race theory?

Critical race theory is the theoretical approach and framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural or biological feature of humanity. If race is not a biological category then it must be a sociological tool use to organize a society for the purpose of dictating and maintaining certain political, social, and economic objectives and disparities.

These societal priorities are implemented through the social systems, structures and procedures performed by the society’s institutions and customary practices.

Critical race theory has 5 foundational concepts:

  1. Race is not biological; it is a sociological construct.
  2. Racism is a normal, common and systemic mechanism that racial differences and racial inequalities are maintained.
  3. Race and racism are “materially deterministic,” that is to say, race and racism advantage the dominant group and therefore any racial advancement or racial equity measure will only occur if it benefits the dominant group (in the case of the U.S., white Americans).
  4. Racial identity is a dynamic process that changes depending on the needs or interests of the dominant group. Different racial groups are racialized differently at different moments in time for different reasons.
  5. Because of these dynamics, racialized and marginalized peoples have unique insight into the nature of oppressive systems, structures and institutions.

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

By consciously and intentionally utilizing marginalized voices and experiences in the teaching of their respective disciplines, educators can disrupt the default European orientation of the American education system.


More from DA: 20 states pressure Biden administration on critical race theory


By strategically integrating the eclectic histories of their respective fields and incorporating more diverse examples and experiences into their curriculum, K-12 educators validate the lives and contributions of marginalized and disadvantaged communities. It is important that students see themselves as creators of knowledge, as well as, consumers of education.

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

Students of color gain from the open acknowledgment and deep understanding of a racially conscious educational system. Teachers who are aware of their individual, unconscious bias are attentive to the inequities propagated by their educational institution.

By actively disrupting the systemic prejudice normalized in their field of study, they can foster a more beneficial arena for students of color to learn. By contextualizing and addressing the racial disparities endemic to our educational system, teachers relieve students of color of some of the self-hatred and feelings of alienation that attend Eurocentrically focused K-12 education.

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?

White students also greatly benefit from a diverse, critical, and comprehensive curricular approach to K-12 education. The often marginalized figures, experiences and examples of educational excellence neglected in K-12 education provide a more accurate understanding of the ethnically diverse United States in which they live.

It also provides white students with the critical historical and culturally informed perspective necessary to be successful in one of the most diverse professional ecologies in the world. Moreover, white students gain the intersectional insights requisite for equitably solving the complex issues facing future generations of Americans.


More from DA: 5 ways restorative practices benefit girls of color


Educators must remind resistant parents that the central goal of education is to provide the student with a critical understanding of the world in which they live. This objective cannot be achieved unless we also understand the way that race and racism have shaped our lives as Americans.

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

These bans prevent students of color and their white classmates the opportunity to contextualize and critically comprehend their racial differences and the inequalities that stem from them. Such bans decrease the probability that K-12 students will be encouraged and empowered to grapple with the most profound feature of their young lives—race.

Race is a seminal aspect of our American experience. It influences our social order, economic standing and political experience. In the absence of anti-racist education, racial stereotypes go unchallenged, the inequitable status quo is normalized and students of color remain educationally ostracized.

An uncritical racial education promises to continue the long history of racial oppression and violent strife that has plagued our country since its inauguration.