Dial Down the Panic Over Critical Race Theory

If you are worried about critical race theory in schools, here is some advice from someone who actually teaches it.

If you want your concerns to be heard, first of all, start by listening. What is your school actually teaching? It probably is not actually critical race theory. It almost certainly is not Marxism.

Despite the red-baiting you may have heard on Fox News, you’d be hard pressed to find an American anywhere who actually advocates “the abolition of private property,” as one unhinged guest recently said critical race theory was advocating.

The controversy over CRT is a moral panic, and wildly inaccurate accusations are flying all over the place right now. Don’t get sucked in.

If you accuse a school of teaching critical race theory or Marxism and that is not what they are teaching, they probably won’t listen to you. They’ll be too busy arguing that they are neither teaching critical race theory nor Marxism (and that racism is bad). Then you’ll be more frustrated that they aren’t listening to you.

Second, keep in mind that these are emotional issues for everybody. Misunderstandings happen quickly.

People who argue over whether something is or isn’t racist often have different definitions of racism. Have conversations when you aren’t overwhelmed by emotion and take breaks if or when it begins to get heated. Clarify what you mean and ask questions about what the other person means.

As a white person raised in a mostly white suburb, it took me a long time to get up to speed. The level of my own ignorance was shocking, especially since I considered myself a good, well-educated, open-minded person. It didn’t take much for my emotions to overwhelm me, impairing my ability to learn. Pace yourself, but keep at it.

As I tell my students, you aren’t responsible for what happened before you were born, or for what you did not do, or for what you cannot control. However, you are responsible for learning about the world we live in — and for what you do with that information.

Even when your intentions are good, it’s possible to do something hurtful because you don’t know better — provoking someone else to respond angrily because you’re the 64th person to do that this week and they can’t take it anymore. It pays to give everyone a little extra room in the learning process, and to give yourself enough room so that you are able to accommodate others.

Third, look for areas of agreement. Would it be OK to add a few more books by authors of color to the English curriculum? Can you agree that students should develop critical thinking skills and learn to think for themselves? Maybe there are still major areas of disagreement to be addressed later, but it’s nice to start by finding the progress that can be made now and doing it.

Fourth, assume that all of the people involved are well-meaning, even if you disagree with them. Teaching about race is difficult. I’ve been doing it for years and each class is different, with new challenges. I’m doing my best, but I don’t always get it right. If I screw up, it’s because I’m human, not malicious.

What’s not productive? Calling teachers Communists. Passing harsh new laws that punish teachers for doing their jobs — and students for trying to learn. Cutting school funding over students’ or teachers’ political views. Treating the study of our country’s history like an attack on it.

One of the loudest complaints critics make about teaching about race is that it’s “divisive.” If that’s your view, I hope you’ll take steps to bridge that divide — not censor it.

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.