This fall, at the end of one of our first in-person conference presentations, amidst the buzz of actual human interaction and reunions among colleagues from various cities finally seeing each other in person, one woman hung back until after all the other participants’ questions were asked. Then she confided: “I’m struggling because people at my school have become so divided about even bringing up the topic of race.” I responded with what I thought was a totally benign reply: “As a leader at your school and as a Black woman, that must be especially hard…” This powerful woman then broke down: “Thank you for seeing me, for acknowledging me,” she said between tears. I was taken aback. “That is the least I can do – to see you…”
The emotions that overflowed at that moment reflected polarization and politicization that is building across the country around Critical Race Theory (CRT), a false bogeyman that is not even taught in K-12 schools. As I’ve seen across the United States and in my own community, activists against teaching anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion are being supplied talking points by politically driven groups.
Responding to divisive points through a lens of science, honest history, and compassion might help advance us beyond simple us versus them dynamics, and to avoid “cancelling” each other out. Instead of fleeing from uncomfortable conversations, it’s useful to learn how to respond to some “anti-CRT” talking points, to stay in the room and strive to better “see” each other.
Here are a few common “anti-CRT” talking points and my own response to them – not rooted in partisanship, but in respect for humanity:
- “CRT teaches us to recognize RACE above all else which leads to racism.”
My take: Anti-CRT activists advance the idea that those who speak up about racism are the problem, and are creating more problems. This line of thinking contends that that racist behavior must be malicious and intentional (think KKK or white nationalists) for it to be objectionable and hurtful.
In fact, research demonstrates that when it comes to race, ignoring it makes the situation worse. We aren’t – and cannot pretend to be – “color blind.” This was a term many of us might have been raised with, intending to be accepting and loving toward all people.
The fact is, we can be loving and accepting AND see color.
As I explain to the youngest children, we are all like flowers of a garden. I love all the different colors, shapes, fragrances and types of flowers. The variation makes the garden beautiful. Difference is to be celebrated, not ignored.
When we ignore diversity, young children to teens and adults may feel unseen and invalidated. Feeling invisible or inauthentic is stressful. The school leader who broke down at the end of our session is living that reality.
Not only is “seeing race” not racist, but denying race (i.e., asserting colorblindness) has been shown as the number one way to raise a racist child. Avoiding the term or topic sends children the message that race is bad, or a taboo topic. Race itself is not bad; racism is.
- CRT teaches white children to be ashamed of themselves. My child doesn’t deserve that.
My take: When children and adults learn about stories of racial injustice, it is natural (and healthy) to feel sad, uncomfortable, or even ashamed – but that doesn’t need to be the end of the story. Acknowledging those emotions can lead to compassion, purpose, empathy, and empowerment. If you (or your child or student) feel ashamed by stories or honest history, consider:
- The only thing you have in common with the “mean” people might be your skin tone. You are a different person than those who perpetrated harmful acts.
- Look for the helpers, like Mr. Rogers said. In honest history, there are helpful white people. Where are they? What did they do?
- If you were there, what would you have done differently?
- Injustice is happening now, what can we do to make a difference currently?
- Learn about abolitionists, multi-racial civil rights activists and figures, and present-day “heroes.” Who do you admire and why?
If you are a teacher, these quick suggestions might be used as a starting point for lesson planning and communicating with parents. If you are a parent, you can use these talking points as a guide for reflection after reading a story rooted in racial or other injustice.
- Terms like “Whiteness,” “white culture,” and “white privileged” condemn hard work and accountability.
My take: Getting clarity on terms helps diagnose a situation with honesty.
An example of ingrained bias in society is to assume that “whiteness” is the neutral starting point. When we say “an executive” who might you think of? What about “a Black executive”? Pointing out “whiteness” is not a condemnation of anyone, but a fact. Recognizing that one has “white privilege,” or any sort of privilege, as Peggy McIntosh’s classic essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack illustrates, unveils a truth that allows for reconciliation to follow.
At the Oneness Lab, our Big Questions Institute partner organization, we have developed a “heat index” of terms for building racial literacy, acknowledging that some may be uncomfortable using certain terms, especially those involving “whiteness.” When we recognize that some words carry more heat, emotionally and historically, it will help us to stay in the room, listen when it gets difficult, and clarify terminology even as the heat rises. This calls for courage and patience during challenging conversations. We need to learn new skills for communication so we can work toward justice and belonging – for everyone in our communities.
While the newly elected Virginia governor vowed, “On Day 1, I will ban critical race theory in our schools,” and the backlash to anti-racism feels loud, national polling suggests a turning tide. 76 percent of Americans —71 percent of whom were white — considered racial and ethnic discrimination in this country a “big problem,” compared with just 51 percent who said the same just five years earlier. When the Gallup poll tracked opinions on interracial marriage, opinions have swung from near-universal disapproval (4 percent approved of marriage between a Black and white person in 1958) to almost-universal approval (94 percent in 2021). This represents “one of the largest transformations in public opinion in Gallup's history.”
The transformation of views offers great hope. As the educator moved to tears for simply being acknowledged taught me, we need to stand up for each other. Our world needs us to learn and contribute with our whole hearts – and to listen, speak, and see as an act of courage, a way to honor, and make history.