Critical Race Theory (CRT) has gone from a concept to be analyzed to a political football targeted at provoking fear and manipulating voters. Supposedly CRT misleads students into believing their country is evil or was founded upon evil – as if nations can be categorized as good or evil – one or the other. But nations are made up of people, and like people, they are a mixture of good, bad, and everything in between.
I’ve taught history, but I’d never heard of CRT until it became a political issue, so I looked it up. The theory was officially organized in 1989 and, according to Britannica.com, is based on the premise that “Race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings, but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color.”
Whether we like it or not, we humans do label each other, and we have historically used the categories we invent, such as race, to distribute resources and power. We learn at an early age we can fit people into categories and those categories play an essential role in establishing identities. Our families and institutions, such as schools and the media, often lead us to believe some identities are better than others.
When teaching at an alternative high school serving students of various skin colors who were struggling through their teen years, I learned the impact our identity has on our vision of who we will become. A gentle, soft-spoken boy with light skin being raised by his grandparents worried he’d become a murderer like his father. A boy with Lakota heritage who had just studied the Holocaust wondered, “Why don’t people hate Germans instead of us Indians.”
Girls showed me the lyrics to their favorite songs, which portrayed them as objects whose only value was in providing sex to demanding males. A transgender student felt she would never have an opportunity for a loving, supportive relationship because of the messages she had received about an LGBTQ+ identity. A variety of students asked, “Why are you trying to teach us? We’ll just wind up in jail or working at McDonalds like our parents. Do you think we’re smart or something?”
The history and civics curriculum we provide our students is very important because it has a vital impact on their identities and the life paths they embark upon. I don’t believe anyone truly wants children, or adults, to feel badly about their identities. But sometimes we are so wrapped up in defending our own identities, in trying to escape guilt and shame, that we become defensive and neglect showing compassion, respect, and appreciation for the diversity of identities that surround us.
If our identity is tied to feeling special or uniquely blessed, hard truths and different perspectives will not be welcome information. When our identities are based on superiority to the identities of others, problems occur.
I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was taught about the Founding Fathers and other “his” stories of America. However, I do distinctly remember having the opportunity to read biographies of Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale. As a female, I could identify with those stories, and they comforted and motivated me much more than stories of heroes like Abe Lincoln or Albert Einstein. I also remember a story about George Washington Carver and the amazing discoveries he made regarding one of my favorite foods, the peanut. However, the grand majority of information I received regarding the contributions of people other than white males was garnered only through my own curiosity, as I sought out books covering a wide variety of people and perspectives.
We need to be proud of our identities and we need to understand why and how placing people in certain categories has led to unjust behaviors. One of my daughters sobbed after being told by a Sunday School teacher that, while enacting a play regarding a Jesus story, all the girls had to sit in the back while the boys got all the “good” roles. Through tears she told me, “I knew God didn’t like women, but I thought Jesus did.”
My daughter needed to know that historically societies, not Jesus, have demeaned women, and she needed to know why. We purchased a book entitled Herstory that told stories of strong women and the struggles they faced. My daughter confronted hard truths so that she could feel good about her identity and what the future could hold for her.
When I was teaching world history, one of my favorite topics was that of the Columbian Exchange. The world changed in “fourteen hundred and ninety-two when Columbus sailed the ocean blue” because it was the beginning of a link between the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the continents of North and South America. Goods such as wheat, oats, sugarcane, cows, horses, sheep and chickens, were transported across the ocean to the Americas. The Americas introduced colonizers to products such as potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, pineapples, turkeys, and cacao. Mixing cultures made possible hot chocolate and pizza.
After a class discussion on the Columbian Exchange, one of my Lakota students came up to me with a contented smile on her face and said, “So, everyone contributed to the America we live in today. That’s cool!”
When we tell the stories of the indigenous people and all the immigrants who came to the Americas, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, we honor all identities. When we explain why there are disparities in our society and encourage civil discourse that sparks positive change, we create “liberty and justice for all.” We walk the talk.
Critical race theory may be poorly named because it sounds so, well, critical – and nobody likes to be criticized. “Vital understanding theory” or “cultural awareness theory” might be better accepted and more accurately describe the goal of exploring and analyzing our society’s labels and the way they have affected, and continue to affect, the institutions and systems we have in place.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” America is a land of great diversity with people who have amazing stories that need to be told. Growing up, I wasn’t made aware of the accomplishments, struggles, and resilience of all Americans, all the deep roots. For an American of European descent, that’s sad, but for Americans whose stories haven’t been told because of their minority status, that’s tragic.
All our stories need to be told. That’s not being critical, that’s being wise.