Although we’ve recently witnessed a mainstream mass awakening to the prevalence of racism in our society with the increased visibility of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, lawmakers, educators and caregivers in 20 states are currently fighting legislative and other battles over what confused legislators are calling the presence of critical race theory (CRT) in K-12 schools. At this moment, these legislators and their supporters are misusing CRT as an umbrella term for topics such as race, racism, gender, diversity, equity, liberation and identity, among others. However, it’s not lost on me that the opinions missing from this conversation are those of the people most directly affected: our students.
As these laws will touch millions of our nation’s youth, I wondered what my students thought about this ongoing battle over teaching about race, racism and U.S. history. The following responses were collected from a group of my current and former students, ranging from fifth to ninth grade. (All students who are quoted volunteered to participate and gave permission for their words to be used anonymously.)
Question: Right now, many teachers, parents and politicians are trying to pass laws to make it illegal for schools to teach about race, racism, gender and privilege, among other social justice-related topics. Some even call teaching about these issues brainwashing and believe it will cause people to be more divided. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
- I think it’s a good thing to have people teach children about race and racism because teaching is not just about teaching math, reading and writing, although those subjects are all important. It’s about teaching culture and history and being able to learn all the terrible things that have happened in history. And teaching children that racism is not a good thing will make an impact on the world later and just because people were born with a different color skin than other people, that doesn’t mean that they deserve any less that other people do. And I would like you to think to yourself of 3 really good reasons why people of color deserve less than you do. I sure can’t. (fifth grader)
- It is important for kids to know about these topics. For example, I think the most horrible period of the U.S was slavery, because white people treated African Americans as animals, and that is not ok. We should all share the same rights, and be treated like humans. I think kids should learn about social justice topics like gender, race, feminism etc because it will allow them to realize the mistakes done in the past, so we don’t repeat it again. (eighth grader)
- I think it is so important to learn about social justice in school. If children aren’t learning this then we will be going back in time. Separation and division will be more extreme as if we are to teach our generation what we have done wrong so they know what to do better. If we are ever actually looking for a future of equality then we must properly teach our future and present. (ninth grader)
- Learning about race and racism is a very sensitive topic, but far from brainwashing. If people don’t start to learn, there really won't be any progress, everyone will just keep hating everyone who’s different. It's only a sensitive topic because people are uncomfortable talking about it, and that's not right. In the future if people start to learn about equality, hopefully this topic will just be normal. (seventh grader)
- I think that it is even more brainwashing to deny that there are hate crimes happening everywhere. This world has awful things but we can absolutely change the way that we treat each other. (ninth grader)
- Although these topics may be new, they are a crucial part of a student's education. I completely disagree with those trying to pass laws to make it illegal to learn about social justice issues. To this day, a class that has always stuck with me was 4th grade. This is because it provided a safe space for students to learn about politics and social justice issues without being judged or feeling unaccepted. It is so important for young children to learn about others' gender identity, race, and culture, without being taught to have a close minded view on people who are different from them. Learning about and accepting differences from young ages is so important because it sets up their views on life from a young age. In today’s society we need to have people growing up knowing that they are safe and accepted rather than scared. They need to grow up without the fear of being hurt due to race, sexuality, gender, etc. The main way to do this is by incorporating unbiased information into classes and letting students learn who they are and why it is important to stand for what you believe in and to accept others. So no, I absolutely disagree with making it illegal to teach students about social justice issues. (ninth grader)
- I think that teachers should be able to teach about race, racism, gender, privilege. If we learn about it we will be aware and able to understand what is going on in the world much better. If teachers teach students facts and a variety of perspectives about race, racism, gender, privilege then the students can come to a conclusion on their own. (sixth grader)
- In the state of our world at the moment, I think it’s crucial for everyone to be aware of all the issues that are happening. I especially think that it’s important for kids to know what is happening, because they are the future and it is key for them to be educated. I understand that parents want to shield their kids from real world topics like racism, privilege, and lots of other issues that we face. Kids should learn about that stuff at a young age because it’s crucial that they know what is wrong, so they can be inspired to be an activist for change. If you shield them away from the problems then it is more likely that they will show up. I disagree with the law because when I was younger I was taught about social justice issues. One of them included equal pay for women, and it really inspired me to do more research about equality. That was something that I was super passionate about, and still am, and if no one taught me about that, I would’ve missed out on learning something that could affect me years down the road, and I fear if we don’t teach these social issues now to kids, that is exactly what’s going to happen to them. (ninth grader)
- I think that it is very important for students to learn about race, racism, gender, privilege and other social justice related topics because if students have concerns or have experienced racism, discrimination or felt like they weren't treated well then teaching them about these issues could help them understand. It could also help people learn how to advocate for themselves and others. (sixth grader)
Rather than center our own, adult perspectives, we cannot forget that our education system exists to serve our students. It’s our responsibility to equip them with the tools to learn from mistakes of the past and build a better future. Lessons that tackle issues my students mentioned—such as gender-based pay disparities, the ugly parts of U.S. history such as enslavement, and how racism permeates and manifests in our society—invite young learners to view our nation holistically and draw their own conclusions.
Those of us who teach about identity and history within the context of the United States do so because we care about the future of this country and are investing in its healing from past and present trauma. We can’t change the past. But when we as educators recognize that we have the power to create a more fair and inclusive future, we have a responsibility to do so.