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Critical Race Theory: There’s the Argument to Have, and How to Have the Argument

Recently, I joined a client’s (CT3) internal meeting to discuss Critical Race Theory (CRT). I was doing really well. Right until I started talking.

First, some background on this group as context for why I wanted to be in this particular session. CT3 is an active anti-racist organization focused on transforming education, the team walks towards the toughest issues of the day. For more than a decade, associates have worked with teachers and school leaders struggling to improve their schools and classrooms. In the course of that work, they are talking about deep-seated biases and prejudices that all of us carry.

To be clear, educators are, by-and-large, inherently good people, but no one is immune from bias, much the same way that no one is unaffected by the world they grew up in. So, when educators are asked to confront their own biases and disempowered mindsets, they are being asked to think critically about their world view, their view of young people in disenfranchised communities, and their notion about what engagement and relationships really require. This is the work that CT3 associates do on a daily basis.

Now, back to the office hours. At first, the group discussed the conditions surrounding CRT, including activity at state and district levels to prevent its adoption. And the reality is that there is no such thing as a CRT curriculum. In discussing these notions, the team talked in the generic third person (“they”) when referencing legislative moves, anti-CRT activity, and implications on education in general.

As the conversation progressed, the team started talking not only about the moves “they” are making to impact legislation, but about the impact it is having on a personal level for the people in the room, particularly people of color. That’s when the conversation moved from using “they” to describe what was happening in our world to using “I” in describing how it impacted people in the room.

And this is where I biffed it. Pretty hard.

Although I had remained quiet for much of the call, I was invited to contribute. So I observed to the group this shift from “they” to “I” and noted that that the conversation became less about the argument for why CRT has a place in education and more about the personal stories of people impacted by institutional racism.

When asked to clarify, I tried to explain that anti-CRT advocates (née: racists) confront this issue online and in our school board meetings, they do so with incredible anger and vitriol. It’s shocking and disheartening to see the heat with which they bring their shockingly racist views to these venues.

I wanted the group to consider whether or not we should respond to this heat with a sense of coolness. Perhaps a quiet, measured response would have a dampening effect on the volcano of hate that seems to erupt daily. This was a mistake. Here’s why.

I was a cis gender white man telling black people to calm down.

In attempting to take the heat out of an argument by focusing on the scaffolding of it, I disavowed the deeply personal stake that people of color really have in it.

As a white man, I have not readily contended with systems that, as Critical Race Theorists accurately denote, were intrinsically designed to elevate white citizens over other races. (Side note: CRT experts readily acknowledge the parallel systemic inequities related to other identities, including sexuality and gender).

My colleagues, particularly those from within historically marginalized populations, don’t have the privilege of discussing racism as an academic, theoretical conceit. It is all too real and something that all people of color have faced.

So imagine then, how my attempt at contributing to this conversation landed. I was essentially asking people to remove the personal nature of this argument. In this case I was asking this of a team that is immensely diverse. Black, indigenous, and people of color gravitate towards CT3 precisely because of the culture it has created. And here I was, unintentionally de-emphasizing the personal impact that institutional racism has had on the lives of people I work with and that I care about. But here’s the thing…

Intent doesn’t matter when someone is being oppressed, nor does its order of magnitude. Only oppression is the concern, no matter how micro it may be considered.

I wonder if this is a trap that many well-intentioned people make. Meaning, I take pride in having been called an ally to people of color, by people of color. I’ve worked incredibly hard on my mindsets, language, relationships, work, and writings to have earned that. But, maybe I was taking things for granted. My tone-deaf comments represent an easily avoidable trap, but also an easy one to fall into if we take things for granted. Being an ally means staying an ally.

Traps like these, however, are not inescapable. My colleagues helped me discern that what I said is not the same as what was heard. It took me a few minutes, but I worked my way out of this trap by reflecting aloud to the group that I had made a mistake in what I said and in how I said it. I commented that a measured response is one that remains the privilege of people largely unaffected by this issue. This is true.

There is no validity in a muted reaction to hate, no luxury for slowing the pace of our response to racism. This has been a white man’s privilege for generations, and is simply not acceptable.

This group knows me and my heart, but that doesn’t mean I get a pass, which is another reason I love this group. Because in knowing my heart, they allowed me the space to reflect in real-time and to acknowledge that I had work to do then, in the moment, and on an ongoing basis.

My voice is just one, but whether it’s online, in a meeting, or out in the world, what each of us has to say can echo for a long time in the minds of others. That’s important to remember because there are many voices adding to the noise surrounding CRT. The loudest tend to be those actively trying to undermine it. Not only is their tune off-key, it comes off as a truly hateful sound, undermining our students’ ability to hear what they really need to about history, current events, governmental systems, and cultural institutions.

Anti-CRT voices regularly and loudly declare that this theory specifically assigns individual culpability and shame to people based on their racial profile. That’s simply not the case and never has been. To me, CRT is about understanding and accepting that racist motivations were and remain fibrous in the weaving of our governmental, economic, and educational systems.

But what I really need to emphasize is that the discussions about CRT are about more than systems, they are about the lives of men, women, and children that are systematically marginalized.

The American Bar Association has a compelling article series on CRT at the intersection of CRT, education, and law. The lasting implications of racist practices in legislation and education are clear, as noted by Janel George, author of the article:

The limitations of legal interventions have led to current manifestations of racial inequality in education, including:

  • The predominance of curriculum that excludes the history and lived experiences of Americans of color and imposes a dominant white narrative of history;
  • Deficit-oriented instruction that characterizes students of color as in need of remediation;
  • Narrow assessments, the results of which are used to confirm narratives about the ineducability of children of color;
  • School discipline policies that disproportionately impact students of color and compromise their educational outcomes (such as dress code policies prohibiting natural Black hairstyles);
  • School funding inequities, including the persistent underfunding of property-poor districts, many of which are composed primarily of children of color; and
  • The persistence of racially segregated education.

Critical Race Theory is indeed a theory, but its tenets have imbued the personal life experiences of our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and relatives. Those who would deny its legitimacy are also denying the legitimacy of marginalized people.

I think the argument is pretty clear. I also think it’s clear that the argument must be had. Furthermore, it must be had with the kind of passion and immediacy that comes not only from lived experiences, but also from the sensibility that those experiences cannot and will not be denied because those experiences – those lives – truly matter.

Guest blog by Jim McVety, First Step Advisors

CT3 transforms the quality and culture of education for youth, especially those in traditionally disenfranchised communities.

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