The challenge of teaching race in the classroom

Numerous states have proposed laws that would restrict how to teach tough topics. Here’s how to help your kids understand discrimination through history.

When her 11-year-old twins told Hayley Thompson about their social studies assignment to create a commercial touting how wonderful life was in colonial Carolinas, she was incredulous. Her children are African American and would have been enslaved in colonial Carolinas—not living the charming life they were being asked to tout.

Her children complied with a thoughtful and sardonic commercial: “Why go to any other colony when you can go to one that has two in one? With miles of land, perfect for getting your crops grown, and oodles of money to be made, there’s hardly a choice. With deals on slaves that you can’t get anywhere else, you can do minimal work at minimal cost!” the video ad stated.

Thompson’s concerned email to the twins’ teacher and principal at their suburban Detroit school netted a response that the district would be implementing a new, more inclusive and diverse curriculum to respect the backgrounds of all its students. But the experience shows the challenges educators, teachers, and parents face as they navigate classroom subjects that bump up against race.

That challenge is becoming even more difficult and divisive as some 28 state legislatures and boards of education have proposed or passed laws and policies that would shape how students are taught about racism, sexism, bias, and other hot-button issues. Depending on the state, restrictions range from limiting discussions about systemic racism or the concept of white privilege, to avoiding instruction that they fear could make students feel guilty about their race or gender. The Texas legislation, which goes into effect September 1, states that when an educator teaches about a current event (such as the 2020 George Floyd murder) it must be done “without giving deference to any one perspective.”

Most often, these policies fall under an umbrella term sometimes called “critical race theory.” Supporters of the legislation argue that these laws are meant to prevent revisionist history and divisive issues in the classroom that would make children less proud of their own history and heritage. But critics say they’re simply a backlash against the racial protests from the past year and a half, meant to distract from bigger issues like voting restrictions. Parents like Thompson, who wants her children’s education more representative of all people’s experiences, as well as educators fearing reprimands if they teach about race, are caught in the middle.

So, of course, are students. As kids head back to school after a year and a half of racial reckoning, their teachers might not be allowed to teach history and social studies in the same way as they have before. Here’s how some educators are feeling about that—and what parents can do to provide inclusive lessons to their children, no matter where they live.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory acknowledges that racism is prevalent in American society and examines how laws, policies, and practices work to oppress people of color. Its study began in the 1970s and is taught almost exclusively at the graduate and post-graduate school level.

“Critical race theory is not so much a thing—it’s a way of looking at a thing,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum and the person often credited with coining the term, in an interview with Joy Reid on an episode of MSNBC’s The ReidOut. “It’s a way of looking at race; it’s a way of looking at why after so many decades, centuries actually, since the emancipation, we have patterns of inequality that are enduring.”

University of Michigan Professor Camille Wilson, who teaches critical race theory to doctoral students, says that the term has become an inaccurate catch-all for proposed K-12 curriculum based around things like the 1619 Project, a New York Times report that examined the lasting impact of slavery and racial injustice.

“Now with anything related to addressing race and equity in education, some people are just labeling it as critical race theory,” she says. “The idea that it’s prevalent, let alone dangerous, in K-12 education, is just completely false, and invented, I think, to distract from serious public policy and civil rights debates right now.”

But some parents and politicians argue that what they’re calling critical race theory is being snuck in under the guise of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For instance, Katie MacFarland of Troy, Michigan, raised issues with plans to teach the 1619 Project in her two stepchildren’s schools.

“You don’t paint America in such a negative way,” MacFarland says. “It makes kids hate our country. Kids don’t get the picture of how much we’ve progressed.”

MacFarland is hardly alone. Moms for Liberty, of which she’s a member, is a national group protesting CRT and the 1619 Project. And the 1776 Project PAC was established in May by conservative writer Ryan Girdusky to support school board candidates across the county who oppose CRT and to promote “patriotism and pride in American history.”

“The belief system that is being pushed by critical race theorists or being practiced by critical race theorists is really in total opposition to facts about our country,” he says, adding that CRT offers no room for forgiveness or redemption.

Those views align with state and federal legislators who support laws restricting critical race theory instruction in public schools.

“Critical Race Theory aims to indoctrinate Americans into believing our nation is inherently evil, and there is absolutely no room for this divisive ideology in our workplaces or classrooms,” said U.S. Representative Rick Allen (R-Georgia) in a statement supporting proposed federal legislation to ban CRT.

How educators are handling the controversy

Like many teachers, Kimberli Wregglesworth of Michigan says she’s concerned about how the proposed legislation may show up in her classroom. (In May, the Michigan State Senate proposed legislation that would cut funding to districts that teach CRT, as well as a list of “anti-American and racist theories.”)

“It kind of put handcuffs on teachers, not allowing them to really be able to dig into these important historical topics,” says Wregglesworth, who teaches high school history, civics, and current events in Onaway. For now, she plans to continue teaching as she has been but would reconsider if state funding is cut because of anything she teaches. (This collection from the National Geographic Society provides learning resources on diversity, equity, and inclusion.)

Teachers are also concerned about children’s ability to think critically if they’re not taught history from different viewpoints—even when it’s hard to hear.

“There is a real danger in scrubbing out the uncomfortable parts of our past,” says Rod Franchi, a history teacher at Michigan’s Novi High School and author of 19th Century American History for Teens. “When elementary and middle school students learn a version of our history that’s so sanitized, it produces a narrative for the child that is more like a fairy tale. Then that fairy tale becomes fixed as reality for them.”

Besides, says Grace Leatherman, executive director of the National Council for History Education, teachers are trained to teach history—including its hard truths—in developmentally appropriate ways that don’t traumatize or victimize children. And parents concerned that teaching children about discrimination will lead to feelings of guilt might not be giving kids enough credit.

“Children are resilient and can handle difficult truths, complex realities, and feelings of discomfort. Discomfort does not equal psychological damage,” says DePaul University professor Alyssa F. Westring, co-author of Parents Who Lead. “Your children can experience discomfort during conversations about race as part of their growth and development. Sheltering children from all negativity isn’t realistic or helpful.”

Leatherman agrees with concerned parents that the negative lessons from history can’t be all that’s taught in the classrooms. But it’s still important to discuss.

“We must teach that hard history. But we can also teach how Americans of all backgrounds have resisted tyranny, have resisted injustice,” she says. “We have to teach that all kinds of Americans have displayed incredible resilience in the face of all kinds of obstacles.”

And that, says Wayne State University historian Danielle McGuire, will positively impact a child’s ability to grow into an informed citizen.

“They need history that is full and rich and complicated and multifaceted,” says McGuire, a mother of two and author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. “And when we don’t teach it that way, we deprive them of the tools they need to be citizens who take us into the future.’’

Helping kids understand discrimination through history

Right now, many of the laws and policies are just proposals, and any shift in curriculum standards will take time to implement. But regardless of what’s happening in your child’s classroom, experts say parents can positively affect how their kids understand history, especially when it comes to race.

Talk to your children about race and racism. Kids as young as three years old notice skin color, so by avoiding the topic of race, parents might be signaling to their child that there’s something wrong with it. Worse, children might find answers to their questions from unreliable sources.

“By acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers, we create space for our children to express their own fears, frustration, and uncertainty,” Westring says. “From there, it’s much easier to start an open conversation about the role that we can all play in creating a more just society.” (This article has advice on getting the conversation started so that you can raise an anti-racist child.)

Talk to teachers. Get to know your child’s instructors so you can have an open conversation about your concerns, which can alleviate fears about what children are learning. “If you go talk to your history teachers, I think you’re going to find that they’re teaching with primary documents and are well prepared for teaching your students complex history,” Leatherman says. “I think they'll be eager to talk to you about the history that they’re doing, and how you can support your students at home.” 

Make history fun. Help make history relevant with activities you can do at home, such as studying your own family’s history, learning about the history of the house you live in, or researching the history of your neighborhood. For example, by studying neighborhood trends, students can learn how and why different ethnic and racial groups settled in particular parts of town—by choice or because of lack of choice.

Get involved. Even if you don’t run for office, attending board hearings and curriculum committee meetings keeps you up-to-date on issues and ensures that your perspectives and values are included in the conversations.

Seek out other sources. Visit local libraries, museums, and universities to get kids excited about original historical artifacts and documents. Leatherman says that these can provide children with diverse voices from many perspectives and teach them both hard stories from America’s past as well as stories of hope and resilience. (National Geographic Society’s story map on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is another source for learners.)

Be truth-seekers. Help your children become critical consumers of content. Talk with them about information they get—especially from the internet. (This article provides tips on teaching kids to figure out the truth in media.)

Read together. Reading together is a great way for parents and children to kick off conversations—even difficult ones about discrimination. This article has ideas on diversifying your child’s library, or check out the list below from Kristy Brugar, chair of the National Council of History Education Board.

Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano and Marietta Collins

Finish the Fight by Veronica Chambers

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson

Equality’s Call by Deborah Diesen

We Are Still Here by Tracy Sorell

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

All Different Now by Angela Johnson

Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard

Unspeakable by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper

Side by Side: Lado y Lado by Monica Brown  

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