Public school teachers
in states where new laws could prevent them from teaching about systemic racism
and white privilege
are outraged, claiming they simply want to teach the truth.
“If I'm going to teach the real history of the United States
of America, there are some realities that must be included — like systemic racism,” said Christopher Green
, an eighth-grade history teacher in San Antonio
“Our country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, and we cannot adequately prepare our students for what they need to know to be civically engaged if we leave that out.”
legislators are pushing bills in nearly two dozen states — and have already enacted laws in Texas, Tennessee
, Iowa, Idaho
, and Oklahoma
— to limit how teachers can discuss systemic racism in public schools
, often under the guise of prohibiting “critical race theory
” from classrooms.
However, critical race theory, an academic discipline focused on how racism is embedded in the country's legal, political, and social institutions, is typically studied only in graduate or law school, and certainly not in K-12 classrooms.
While not all of the laws passed thus far explicitly mention critical race theory, they are all written in a similar manner in order to stifle discussion of racism, privilege, and white supremacy
According to Texas’ new law, social studies teachers in public K-12 schools are not permitted to discuss the concepts that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race” or that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex in class.
According to Tennessee law, public school teachers can provide “impartial instruction on the historical oppression
of a group,” but not how “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged.”
Teachers in Iowa are not allowed to discuss how the United States is "fundamentally or systemically racist
Whitewashing American history
by omitting slavery
and racism is educational malpractice.
Daniel Santos, a history teacher in the eighth grade in Houston
“That is the crux of the problem: it is focused on taking people
and documents out of the classroom where you might have to delve into sticky subjects talking about race,” said Nelva Williamson, a Black AP U.S. history teacher in Houston. “But you can’t talk about this country unless you talk about race.”
Richard Beaulé, a white former public school teacher in Killeen, Texas, believes it would be harmful to prevent teachers from addressing topics that make people "feel uncomfortable," as the law states.
“When you talk about racism, it’s an uncomfortable topic, plain and simple,” Beaulé said, adding that “saying ‘well, I’m not comfortable, so I’m not going to teach it’ prevents our students, the next generation, from becoming the critical thinkers they need to be.”
pic.twitter.com/JXOR5BeKnO — Richard Beaulé (Rick) (He/Him) (@loudguyrickyb)
Since last summer, when millions of Americans marched in the streets to protest
racist police violence
, the Trump administration
has prohibited racial sensitivity training in federal agencies, ordering in a memo that any contracts involving instruction on “white privilege” or “critical race theory” be canceled.
Former President Donald Trump
also repeatedly chastised The New York Times
Magazine’s 1619 Project
, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones
, which investigated how slavery and racism played a role in the nation’s founding. In an effort to promote “patriotic education,” the Trump administration then launched its own “1776 Commission
” report, which excused America’s founders for omissions.
According to Daniel Santos, a middle school U.S. history teacher in Houston for the past 15 years, the right is using critical race theory as a "bogeyman" and a "distraction to feed the false narrative
that teachers are indoctrinating students."
“I like my students to be critical thinkers, to see themselves as part of American history, to be tolerant of others,” said Santos, who is Latinx
. “The idea that teachers are teaching students to hate white people is false. We embrace diversity
— we just want to hear from people who have had more political power in history.”
Worrying for educators is the government's attempt to legislate what historical facts can and cannot be taught in schools.
“These efforts by Republican policymakers, who do not share the pedagogy or training I have as a history teacher, to dilute and water
down history are simply irresponsible,” Santos added, adding that “it is educational malpractice to whitewash American history by not teaching slavery or racism.”
Belton, TX pic.twitter.com/rfDMqHnqLD—Rick Beaulé (He/Him) (@loudguyrickyb) June 12, 2021
In response to the reactionary bills being pushed in state legislatures, teachers have protested in the streets and on social media
, and thousands have signed the Zinn Education Project's "pledge to teach the truth," which states that laws should not prevent educators from teaching about "the role of racism, sexism
... and oppression throughout U.S. history."
Hundreds of educators and parents in Tennessee signed a letter urging Republican Gov. Bill Lee
not to sign legislation restricting the teaching of racism in public schools, but he did.
Diarese George, a former teacher and executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, which spearheaded the letter, objects to the law's language stating that lessons should not include the concept that people "should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish... because of their race."
“Instead of saying ‘don’t teach it,’ why don’t we create the conditions for us to teach it?” said George, who is Black. “It’s like saying, ‘let’s remove all the generational trauma and hurt in this country and make another collective feel comfortable by not discussing it at all.”
Teachers in Texas, Tennessee, and Iowa who spoke with Stardia said they haven't received any further guidance from their school districts or education officials about what, if anything, needs to change in their curriculums next fall, despite the passage of laws in their states.
Some have become confused about what they can and cannot teach as a result of this.
According to James Compton, an English professor at Muscatine Community College in Iowa, where the new law applies not only to K-12 schools but also to post-secondary institutions such as public colleges, the social justice film class he'll teach this fall will cover "most of the items prohibited by the law."
“Whether it affects me depends on, say, if a student feels uncomfortable while we watch
‘I Am Not Your Negro,’ and they complain to the dean,” Compton, who is white, said. “I can see a student complaining, it going to the administration, and then having to defend ourselves.”
Pedro Berlanga, a 10th-grade social studies teacher in Austin
, Texas, said he's "still confused" about the law's specifics, but his understanding is that it "boils down to trying to devote time in class to teach all perspectives on a subject and avoiding blame of anything in history to white individuals."
“A lot of teachers, myself included, will try to keep teaching the same way we have,” said Berlanga, who is Latinx. “But it is scary. History is touchy, and people are very defensive when you try to fight against a narrative that has been pushed for years, even though it is false.... There is deep patriotic fervor in Texas. It’s difficult walking that line.”
They can't bring everyone against us if we all say we're going to teach the truth.
Monique Cottman is a sixth-grade teacher from Iowa City, Iowa.
The majority of teachers stated that the new laws would not cause them to change any of their classroom lessons.
“If they want to come see me, they can come in my classroom — I have a respectful space
where we treat all people equally, and I teach the truth,” Cartavius Black, a sixth-grade world history and African American
history teacher in Memphis
, Tennessee, said.
Nonetheless, several teachers were concerned that the new laws, as vague as they are, would prevent other colleagues, particularly those who are newer to the profession or who aren't already comfortable discussing issues of race and privilege in class, from bringing up these difficult but important topics.
Many teachers were concerned that avoiding classroom instruction on systemic racism and privilege would be detrimental to their students of color, who face racism on a daily basis.
"The effects of racism are well felt," Black said of his students in predominantly Black Memphis.
“Kids today have access to social media and see it in their faces, so why are they not taught why it exists and these things are happening?” Black asked, adding, “I, for one, will be teaching the origins of racism in my class.”
Monique Cottman, a sixth-grade teacher in Iowa City, observed that when lawmakers instruct teachers not to promote “discomfort” when discussing systemic racism in the classroom, they are clearly not concerned with the comfort of students of color.
“We need to tell the truth and not necessarily focus on the comfort of the people in the room,” said Cottman, who is Black. “Because ‘comfort’ in public education in America... We haven’t always cared about the comfort of every child in school. We separated some children
] because people weren’t comfortable having them in the school space.”
In Iowa, a predominantly white state, Black teachers expressed concern for their own safety as these laws attempt to silence discussion of systemic racism.
Cottman stated that for many of her students, she is the first Black teacher they have had — and for their parents, “I am the first Black person they have experienced in a position of authority, which is where the fear comes from.”
“I’m in Iowa, a predominantly white state, and white people are using their power to silence my voice in teaching white people how they grew up in a racist country,” Cottman explained.
“Yes, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing, but I need all the teachers in Iowa to be on the right side of history; they can't come after all of us if we all say we're going to teach the truth.”
The existence of systemic racism is not hypothetical; it is based on facts.
Lisa Covington, founder of Black Lives Matter
at School - Iowa
Tre'Chiondria Lathan, a second-grade teacher in Iowa for the previous three years, recently relocated to Rock
, partly because she didn't feel she had the support she needed as a Black woman, given the new law's passage.
“The majority of my coworkers and community were white, and the majority of my students were white, so finding someone who I felt would understand me and commit to doing this work and making tangible changes was few and far between,” Lathan explained, noting that she is committed to anti-racism in her teaching.
“Either I stay here and break the law, potentially losing my mind, or I leave and find a place to grow and feel safe to do this work, which I did not feel safe to do in Iowa.”
The value of discussing systemic racism in the classroom for teachers is not only about being accurate about this country's history, but also about educating students about how racism affects our current society and institutions in order to create a better future.
“Systemic racism is not hypothetical; these are facts,” said Lisa Covington, a founding member of Black Lives Matter at School - Iowa. “Knowing the truth about the past can help create a more equitable future. The country was founded in an inequitable, exploitative manner; enslaving Africans was a part of this, creating laws to benefit white, male landowners.
George had a message for his fellow educators across the country who were facing the threat of these laws: "Commit to teaching the truth; there's too much harm if you don't."