For the first time in thirty-seven years of teaching, this week I felt the need to inform my bosses of the material I would be sharing in my classroom. I wasn’t seeking permission as much as providing them with a warning that the topic of the readings in the upcoming unit in my college composition course was a “hot button” issue: reckoning with America’s overtly-racist past and the insidious persistence of systemic racism in modern American institutions.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when only the most delusional of White supremacists would have raised an eyebrow at such an acknowledgement of a blatantly-obvious truth, but sadly, today some folks have concluded that patriotism means never having to say, “We’re sorry” or “We were wrong.” These same folks tend to be vocal and to stir up controversy where none need exist and run for school boards.
“What changed?” you may ask.
One explanation is that a number of people, either uncomfortable with their guilt — individual or collective — or ignorant of the truth — willful or unintentional — were recently provided a scapegoat for their insecurities in the form of three words: Critical Race Theory. If you ask the majority of those whose white cotton panties are in a bunch about it to explain CRT, they could not, at least not in any way true to the scholarship and movement, which, by the way, has been in existence for nearly fifty years, but it is an easy-to-remember-and-repeat phrase and a convenient target on which to aim their laughable rage at largely disenfranchised and powerless groups in order to score political points or to paint their own racist notions in patriotism, which can’t help but call to mind the wit and wisdom of Samuel Johnson, who famously and correctly said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Although CRT is never mentioned in the aforementioned readings, they challenge me and my students to explore and to consider such notions as white guilt and privilege, the re-naming of buildings and removal of statues that honor historical figures of questionable personal morality, affirmative action, and systemic racism with an open mind. None of it is being promoted or indoctrinated despite what those opposed to teaching the historical facts of racial injustice in America might want you to believe.
I believe that some of the misunderstanding regarding this issue stems from some folks’ inability or unwillingness to wrap their brains around the cognitive dissonance a healthy attitude towards America’s history with race requires. Cognitive dissonance demands that one can simultaneously hold as true two polar opposite realities. In this case, America has both much to be ashamed of regarding public policy and private prejudices in race relations and much to be proud of in championing civil rights. To deny either is to be willfully dishonest and unnecessarily divisive.
They would never admit it, but many of those opposed to preserving an honest accounting of our country’s past sins, desire to whitewash a deserved and healthy national guilt. I’m Catholic, trust me, I know much about guilt, and as much as I often feel angry at my church for foisting so much actual guilt or the mere fear of future guilt upon me, I also realize how valuable it has been as a means of correcting bad behavior or avoiding it altogether. I have a door in my house that many years ago I put my fist through in a fit of anger. Every time I pass it, I’m struck with guilt and shame. My wife frequently requests that I hang a new door; however, I refuse to because it reminds me of what an idiot I can be if I let my temper get away from me. I haven’t punched anything since. An adult admits their mistakes, apologizes, atones, and tries to do better going forward. Only a child denies their guilt when caught with a red hand in the cookie jar. To take anything but a full and honest accounting of the history and lingering effects of racism in America would be akin to my hanging a new door without repairing the hole.
Similarly, for anyone to deny that the majority of our institutions are slanted in favor of White people, especially White men, is to be disingenuous. The damage done by four hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism can’t be erased in the real world with the stroke of a legislative pen or simply because we may wish it to be. In the words of Bruce Hornsby, “The law don’t change another’s mind / when all it sees at the hiring time / is the line on the color bar.”
It disappoints me to see candidates for local school board positions claim to be opposed to CRT being taught in their school systems, where, in fact, it is already NOT being taught. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of teachers couldn’t provide an accurate definition of CRT if it were demanded of them; therefore, I doubt that they are promulgating it in their classrooms. These candidates have built a straw man of the issue in order to ignite racial fears and insecurities. It’s the oft-used-by Republicans Southern Strategy, and it’s reprehensible and shameful. To be clear, I have nothing against Republicans; I have much against anyone who stokes the flames of reverse racism where none exists then claiming to be opposed to the teaching of “CRT or other racially divisive material.” Give me a break. They know the dog whistle they’re blowing.
To paraphrase Jason Isbell’s song “White Man’s World,” I’m a White man teaching in a White man’s school. Percentagewise, the population of African Americans in my district is somewhere in the low single digits. My students have had very little exposure to African American culture or to the challenges faced by African Americans or to the obstacles placed in their way. The conversations I have with them regarding the history and contemporary state of race relations in America are vital to their intellectual growth and preparation for the larger, more diverse world they are about to enter.
Admittedly, my own experience with African American culture is limited, I have in my lifetime, however, been one of two white boys attending a dance sponsored by the African American fraternity. I have been the only white boy sitting in a pew in an African Methodist Episcopal Church. If you’ve never been the only white boy in the room, I highly recommend you experience it. Perhaps, if you combine the experience with an honest reading of American history, you will gain a perspective a bit more receptive to empathy and a bit less smug in your Whiteness.
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