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Understanding Critical Race Theory: Getting to What’s Important for Your Classroom

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There’s been a lot of buzz and misinformation about Critical Race Theory in the news lately. Some school districts and states have even gone so far as to ban teaching it. 

However, in this sea of alarmist rhetoric, there is a wealth of valid information. In this article I will familiarize you with:

  •  the barest of basics on what CRT is
  • what is not 
  • what you could do to use this tool to support your students to help create a much better world in the future, if you so choose 

As a person who has benefitted from white privilege all my life, I should not be the only source you consult as I cannot fully understand the impact of racialization on a person’s life. Also, despite majoring in political science and philosophy in college, I didn’t even see this term until recently. I hope you’ll take this work as an invitation to explore more yourself. 

To that end, I am including many resources from experts along with some additional readings and other information you should consider to get a much better picture of this theory and its applications. 

The History of CRT

Critical Race Theory, like other academic theories, is built on the work of previous theorists. Although I find that lineage pretty fascinating, we’re keeping it brief here. If you want a more in-depth version I suggest this video by indigenous creator, Twin Rabbit, on YouTube. 

Critical Race Theory as a theory was coined in 1981, by Harvard Law professor, Derrick Bell. It received its name from Kimberlé Crenshaw, who has gone on to become a distinguished legal scholar.

It was first used to understand the unequal outcomes that black people experienced within the legal system. An example was to compare people who committed identical crimes and see if race played a role in their sentencing (it did, sentences were significantly longer for black defendants).

Let’s Define Some Terms

White Supremacy: White supremacy is “the belief system that rationalizes and reproduces white advantage in the political, social, and cultural institutions of society. This belief system holds that white people, white culture, and things associated with whiteness are superior to those of other racial groups.” (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, page 138)

Systematic Racism: Racism that is embedded into the structures of society like education, legal system, housing, politics, employment, health care, etc. often resulting in unequal outcomes even with seemingly neutral intent

Individual Prejudice: The beliefs of superiority held by a single person that situates themselves or their group as better than a group to which they do not belong.

So in application: white supremacy created a systematically racist outcome when it was used in Redlining to keep minority people out of “white neighborhoods” and kept them from participating in homeownership. Although some of those people creating the Redlining may not have had any individual prejudice against these groups, the outcome was unequal and racist homeownership between racial groups. 

Notice that nowhere does that say “white people are evil” or “white people hate people of color”. In this framework, individual beliefs are much less important than outcomes. CRT looks at the outcome and tries to come up with ways that outcome can be changed, not by ignoring race, but by understanding the role of race in the outcome.

What Are Your Next Steps As An Educator?

Here’s what NOT to do:

Don’t teach something you don’t have a full grasp of. You wouldn’t teach calculus if you didn’t get it, and you shouldn’t teach CRT if you don’t understand it. 

However, CRT is extremely useful as a lens to understand the culture in which you and your students live. I would certainly recommend that you do learn about it. 

In the meantime, you should continue to teach classes in which the “default” is questioned. Where you and your students are curious about why things are the way they are and if that way is something desirable. Encourage your students to better and re-vision the world around them. 

You should also continue to teach factual and inclusive history. This can be hard since most sources are not going to have a full picture of the role of white supremacy in any given historical event. Just keep in mind the voices of people who are being excluded from the narrative and strive to add them back in.

If you don’t teach history, try to strive to highlight and celebrate the contributions of people of color in that area. Every discipline is constructed from the work of many, many people. Show that, tell their stories. Let all of your students see themselves in your curriculum. 

Challenge racist narratives that erase the contributions (or even existence) of people of color. Be honest with students about the role of white supremacism in institutions. Why are there fewer black scientists? Well, many colleges used criteria that favored selecting other candidates. Many black people were ignored or not promoted who worked in the sciences (like the female black scientists dramatized in the film, Hidden Figures). 

Here are some good ideas for helping yourself make your own teaching practice as inclusive and just as possible:

Learn more

Articles:

An astute explanation of how this theory has been misconstrued and weaponized:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/07/opponents-critical-race-theory-are-arguing-themselves/619391/

This segment on NPR goes over the debate in about 14 minutes

https://www.npr.org/2021/07/02/1012696188/how-critical-race-theory-went-from-harvard-law-to-fox-news

A companion article about the podcast also about this topic

​​https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/09/podcasts/the-daily-newsletter-critical-race-theory.html 

Books / Audiobooks:

Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction *available as an audiobook

How to Be an Antiracist *this is not about CRT explicitly, it’s more an introduction to systematic racism, and how to fight it in ourselves and our communities. (Also available in audiobook)

Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community *this is also not about CRT explicitly, but it does get you started on how to integrate antiracist, antibias work into your teaching practice. (Also available in audiobook)

Videos:

A SUPER comprehensive explanation, with examples and application:

https://youtu.be/nq0sbm6dA1w

A great Q and A about the debate and the real ideas and intents 

A good primer on the stakes of this theory being misused could be on education:

Podcasts:

The Diversity Gap Academy: Lesson 012: What is Critical Race Theory?

The Daily: The Debate Over Critical Race Theory

Instagram Accounts for strengthening your anti-racist teaching practice:

Antiracist Education Now

Tipler Teaches

Evolved Teacher

The Great Unlearn

The Conscious Kid

Curricula for adding diverse voices to your classroom:

Teaching People’s History from the Zinn Education Project

1619 Project Curriculum from The Pulitzer Center

Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA Curriculum

Lessons of our Land

Let us know in the comments if you have any other resources for adding diverse voices to your classroom! This list is not at all exhaustive, and we appreciate our community helping each other better our own practices. ❤️

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