A VISIONS Q&A on Critical Race Theory
Two VISIONS consultants share their insights about Critical Race Theory and how our broader community may be able to redirect this important discussion.
Jen Rose Heifferon (JRH) is a Learning Specialist and Multicultural Leadership Team Co-Facilitator at the Presidio Hill School and an Associate Consultant at VISIONS. Alec MacCleod (AM) is a teacher at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and a Consultant at VISIONS.
Have you been surprised at the recent (often negative) impression of Critical Race Theory?
JRH: I have been disappointed, although not entirely surprised by the resistance to Critical Race Theory teaching and training. I think the backlash is the result of a propaganda machine and largely stems from fear. In my experience, when people are afraid, they revert back to what they know and what is familiar. For many parents/guardians of school-age children, Critical Race Theory is a radical concept and far from what they remember learning about in school (myself included). Institutional support for Critical Race Theory as a lens for curricula opens the door for a cultural level shift to occur and this represents a threat to those who want to maintain the status quo.
Additionally, I think there are big misunderstandings about what Critical Race Theory actually is. In the media, Critical Race Theory has become synonymous with any teaching or programs promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. In reality, Critical Race Theory is an approach to understanding the origins of systemic racism in our country and the ways in which it continues to play out in the laws and policies that govern the United States. It asks us to critically examine our history and confront that the past is present.
AM: I would not say that it was predictable given that Critical Race Theory has been in the progressive academy for decades. I became aware of it conceptually in the mid-80s when I was first teaching in higher ed. At that point I had a basic understanding mostly as a legal strategy and I was not familiar with the terminology. It was Kimberlé Crenshaw’s anthology in the 90s when I became more familiar with it as a named perspective. At that point, I was the director of an undergraduate program for adult students. We were building a progressive liberatory curriculum influenced by Freire and hooks. Research was a challenge at that point. Critical Race Theory and constructivism, both strategies we wanted to include, were not well represented in the literature. In particular, there was limited scholarship written in accessible language at that point. As I recall we used Delgado’s work as it focused the most on the idea of transformative research strategies. I continue to have students read and discuss the theory as it relates to research paradigms and methods, sometimes as a way to discuss ontology.
As the descriptor has now been separated from its meaning in academia, I am not at all surprised that it is being demonized by some. Individually the words “critical,” “race,” and, “theory” are pretty much anathema to many conservatives these days, so combining them, is a natural fit.
Do you have personal experience with parents/school community members embracing/pushing back on more inclusionary curriculum?
JRH: Given that Critical Race Theory is not a curriculum in and of itself, but rather a framework to guide the creation of lessons and curricula, I have seen the principles of Critical Race Theory integrated throughout school programs. It has been in the introduction of some of these programs that I have experienced pushback or concerns. Particularly with identity and affinity group programs and humanities curriculum that focuses on counter-storytelling.
What would you say to a parent who insists that Critical Race Theory framework, in any form, is “too controversial” to introduce into school curriculum?
JRH: I think it’s important to gather more information about what the parent feels is “too controversial.” Is there a lack of understanding about what Critical Race Theory is? Is there a fear of the unknown – i.e. the parent doesn’t have knowledge about Critical Race Theory; therefore, their kids should not be exposed to it? By uncovering the fear behind the parent’s comment, it is possible to meet the parent where they are and find a bridge. For example, if Critical Race Theory is “banned” from schools, then many lessons that are already being taught in mainstream schools will need to be let go, too. It is impossible to teach students about slavery and the Jim Crow era without also teaching about the racist laws and policies that allowed those systems to exist in the first place. Is this parent insisting that their children shouldn’t learn about slavery in America or why Indian reservations exist?
For those in school leadership positions, what is your advice for introducing a curriculum that is more representative and accurate?
JRH: While I am not a school administrator currently, I am in a leadership position with respect to the DEI work at my school and I am on the team working on our anti-bias/anti-racist curriculum development. My advice as school leaders undertake this process is to first be authentic and honest about where the school is currently at and establish a clear purpose and outcomes that will guide any curricular changes. This work is ongoing and requires energy and buy-in; therefore, it is critical to assess the climate of all key stakeholders before undergoing any substantive changes. By getting a sense of where the community is, school leaders are in a better position to clearly articulate the purpose and benefits of more inclusive and honest curricula for all students. Using research and data that illuminates the positive social and academic outcomes for white and non-white students alike in communication and messaging can also assuage the fears of parents/guardians who are concerned that the curricular changes will negatively impact their child. From experience, I also think it is crucial to educate the parents/guardians alongside the students – and even before if possible – and provide conversation starters and guidance for how families can engage their children at home about what they’re learning in school. This approach provides transparency around any changes and counteracts the narrative that children are being brainwashed in school. Building capacity in parents/guardians is necessary for building capacity in students.
AM: First, this needs to be a much larger conversation than about Critical Race Theory. No reason to teach about this theory in K-12 except that it is now in the news or in an honors research or history class. Complex histories of our country need to be taught, one woven from many voices. I would emphasize a both-and approach. No need to ignore either the implicit aspirations of the so-called founding fathers or their unconscious hypocrisy. It is said that history is “written by the winners.” This implicitly makes the stories of the formerly enslaved (and implicitly people of color in general) stories of being losers who continue to deserve to be treated like losers. Is that the story of the US we want to bequeath the future? Because it is not true. Sadly, it obscures the resiliency of those who continue to suffer and loads them down with blame for their lack of resources and agency.
How can we redirect the false narratives about Critical Race Theory?
AM: Stop giving Critical Race Theory itself the energy. Stop arguing about what it really means, change the subject to structural oppression. Next February, along with celebrating African Americans who succeeded despite the obstacles, teach our children about those obstacles and how challenging it is to overcome them. How surprising it is that these folks succeeded given the odds. When we identify individuals who are exceptional, we can also point to the status quo that they are exceptions