Some Things Are Always Wrong

When we adopted our son, from South Korea, more than 30 years ago, our wonderful adoption counselor warned us that we would experience racism, having a child who did not look like us.

She shared incidents from her own parenting of children from three different parts of the world, ranging from the clueless—When she begins to talk, will she speak English?—to the downright repellent. She suggested that we think first to educate, before getting angry.  

This was advice that resonated with me—teaching acceptance. Enlightening strangers in the grocery store to the beauty of diversity. Celebrating all the ways families are made. And so on. When a neighborhood kid, whose father had served in Vietnam, called my son a ‘flat-faced gook’ on the school bus, however, I had to re-think.

Some things—racism among them—are always wrong. And you can either face that fact and deal with it, straight on, wherever you encounter it, including schools, or you can employ any number of empty, defensive sophistries.

You can do what Rick Hess does here—spend half a column patting yourself on the back for pushing back against racism while simultaneously building a theoretical parent-defense straw guy the size of Burning Man, using lots and lots of (you guessed it) data, Impressive Academic Vocabulary and political shading:

More than two-thirds of adults say they oppose having schools tell students that America was founded as a racist nation, 70 percent say schools should not teach students that their race is the “most important thing about them,” and more than 4 in 5 oppose using classrooms to promote political activism.

I don’t believe these adults would be enthusiastic about the Biden Department of Education holding up as models of civic education a scholar who teaches “there is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy” and that “only racists say they’re not racist,” and a history program that teaches America was founded as a “slavocracy.” Now, I’ve found that anti-racist diehards tend to respond to such numbers like undergraduates in a Gramsci seminar, by muttering about false consciousness and hegemonic schema.

Hess closes out with a few more self-assured slams against Ibram X. Kendi, whose books have introduced multitudes of Americans to the idea that racism is deeply embedded in centuries of policy-making, resulting in entrenched neighborhoods, discrimination on dozens of fronts and endemic personal prejudice.

If two-thirds of adults actually do oppose telling kids that America has racist roots, where did that false idea come from? And what about the other third—the ones who think that maybe introducing children to the fact that we’ve always been a deeply inequitable society is a good first step? Don’t they count?

As for children, we don’t need to teach our students that their race matters to society. By the time they get to school, they already know. Or they find out on the bus.

Or in the cafeteria. Or on social media.

Recently, students in the (large and well-regarded) school system next to mine opened a ‘slave auction’ on Snapchat, asking for ‘bids’ on students of color. It’s a terrible story in many ways, with lots of bigoted actions and themes emerging. The Superintendent and Board are doing what they’re supposed to do—investigating, thinking about next steps, as the media spotlight is trained on them.

The students are unlikely to be punished legally or via suspension—what they did happened off-campus, so the school is not, technically, responsible. There’s ongoing discussion about whether these social media ‘games’ and ‘jokes’ actually endangered students of color.  But school officials have stepped up and started public conversations on how to include anti-racist content in K-12 curricula.

And you know what happened:

During nearly an hour of public comment on the resolution Monday – which was only on the agenda for discussion, not adoption – several parents criticized the document and the overall work of the Social Equity Task Force, saying it amounted to indoctrination and was pushing an agenda that would divide and not unite students. “I find this resolution also to be offensive, degrading, inappropriate, condescending, and detrimental to all TCAPS students, parents, and community members”…  the “negative rhetoric” of the resolution “imposes toxic assumptions on our children.” Multiple parents worried the curriculum review would force “critical race theory” onto the classroom.

There they are, the two-thirds of parents Hess identifies, and uses as substantiation and support for keeping “toxic” discussions of race out of the classroom.

You don’t need quantification or fancy theories to explain this. Teaching our racist history is pretty much unavoidable, and trying to ignore it makes things worse, not better. Here’s a great (short) piece that it explains it better than I could:

Teaching young people about racism is not indoctrination, but rather teaching viewpoints and providing factual data related to racism that they otherwise are not likely exposed to. Young people need to make up their own minds about how to think about race, but the better informed they are, the more thoughtfully they will do so.

 In short, some things are always wrong.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you:
    “think first to educate, before getting angry. ”
    and then, also
    Exactly: even those of us who are a minority within a minority (light-skinned Black kids) learn how to figure out 5 different ways to walk home from school by 1st grade.

    Thank you for adopting, for adopting a child who looks different from you, and thank you for educating all of us.

    In Service to HumanKind,
    -Shira Destinie

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

      1. Many thanks to your for your courage, both in action and in writing about it.

        In Service,
        (Join our new Educational Collaborative blog!)
        -Shira

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  2. Since I find Hess’s full article much more balanced than your selection would make it, I’m surprised that you didn’t at least grant his perspective the legitimacy his scholarship deserves. Yes, we have a huge and historic problem with race. The events of the past year have brought the issues into focus and much needed scrutiny. Sadly, like so many areas of current life, it has become yet another complex area that is now trapped in simplistic binary distinction. If you’re not actively anti-racism, then ipso facto, you’re racist. If you want to unpack critical race theory [CRT] and explore some of its likely deleterious implications, instead of beginning a reasoned civil discussion, you’re rejected and labeled a racist. It’s a no-win for those of us who condemn racism, lament its many horrible past [and still present] consequences for too many, and struggle to find ways to be a good “ally”. Being labeled an “oppressor” does not lead to a neutral response. We should be able to hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts in our minds simultaneously. Not all those who espouse CRT are extreme but some of the leading apostles are. And despite the innocuous characterization of CRT in the article by Christine Sleeter [sp?], it is not the same as “ethnic studies”. We live in a flawed democracy that has evolved norms that define merit and how it is determined. Lived experience is not equivalent to expertise. Science leads to “objective” facts at any particular time. Facts that new knowledge will change. But now is now. Our democracy has come to its present perspectives and positions shared by the majority of our fellow Americans. Reexamination and new knowledge are part of our oncoming pursuit of our ideals. Of course we’re not done, lots of work is desperately needed. Accelerating that work is compelled by the mistakes of the past. I remain committed to doing my part of that work. Thanks for letting me think in type.

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    1. So–I do respect Hess’s scholarship. He’s often taken positions outside the traditional ‘reformy’ perspective, when evidence shows that those theories and initiatives are flawed or have led to negative results. Which is why his column was so utterly disappointing. If Hess’s reason for leaving our (white) students believing that America is an exceptional nation, without an ugly racist past (or present), is that 2/3 of their parents would prefer students NOT understand just how deeply embedded racist policy is–well, that’s not scholarship. It’s taking the easy road out of a difficult but essential topic.

      I would say–as Ibram X. Kendi does–that if you’re not anti-racist, you are, in fact, racist. There is no ‘neutral’ although that certainly would be a more comfortable zone for white parents. You have to be looking to root out racism all the time, or you’re going to end up–as the school near me did–with kids who think it’s funny to hold ‘slave auctions’ on social media.

      You say: “Our democracy has come to its present perspectives and positions shared by the majority of our fellow Americans.” Racism is not, and never has been, a majority-rule issue. Certainly, majority opinion in Confederate States during the Antebellum era was that Black people were inferior, fit only for manual labor and serving their (white) superiors. How did that majority perspective change? Through the courage of the abolitionist movement and African Americans themselves, and war. Anti-racist education today can serve to move us closer to social justice and equity, neither of which are well-established in America. We’ve spent the last year discussing and protesting police violence against our Black neighbors. We’re not there yet. We’re not even close.

      What bothered me most about Hess’s piece (and his other piece, linked in the blog) was his attempted takedown of both Kendi and critical race theory. The term ‘critical race theory’ has been deliberately misused by conservative thinkers as a boogieman to frighten parents.It is, of course, correctly used to describe theory that is beyond the scope of what younger students can intellectually absorb. But the term has become a rhetorical shield of opposition to things students can and should learn: Race is a social construct. We have a long, racist history. Differences make life and society richer. Equity is a good goal. And so on.

      When you jump to criticizing other scholars and defending majority opinion, you’ve diminished your own academic stature.

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