Irene H. Yoon: Learn the history of inequality so we can build a better future

Proposed Utah State Board of Education rule discourages an understanding of our past.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monica Wilbur expresses her opposition to critical race theory at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Standing behind her is Betty Sawyer, who holds an opposing point of view.

Dear Governor Cox, State Superintendent Dickson and members of the Utah State Board of Education,

I’m writing to thank you for taking a measured approach to leadership in these difficult times. You must be exhausted. Still, I hope you have energy for educational equity in Utah.

I say this gently and with love: I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that you haven’t spoken out against the drafting and discussion of Utah State Administrative Rule 277-328, now before the Utah State Board of Education, regarding professional learning related to educational equity.

Draft Rule 277-328 is a new rule informed in content and spirit by template language from conservative political advocates who purport to believe that politics do not belong in education. In actuality, some of the most powerful systemic barriers to equity occur when policy language that is supposed to address an issue with racial patterns seems race-neutral. These policies have devastating effects — school desegregation programs without race-specific language are one example.

Draft Rule 277-328 creates a response to a problem that doesn’t exist. Learning about histories and structures of inequity is about honoring and learning from the past, good, bad and in between, so that we can dream a better future. It is explicitly not about what individuals do or have done, especially not children.

The proposed rule could easily be interpreted as banning all discussions about race through our history, as telling the simple truth could be seen as promoting division or making white children feel guilty about the behavior of their ancestors.

I was 7 years old when I was first aggressively yelled at by a middle-aged white man, a stranger in a parking lot. I assume he didn’t support white supremacy or represent all white people. Small experiences like this—nothing compared to those of other people of color — have added up to a lifetime of blips. These blips, like a heart monitor, are patterns of white supremacy moving through our nation’s body. White people have the same blood as people of color. But their heart monitors show different patterns, if they’re attached at all.

I am a Korean American woman. I didn’t begin learning about Asian American histories, not to mention Korean Americans’, until graduate school. Meanwhile, I received a thorough formal and informal white education. I was educated in U.S. schools, absorbed pop culture and read voraciously. I adored my teachers, all of whom were white.

I had a fantastic education, but the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know and was never taught about my own people, Korean and American. White supremacy is real and has motivated the killing and maiming of too many people, including Korean American women like me. I suppose my small community’s history seemed irrelevant until a tragic mass shooting. Many other communities experience similarly fleeting regard. Our heart monitors are always on.

So it’s hard for me to understand people who threaten scholars with violence over a theory about race. It’s hard to love policymakers who leave loopholes for extremist individuals to challenge schools and educators by claiming discrimination against white people.

I remind myself of my own advice: I should be angry, but these individuals are not the problem. Policies, systems and cultural patterns are. I call upon love and imagination alongside anger.

To me, love means valuing people as irreplaceable. It means respecting the hardships they’ve been through. It means being willing to fight for people who have fewer ways to defend themselves. It means speaking up when people are disingenuous about equity and inclusion when they exclude children (and educators) out of the other side of their mouths. It means loving myself enough to demand that my humanity be valued in mind, body, and spirit.

Educational equity is about love. Knowing our stories is to love us.

I imagine white parents want their kids to be proud of their family histories, and don’t know how to tell them if their family enslaved people, if they killed Indigenous people for their land, or if they fought school desegregation. Imagine the questions they’d struggle to answer! The (white) people who try to squash CRT and ethnic studies, disavow trans kids and deny history are tackling made-up problems. The root problem they’re avoiding is being willing to know how their stories are entangled with others, sometimes in ugly ways.

Educational equity, like love, is hard. There aren’t any easy or right answers, but there are wrong ones.

I think we start with teaching all children what it means to do something hurtful, how to apologize and how to try to make it better. We teach all children how to learn from the past. We teach children of color to love themselves by loving them in public — their stories, their brilliance and their mundane problems, their skin and hair, their family histories. We teach all children to care about people who might not be directly connected to them, even those who do terrible things, because eventually we all are connected.

I wish you health, wisdom and strength to lead with love for justice.


Irene H. Yoon, Salt Lake City

Irene H. Yoon, Ph.D. | Associate Professor, Educational Leadership & Policy, College of Education, The University of Utah

Irene H. Yoon is associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah. She studies how to make schools more equitable through professional learning and inclusion for students of color with trauma and disabilities.