Commentary: Teachers and students must be able to have honest conversations about race

Utah lawmakers attacking critical race theory admit they don’t know what it is.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, discusses his resolution on critical race theory during a special session at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

“I have no idea what it is,” said Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, who sponsored the Senate version of the resolution that opposed the teaching of critical race theory in Utah schools. “I looked up two dozen definitions and they all were different.”

Dear Sen. Fillmore,

Critical race theory (CRT) is the idea that we must acknowledge the history of racism and white supremacy, as well as how it has a lasting impact and is embedded in American society today. CRT allows people to look through an analytical lens to make personal and societal adjustments in an effort to become the nation that we claim we are.

Racism is a societal problem, not a personal one. Though people can practice racist behaviors, when CRT references racism it is looking at actions and the consequences that stem from behaviors, not people.

Diversity isn’t a problem, it is the social constructions that are built around diversity and how individuals use those differences to value and devalue people within them. When we categorize people into different groups, we are creating hierarchy. In other words, we are creating oppressive practices that reward some groups at the expense of others.

With this as a very real possibility, how can we as educators engage with our students in difficult and honest conversations without acknowledging that society has placed them in groups and such that some are receiving privileges that others are not?

Why would any of this matter in a classroom? Simply put, the education system is inherently inequitable. There are major disparities of how we handle discipline of our white students compared to our Black students.

According to national data analyzed by the UCLA Civil Rights Project from the 2015-2016 school year, Black students lost 103 days per 100 students enrolled versus 21 days per 100 students enrolled of their White peers due to school suspension. Black students lost 82 potentially unnecessary days of critical instruction.

Removing students from schools does not typically improve behavior, but increases the likelihood of them dropping out. Suspension only continues a cycle of prejudice and oppressive behaviors.

If children of color are old enough to experience racism, then white students are old enough to talk about it. It has been shown that children begin differentiating by race as early as age 2.

As educators, we would like to provide a space of acceptance and tolerance where students can have critical, transformative conversations. If teachers don’t facilitate these conversations, it gives them the impression that there is something wrong with it. This inadvertently assigns a negative value to marked identities, that is, students of color.

Additionally, if white students do not have the opportunity to discuss racism, they will never understand the privilege they have. Without the use of CRT, educators will not be able to examine the power dynamic that exists between students and teachers that can drastically impact students’ futures.

Removing the ability to have explicit conversations about race and its impacts on people is a dangerous path to take that only increases inequity and power gaps in the classroom. Students of color experience racial microaggressions every day in our schools. What would you like me to do now when this happens in my classroom, senator?

White guilt does not create solutions. Recognizing fundamental advantages teaches our students that mistakes in life happen. As educators we would like to be part of the solution rather than perpetuate ongoing injustices of children.

The next time you decide to vote on a political issue that will affect education, please consult industry experts in the field. Understanding a definition and living through pieces of it are two completely different things.

Sierra West, Meghan Zarnetske, Kaylee Sorensen, Zachary Van Dyke and Mieke Tiffany are Utah educators and students in the M.Ed. or the Ph.D. degree program in the Department of Education, Culture and Society at the University of Utah.